Politics

Revolution’s end

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The latest issue of Pallet magazine has a piece of mine chronicling Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers’ exile in Algeria, and on what happens when the revolutionary fire burns out. As always, the magazine is gorgeous–you can pick up a copy here.

 

 

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Angels, Protesters, and Patriots

photo illustration by Ethan ParkerMy new piece in California magazine is about the essential weirdness of patriotism, and its wildly varying meanings in our politics. It’s an article that takes in the Hells Angels and hippies, Regan and Obama, punk rock and Bruce Springsteen, and a bunch of other stuff as well:

It starts with a guy named “Tiny.” Tiny was 6’7” and 300 pounds. And he really liked to fight.

He was first into the breach that fall afternoon in 1965, punching his way through the front of the seven-block-long peace march on Adeline Street, near the Berkeley–Oakland border. Tiny was a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels, and more than a dozen of his brothers followed in his wake, ripping down antiwar signs and screaming, “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!”

The Angels, at first blush, seemed unlikely patriots. Though not yet well known, they had a reputation with law enforcement for drinking, smoking dope, and sacking towns like modern-day Visigoths, answering to no authority higher than their East Oakland clubhouse. But now there they were, waving the flag. Their form of patriotism was gut-level, atavistic, loyalty to nation through blood and fire. Their group persona, meanwhile, was the stuff of American mythology, a grab-bag of frontier clichés sprung to life—they were contemporary cowboys, John Wayne’s unwashed, scofflaw cousins.

Perhaps the truest thing anyone can say of patriotism is that it’s personal. I came of political age in the Reagan era, and in the hardcore punk scene that grew in response to it. I devoured righteous broadsides on apartheid, the prison-industrial complex, and Salvadoran death squads in Maximum Rocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. I listened to bands with gleefully provocative names—Jodie Foster’s Army, Millions of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys.

When, in 1984, Reagan adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign anthem, my parents dragged me to a Springsteen concert. I suffered as only a 12-year-old can suffer. It was years before I realized that the song was actually an indictment of the country’s piss-poor treatment of its Vietnam veterans.

My wariness of patriotism comes from the tribalism that creeps alongside it and the Us and Them divisions it inevitably creates. There’s an undeniable appeal to tribal membership, of course. We all want to be part of the club, however we define it—Hells Angels, the GOP, punk rock.

(Photo illustration by Ethan Parker.)

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Intersecting Lives

palletitaly

My latest for Pallet magazine. A story of international espionage, murder, war, and a villain so brutal he’d make George R.R. Martin blush: just a few of the factors that led to the guy who painted the Mona Lisa hanging out with the dude who invented modern political science.

The travelers were unhappy guests of Cesare Borgia, the pope’s son and reigning dark lord of Italian politics. A ruthless plotter rumored to have murdered his brother and slept with his sister, the 27-year-old duke came on like a cartoon villain, Darth Vader scripted by Tarantino. People said he stalked the streets of Rome after midnight, murdering strangers for sport. Lately, he had begun dressing all in black and, owing to a syphilis infection that scarred his face, wearing a mask—moves that only enhanced his rep.

At the turn of the 16th century, Italy was like Game of Thrones minus the dragons, a patchwork of mini-states run by oligarchs, warlords, and titled thieves dressed in fine silk. The pope, an aficionado of orgies and assassinations, was merely one of the bigger warlords. Foreign powers such as France and Spain meddled freely in Italian affairs. Meanwhile, the Turks, who had been moving westward for centuries, watched hungrily from across the Adriatic.

Pallet doesn’t post its stories online (at least not yet), so here’s the pdf.

(illustration by We Buy Your Kids)

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Visit Palestine

visitpalestineA quick one for Slate‘s Vault: my piece on how a recruiting pitch for Jewish emigration in 1937 became, over the decades, an iconic image of Palestinian resistance:

“As Oslo soured and the second Intifada broke out, Palestinians began ​repurposing​ the poster​. The onetime Jewish recruiting pitch became an affirmation of Palestinian rights, hanging in coffee shops and government buildings all over East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.”

 

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The Dragon and the Dome

Photo by John Ritter

Photo by John Ritter

For this month’s “China” package in San Francisco magazine, I’ve written a history of Chinese-American politics in San Francisco–the story of how, as the subhed so succinctly puts it, “a ghettoized minority cracked the San Francisco establishment–and then became it.”

 

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Three Views of Modern Africa

I’m teaching this course at San Francisco State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute starting next week–we cover the post-colonial histories of Egypt, Zambia, and South Africa. Check it out.

 

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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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Radio Freedom, on the radio

I spoke to Johannesburg’s Power FM today about Radio Freedom, the ANC-in-exile’s revolutionary, anti-apartheid radio program from the 1960s through the ’80s. It was fun, though I wish I didn’t sound so sleepy at first–it was 4am my time. Here’s my piece on Radio Freedom from last year.

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

Zamrock1

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.”

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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.

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