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KAMAU DAAOOD: the Words of a Man, by Rex Butters

At the Watts Jazz Festival, An Army of Healers heats up a late summer day in south central LA. with troopers like Kharon Harrison, Bobby Bryant, Jr., Trevor Ware, Derf Reklaw, Nate Morgan, and the soaring vocals of Dwight Trible. Leading the band, a man with a voice like a baritone sax solo, more Pepper than Mulligan, with an R&B rasp to his tone. Kamau Daaood easily holds his own, the words building imagistic phrases flashing pictures to the mind’s eye, journeying back to reinforce the original idea, just like a saxophone solo. Now a veteran performer, one of his first readings found him unexpectedly leading the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra at the request of Horace Tapscott.

Asked to move to New York and join the Last Poets at the age of 18, Daaood refused and like Tapscott made “Act Locally” a reality to the improvement of his community. His protean jazz saturated lines have shared podiums with the likes of Gil Scott Heron and Amiri Baraka, and besides his CD Leimert Park , he’s appeared on CDs by Dwight Trible and Derf Reklaw. This mid-fifties grandfather held a 20’s trendy Temple Bar crowd enchanted performing with the dynamic Build An Ark, which he shrugs off when I mention it, ascribes it to sincerity. “I tell old school stories with a bebop tongue to the hip hop future. I see new rainbows in their eyes as we stand in the puddles of melted chains,” he says on Leimert Park. His third book, The Language of Saxophones: Collected Works , comes out in April from San Francisco’s City Lights Press. Kamau Daaood reconnects us to the current of words as Word.

AAJ: So, you grew up in LA?

Kamau Daaood: Yeah, homegrown. Actually, I was born in Santa Monica. My father was going to UCLA at the time. But I was raised in Los Angeles, went to Manual Arts High School, Washington High School, Southwest College.

AAJ: Was there jazz in the house?

KD: Music was a fixture in our house, constantly coming out of the speakers. None of my family were musicians. When my father got around a piano there were certain things he could pick out. I guess, just like any other home during that time, you had the radio and the record player. Mostly vocals, you know, Dinah Washington, Brook Benton, Arthur Prysock, a lot of that stuff. Most of the folks around my parents’ age listened to a lot of Jimmy Smith.

There’s a few albums I’ve found and kept because I remember my people had them around. I remember this thing with Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Stitt, released on Verve, I think. It had that tune, “After Hours” on there and that was one of the tunes my dad liked to pick out on the piano. Just music, man.

AAJ: Did you take to literature early on?

KD: Not really. Well, I guess it would be considered early. I had a friend in junior high school that opened my ears to some other kind of stuff, because he was into Kahil Gibran and he hipped me to it. And, I was accidentally put in a creative writing class. LA Unified couldn’t get all the kids in one classroom, so they sent me over to this creative writing class instead of regular English class. That teacher’s name was Mr. Siegel. The way he taught it, he made it fun. Come to think of it, even In elementary school I enjoyed writing stories, because I could write stories and make people laugh. You got to read your story in front of the class, and based upon what the story’s about you can always find a way to get people giggling, get away with stuff you don’t normally get away with on paper. That was the roots of writing.

I didn’t get more serious into writing until the latter years of high school. And it was really a way of discovering self worth. I would write, and I was even writing poetry at that time, and people saw value in it. I had gym teachers read something that I wrote, and say, “Man, why are doing all this other stuff? You should be concentrating on this. This is really good.” My classmates used to enjoy what I wrote, too. Really, during that time I was on another plane in terms of where my head was at, just young and in the streets. It was a way of identifying myself with something I could do that had value to people.

I was introduced to the Watts Writer’s Workshop around that time, probably ’67. I saw this program on television and heard this writing and could feel it. It wasn’t like the kind of literature that was shared with us in the classroom. There was another edge to it that made a lot of sense. I could hear the music in it. I could hear things that related to me. And then I heard a radio ad on one of the local soul stations that talked about a branch of the Watts Writer’s Workshop opening up on the westside, westside of Los Angeles at that time, I mean of the black community, which is pretty much this area [Leimert Park]. So, I went to one of the workshops and that was my door in. I was about 17.

The next major experience I had was seeing Amiri Baraka at the community center here in Los Angeles. He really married the whole concept of the music which we were so much into. We used to save our lunch money, hustle up our little money and buy records on the weekend, whatever Trane was coming out with, Archie Shepp records, all that kind of stuff.

When you think about what we were listening to at such a young age, and the concepts that were being espoused on the records themselves, on the back of the albums, read that material, the political stuff in there, and the spiritual content of the music at the time, and I compare that to the music that kids are subjected to today, in terms of the depth at the core of the music, we were very fortunate to live in that time. Living through that deepened us, and that’s one of the problems I see with the youth and what they do. Basically, it’s because what they’ve been fed. Even though there’s a lot of rhythmatic sophistication, and talent and skill, I question a lot of the depth in terms of the human spirit and yearnings that they put forth.

Of course, I’m not saying that as a blanket statement. There’s a lot of young people that are really doing exceptional work, exploring, and creating, and really pushing some great energy. But, that genre as a mass leaves a lot to be desired in terms of content.

AAJ: Were a lot of your peers listening to Shepp and Trane?
KD: It was pretty common. It became almost like another language. Later, in my travels, you could anywhere in the United States, and because we all listened to that same music you could tune into guys in other cities. You understood certain things because you understood that music. A camaraderie, or brotherhood existed from the unspoken language that was in that music.

