Cuba – Part II

Journeying through historical sights and visiting Cuba’s LGBTQ community…here is Part II of our Cuba series.

Each new day brought with it new excitement and wonder.  We stopped in the Plaza de Revolución; the focal point of the Cuban government and one of the largest city squares in the world.  At 77,000 square feet, the Plaza has been the site of many political rallies, and it’s where Pope Francis famously held mass in 2015.  It’s two steel memorials, featuring two of the most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, is one of the country’s most iconic images.

IMG_3707

We traveled through Fidel’s childhood neighborhood, and ate lunch in a restaurant with his son at the table behind us.  Speaking with some locals, we learned about Cuba’s churches, and how many of them are considered “sanctuary locations.”  Places where groups meet in secret to discuss the hardships of communism while plotting its demise.

We passed pockets of revolutionary groups gathering on street corners and proselytizing communism at the top of their lungs, as they waved pro-socialist literature in the air.  They’re called CDR Watchers (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and their job is to remain vigilant and vocal, while spying on their neighbors…looking for those who oppose authoritarian rule.

By mid-week we’d talked with dozens of people on a wide range of issues.  History, art, food, weather, and the importance of smoking a good cigar.  As well as politics…an often times jailable offense should the conversation happen to spill into the wrong ears.

IMG_4160

And while life on an isolated Communist island is hard enough, being gay and living there presents an entirely new set of challenges.  Maintaining an LGBTQ lifestyle in Cuba isn’t an illegal offense, but it is offensive in the eyes of the government.  We witnessed it on our last night in Havana.

On the other side of Chinatown is a bar called, Cabaret Las Vegas.  We’d read about it earlier in the week, as we trudged along on the government-monitored-wifi-hotspot we’d picked up on in the park.

Las Vegas boasted the biggest drag show, in the biggest gay section of Havana. The term “big” is relative, as the “section” was nothing more than a corner with a bar, restaurant, pizza shop, and the club at the opposite end.  Big or not, it was a popular spot.  Hundreds of people gathered along the sidewalks, laughing and dancing to the muffled sounds of different disco tracks, all blending together from the four locations.  It was a festive party in the street…a mini Mardi Gras, where beads had been replaced with slices of pizza and Caipirinha’s.  Just under the surface, however, a germ of danger was waiting to be exposed.

IMG_4382

Standing at the door to Las Vegas was a gaunt young man in a ripped white shirt, with skinny white jeans and worn out white Converse sneakers.  He reminded me of an emaciated John Lennon walking across Abbey Road.  Although, his hair and height was considerably shorter.

“We don’t open for another hour.”  He said.  Looking at my watch it was nearly midnight.  We asked if there someplace to get a drink.  Someplace other than the crowded spots on the corner.  “Follow me.”  He said, as he left his post at the door.

Walking 10 feet in front he asked us to stay behind.  “It’s better not to draw attention.”  He said.  “I’ll go first.  You follow.  We’ll meet at a table once we get inside.” 

Our new friend entered the coffee shop, briskly brushing past a police officer who was arguing with 3 teenage girls standing on the steps of the shop.  The girls wore matching knee-high denim miniskirts, and shared a terrified look on their face.

We entered the shop thirty seconds behind the mysterious man in white, who had secured us a table.  Gesturing with both hands, he offered us a seat in the remaining two chairs.  It was all very covert.

“What’s the story with the girls outside?”  We asked.

“They’re waiting to get into the club and the police don’t like the way they’re dressed.”  He replied.

“And the police don’t want us talking to tourists.  That’s why I needed to walk ahead of you.”

Through sad brown eyes that stared right through us, he began his story.  His name was Martez; 33-years old, soft spoken, and recently released from prison, having spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  His crime; selling Marijuana cigarettes.  Although, his real crime, he told us, was being gay.  Martez had never left the island and his parents had never clued in on his lifestyle.

“That’s got to be difficult.”  I said.

“It was easy.  I’ve spent half my life in jail.  They never visited.  They never paid attention to me before that.  I don’t have a relationship with them.”  He said.

His words lacked any form of empathy.

We talked about the Pulse shooting in Orlando and asked what the communities response was.  “What’s Pulse?”  he asked?   An asteroid could be hurling towards us with only a few days of human life remaining.   And while the entirety of the world’s population braced for impact, Martez and his friends would be going about their normal routine.  Closed off from all things news and all things social media.   And for a moment his unplugged world seemed comfortable enough.

