Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2016 at 3:00 PM

I’ve come to believe that drivers in Beirut are all in on a giant game of Chicken that the rest of the world hasn’t really caught onto yet. Just how close can one get to the other drivers on the road before a vehicular accident is inevitable? Or worse, scratch the paint on the Mercedes.

Cars bob-and-weave through uneven lines of traffic at stressful speeds, getting close enough to pudgy delivery drivers to watch their rolls bounce with the tut-tut-tut of their rickety mopeds. Traffic lanes are painted on the asphalt but are entirely invisible to the average Lebanese motorist. My cousin, a true Beiruti to his core, rocks his steering wheel back and forth within centimeters of oncoming drivers if he feels I’m falling asleep in the car. The Lebanese, not unlike the very pulse of the country itself, are determined to keep you on your toes.

I’m in Beirut filming for my master’s project on the Syrian border and have found that, as a student journalist on her own, reporting in the Middle East for the first time entails a similar chaos to be found on Beiruti freeways. Plans and expectations, no matter how many or how well laid out, are often followed through about as well as Beirut’s fading white traffic lines.

My third day in Lebanon I travel to Baalbek, a town in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut to gather footage from refugee camps in the area. The Lebanese government does not allow for the foundation of formal refugee camps, a paranoia still seething in the wake of Palestinian camps-turned-cities in Beirut and beyond. The valley is dotted with tent villages of all sizes, many set between open agricultural fields.

My fixer, a local videojournalist, agrees to take me to the Syrian border near Arsal, where we surreptitiously set up my virtual reality camera out of range of the military presence at the border gate. Every so often my fixer will take out his own credentials and “film” the street to deflect attention from the blinking Freedom360 rig we’ve set up facing the barbed wire concrete wall from the median a block down. After a few minutes, I hurriedly set up the camera from another angle across the busy street, praying to the journalism gods that I can stow away all of my equipment in the SUV before a guy in uniform shows up.

A ten minute drive from the border takes us to a camp in El Kaa, an informal tent village baking in blazing Bekaa sun, surrounded by Lebanese fields to the west and Syrian mountains to the east. Children, playing barefoot in the dirt, spot my cameras and begin following closely at my heels. One boy in a striped polo and munching on biscuits observes me synchronizing my 360 camera and quickly memorizes the steps, pointing at each GoPro as I turn them on, just in case I miss one. An invaluable camera assistant for the day.

I take a moment of hesitation to consider my next few shots, long enough for a young man to come bounding up the dirt road from the entrance to the camp. He gestures to my cameras and begins speaking to my companions in Arabic. My translator turns to me and says “Let’s go.”

Frustrated and slightly concerned, I shove both of my tripods in the car, cameras still on from the last shot. I am told as we exit that the informal camp “chief,” or shaweesh as they are called here, has been watching us from his perch on a nearby hill and has requested the pleasure of our presence. We declined.

Going through footage back in Beirut a day later, away from shaweesh threats, border guards, and impatient fixers, I take a moment and decompress. Some of my interviews are just a hair too dark, some b-roll just a little shaky, and I’m pretty sure you can see my feet in at least one 360 shot. I resist the urge to hurl myself into the Mediterranean while I peruse my photos and replay the long tape of expectations and shortcomings I had in my head before heading to the Bekaa.

A few more scrolls and deep breaths later, relief sets in.
From the last camp, three boys pose for a picture, full of pent up energy and curiosity. In another frame, a group of women sit beside each other outside a small market, lined up to be mic'ed and interviewed. Still one more shows a string of drying laundry and a playful kid at the end of the hall, his gleeful grin obvious even out of focus.

Despite all the missteps, close calls, and missed opportunities, my latest trip to the Middle East proved invaluable in ways that I'm still rediscovering miles away back in my own desert. Perhaps the most profound of which is the trust given to me by the many people I met along the way to tell their stories. I am eternally grateful for their time and patience.

For young international journalists, I would advise constant preparedness without the burden of well-laid plans. Be ready and open for anything to the best of your ability, but don't rely heavily on expectations. Give yourself plenty of time, always say "yes" within reason, and always check your equipment before heading out. Most importantly, make sure the people and their stories remain your constant guide and purpose, that above all will keep your work moving forward.     

And Beirut driving does not translate well back home in the States. Trust me. 

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2016 at 12:00 PM

I recently wrote about a Menlo Park Neighborhood Association meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago, where Menlo residents and Rio Nuevo Board representatives discussed mining equipment manufacturer Caterpillar's regional headquarter's upcoming move to West Side Tucson.

Much of the city is celebrating the fact that Caterpillar chose the Old Pueblo over others like Phoenix and Denver to bring what could mean $600 million in economic impact and 600 well-paying jobs—many of which will already be taken by existing Caterpillar employees, who will begin relocating to Tucson this summer.