There was a whole thing about radio programming then. People played that kind of music, they weren’t afraid to play things that were different, things that were serious. Now, there’s been a real paradigm shift in terms of what’s happening. I think once the music had the tendency to create thinkers and artists, different ways of looking at the world, and depth of character, and depth of thought. Somewhere in the mid-70’s, probably around the disco period, there was a whole shift in radio programming and I think it was conscious in terms of the corporate interests. They just want people to buy stuff, to go to work and buy stuff. The quality of individual life, and the growth of families and communities, and the flowering of that kind of spirit is not really important to them as people begin to look more and more like things rather than human beings.

Coming right after the sixties and all the upheaval with all the different liberation movements, from Black Liberation to the Feminist Movement, and the Gay Movement, the Chicano, the multiculturalism, the mind expansion/exploration with the drug scene, there was a time that things were really out of control for the powers that be. It’s just my opinion, that a lot of care and time was taken in think tanks to figure out the twenty, thirty, fifty year plans, how that kind of stuff could be turned around, so society would be much more manageable and go forth in ways that would be very profitable to that small percentage of privileged society, what they call the old money. When they turned the radios off and plugged in that constant 4/4 beat, drummed it into everybody, it’s because they weren’t interested in thinkers. That’s the way I see it.

AAJ: You remember Clear Channel’s list of banned songs from a few years ago that included John Lennon’s “Imagine?”

KD: It’s a very beautiful song, man. It gets people to pondering, to imagine. There’s just such a polarization now in terms of outlooks, and depending on what you’re being fed conceptually, people stand very strongly behind what they think they believe in.

AAJ: Do you write much outside of poetry?

KD: There’s a very undisciplined side to me. There have been many times I wanted to be in music. But because of the discipline required to deal with the music, it was very difficult for me to get over the hump. With free verse poetry there were very few rules for me. I could write without having to conform to rules and to structure. If I picked up a horn, you learn your scales, you learn your chords, your long tones, you learn to read, you do all that stuff and after awhile you have a base to work from. Literature allowed me a way of writing without having to be responsible. There was no authority that was going to deal with me unless I really began to approach academia.

AAJ: How long does it take you to put together a poem like “Leimert Park” or “Tears?”

KD: It doesn’t really work that way for me. My processes are not linear, even though it may appear like that. As you go through your path you gather skills along the way, you begin to discover things about writing, and you collect images and you begin to get s sense of the power of words and their placement. After years, it just becomes a part of your being. It’s like stream of consciousness, but the skills you gather help to order that stream of consciousness as it flows through you.

AAJ: How long were you with the Watts Writer’s Workshop?

KD: I was in and out of the Workshop for a couple of years, but it was more in the relationships I cultivated while I was in the Workshop. A lot of the older writers, and the more respected writers that came out of the Workshop had actually gone on by the time I got there. Writers like Quincy Troupe, Ojenke. who’s a legendary figure in Los Angeles, and one of the major influences on the whole Watts Writer’s Workshop, as well as writers like Eric Priestly, and K. Curtis Lyle. The Watts Prophets was formed and developed in the Workshop, Otis, Amde, and Richard. The school they rose from was a little different from the school that centered around Ojenke and Quincy. They were pioneers in what we call rap today. Very street oriented lyrics, very heavily rhyme influenced. So, it was quite natural that the young kids, when they branched off into what they would do, how they would find them as champions, like the Last Poets on the east coast.

The other school that developed was image laden work that basically also attached itself to jazz music and also the sermonic tradition of the old preachers. And part of that influence came through Ojenke’s line, because Ojenke’s father the Rev. Saxon was a preacher. So, a lot of the intonation and vocal gymnastics that Ojenke would use to read his work came out of that sermonic tradition.

AAJ: Have you always read your work?
KD: Poetry for me has always been more off the page than on the page. I have my first real book coming out in April next year, on City Lights press. Partially because that’s never been my focus, my focus has always been performing the work with music. I guess there was always a concern that my work would not do as well on the page, as it did as an instrument of performance. There was a fear that had me shelter my work from putting it out there in that way. I don’t feel that way now, but that was a concern of mine.

AAJ: Did you send stuff out?

KD: After awhile, you keep sending your stuff out, you don’t get the grants, you don’t get the money, after while you stop sending it out. All the little literary journals that no one really sees but academia. I learned a lot from being in the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra with Horace, and just how important a voice can be to a community, serving the community. So, after time goes on and you’re speaking where babies are born, at people’s funerals, at all the rallies, in the schools, and the libraries, and the churches, and the prisons, and doing that kind of work, it’s really a different approach than putting it on a page, and having it in bookstores and libraries, and reading on college campuses. I think all that has its place, and I wish I had spent more time and concentration on the literary aspect, because I think it would have made my life a little easier in terms of having doors opened. Because basically this society is product driven, and if you don’t have something to work the marketplace, people don’t know who you are, they just don’t know your work.

It wasn’t until I did the CD ( Leimert Park ) back in the late nineties that me being able to work and move in the world became easier. Really, a quantum leap took place just by putting product in the marketplace and having a national publicist, and a record company behind you, and doing that kind of thing. All that’s important.