“Behind you.  Quick!”  Martez said, motioning with his head.  Outside the three young girls had apparently lost the argument with the police office and were being placed in the back of his car.

Finishing our drinks, we made our way to the Cabaret, as Martez resumed his spot – 10 feet ahead of us.

IMG_4423

By the end of the trip we’d met people who were happy, content, frustrated, scared, and downright angry.  And while the political spectrum ran from one extreme to the other, the one thing everyone had in common, was the struggle.  Whether for freedom with capitalistic independence, or communist state-run assistance, everyone was aware of the restrictions and poverty that surrounded them.

And while there’s much to envy about the wealth the rest of the world has, many Cubans we met were mindful of what else those foreign countries endure:  a populous with soaring education debt, low literacy rates, homelessness, out of control gun violence, and a health care system in disarray.  Those things are available in Cuba.  Everyone can go to college.  In fact, many Cubans have multiple degrees.  Crime is barely visible and health care is available to everyone.  And while it seems the younger generation appreciates those benefits, those we met were fully aware of the toll it is taking on them and their country.

Beauty permeates Cuba like flowers poking through a rusted metal fence.  We found it in  music, food, culture, architecture, and most of all her people.  People equipped to live a life, but forced to do so in a controlled and confined space.  Traveling is about understanding cultures and embracing the unknown.  We were fortunate to have been able to take advantage of president Obama’s easing of Cuban/American relations.  Now, with the new administration’s policy rollbacks, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those relations will be impacted.

 

Cuba – Part I

 

Taking advantage of the Obama administration’s easing of Cuban/American restrictions, we accepted a project with a group of writers and photographers.  Our directives were simple; assigned to various places throughout the country, we were asked to document our experiences.

Our knowledge of Cuba was limited.  We knew the country was roughly the size of Tennessee and we were aware of its complicated history with the United States.  The disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and a missile crisis which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.  We also recognized that reading about something is entirely different than experiencing it.  And while a week in any country does not an expert make, what was packed into that time gave fresh insight into what had been an otherwise stale perspective.

Here is Part I of our two part series.

“Revolution is a Bitch”

Havana Airport security, we were told, could be a bit complicated to navigate.  I’ve always had success while visiting new places by appearing to know what I’m doing and where I’m going.  “Act like I’ve been here before” is my mantra.  Nonetheless, this was Cuba.  So, our small group of journalists prepared ourselves for the peppering of suspicious questions.  But not one came our way.  Cuba’s security officials decided, instead, to interrogate the large group of American tourists that had entered Passport Control just ahead of us, looking a bit dazed and thoroughly confused.  The tourists were asked all sorts of questions; where they were from, why they were there, and if they knew anyone on the island.  While they stumbled through the inquiry, we seized the opportunity.  Moving quickly and unnoticed to the counter, where our passports were stamped without incident.

Stepping out of the airport and squinting through the mugginess I noticed a long line of taxis waiting with their engines running.  A few were “modern” New York Yellow taxis, but most were vintage cars that looked as if they’d driven straight off the set of a Happy Days episode.  “If the engines were still working, then maybe the air conditioning is too.” I thought, as I pulled my damp shirt away from the back of my neck.

IMG_4152

I slid a stack of Euros under the glass partition at the currency window and waited.  Cuba has an exchange tax on U.S. currency, so to save money I’d traded out the bills the day before.  The officer on the other side of the window divvied up two piles of Cuba’s two currencies.  The CUC which is used for tourists and set at a 1:1 fixed rate against the Dollar.  And the CUP, or Cuban Peso, which is worth far less, and used at ration stores and street stalls selling juices and assorted fruits.

We piled into the back of a faded blue 1961 blue Chevy, and made our way towards Havana, roughly half an hour away.   It was a time traveling trip where everyone shared the road.  Antique cars rumbled over potholes, while improvised horse drawn buggies trotted alongside, trying to keep up.  Mopeds, which appeared to be held together with duct tape and pieces of erector sets, sped through the traffic.  Backfiring as they shifted gears and raced around the ancient automobiles.  Not to be outdone, bicyclists with boxes of fruit and other household goods strapped and stacked higher than the riders themselves, peddled along the sidewalks, leaving beads of sweat in the dirt behind them.