My focus of the article revolved around a handful of residents who are concerned about what this will mean to the historic Menlo Park: everything from hikes in property tax and rent costs that will push old-time residents out to environmental and gentrification concerns. (Is this part of the trend to kill as much of Tucson's Native American and Mexican American cultural heritage as possible?)

Abby Okrent with the Jewish Voice for Peace-Tucson pointed out another huge issue of much global scale regarding Caterpillar and whether or not a city like Tucson should be rejoicing over their move here: there is a global campaign against Caterpillar for "its complicity in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2016 at 9:00 AM

I met Kyle Catlin almost one year ago. As I'm writing this, he sits in protective custody at the Marana Community Correctional Facility, afraid for his life after an inmate recently jumped him and then threatened to kill him for being "a snitch."

The inmate split Kyle's lip open. The inmate now sits in solitary because of the fight. Kyle is also in "the hole" for protection. Both of them were issued a complaint even though Kyle didn't do anything, according to his father Marvin.

This wasn't the first time. A couple of months ago, another inmate in a different correctional facility jumped Kyle and split his head open.

"His appeal for the guy punching him in the mouth was denied, he has one more appeal and is working on it now. If he is denied again he will have to be put in a medium security facility," Marvin told me through Facebook a couple of days ago. We've been in touch here and there since Kyle's trial.

"He is being threatened by a group of inmates. He should be moved to protective custody tonight.
I fear for his life," Marvin said last night. 

It was a three-digit-hot August day last year, and the young medical marijuana patient/caregiver and I were supposed to talk about his upcoming two trials for nonviolent marijuana sale, possession and cultivation felony charges over some iced coffee or tea at Cafe Passé on Fourth Avenue. Kyle called me to let me know he couldn't make it because his car had broken down and he'd taken it to a shop in South Tucson. I met him there and we talked in the waiting room for at least three hours.

Before we got into the serious talk, he chatted about his upcoming birthday party on Aug. 15. It was his 27th birthday. 

Tall, the blondest of hair, soft spoken, kind eyes, beyond family-oriented and a die-hard fan of car racing—I remember thinking, how can he be facing the possibility of going to prison?

At the time, he had at least 10 felony charges on him. (Read more about the charges, In Defense of Marijuana, September 2015.) He told me he was afraid of going to prison. He was afraid of getting pulled into a gang, being jumped. He, without shame, said he wasn't a fighter. He'd lose a fight. But probably the biggest fear was separating from his family. They were always together.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Posted By on Tue, Jun 14, 2016 at 6:30 PM

Now, I am not a huge fan of cable news, but I have been catching Anderson Cooper on CNN and his coverage of the Orlando mass shooting. He has been tactful. Most importantly, he has not acted the way we are taught in journalism school—cold and emotionless, no matter how horrific the events we're covering are, for the sake of being "neutral." 

After the events at Pulse nightclub, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has promised to go after anyone who causes any harm to the LGBT community. It's ironic and hypocritical—like Cooper so majestically told her during an interview today—because blocking same-sex marriage in Florida has been at the forefront of Bondi's work as attorney general. 
"Do you really think you're a champion of gay rights?" Cooper asked. "I've never heard you say anything positive about gays before." Cooper told her off and did not let Bondi speak for at least five minutes.

Anti-LGBT laws are the gateway into normalizing and condoning homophobia and transphobia. From there, it is a very fine line to cross into hate crime massacres like the one at Pulse, where 49 LGBT brothers and sisters died early Sunday morning.

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Posted By on Tue, Jun 14, 2016 at 10:00 AM

On Monday, there was a moment of silence in Congress to mourn the 49 LGBT young men and women who were killed in the Orlando mass shooting in the early hours of Sunday. At that moment, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives started to repeatedly chant, "Where's the bill?" 

The protest was against House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans who refuse to support gun control legislation. They are guilty of continuing to allow killers, like the one who broke into Pulse nightclub, to purchase AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles and other weapons meant for a war zone. 

According to Mother Jones, Ryan refused to acknowledge the protesters and instead tried to continue business as usual.
He even dismissed Rep. James Clyburn's attempt to speak about the upcoming anniversary of the Charleston mass shooting, in which nine people were killed inside a historic black church on June 17, 2015.
Republicans and the anti-gun control movement, keep your moments of silence to yourselves, keep your "my thoughts are with the victims" to yourselves, keep your "guns don't kill people" bullshit to yourselves. 

As Mother Jones writes, the protest on Monday will very likely fall on deaf ears. 