There was a record that came out of Watts around the same time the Last Poets were doing their thing. I had the opportunity to be on that but I had an attorney check out the contract and it was basically selling myself into slavery. Others did the record, and later on in life, it did open doors. There was that documentation, and if your work’s not documented…And I think that’s one of the big, big differences between the Los Angeles area and the east coast. By putting out books and records they institutionalized the artist and people knew who they were. I hear so many people that don’t realize the wealth and the richness that has grown and blossomed in Los Angeles. But, it’s basically because, where are the books? Where are the records? With the exception of the stuff that Tom Aurbach did with Nimbus records, who really documented LA’s underground music/art scene? No one did it. So, we didn’t really have the administrative types that were promoting and pushing us. I guess people were waiting around for someone to do it, and it never got done. I think that’s one of the biggest flaws of the Los Angeles area. When I started doing the cd, people started treating me like a new artist, and here I was doing this stuff for damn near thirty years.

AAJ: I know you did that Harvey Kubernick collection, Jazz Speak , did you ever hear any of his other LA spoken word anthologies like English as a Second Language , or Neighborhood Rhythms ?

KD: Harvey was trying to get me to do stuff a long time before that. He offered to put me on a couple of those compilations. I have been very suspicious of business entities, and it’s taken me a long time to trust others coming from an environment that was not my environment. It would have been to my benefit had I had the confidence to move in a larger space than I operated in. It was more important to get the work out there, than to think I was going to lose something or be exploited. You have to learn that, get out and deal with it. There’s a point where paranoia is a healthy thing in an environment where traditionally black artists and their product, and the ownership of that product and control of that product, basically there’s a terrible history. One of the things the sixties taught us was to gain as much control over what we did as possible. Unfortunately, so many of us were holding back from doing stuff with others, but we weren’t doing it ourselves.

Harvey was really visionary in the sense of spoken word, seeing it coming and trying to do something with it early on.

AAJ: How did you meet Horace Tapscott?

KD: There was a radio program called “Greg’s Refresher Course.” It came on every Saturday. I have yet to hear a show that moved me like that show moved me. The dj was Aman Kufahamu. He was playing the music that we wanted to hear, on KUSC. I actually stayed home on Saturdays, man, during the day to listen to his program. I think I even have a couple of tapes where I taped the whole program, somewhere on reel to reel. They’re probably so brittle they’ll turn to dust. He used to announce that Horace Tapscott, and Bobby Bradford, and John Carter had this organization, the Society for the Preservation of Black Music. And their whole thing was to put on these concerts, last Sunday of the month concerts, and let the cats playing with them at the time play.

So, one day I happened to be at the bus stop, and I was hitchhiking. You could do that back in the day without fear of being chopped up into little pieces and fed to a poodle or another human being. Anyway, a cat pulled up in a white Jaguar and saw me. And I get into this Jag and it was Aman Kufahamu who gave me a flyer about the show.

Sometimes the Arkestra would play, sometimes it was little groups from out the Arkestra, Bobby Bradford and John Carter would play, Azar Lawrence as a kid would play, Herbert King Baker, the pianist who tragically died at the age of 17, Roberto Miranda, all these cats would play there. I was like a groupie, I followed them around there. They taped all the concerts, it’s part of the Pan African Arkestra’s archive. After the concerts, they’d go over Linda Hill’s, a pianist and vocalist with the Arkestra and go listen to these tapes, socialize, do what they do. I got invited over there and got to crack the inner circle and mingle a little bit.

On John Coltrane’s birthday I was at the park and had some of my poetry with me. One of the cats really in the inner circle was Ted Jones, Lena Horne’s son. He saw me in the audience with this poetry and he told Horace and they invited me onto the stage to read my poetry at this concert, around ’70. Here I am, one of the first times I read my stuff publicly with a 14-21 piece band behind me playing John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” After that I was drafted into the Arkestra as the Word Musician.

AAJ: How’d you hook up wiith Billy Higgins?
KD: I met Billy in the ’80’s. I’d heard about him all my life. Half the music I listened to, Billy was playing on. I was on staff at the Watts Art Center and the city was going to honor him. They asked me to write a poem to help dedicate that day and energy to him, so I wrote this piece called, “the Last Song,” and another artist named Carlos Cobbs had done a visual piece for Billy based around the poem, and it was presented to him. After that, we struck up a friendship, but I feel it was more of a mentorship. There were things I was struggling with on a personal level, and Billy was the friend that helped me with it.

Billy started coming out to the Watts Towers and I’d bring my little super scope Marantz tape recorder, and it would just be me and him. He would play and I would recite my poetry. It was good for both of us, because much of what Billy brought with him were not his drums, but his folk instruments, like his guitar and little instruments that gave him a chance to shed and it gave me the opportunity to be with one of the greatest drummers in the world.

AAJ: So, how did you guys take that to the World Stage?

KD: Well, there was another venue at the time in Leimert Park, small venue, smaller than the World Stage. It was run by drummer Carl Barnett, who at the time was working a lot with Freddie Hubbard and Horace Silver. Small venue, about forty chairs, small stage, and I think it was a loft kind of vibe with Carl staying upstairs. Carl didn’t really have the time, because he was on the road so much, to really manage the place, it was difficult for him to maintain it. And Billy when he was in town, he would help him with it, support it in ways he could. Some nice things did happen down there, but it wasn’t long lived. So Billy told me if I ever saw anything to let him know to see what we could do to get some stuff happening. And I just happened to be over in Leimert Park one day, and I saw this empty space, and the vibe I envisioned music and poetry happening there. So, I inquired about it. At the time, another group with Tootie Heath and two other people were looking at the space, and they actually got the space. But then they found out they couldn’t do any retailing out of the space, so they let it go and it fell back into Billy’s hands. The first people to have keys for it, I went and got a key, and gave one to Billy and one to Horace Tapscott.