 

 

IMG_3639We drove past dilapidated buildings with chipped paint, cracked windows, and exposed blocks of concrete set behind pro-revolutionary billboards of Fidel Castro coolly smoking cigars.  Clothes, gently swaying in the warm, sticky breeze were pinned along clotheslines attached from one tin roof corner to the other.

The homes gradually turned more pleasing as we neared our hotel; a one-hundred-year-old mansion in a quiet section of south Havana.  The house-turned-hostel was nestled amongst a depressed collection of homes, each one hidden behind beautiful bougainvillea, banana palms, and multi-colored hibiscus bushes.  The outside of our hostel was tattered with years of disregard, but the interior boasted a carefully preserved décor of spotless Italian marbled floors and imported onyx columns that supported frescoed ceilings.

In the communal bathroom, water slowly dripped from the sink faucet regardless of how hard the nozzle turned or which direction it went.  There were half a dozen rooms, each with ten-foot hand crafted wooden doors that even when fully opened, required a sideways entry.

IMG_3674

The streets were caked with broken bits of asphalt, piles of dirt from unfinished roadwork and an assortment of other debris.   Trash cans were overflowing with flies circling above, hoping the garbage trucks would forget to make their runs.

We found our way to The Malecón; an esplanade roadway where the ocean kisses a 5-mile stretch of the Havana coastline.  It’s a popular hangout for those who have very little and are looking for entertainment without a cost.  We stopped there to capture a few images of life along the wall, when we struck up a conversation with two locals who were offering a tour through the city in a 1952 Chrysler.

After negotiating a price, we scooted into the backseat where the carpet on the floor had been removed, displaying a metal that hadn’t seen the light of day since it rolled off the assembly line.  This car was born a few years before seat belts.  So, the head rest on the seat in front of me would have to do.  Lowering the window to allow fresh air, I cranked the handle – delicately – as if I were churning butter.  Everything about the car was original.  From the engine and the paint, to the steering wheel and its radio knobs.  Everything except the Boss Stereo system that lived in the glove box.

Elon, our navigator, fiddled with the stereo, while Carlito, our driver, pointed out landmarks.  So much was happening…and all at the same time.  In-between shout-outs, Carlito struggled to keep the door from falling off its hinges.  Opening and closing it in rapid succession to get the latch to catch properly.  That, while a bassline of reggae-infused Spanish music thumped through crackling speakers, with a decibel level so loud it may have interrupted communications with the International Space Station.

It was our very own Cuban/American Graffiti moment, passing a collection of vintage American cars, while cruising the streets of Havana with music blaring.  We stopped several times to take video and pictures.  And as our tour guides explained the relevance of what we were seeing, we were wondering when the door might fall off completely.

IMG_4316

We pulled into a bar – a juke-joint type of place – where Mojitos were made on the small patio, and live salsa and merengue music was made in the room next door.

“Mr. Obama sat right here and drank a Mojito!”  Carlito told us proudly, while ordering us the same drink.

“You don’t want one?”  I asked.

“No.”  he shot back, disappointingly.

“I can’t afford them…it costs 6 CUC.  Revolution is a bitch.”                                                                       

We ordered drinks for them both, then sat down at a corner table.  In hushed tones, we started talking about things locals weren’t supposed to be talking to tourists about – things they couldn’t do:

  • Travel abroad without permission.
  • Change jobs without permission.
  • Read unapproved books or magazines.
  • Visit or stay in tourist hotels.

Their list went on.

While they were ticking off the “Do-Not’s” of a Cuban citizen, a drunk man staggeringly made an unwelcomed entrance at our table.  Interrupting our conversation with slurred speech, he called our friends prostitutes and chastised them for conversing with “the westerners.”  A bouncer forcibly removed the man, pushing him back onto the street.  I watched him walk away, teetering and talking to himself as he disappeared around the corner.

Finishing our drinks, we climbed back into the car as Elon reached for the stereo before slamming the door.  Cranking Bonnie Tyler’s, Total Eclipse of the Heart, to an uncomfortable level, we sped off.

“You want some cigars?” Elon asked.  “I know just the place.”  We’d said, no.  But Carlito was singing the “Turn Around Bright Eyes” chorus so loudly, neither of them heard us.