Here's the video courtesy of CNN:

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2016 at 3:00 PM

This past Wednesday afternoon I received frantic calls and texts from my mother and sister, asking me if my childhood friend, a UCLA student, was alright. Without any knowledge that a shooting had happened on the campus I somehow immediately knew that was the scenario my family members were referring to.

My friend is fine, but this isn’t about him. My immediate assumption when asked about the well-being of a college age friend was that there was a school shooting, and I was right.

It’s a bit ridiculous that public shootings have become so common in our society that they are the first thought some have when they’ve heard something is wrong. More frustrating than that is how we respond to these shootings. After each there is yet another call to change policies, and put in
preventative measures, which gets national attention for a week then fades away.

The reason often given for gun violence debates fading away, until of course the next shooting
comes around, is gridlock in our government. Democrats call for gun control, and recently Republicans have started calling for mental health care reform. Neither side is wrong: Better gun control and better mental health care would both likely reduce gun violence.

What happened at UCLA was fairly mild compared to other recent shootings years, but that should not diminish it. 

Reform aimed at fighting gun violence has been proposed many times over the past few years. Currently the U.S legislature is tossing around the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016. The act aims to make health care more accessible to those who need it. Hopefully this will pass, because when nothing gets done it doesn’t really matter who is right and who is wrong.

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 4:00 PM

There has been much fretting over the suit that the Goldwater Institute has brought against Pima County over the deal it made with World View Enterprises. Let’s try to separate the hysteria over economics from the issue of legality.

Missing or Avoiding the Point

County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry (named in the suit along with three county supervisors), in a memo to the county supervisors dated April 4, challenged the assertions of the Goldwater demand letter and accused it of being politically motivated and trying to affect the outcome of an election. These charges appear to be based solely on the timing of the letter. In a May 4 memo to the county supervisors dated May 4. Huckleberry accused Goldwater of having “a clear bias against southern Arizona,” and cites economic development deals made by the cities of Mesa, Scottsdale, and Gilbert, which drew no suit from Goldwater, as evidence for that claim. During a question and answer session after a speech delivered in Tucson on May 18, Jim Manley, lead attorney for Goldwater on this case, was given the same challenge. He explained that the number of potential cases brought to Goldwater is overwhelming, and that their resources are limited. He said that there were two points that compelled them to take this particular case. One was the number and gravity of the laws violated, and the other was the number of people from Pima County seeking relief and willing to put their names on the line and act as plaintiffs.

Many business leaders also miss the point. A group of self described “chief executives of groups representing hundreds of business leaders” sent a letter to Darcy Olsen, head of the Goldwater Institute, asking that the suit be withdrawn. They argued passionately for the deal with World View, and claimed that the suit has already done damage to the economic prospects for southern Arizona and will do more of it proceeds. Echoing Mussolini (the original “public-private partnerships” guy), they stated, “We believe that sound public-private partnerships are critical tools in fostering a strong climate for economic growth and new job creation.” Well, their constituents just want a consistent level playing field, a little transparency, and equal opportunity when dealing with governments—exactly what the Goldwater suit will help to re-establish. If the signers of the letter really want Goldwater to back off, they might include some legal reasons for doing so. After all, Goldwater filed a legal suit, not a white paper on economic development policy. It is ironic that, by signing the letter, these leaders support the flouting of laws that were designed specifically to protect their constituents—the business owners of Pima County. Perhaps these “chief executives of groups representing hundreds of business leaders” should step down and seek jobs with Pima County. There they could plan in secret, pick favorites, and provide corporate welfare. That would be a much better fit for them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Brisenia Flores would be 16 this year—my youngest brother's age. Except seven years ago on May 30, as she slept with her puppy on the living room couch in her family's mobile home in Arivaca—about 60 miles south of Tucson—armed robbers broke in, and shot and killed Brisenia and her father, Raul, 29.

The home invasion was led by Shawna Forde, a former member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and founding member of the group Minutemen American Defense. Reports say she'd patrol the Arizona-México borderlands carrying weapons and protested against crime along the border, as well as the presence of undocumented immigrants in the country. Forde was reportedly kicked out of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps because she was "unstable." (Describing both groups as white supremacists is not far fetched.)

Forde and her two accomplices claimed to be law enforcement, which is how they were able to enter the Flores' home.

The day of the murder, as a CNN article from 2011 describes, Brisenia, Raul and mom Gina Gonzales went shopping for new shoes for Brisenia. She had just finished third grade and needed them for summer camp. 
She fell asleep watching television as her parents slept in their bedroom. A few hours later, she opened her eyes to the sight of her father, lying on the opposite couch. He had been shot in the chest and was choking on his own blood. Her mother was bleeding on the floor, a gunshot wound to her leg. The little girl was startled and cried out to intruders in her home, “Why did you shoot my mom?”
Brisenia's mom, Gina, cried and described the events in court back in 2011. She made it out alive seven years ago yesterday, after being shot in the leg. She called 911 and got a hold of her husband's gun.