On the day we go the lease, they were putting all of Carl Burnett’s chairs out in the alley to be hauled away. old theater seats, and his stage. We paid someone with a truck $25 to put al the chairs in the World Stage, and Carl’s stage. Then, a couple days later, the artist next door, Rameses, visual artist in the village already, had a baby grand piano in his space. He can’t play piano, it’s just sitting there, so he let us use his piano. He took the legs off the piano and put it on his son’s skateboard and wheeled it into the World Stage. So, we started off with a stage, chairs, and a baby grand piano. So the Spirit was behind us, it was supposed to happen, because that’s what the community needed. We were the first to present performance art to the Leimert Park area, and to invite people to come out of their houses to commune at this point. We were followed about a year or so by Richard Fulton’s 5th St Dick’s, and he opened the area up even more. Then Marla Gibbs got the Vision Theater. later the dance collective.

There were already visual artists there, Rameses, Museum in Black, but it was the performing artists that brought people back during a time when were being smashed with the idea that our communities were unlivable and our streets weren’t safe. When the artists began to come out, then the brave ones came out, pretty soon you got the whole community coming out. Richard put tables on the outside of 5th St. Dick’s and invited people to come. And then you started seeing people at 3 o’clock in the morning sitting out there playing chess from all over the city, sipping on coffee in the middle of the night. It really made a statement to this thing, you know, drugs are everywhere, and driveby shootings are everywhere, and this scary, scary scary South Central.

AAJ: You’re no longer involved with the day to day at the World Stage?

KD: This summer it was 15 years I’ve been involved with the Stage, and I find myself having different needs. I find myself at a different place creatively. I resigned as creative director. One, because there were so many other things pulling on me at some point I stopped being effective as I needed to be. You end up holding the consciousness of a place together and if you’re not all there it begins to show. So, I made a choice to spend more time with my own creative work, and try to work on some kind of plan for this end game. The World Stage was a full time job without pay for fifteen years. Folks don’t realize the kind of sacrifices people made down there, from Billy, and myself, and Don Muhammed, who was the manager down there for a long time, to the present members of the board, and the executive director of the center, and all the instructors, what kind of energy they put out year after year just to see that art and the potential for the development of art is here in the community.

We’ve been fortunate to get small amounts of support from places like National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, which now pretty much defunct, corporate support, small ones that have helped us with our programs and which we’re very thankful for. But for the most part, it’s been the volunteer work of the staff, the volunteer work at a pittance for the artists that come through there, and community support that has kept us there for the last 15 years. I really see it as a model for success and inspiration that we can do so much with so little for so long. Now you know the story.

AAJ: Do you read without a band?
KD: It’s a different dynamic. In reading with music you have an interaction that takes place where you have this variable you must respond to. It’s interesting where the interaction takes you. You have to be grounded in what you’re doing, at the same time be open to go with change. There’s risk involved. A lot of times very exciting things happen because of the dynamics of working with other spirits, and to think of the word in the same context as a soloist, or another instrument in doing a piece. When you perform solo, you have a freedom to handle a piece any way you want to handle it. Nothing’s stopping you from whispering a word or shouting a word or plying silence.

AAJ: Do you have more performances planned?

KD: What trying to do now is stacking up concepts, performance wise. I have some music I’ve written some lyrics to that I want to be able to do with Dwight Trible, and other concepts with different configurations of music, instrumentations. I’ve been doing some things with the younger generation. I just did something with dj Mumbles, I like his spirit and what he’s doing. Things are getting busy, but we’re supposed to get together with dj Madlib who did that work remixing a lot of the old Blue Note stuff. I’ve listened to a lot of his stuff and really like what he’s doing. The focus right now is the book coming out in April on City Lights Press.

AAJ: What’s the name of the new book?

KD: The Language of Saxophones: Selected Works. There’s work in there from four decades. It’s about that sound, that commonness, that language that goes above where we might find ourselves, and shows where we all are at together, trying to get on that page. That’s what you strive for: to touch people and connect, so you’re fortunate to do that. Spirit wins.

A modern tale of meatpacking and immigrants
Grand Island, Neb., has long been a revolving door of immigrants, from Vietnamese and Bosnians to Latinos and Sudanese. But with Somali Muslims came a whole new set of conflicts.

January 28, 2010|By Kate Linthicum
Reporting from Grand Island, Neb. — Hawa Farah was living in Minneapolis three years ago making $8 an hour at a bakery when her fiance, Hussein Hussein, got a call about good jobs that paid better.

So the couple, like many Somali immigrants who follow work around the country, headed 600 miles southwest to Nebraska, state slogan: “The Good Life.”

They settled in Grand Island, a blue-collar railroad town on the flat Midwestern prairie. They got married and brightened their worn apartment with plastic flowers and colorful rugs. Hussein, 33, began working the early shift on the “kill” side of the local meatpacking plant. Farah, 24, took a job on the “fabrication” side, trimming fat from brisket.

The promise of better pay was true enough.