IMG_4469Winding through a narrow alley in a neighborhood where the streets truly had no name, our Chrysler careened its way around pedestrians.  It wasn’t the derelict environment that stood out, in so much as it was the idleness of those living in it.   Everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.  Some squatted inside entryways where the doors had long since vanished, and others wandered the street aimlessly.

Carlito pulled the car up alongside a corner and stopped, abruptly, with the left front tire slightly scraping the sidewalk.  Exiting quickly, the four of us headed down a dark, dingy passageway to meet a man we didn’t know so we could buy cigars we would never smoke.

The smell of urine hung in the warm air as Elon reached through wrought iron bars and banged heavy on an even heavier wooden door.  “Julio!” he called out.  Banging a few more times.  No answer.  I got the impression “Julio” hadn’t been around for a while…seeing as how there was a giant padlock on the front of his door.  Satisfied Julio would not be selling us Montecristo’s, we climbed back into the Chrysler and bounced our way down the broken street once more.

The day was getting away from us and it was time for dinner.  We chose, at the behest of our new friends, La Familia. One of Havana’s many paladeras – privately owned small businesses used as restaurants.

La Familia’s food was simple and home cooked; black beans, rice and half a chicken.  There was nothing fancy about it.  But we preferred it that way.  It reminded us that those who prepared it weren’t professionals.  They just simply enjoyed cooking it for us.  The ambiance far outweighed the meal, as family pictures of people long since passed hung crookedly on the wall, and newspaper articles lined every inch of the ceiling.  Two guitar players performed acoustic Spanish renditions of James Taylor songs in the far corner, as the patrons sang along in between bites.

With dinner over we set out in search of a Wi-Fi Hot Spot.  Cuba has the lowest internet density in the Western Hemisphere.  Less than 2% of the population even has access.  And although the government is slowly lifting those restrictions, this a country where not that long ago chewing gum was illegal.

With only half-a-dozen hotspots in Havana, we stumbled into a park where hundreds of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder on benches and sidewalks.  A fluorescent glow bouncing off their faces, signaled to us we’d found one of the six.   We bought a one-hour internet card for 4 CUC from a kid who looked as if he were selling fake Rolex’s.  The cards had a scratch off username and password on the back that when scraped away, revealed a long set of random digits and symbols.  Everything we surfed was being monitored by the government.  And the speed at which we were doing so was the equivalent of two hamsters running in a cage to activate the filament of a lightbulb.  An hour’s worth of internet service was barely enough time to send a few texts and answer an email.  Skype didn’t work, and a simple phone call distorted the voice on the other end, turning their speech patterns into an alien lifeform with an indecipherable language.

It had been a long day and we’d seen quite a bit.  So, as a self-anointed “cork dork” I felt a nice Cabernet would be a good way to say goodnight to Day 1.  We hadn’t seen a wine shop all day.  And if one existed, our guess was that it would be in the center of downtown Havana.  Standing outside El Capitoilo Nacional, we heard a voice from behind.  “I can find you wine!  1 CUC per bottle.” The voice said.

We’d been chauffeured all day successfully.  And while I was skeptical of a taxi driver promising dollar-a-bottle wines, I figured there was no harm in searching.

 

IMG_3539The darkness did little to hide the fractured facades of the homes we drove past.  And as our car came to rest in front of a nondescript door, I took notice of the dozen or so doorbells, each one connected with exposed wires that shot off in all directions.  Careful not to touch anything, I traced my finger along the wires, trying to find the doorbell that matched the wine store.

“Put your CUC in the bucket.”  Our driver said from behind me.  Pointing to a small sign above the door that read simply, “Vino!”

What do you mean, ‘the bucket?’” I asked.

Your money.”  He replied.  “Put it in here and I’ll send it up there.”

‘Up there!” was a fourth-story balcony where the bucket had just been dropped, hand-over-hand with a frayed rope.

There were four bottles to choose from.  And while I knew slightly more about wine than the average person, I was more than confident the listed varietals were made up.

IMG_3585

Figuring we’d been had, we decided to buy all four.  Which, we believed, would raise the chances of at least one bottle tasting better than cough syrup.

I dropped a 5 CUC bill into the bucket and watched as it ascended upward towards a shadowy figure on a balcony just below the roof.  The figure, never saying a word, pulled the bucket over the ledge and disappeared.  Within seconds, four separate sounds of glass against tin echoed through the street as I stood underneath … waiting with outstretched arms.