"[Brisenia] was really scared. Her voice was shacking," Gina said in court, according to CNN. "I can hear her say, 'Please don't shoot me.'"

Forde and two accomplices, Jason Bush—at the time the national director of operations for the Minutemen American Defense—and Albert Gaxiola planned to raid the home to steal drugs, weapons and money to fund their anti-immigration group, according to CNN. Reportedly, they thought Raul was a drug dealer. No drugs were found.

On Feb. 22, 2011, a jury found Forde guilty of first-degree murder and gave her the death penalty.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 10:13 AM

Apropos of nothing—no social or educational import whatever—I have to say I hate the word "impactful." Even when it sits silently on paper, it hurts my ears. Impactful. Ugh.

This isn't a case of word snobbery. I'm not a card carrying member of the word police. I agree with the statement I first read as a high school senior that the dictionary is a historian (an historian?), not a lawgiver. New words are great. Inspired slang is wonderful. "Ain't" is a word, and a good word at that. "I ain't got no pencil" doesn't mean I have a pencil (Language is communication, not math. Two negatives don't automatically make a positive. Everyone knows the speaker doesn't have a pencil—everyone, that is, except that persnickety English teacher who pretends not to understand). It's cute to answer a student's question, "Can I go to the bathroom?" by saying, "Yes you can, but you may not." It may be one of those teachable moments, though if the poor kid pees his/her pants, the only lesson will be that the teacher is a sadist. But in real life, everyone knows the sentence, "Can I go to the bathroom?" is a request to leave the room to relieve oneself.

This morning I read a short note in the Star about the death of actress Madeleine LeBeau at 92. I learned she had a "small but impactful role in 'Casablanca.'" Ironically, that ugly word, virtually devoid of emotion, is supposed to describe the visual and emotional impact (ah, much better!) of a closeup on LeBeau's face as she stands, tears in her eyes, during the spontaneous singing of "La Marseillaise" by the patrons in Rick's (Humphrey Bogart's) cafe to drown out some German soldiers.

Impactful. Who made that a word? To find out, I googled it. ("To google," by the way, is an example of "verbing," where nouns are turned into verbs. The trend surged in business circles a few decades back ["We need to dialogue about this"; "Let's calendar our next meeting"] and has become a vital part of our online world ["Bookmark that website"; "Email me"; "Text Me"; "I'm gonna blog about that"]). "Impactful" has been around at least since the 1950s, most probably created by academic writers, who love to invent clunky jargon to distinguish themselves from normal English speakers. Later it was picked up by business people who use newly coined words to make themselves feel like they're ahead of the curve, as if a new term is the same thing as a clever new idea. Gradually, it worked its way into art, dance and film criticism which, I guess, is why it was in the LeBeau obituary and turns up so often in movie reviews.

If blogging on this topic plays an impactful role in limiting the use of that awful word, my work here is done.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2016 at 10:00 AM

This week I resigned from the Arizona Education Association, Retired Chapter. I have been a member of AEA since I began teaching in Arizona in 1980. The reason for this resignation was their support for the deceptively worded and band aid proposition 123. I’ve read it thoroughly and it changes the state’s responsibility for funding K-12 and secondary (college level) education. This proposition mitigates state funding by changing the state constitution to lower their disbursements from the general fund for education. This frees up money for tax breaks to large corporations (who funnel monies toward re-election campaigns to elected officials thru lobbying and anonymous organizations).

This proposition also rapidly depletes the state trust lands which were given to the state in 1912, upon entering statehood, by the federal government. This was to be used as a supplemental fund, to help with inflationary costs. It is currently sold at 2.3 percent of principal. Under proposition 123, it will be sold off at about 7 percent a year, diminishing the principal of the fund.

Even though proposition 123 funnels some money towards education, there is no guarantee that the state legislature will continue funding education adequately. When proposition 301 was passed, the tax monies generated for education were not used as a supplement for inflation. Instead, the state legislature subtracted that same amount of money from the education budget. This was a classic bait and switch ploy, with the result of schools, teachers, and students suffering. What needs to be done is for the state to pay the 330 million dollars that the court has ordered it to pay for the schools. This proposition is nothing more than a distraction! We need to elect pro public school representatives to the state legislature and fire those legislators who would destroy public education.

I would like to end with two quotations: The first is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican President. “You can fool all the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”

The final quote is from St. Francis of Assisi. “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Let’s vote no on Proposition 123 and elect pro education candidates to our state legislature!

Thank you,
Marty Drozdoff