But the good life would prove elusive. The young couple didn’t know the plant’s history and what it would mean for them.

A magnet for immigrants

It was still dark when dozens of federal agents, guns drawn, swept into the gray, windowless buildings at Swift & Co. just before Christmas 2006.

They were Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents taking part in a six-state sting, and they had warrants to search for undocumented workers.

Like most of the nation’s slaughterhouses, the Grand Island plant had always been a revolving door for immigrants.

Meatpacking is hard, dangerous work; the Department of Labor says it results in more injuries than any other trade. But it doesn’t require workers to speak English, and in Grand Island it pays a starting wage of $12.25 an hour.

Ads placed in immigrant newspapers across the country had drawn war refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and from Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Most made some money and moved on.

But many Latino immigrants, who started arriving in large numbers in the 1980s, stayed. They launched Spanish-language radio programs, founded churches, set up taco trucks. And unlike earlier immigrants who were legal refugees recognized by the U.S. government, many Latinos had crossed the border illegally.

When immigration agents came to town in 2006, Latinos comprised up to 11% of Grand Island’s 45,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the day of the raid, agents detained more than 200 of the plant’s 2,500 workers. Another 200 Latinos from the evening shift, apparently fearful of deportation, promptly quit.

In town the raid triggered an eruption of resentment.

When Latinos marched in protest afterward, some townspeople lined the streets with a counter-demonstration, holding signs that read, “Go back to Mexico, wetbacks.” The local newspaper was filled with venomous letters to the editor decrying Latino immigration.

“A lot of people don’t like the Latinos, they just don’t,” said Jeff Fulton, a Grand Island native who has worked at the plant for 25 years. Latinos faced more discrimination than previous immigrants because they had put down roots, he said. One only had to drive down 4th Street, past La Solomera Guatemalan import store and El Tazumal Mexican restaurant, to see their influence.

“There has been more bigotry,” Fulton said, “because there has just been more and more and more of them.”

The emotions unleashed by the raid would soon find a new target — Sudanese and Somalis attracted by the promise of work at the meatpacking plant.

The new immigrants, who had been granted refugee status because of strife in their homelands, posed new challenges to the status quo in Grand Island.

They were black, and some were Muslim.

A new kind of different

During each shift, at sundown, Farah asks her supervisor if she can put down her knives and go to the bathroom. Sometimes, if there are enough other trimmers to cover for her, the boss says yes.

Farah stands at the sink in the company locker room, away from the drone of the factory floor. She washes her hands, her face, her arms and her feet, turns northeast to face Mecca and begins to pray.

When the Somalis began arriving in 2007, supervisors learned that some of the more devout workers prayed five times a day, and that the sundown prayer fell before the plant’s regularly scheduled 15-minute break. For the most part, they looked the other way.

That changed in 2008, during Ramadan, when virtually all the Muslim workers began leaving the assembly line en masse to pray. Even Muslims who are not particularly religious often make an effort to pray during the holy month.

Co-workers complained that they had to pick up the slack. Management told the Somalis they couldn’t pray because the plant, one of the largest in the country, couldn’t afford to stop the machines. Five hundred Muslim workers, infuriated, walked off the job.

Most came back after Swift & Co. agreed to accommodate them by changing break times.

But other workers protested that the Muslims had gotten preferential treatment, an idea fueled by a story published in a local Spanish-language newspaper that falsely claimed the Somalis had gotten a pay raise. Fights broke out in the lunch room. Hundreds of Latinos — joined by the Sudanese, who are mostly Christian — walked off the job.

Major conflict at the plant let up when Ramadan ended. But tensions in town mounted like never before.

At the Autumn Woods apartments on the southeast side of town, police were called several times a day to respond to stabbings, shootings and disputes.

A war was building between the Somalis, who lived on one side of the complex, and the Sudanese, who lived on the other side.

“It’s chaotic anarchy,” Police Chief Steve Lamken said recently.

In late August 2009, a Sudanese man was shot in the head at the apartment complex. Police arrested three Somalis in connection with the killing.Officer Robert Winton blamed the fighting on the Africans’ violent homelands. “They’re at war in their countries and they bring it here,” he said.

Violent crimes in Grand Island have risen in the last two years and the community, surrounded by cornfields, now faces a gang problem.

Fidencio Sandoval and his wife, Herminda, two meatpacking workers who were born in Mexico but are now U.S. citizens, worry about the violence.

They moved here in 1997, bought a house on a quiet street lined with sycamore and maple trees, and paid it off 10 years later.

“When I first came I thought this is a nice, quiet town, this may be a nice place to retire,” Fidencio said. “But the way it’s going now, I’m not sure.”

Mayor Margaret Hornady said she frequently heard complaints about the changes recent immigrants had wrought.

“People say, ‘Mayor, close down Swift, kick ’em out of town. All of our problems would be gone,’ ” she said.

Hornady said she had been “unsettled” by the presence of Somali women wearing head scarves. “It is startling,” she said. “It’s not what we’re used to.”

Just weeks after what she now terms “the Ramadan fiasco,” Hornady made comments in the local and national media that the town’s Somali leaders found offensive. As a peace offering, she issued an open invitation to all Somali women to attend a luncheon at her City Hall office.

She bought roses, ordered cucumber sandwiches and brought in her mother’s silver tea service. Twelve men and six women showed up. Hornady was offended.

The event proved to her that the Somalis think life in Grand Island “is not good enough,” Hornady said. “Well, it’s what we’ve got.”