Retrieving the bottles of God-knows-what from the bucket, we got back into the car and drove towards the hostel over an uneven and bumpy street.  Our bottles clanking together on the seat between us, as we wondered – aloud – what they were going to taste like.  And what in the world the rest of the week had in store for us.

 

 

Signs, Sounds, & Thoughts From My Experience At The Women’s March in Washington D.C.

One Man’s Story: Why I Marched With Women on Trump’s First Day
By: Dan Beckmann/Orlando Sentinel
25 January 2017 

Last week, rather excitedly, I posted, what I thought was a fairly innocuous tweet; “Heading to D.C. for the March!”  I wrote.  So, I was surprised to read the first response.  Not because it arrived so quickly, I have nearly 10,000 followers.  Rather, because it came from a friend with an ambiguous quip. “Last I checked you were a man…is there something you’re not telling me?”  She wrote.  Surely my well-educated friend could not be so confused to think a Y chromosome would be a disqualification for taking part in a Women’s March?  Nonetheless, there it was.  That comment…hanging like a piñata, just waiting for me to crack it with a great big stick.

So, to my friend who wrote, what I’m sure she thought was a comment in jest, I guess there are some things I haven’t thought to tell you.  Allow me to fill you in on a few of them.

For 15-years, as a cameraman, writer, and producer with NBC News, I sat on the front line of many struggles.  This was the first time I would be at the epicenter of something of this magnitude as a participant.  I knew why I was marching because I had the checked boxes all filled out in my head; women’s rights, minority issues, climate change, education.  All the big ones.  But it wasn’t until I was nestled amongst a sea of pink hats and humanity that I realized why I was really there.  By the way, there were quite a few disqualified Y chromosome people marching with me.

Women, and those with minority voices, have always played crucial roles in my success.  They are too often underrepresented, undermined, and undervalued.  So, from what some might call my “privileged” seat in society, I felt it was even more important for me to walk out my allegiance to them.

I marched because Donald Trump promised to serve all people.  And so far, his immediate circle of influence lacks the diversity to make that possible.  Having him hear our voices from his new home on his first day in office was a great start. Not everyone who needed to be heard could be there, so I was marching for them…and for all the people who’ve made a difference in my life.

I marched for my mom, who as a single parent took odd jobs teaching tennis lessons, tending bar, and fixing lawnmowers.  Always making less than the guy next to her who did the exact same job.  My mom never failed to take a college course and never got a failing grade.  Receiving her doctorate 35 years after taking her first class.

I marched for, and alongside, my friends Kent and Caanan.  Showing up with my support to protect their right to stay married.

I marched for my daughter Lauren, and my friend Tiffany.  Each survivors of sexual assault who now must watch a man who’s bragged about assaulting women lead our country for the next four years.

I marched for those so confused that they now believe in “alternative facts.”

I marched for my friends who lost all hope, and got suckered by a manipulative liar who placed a large bet on their fears and won bigly.

I marched as a reminder to those “who won” that they cannot ignore those who didn’t.  And I marched as a reminder to our representatives in Washington that they are bound by an oath to represent all those in their districts.

I marched to promote a global community of diverse members. The outcry of values and priorities aren’t solely “American issues” with isolated consequences.  Millions of others, on all 7 continents, took part in over 670 solidarity events. Our leader may say, “America First”, but we cannot claim to be “America Only”.

And I marched for that friend of mine, the Twitter commenter.  Apparently, there were some things I didn’t tell you.  I’m glad I told you about them now so we can put down our phones and get to the business of building a brighter future for us all.  And that’s something worth tweeting and re-tweeting about.

img_1508

Nonprofit Crowdfunds Homes For People In Need, Gives Donors Updates On Families They’ve Helped

From: Huffington Post

For donors who want to know exactly how their money’s being spent, there’s a new transparent nonprofit that allows its supporters to rest easy.

New Story, an Atlanta-based group, identifies families in need, shares their struggles via moving video stories and then solicits donations from supporters. But what distinguishes this initiative from other similar-sounding ones is that every dollar goes right to the profiled family and donors are kept abreast of the developments every step of the way.

