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Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

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Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

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Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
South Africa

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US government advice to soldiers headed to Syria–circa 1942

BxwCVIaIAAAqO97I came across this US War Department guidebook for American soldiers posted to the Levant during World War Two, so wrote it up for Slate‘s history blog, The Vault. The advice is often practical, sometimes Orientalist–and, at times, depressingly modern-sounding. Useful reading, in other words, for our current moment.

For all its age, the booklet’s prescription for mission success sounds thoroughly modern: “A big part of your job is to make friends for your cause—because this is a war of ideas, just as much as of tanks, planes and guns.”

As a bonus, the illustrations are pretty wonderful.

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Foreign policy
Middle East
Travel

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

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My piece on the rise, fall, and rise of Jagri Chanda–once Zambia’s biggest rock star–went up recently on The Appendix. It’s an epic 50-year tale of psych-rock, Quaaludes, post-colonial politics, gemstone mining, and (yes, ultimately) redemption.

“It’s a Sunday morning in Kitwe, a colonial-era mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Clouds hang low, and the air is hazy. In the countryside, farmers are burning their fields in preparation for the rainy season. We’ve come to this recreation area to see an important part of the country’s musical history.

Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda hops out of a truck. Once upon a time, he was the country’s biggest rock star. As one of the founders of the “Zamrock” psychedelic rock scene of the 1970s, Jagari (an Africanization of Mick Jagger) was a household name. His songs were radio staples, groupies mobbed him, he always drank for free. Now sixty-plus years of age, he’s lost the Afro and gained a few pounds, but he retains a youthful, loose-limbed gait.

The recreation area sits on the edge of a manmade lake, and it’s a gently-ruined place. Jagari strides toward the water, past worn picnic tables and fire pits. Beyond the water lie the copper mines that power this central African country’s economy, open-cut gashes in the earth surrounded by heavily-rutted roads and streams running with mine tailings. Jagari grew up around here. He takes it all in, a dethroned king surveying his lost kingdom. “It’s rundown, as you can see,” he says. “Back then it was new.

As singer for the Witch, the biggest Zamrock band, Jagari played to packed stadiums and toured across southern Africa. This recreation area was always one of his favorite venues. Often the band played from a stage backed up to the lake. The crowd—miners, soldiers, office workers, students—caught fish, barbecued, drank, and danced. Sometimes the Witch played at night, other times in the afternoon, the show peaking as the sun set over the Copperbelt.”

Africa
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Foreign policy
Music
Politics
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An Asteroid Wiped Out the Dinosaurs—Will We Be Next?

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The new issue of California magazine has an apocalyptic theme: “This is the End.” I chose to write about planet-killing asteroids:

… at some point, an asteroid measured better in miles than feet will come for us all. According to a 1994 study published in the scientific journal Nature, we stand a 1-in-40,000 chance of dying in a “cosmic impact.” That’s more likely than perishing in a tornado, and less likely than in an airplane crash. At least in theory, the world possesses the technology to both detect and counter this threat. But as things stand right now, the next big impact might play out much as Chelyabinsk did: a short, sharp, and entirely unexpected shock—only with casualties in the millions or even billions.

Franck Marchis, a former UC Berkeley astronomer who is now a principal investigator at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, says “It won’t happen tomorrow. But it will happen. It’s a matter of time.”

(Illustration by Andrew Archer.)

 

 

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Science

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Bummer Beach

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A few years back, the Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla bought the land surrounding Martins Beach, a lovely little cove just south of Half Moon Bay. He then closed the only access road to the beach. Trouble is, all beaches are open to the public under California law. In this month’s San Francisco magazine, I wrote about the legal battle between Khosla and a group of surfers for access to the beach.

Early on the morning of October 21, 2012, five surfers pile into a Chevy Suburban in Half Moon Bay and drive south on Highway 1. Just past the city limits, they pull off the road at the entrance to Martins Beach, a beautiful little cove frequented by generations of fishermen, beachgoers, and surfers. It’s a typical coastal morning: damp, chilly, the sky a latticework of fast-moving clouds. They shrug off their hoodies and suit up.