She said it would take time for Grand Island to adjust to its immigrants, and vice-versa.

Attempting to integrate

There have been some attempts to foster unity in town.

Several groups offer free English classes and the city-funded Multicultural Coalition — headed by a Latino woman who once worked at the plant — helps connect new immigrants with social services.

The school district, where 15 years ago 90% of students were white and today 50% are, has reached out to immigrants to get their children enrolled.

But some Somalis decided Grand Island was no longer the place for them. After the Ramadan dispute, hundreds left town. Many moved to Lexington, an hour away, where the Tyson chicken plant pays less but is known for being more accommodating to Muslims.

Hawa Farah and Hussein Hussein aren’t sure if they’ll leave.

Last year, Ramadan did not trigger major conflict at the Grand Island plant, in large part because the Somalis had made arrangements with management beforehand.

Still, Farah and Hussein say they are frustrated by how co-workers treat them.

“They humiliate us like we are children,” Farah said.

Farah said she her husband must keep working in order to support their families in Africa. “When we came here, it was not to relax,” she said.Meanwhile, the company, which has since changed its name to JBS USA, has been grasping for employees once again.

Early last year, a man in Cuba named Jose Viol got a call from a friend in Miami.

The friend said recruiters from a meatpacking plant in Nebraska were looking for laborers. They would pay for three days of work what Viol could make all year in Cuba.

So he and his girlfriend got on a boat, fled Cuba for Mexico and crossed into the United States at the Texas border. They were granted refugee status and made their way to Miami, where they met up with other Cubans heading for Grand Island.

Seven hundred of them arrived in town last spring.

I drove through Grand Island in 1994 heading East on Highway 80. It was storming. It was a dark stormy night—Midwestern storms blast drama like teens crank loud music. The rain was beating down and I was wondering if we were on an island, and where the river was and what was it doing. The motel room was small, stuffy and over-priced, but it was summer on the interstate.

Storm over Grand Island, Nebraska

World Ball Notebook by Sesshu Foster

At first the title of Sesshu Foster’s WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK seems odd—football (soccer), the ancient sport from which the title is derived, seems only to be given a side long glance. The fragmentary, pseudo-travel journal only offers brief pre and post game flashes in which the speaker is far removed from the action of the game. In fact, the “games,” or vignettes, of WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK seem much more concerned with house fires, stolen cars, water-absorbent silicon packets, and Styrofoam coffee cups. Through his kaleidoscopic vignettes Foster generates a portrait of modern life whose violent, dramatic and banal extremes mirror the tumultuous emotional topography of football. However, whether football, over its long history, gradually shed rules and ritual as its primary characteristics and assumed these qualities or whether humanity took on the rhythms and sensations of the game remains unclear. Instead, Foster seems too content to break the border between the two and, instead, allows them to mingle in the reader’s mind altering their perception of day-to-day life and the game.

video shot by Bobby Byrd, poet and publisher of Cinco Puntos Press, and posted to his blog:

Josefina Reyes

en espanol:

Amnesty International has urged the Mexican authorities to protect human rights activists after a woman campaigner against violence and human rights abuses by military officials was shot dead near Ciudad Juarez.

Josefina Reyes was seized by a group of unidentified armed men outside a shop in the town of Guadalupe on Sunday. A witness reported that she was shot in the head after fighting back when the men attempted to abduct her.

According to a witness, the men apparently told her before the killing: “You think you are tough because you are with the organizations”.

Josefina Reyes had been active at events and protests against violence in the area, including abuses by the military deployed to fight organized crime. In August 2009, she participated in a “Forum on Militarization and Repression” in Ciudad Juárez, which examined reports of increasing human rights violations committed by members of the military.

Amnesty International believes that other human rights defenders who belong to Ciudad Juárez’s Coordination of Civil Society Organizations are also at risk of intimidation and attacks.

In particular, Cipriana Jurado, another female activist who has worked closely with Amnesty International on cases of abuses by the military, may be at risk.

“The authorities must ensure that Cipriana Jurado, and other human rights defenders with the Coordination of Civil Society Organization in Ciudad Juárez, receive immediate and effective protection,” said Kerrie Howard, deputy director of the Americas Programme at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International has called for a full, prompt and impartial investigation into the killing of Josefina Reyes, with the results made public and those responsible brought to justice.

Since 2007, violence linked to organized crime has spiralled in Mexico: the media have reported more than 14,000 drug cartel related killings. Vast numbers of these murders have occurred in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States.

President Calderón’s administration has deployed thousands of federal police and over 50,000 military personnel to combat organized crime and drug cartels in the worst affected areas, particularly Ciudad Juárez.

Josefina Reyes presente

Americas Program Report

Murder Capital of the World

Laura Carlsen | February 8, 2010

Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)
On Jan. 31, an armed commando unit pulled up to a house in a working-class neighborhood in Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side of the border with the United States. Inside the house, 60 teenagers were celebrating a friend’s birthday. Wielding high-caliber weapons, the commandos opened fire on the kids, robbed the house, and then drove away from the scene—amid human cries, the scent of gunpowder, and the total absence of law enforcement officials.

To date, 16 people are dead and more lie wounded in the local hospital. Photographs capture the concrete floors stained with blood, the bereaved families, the frightened neighbors. Local residents interviewed in the aftermath of the tragedy called the security forces “useless.” Fearing to give their names, they noted that the gunmen entered the neighborhood, hunted down the victims, and passed right by a group of soldiers in the vicinity.