“For donors, it’s cool to say ‘Hey, I went on and gave $50, and in about two months I’m getting an email with a video of the family I funded in their new home,’” Brett Hagler, one of New Story’s founders, told Fast Company.

new story

In a matter of seven months, New Story raised more than $200,000 and funded 34 new homes in Leveque, Haiti, according to a press release. It partners with reputable local organizations to build the homes, offering the added benefit of employing Haiti’s residents.

The group has set an even more ambitious goal of erecting 100 homes in Haiti over the course of the summer. And then, the plan is to go global.

One such recipient includes Maria-Rose, a widow and mother of four who was displaced after the 2010 earthquake, according to New Story. For four years she resided in a tent and still took in children with nowhere to go.

In March, the grateful mom moved into her new home and said she now looks forward to starting a business and growing a garden in her backyard.

New Story is able to give 100 percent of its crowdfunding donations because it uses its more substantial private contributions to cover its administrative costs, according to Fast Company.

The group got support early on from Y Combinator, a group that invests $120,000 twice a year in a number of startups. The groups move to Silicon Valley for three months to get training and help in pitching investors.

New Story hit the scene at a time when the need is still great in Haiti, but donors are wary of nonprofits working in the impoverished country.

As of January, more than 85,000 people were still homeless as a result of the earthquake, according to Amnesty International.

But a groundbreaking investigative report recently revealed that even charities as well known as the American Red Cross can’t necessarily be trusted to deliver on their promises.

According to the ProPublica report, the Red Cross raised nearly half a billion dollars after the earthquake. Since then, it’s only erected a total of six homes.

The three founders, two of whom come from tech backgrounds, plan to sidestep such corruption by running their group the same way they would run a startup.

“This is an alternative to many charities in this space that are slow to innovate and where donors don’t know where their money is going, and what it is (or isn’t) accomplishing,” the founders said in a press release.

At least One Million Join 50 World Leaders in ‘Overwhelming’ Demonstration on Streets of French Capital

At least one million people were expected to attend today’s “Republican march” in Paris – also called the “march against hatred”.

At 4pm local time every avenue and boulevard around the Place de la Republique was blocked solid. Most people were unable to move forward – and seemed unlikely ever to do so.  New rivers and streams of humanity still poured into the crowd from every direction.

Nearby metro stations were closed. At those a little distance away which remained open, crowds waited patiently to leave each platform. Each train that arrived was packed.

“France will not be the same after today,” said Michel, 46, as he took part in what was indeed to be a day of extraordinary precedents set.

The Israeli Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian authority Mahmoud Abbas participated in the same demonstration. President François Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkosy marched side by side.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was taking part in a street demonstration for the first time in his life.  “The Charlie Hebdo murders will not crush our spirit or our values,” he tweeted on his way to Paris this morning.

King Abdallah of Jordan and the brother of the Emir of Qatar marched alongside the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Nigerian and Malian leaders – more than 50 world leaders in all – in the two mile march from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris.

Reaction to Charlie Hebdo attack

The procession was so great in numbers that it was, in the end, split into three. Family members of the victims of the terror attacks lead one of the branches, the world leaders another.

Scores of other French politicians, writers, artists and actors were also expected to shout or hold up signs declaring “Je suis Charlie”. Since cartoonists and other employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered in Paris on Wednesday – unleashing three days of terrorist mayhem which killed 17 people – the slogan has become a global symbol of defence of western values.

“It’s overwhelming. The whole of Paris seems to be here,” Michel said. “I can’t describe the mood. There is a feeling of anger and determination but also relief at being able to express our feelings after three days of shock after shock.”

“People will say it’s just a passing thing but I think something important is happening here today.”

Over 5,000 police and soldiers were deployed on the streets of Paris, with another 90,000 sent to protect 60 similar marches nationwide. Snipers lined the roofs of buildings on the Paris route, while helicopters patrolled overhead.

Ahead of his appearance at the march, Mr Hollande told ministers: “Today, Paris is the capital of the world,” according to officials quoted by France’s AFP news agency.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, called the demonstration “a shout for love and freedom and tolerance which will remain in the annals of history.”

Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernadez Diaz (left) is welcomed by French Interior Minister Bernard CazeneuveFrance is a land of demonstrations, but this was something unheard of: not a demonstration against something but a demonstration for the values of the French Republic and western democracy. Every strand of French society appeared to be present: old and young, left and right, white, brown and black.