From the highway a single road—the only way in or out—tumbles toward the beach past hay fields, weathered bungalows, and stands of wind-sculpted cypress. The road, which runs over private property, was open to the general public for almost a century. But an automatic metal gate installed by the property’s new owner now bars the way. Signs hang from the gate: “Beach Closed, Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

The signs make the surfers a little nervous, sure. But they had read the California Constitution the night before, saving screenshots of the relevant portions to their smartphones just in case. Article 10, Section 4, it seems to them, is pretty clear: “Access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable for the people thereof.” In other words, the public owns all of California’s 1,100-mile coastline.

Shortly after the group hops the gate, they are confronted by an older man in an SUV who yells, “The cops are on their way!” before driving off. Jonathan Bremer, the leader of this group of unlikely dissidents, shoots back sarcastically: “Good morning! Thank you for allowing us to access public lands!”

The road bends in on itself, and the beach comes into view: a natural amphitheater framed by sheer 75-foot cliffs, Mediterranean in its color palette. Jutting out of the waves is Pelican Rock, a postcard-ready formation that bisects the cove. The group paddles out. It is far from an epic day—the peaks are shifty and windblown—but at least they are making their point. Bremer, a 28-year-old vehicle engineer, grew up near the coast in Bellingham, Washington, and moved here three years ago. His manner is intense, at odds with surfer stereotypes. “I really don’t like it,” he says, “when people tell me I can’t go places that I’m legally entitled to go.”

Then, as they sit in the lineup, their boards rising and falling with the swell, the cops show up.

Articles
California
Legal

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H8

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My Discharge piece from last year–in which I chronicle an iconic punk band’s disastrous experiment with hair metal–gets a second life as a supplement to the New Inquiry‘s latest issue, titled “H8.” I’m pleased there’s a new audience for the story, of course. The best part, though, is the new title the editors have bestowed on my piece: “Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You!

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Metal
Music
punk
San Francisco

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Radio Freedom: A History of South African Underground Radio

rfLast week, The Appendix published my piece on Radio Freedom, the ANC’s revolutionary radio station during the apartheid era. I discovered that, in many ways, the station’s history parallels that of modern South Africa itself.

At seven p.m. sharp, seven nights a week, during the darkest days of apartheid, an incendiary radio broadcast beamed out from Lusaka, Zambia. It began with the clack of machine-gun fire, followed by a familiar call-and-response:

Amandla Ngawethu!

“Power to the People!”

The shooting faded in and out, waxing and waning with the chant.

Hundreds of miles and two countries to the south, people gathered in matchbox homes in Johannesburg’s industrial townships and community centers in the Cape Flats and thatched-roof huts in black homelands to hear the transmission. They hunched over shortwave radios, straining to hear through clouds of static. They listened with the lights off, making sure that nobody had followed them. Secrecy was necessary, because there were informers everywhere. Just hearing this stuff could get you eight years in prison.

Africa
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Politics
South Africa

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“But He’s Not a Politician!”

edleeMy profile of Mayor Ed Lee is the cover story in this month’s San Francisco magazine. With photography by the great Jim Hughes. I’ve never met Hughes, but he also shot my profiles of Rose Pak and Aaron Peskin. Here’s the subhed:

Mayor Ed Lee wasn’t supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.

 

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Politics
San Francisco

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Inspector General

mag_coverFor this profile of the man who runs field operations for U.S. Customs across a huge swath of the West, I spent a few days talking with Customs agents and hanging out at the Port of Oakland, SFO, and a mail-inspection warehouse. It was totally fascinating.

The Port of Oakland is not a human-sized place.

Stacks of shipping containers stretch into the wide blue sky, monoliths of gleaming metal overhung by skyscraping cranes that methodically load crates on and off of cargo ships. Far below, semi-cabs and SUVs trundle to and fro, mice in the shadow of giants.

In one corner of the terminal, a Customs and Border Protection officer inhabits a specialized utility truck, peering into a few dozen of the 500,000 containers that pass through the California port each year.

Articles
California
crime
San Francisco

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Sightseeing in a Police State: a Syrian Travelogue

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In the late 1990s, long before the Arab Spring and the massacres of the civil war, I traveled to Syria as a tourist. This is a memoir-ish account of what it was like to go sightseeing in a dictatorship.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

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Foreign policy
Middle East
Travel

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