“We heard a lot of shots, at first we thought they were bottle rockets, but later we heard the running and the cries of the young girls that were at the party. Then came silence and a strong odor of gunpowder,” a witness was reported as saying. Residents say even 10 hours after the murders, the crime scene had not been secured.

So far, no one knows the motive of the crime. The Washington Post reported that Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes put forward the preposterous hypothesis that the hit was “random.” Mexico’s secretary of government chalked it up to “delinquents” and ended up blaming the victims. He stated that the new strategy in the region would be focused on “the gang wars.” The state attorney general presented a suspect who claimed the victims were associated with a gang called the “Artist Assassins” that works for the Sinaloa drug cartel. According to this story, the rival Gulf Cartel carried out the mass hit as a punishment and a warning to others.

Mexico’s Drug War

Ciudad Juarez now holds the world record for homicides per capita. The city surpasses war zone death tolls even though it is, by default, a war zone. This border city of two million is the frontline for one of the most violent and ill-conceived wars of our times—the War on Drugs. On March 27, 2008, Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched “Operation Chihuahua,” and since then thousands of soldiers have been deployed to beat back the cartels.

The bodies of the slain teenagers and the thousands of other murder victims attest to the results of this strategy. Last year, Ciudad Juarez’s over 2,600 murders accounted for more than a third of Mexico’s reported 7,724 drug war-related deaths. With 227 assassinations related to organized crime in January alone, 2010 may stand to be the bloodiest year yet.

If governments based their security strategies on hard evidence and proven results, this city would be rightly viewed as a case study for the failure of the drug war. Instead, the strategy has been reinforced for years, with worse results. Ciudad Juarez stands out as a tragic example of what happens when a black-market economy creates massive corruption and avarice, and partisan politics and special interests determine government responses.

Calderon initiated the drug war to secure the support of the armed forces following huge protests over electoral fraud. He needed to unite the country against an enemy and organized crime was growing. Since Calderon announced the offensive against organized crime, soon after taking office, somewhere between 15,000 and 17,000 people have been killed. The government has deployed 50,000 troops to fight the war nationwide, racking up human rights violations and criticisms that their new domestic role violates the constitution, accelerates the downward spiral of violence, and militarizes a nation still undergoing a shaky transition from authoritarian rule.

Now public anger over the government’s failure to control the violence has reached the boiling point in Mexico. Perched atop the open casket of one of the young people, a hand-written sign read “Mr. President, We demand responses and solutions. No False Promises, or False Hopes.” Some groups in Juarez have called for Calderon’s resignation.

The Mexican Congress has demanded that the cabinet members charged with security policy explain the Ciudad Juarez failure in light of the recent killings. The massacre comes on the heels of the announcement of a change in strategy to withdraw soldiers and replace them with police officers. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual praised the move: “What the government has done now is an intelligent measure to introduce the federal police, which has all the legal capacities, and put them on the front line in the war against drug-traffickers.”

“The difference between the armed forces and the police is
often just a change of uniform.”
However, experts like General Francisco Gallardo of the Mexican Armed Forces, now a human rights leader, note that the difference between the armed forces and the police is often just a change of uniform. Although some groups in Washington have insisted that a shift from army to police represents a major improvement in the drug war strategy, the massacre and ongoing violence indicates that the impunity of organized crime will continue unabated as long as the confrontation model itself remains the same.

In a 2008 article for the Americas Program on the failure of Operation Chihuahua, Congressman and human rights activist Victor Quintana wrote that “Crowding soldiers into different parts of the country, far from dissuading drug dealers and their hired gunmen, exponentially increases the risk for civilians, who now have to take care on all sides: hired gunmen breaking into their daily activities, stray bullets, and human rights violations by the police and the army.”

A New Strategy?

President Calderon has made the most self-critical statements yet regarding the failure of his drug war. Speaking from Japan, he said he would alter the strategy. He went on to announce a more integral approach to attack the “social deterioration” of Ciudad Juarez, adding that the new approach would revamp the police and justice system and tackle social problems. “It’s clear that the action of the police or government and armed forces is not enough,” he said. “We need an integral strategy of social restructuring, prevention, and treatment for addictions, a search for opportunities for employment and recreation and education for youth.”

The same week, in its 2011 budget request, the Obama administration called for an additional $310 million for Mexico’s drug war under the Merida Initiative. Through this initiative, the U.S. government, first under Bush and now under Obama, has pledged its support for the enforcement strategy with over $1.4 billion, mostly to the Mexican Armed Forces and police. But this approach doesn’t address reduction in demand for illicit drugs, the treatment and prevention of addiction, or the financial structure of organized crime. Moreover a recent story in the Mexican daily El Universal notes that 70% of Merida resources remain in the United States, doled out in contracts for military and intelligence equipment.

The irony of announcing further U.S. support for the drug war strategy at the same time as Mexican society and even the president called for a change in strategy was not missed. The Mexican daily La Jornada dedicated an indignant Feb. 2 editorial to the coincidence. “Based on the results, the application of the Merida Initiative has translated into a sustained and exasperating deterioration in public security,” the editorial concludes. “Crimes linked to drug trafficking are more frequent than when it was signed, which is a disaster for Mexico. Through this instrument it was agreed we would fight a war that isn’t ours, one that contains an immoral and unacceptable clause: the United States pays in dollars and Mexico pays in lives.”