The last time Paris had seen such a vast and varied crowd on its streets was on the night that France won the World Cup in 1998. That was an explosion of spontaneous joy. This was a shout – mostly a silent shout – of defiance.

There were old men in berets; black youngsters from the multi-racial suburbs in baseball hats; Jews in kippahs and black hats; Muslims in heads carves. There were people on roller skates, people wheeling bicycles, people in wheelchairs, toddlers in buggies.

People lay flowers and candles close to the offices of the Charlie Hebdo in Paris as people gather for Sunday’s marchThe statue in the centre of the Place de la Republique, resembling the Statue of Liberty in New York – was covered in people and banners. One read: “I think therefore I am Charlie” – a reference to the French 17th century philosopher Descartes’ famous dictum “I think therefore I am.”

Dr Paola Belfort, demonstrating with her husband Philippe, also a doctor, said. “I could not imagine the idea of not being here. I have rarely demonstrated. My husband has never been to a demonstration in his life. But it is important that the world sees how many we are, and how united we are. This is not to protest or reject but to state our belief in fundamental values, beginning with the freedom of the press. I never read Charlie Hebdo but to attack a newspaper – any newspaper – is an assault on everything that makes our society possible.”

The mood of the crows was a mixture of sombre, defiant and almost joyous. One man stood with an eight-year-old boy displaying a sign with unusual characters. Asked what it said, he turned the sign around. “It says this, ‘Je suis Charlie’, in Kabyle,” he said.

Kabyle is the minority language of Algeria. Hamid said: “I am Kabyle and I am Muslim. These killers were not Muslims. I am here to say that I support the democratic values of France and I am also a devout Muslim.”

A sign in the crowd read: “They wanted to bring France to its knees. They brought Europe to its feet.” Another said: “Make laugh, not war.”

Pens and flowers are placed on the Place de Republique in Paris as people gather for the start of the huge march that will end at the Place de la NationThe most notable absentee from the march was Marine Le Pen, president of the Islamophobic, far-right Front National. She was not invited to walk alongside leaders of other French political parties but President Hollande urged her to attend as an individual.

On Saturday, she attacked the “hypocrisy” of a demonstration of “national unity” which excluded a party supported by one in five French voters. She announced that she would march instead in Beaucaire, a small heavily FN-supporting town in the Rhône delta.

The presence of representatives from countries known for repressing freedom of speech caused some consternation.

A tribute to Charlie Hebdo carried in French newspaper, L'Equipe

A tribute to Charlie Hebdo carried in French newspaper, L’Equipe (Rex)The Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Russian foreign minister, Sergueï Lavrov, the Hungarian Prime minister Victor Orban and the President of Gabon, Ali Bongo were also expected to attend.

In the Reporters sans Frontiers league table of respect for press freedom in 2014, Turkey came 154th out of 180 countries, Russia 148th, Gabon 98th and Israel 96th.

The Le Monde reporter and political commentator, Marion van Renterghem, tweeted: “Netanyahu, Lavrov, Orban, Davutoglu, Bongo at the press freedom demo. Why not Bashar al-Assad?”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Police Aren’t Under Attack. Institutionalized Racism Is

According to Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” For me, today, that means a time to seek justice and a time to mourn the dead.

And a time to shut the hell up.

The recent brutal murder of two Brooklyn police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, is a national tragedy that should inspire nationwide mourning. Both my grandfather and father were police officers, so I appreciate what a difficult and dangerous profession law enforcement is. We need to value and celebrate the many officers dedicated to protecting the public and nourishing our justice system. It’s a job most of us don’t have the courage to do.

At the same time, however, we need to understand that their deaths are in no way related to the massive protests against systemic abuses of the justice system as symbolized by the recent deaths—also national tragedies—of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the suicidal killer, wasn’t an impassioned activist expressing political frustration, he was a troubled man who had shot his girlfriend earlier that same day. He even Instagrammed warnings of his violent intentions. None of this is the behavior of a sane man or rational activist. The protests are no more to blame for his actions than The Catcher in the Rye was for the murder of John Lennon or the movie Taxi Driver for the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Crazy has its own twisted logic and it is in no way related to the rational cause-and-effect world the rest of us attempt to create.

Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protestors across America are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protestors. This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting with the legitimate protestors, who have disavowed that behavior. They hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims.