U.S. officials explain the violence there as the result of the turf battles for control of heavy trafficking routes. Although lip service is paid to reducing U.S. drug demand, no one mentions that Ciudad Juarez would not be the crown jewel of traffickers if the United States were not allowing the constant flow of contraband, or if U.S. laws regulated rather than prohibited the merchandise used by organized crime.

Instead, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas has become the portrait of Dorian Gray—the place where the consequences of the U.S. trade in illegal drugs and twisted policies to deal with the problem find their most gruesome reflection.

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a) is the director of the Americas Program ( for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

A version of this article originally appeared in Laura Carlsen’s column for Foreign Policy In Focus at

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For More Information

Wednesday February 24 8 PM reading with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Timothy Green, Megan O’Reilly, Sesshu Foster

El Cid
4212 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90029

El Cid was built in 1900 by D.W. Griffith and is modeled after a 16th century Spanish tavern. It was used to screen his controversial and famous movie “Birth of a Nation.” El Cid serves some of the finest Spanish food (included tapas) in Los Angeles. There is a beautiful stage, wooden dance floor and beautiful red booths.

Poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi grew up in central Connecticut, and her poems have appeared in The New England Review, Ninth Letter, and The Paris Review (which awarded her the Bernard F. Connors Prize for the Long Poem). A recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers, she has been both a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and her first book is called The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart.

Timothy Green works as editor of the poetry journal RATTLE ( His poems have appeared in many journals, including Connecticut Review, Florida Review, Mid-American Review, and Nimrod International Journal. His first book-length collection, American Fractal, is available from Red Hen Press.

Megan O’Reilly Green grew up in Washington state. She studied at The Evergreen State College before moving south to serve as assistant editor of Rattle magazine. Her poems have appeared in such publications as 32 Poems, Connecticut River Review, Crab Creek Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Ninth Letter, Peterson Literary Review, and Apple Valley Review. She is married to poet Timothy Green and lives in Los Angeles.

Sesshu Foster is secretary and driver to Swirling Wheelnuts, Vice President of Sales for the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Company. He is the author of the unpublished manuscript, THE MYSTERIES OF EAST L.A.


Visiting Writers Series

All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. and are free of charge, but seating is limited.
Ahmanson Hall Forum
The Otis Goldsmith Campus
9045 Lincoln Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA. 90045

March 3: Dolores Dorantes and Sesshu Foster

Dolores Dorantes’ books include sexoPUROsexoVELOZ, Lola, Para Bernardo: un eco and Poemas para niños. Her op-ed pieces, criticism and investigative texts have been published in numerous Mexican newspapers. Jen Hofer’s translations of her poems into English have been published in 1913, Action Yes, Counterpath, kenning, Tampa Review, War and Peace and Women’s Studies Quarterly, as a Seeing Eye chapbook, and in the anthology Sin puertas visibles. sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre, a bilingual edition of books two and three of Dolores Dorantes by Dolores Dorantes was co-published in early 2008 by Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions. She lives in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where she is founding director of the border arts collective Compañía Frugal and teaches through a non-profit women’s advocacy and education organization.

Dolores Dorantes

Dorantes will be joined by her translator, the author and Otis faculty member Jen Hofer.

Jen Hofer

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East LA for twenty years. He has also taught writing at the University of Iowa, CalArts, UC Santa Cruz, and Naropa. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo-Santillano and other writers on the website, His most recent books are the novel Atomik Aztex and World Ball Notebook, both published by City Lights.

Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas — Issue No. 12, 2009 , eds. Roberto Tejada, Kristin Dykstra, Gabriel Bernal Granados. $10

Mandorla might be the most under-recognized venue for new writing in the country (or indeed, all of the Americas). Highlights of Issue No. 12 include Sesshu Foster’s “Interview with Juan Fish (Supposedly),” Daniel Borzutsky’s translations of Raúl Zurita’s 1985 Song for His Disappeared Love, and Jessica Díaz’ original poems. Mandorla is unusually comfortable with its bilingualism (in fact, it also includes concrete poetry in Portuguese, from the genre’s de facto American home in Brazil), publishing original literature in both English and Spanish, sometimes in translation but seldom with both featured en-face, and though that expectation might heighten its inaccessibility for some, the respect it pays the bilingual literary community makes for an incredibly diverse array of literature. Interestingly, it’s also priced in Mexican pesos, and contains several nearly canonical essays of contemporary translation theory and practice, by noted translators like Eliot Weinberger and Kent Johnson, in Spanish only. It’s exciting to see a magazine engaged in true dialogue between literary communities, even if slightly delayed, and I think that Mandorla’s approach certainly limits the exoticism any literature might be prone to project onto another.

cover image: “Ball Lightning Strikes County General Hospital,” by Arturo Romo-Santillano

cover image, "Ball Lightning Strikes County General Hospital," by Arturo Romo-Santillano

the bird was
the black thing
the main item
the right one
the sky did
the air was
the afternoon
the sun might
the clouds were
the wind rattled
the earth was
the horizon moved
the words were
the thoughts of
the wetness is
the damp chill
the expanse is
the neverending
the cold water

Here’s a couple from the website: Faiza Ahmed Faiz, the famous Urdu poet

and Miklos Radnoti, the martyred Hungarian poet

February 2010