Some police unions are especially heinous perpetrators. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s previous public support of protestors has created friction with these unions. The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association responded with a petition asking that the mayor not attend the funerals of officers killed in the line of duty. Following the murders of Ramos and Liu, an account appearing to represent the Sergeants Benevolent Association tweeted: “The blood of 2 executed police officers is on the hands of Mayor de Blasio.” Former New York governor George Pataki tweeted: “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder and #mayordeblasio. #NYPD.”

This phony and logically baffling indignation is similar to that expressed by the St. Louis County Police Association when it demanded an apology from the NFL when several Rams players entered the field with their hands held high in the iconic Michael Brown gesture of surrender. Or when LeBron James and W.R. Allen wore his “I Can’t Breathe” shirts echoing Eric Garner’s final plea before dying. Such outrage by police unions and politicians implies that there is no problem, which is the erroneous perception that the protestors are trying to change.

This shrill cry of “policism” (a form of reverse racism) by Pataki and the police unions is a hollow and false whine born of financial self-interest (unions) or party politics (Republican Pataki besmirching Democrat de Blasio) rather than social justice. These tragic murders now become a bargaining chip in whatever contract negotiations or political aspirations they have.

What prompted a mentally unstable man to shoot two officers? Protestors? The mayor? Or the unjust killings of unarmed black men? Probably none of them. He was a ticking bomb that anything might have set off. What’s most likely to prevent future incidents like this? Stopping the protests which had sparked real and positive changes through a national dialogue? Changes that can only increase faith in and respect for the police? No, because the killer was mentally unfit. Most likely protecting the police from future incidents will come from better mental health care to identify, treat, and monitor violent persons. Where are those impassioned tweets demanding that?

In a Dec. 21, 2014 article about the shooting, the Los Angeles Times referred to the New York City protests as “anti-police marches,” which is grossly inaccurate and illustrates the problem of perception the protestors are battling. The marches are meant to raise awareness of double standards, lack of adequate police candidate screening, and insufficient training that have resulted in unnecessary killings. Police are not under attack, institutionalized racism is. Trying to remove sexually abusive priests is not an attack on Catholicism, nor is removing ineffective teachers an attack on education. Bad apples, bad training, and bad officials who blindly protect them, are the enemy. And any institution worth saving should want to eliminate them, too.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” This is the season and time when we should be resolved to continue seeking justice together and not let those with blind biases distract, diminish, or divide us. The way to honor those who defend our liberties with their lives—as did my father and grandfather—is not to curtail liberty, but to exercise it fully in pursuit of a just and peaceful society.

The Hurricane, The Homeless and Humanity

From Florida to New England, Hurricane Sandy chugged and skirted along the eastern seaboard; leaving toppled trees, dozens of deaths and millions without power in her wake.        

It was, no doubt, a terrifying experience for those who’ve never been in the path of a storm this size.  For the seasoned “veteran” it was probably exciting.  But for the homeless, Sandy’s punishing winds and stinging rain, made a difficult life even more strenuous.

As half-a-million New Yorkers were ordered to evacuate, the New York City Department of Homeless Services re-located nine shelters, displacing many of the 47,000 homeless.  Nearly half of which, are children.  And just to the south, in our nations capital, the problem isn’t any better.  According to the Washington Post, Capital Area Food BankBread for the City, and Martha’s Table, all organizations that help feed the homeless in DC, are now closed because of the storm.

Men’s only!  Women’s only!  No pets!  Separated families and too few beds, are problems homeless shelters face on a daily basis.  And while it is normal for shelters to deal with floods of people who live on the street, the floods from this storm forced homeowners to join the ranks of the homeless.  A new problem that has turned already crowded shelters into over-capacity refuges.  For a while, it seems, all those currently living under the shelters’ roofs are indistinguishably equal.        

It is during times like these, however, where people really come together.  The media’s stories of survival, rescues and goodwill gestures will flood the airwaves soon.  Far outweighing the tales of the opportunists who looted or price gouged in the aftermath.  Utility crews from New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma are already on site helping restore power to the nearly 7 million people left without.  For those temporarily experiencing what life is like for the homeless, I hope you find your homes still standing when the winds and rains die down.  And for those less fortunate, for those who had no home before the storm, I hope some of those stories of goodwill will find their way to you.  You certainly deserve it.       

 

%d bloggers like this: