Category: History

JHISN Newsletter 05/09/2020

Dear friends,

Warm greetings to each of you, as Spring arrives in full force during the ongoing pandemic. In this strange mix of blooming flowers, economic anxiety, lush green trees, and local grief, we hope you are finding ways to be safe and to feel connected. 

To celebrate the return of light and warmth, we want to share with you a public art project that one of our newsletter readers just shared with us. ‘Queensbound’ is “poetry for the people online,” a collaborative digital project that brings together recordings of poetry by Queens writers, many of them first or second-generation immigrants. One poem is selected for each subway stop in Queens–click on the green dot for ‘Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave’ stop and you will hear Meera Nair, local writer and community activist, reading her wonderful poem “In These Streets”. 

Newsletter highlights:

  1. How to practice Mutual Aid 
  2. New York Taxi Workers Alliance: Essential Workers
  3. Local small businesses in danger as federal programs offer little relief

1. ‘Solidarity not Charity’ — Practicing Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions … by actually building new social relations that are more survivable. There is nothing new about mutual aid—people have worked together to survive for all of human history. “Solidarity Not Charity…” March 2020  

Many of us first heard the phrase ‘mutual aid’ in the early weeks of the pandemic, as neighbors in Jackson Heights quickly mobilized in the face of a frightening threat. Working at the local level, often through all-volunteer actions, mutual aid starts by respecting and nourishing our basic interdependence—the deeply ‘mutual’ ways in which we rely on, care for, and shape each others’ everyday lives. 

The origins of mutual aid are many. Some would remind us that thousands of years of communal ownership and collective action among indigenous communities embody the core values of mutual aid. Some would point to the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for children, free health clinics, free ambulance services, and transportation programs for elderly folks in the community. Some of us remember how here in NYC, after the devastating hurricane of 2012,  Occupy Sandy organized emergency relief, food and essential supplies delivery, clean-up crews, and house rebuilding that exceeded what Bloomberg’s municipal government was willing or able to provide. 

Mutual aid steps in to say that we can’t wait for government or philanthropy or power elites to meet our needs—especially in disaster or crisis situations. Mutual aid says that we will cooperate and work together for the sake of our common good, our shared and very ‘public’ health, our interdependent economic lives, our cultural survival. Mutual aid knows that the new social relations that we create through intimate material support for each other can be a building block for sustained social movements and political change. 

Locally and globally right now, there are countless mutual aid projects taking place, sharing resources and power, redistributing money and the tools for protection in a pandemic. Many of them don’t call themselves ‘mutual aid’; nor do they need to. Here in Jackson Heights, immigrant-led and frontline community groups are organizing essential workers, delivering food and needed supplies, mobilizing rent strikes, strategizing small business survival, sharing public health information, providing burial assistance, and collectively mourning community members lost to COVID-19. All of this and more is mutual aid.

We invite you to explore some of the mutual aid projects taking place in our neighborhoods (see below), and consider how you might participate. Mutual aid requires us to move beyond the language of gifting or donating or helping those in need, by recognizing that the people you are ‘aiding’ have already aided you, and will aid you again. It is, profoundly, mutual. As those of us with food security think about how to participate in food assistance for community members threatened with hunger and food insecurity, we can remember how important immigrant, and often undocumented, labor is at supplying us with access to food. Those of us who can redirect some or all of a stimulus check to local immigrant-led groups can reflect on how the money can be more ‘mutually’ distributed in the face of a federal government that systematically excludes many immigrants, and all undocumented households, from emergency federal relief. 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

2. NYC Taxi Drivers — Essential Workers Fighting for Essential Rights

The Queens-based New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) was featured in 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting detailing the predatory loans that have crushed the NYC taxi industry. In August 2019 the NYTWA successfully lobbied to ensure that a cap was extended on the number of for-hire vehicles in NYC, and was taking the next steps to demand guarantees for a living wage, job security for app drivers, and a raise for all drivers. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

The NYTWA was forced to shift priorities. They are now focused on advising their nearly 20,000 members–almost all immigrants, from over 100 countries–on ways to deal with the ongoing health and economic crisis. The NYTWA’s comprehensive guide to help drivers and their families get through the pandemic covers the full range of needs: from unemployment advice to burial assistance, stimulus checks and medallion loans, business loans, and food access. 

The group’s activist work also continues. NYTWA is gathering signatures for a petition against Uber’s employment practices, including the company’s misinformation about drivers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits. They are using Twitter to report on the large number of food deliveries by NYTWA members, and to share the announcement that TLC drivers will now be paid $53 per route by the city, rather than an hourly fee for these food runs.

NYTWA also announced recently the good news that the MTA will pay for taxis for essential workers during subway shutdowns. Between 1 am and 5 am, trips will be dispatched via Curb, Arro, and other apps that are now contracted for Access A Ride taxi trips. The Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network values the services that taxi drivers provide throughout our city and applauds the work that NYTWA is doing to ensure they are recognized and rewarded for their essential work.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Add your support to the petition calling on Uber to stop misleading drivers about their employment rights
  • Listen in to the special community radio program held every Sunday night at 9 pm by dialing in to Radio Samatiguila at 712-770-5345; Code 123843#

3. How the PPP has Failed Small Businesses

The vibrant street-level commerce of our local neighborhoods has been transformed into stretches of urban desert, as small business after small business stands empty, indefinitely closed during the pandemic. The Queens Chamber of Commerce recently warned that up to 50% of Queens restaurants and bars may not reopen. The emergency federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP), hailed as offering stimulus money to aid small businesses,  ”has been a disaster” for Queens businesses, according to CoC President Tom Grech. Many immigrant-run small businesses, the cultural and commercial backbone of Jackson Heights, face a precarious future as federal relief remains out of reach.

The PPP was initially funded by Congress with $349 billion. The idea was to generate forgivable loans to small businesses so they could pay current employee wages, plus rent, utilities, and mortgage interest. However, the way the program was structured and implemented turned it into a bitter farce. 

The PPP plan had two critical problems. First of all, the definition of “small” business, as crafted by lobbyists, was ridiculously broad. Loans of up to $10 million were available, offered to businesses with up to 500 employees. PPP eligibility regulations were riddled with giant loopholes. For instance, wealthy owners of large hotel or restaurant chains were allowed to qualify for PPP loans if each of their franchises or outlets had fewer than 500 employees. One absurd example was Ashford, Inc. Made up of several subsidiaries owning or operating 130 hotels, it received $126 million. Shake Shack, a parent company with many different stores, also received a multi-million dollar loan.

The second major problem was that PPP loans had to go through a complicated application process at private banks before being forwarded to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for approval. Banks favored their long-time customers–usually what we would consider mid-sized businesses with access to accountants and lawyers. This favoritism effectively put true small businesses at the end of the line. Many ended up on long waiting lists, and couldn’t even get their loan applications reviewed by the banks.

With funding quickly running out, and millions of small businesses facing disaster, there was a huge outcry about the unfairness of the PPP. As a result of public pressure, the regulations were tightened; many big companies “voluntarily” returned their loans. On April 29, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said that large public companies would have to prove they met the revised criteria or face criminal liability. He promised to audit any company that received more than $2 million. More than 100 companies have disclosed loans of $2 million or more; as of April 30, about 20 will return the money.

All $359 billion of the original PPP funding is gone. It wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t distributed fairly. Look around your neighborhood. Don’t you think the shuttered small businesses you see are the ones Congress should be helping? The SBA says it approved 2 million loans. They say that the loans they did make averaged around $206,000 each–far more than most local mom and pop businesses were asking for. One-quarter of all the PPP money went for loans of more than $2 million. If the PPP money was spread around, almost 7 million small businesses could have gotten a $50,000 loan. Instead, small local businesses in our neighborhoods–many of them immigrant-owned–are struggling to survive, their viability undermined by favoritism, bureaucracy and corporate greed.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Thank you for supporting the many forms of collective care and political power that our communities so deeply need right now. We wish you well-being and spring breezes.  

In solidarity,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

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How the US Created the Refugee Crisis

Every month, tens of thousands of migrants are detained along the US-Mexico border. Right now, most of those migrants are refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. When they get to the border, these folks have already endured a long, dangerous journey, covering thousands of miles. They've struggled through perilous desert crossings. They've clung to the top of freight trains in baking heat and freezing cold. They've faced very real odds of being kidnapped or raped. They've borrowed money or used their last resources to pay off coyotes and corrupt officials. Once they arrive, they are brutalized by border agents and a dehumanizing, racist detention system.

Harsh Life in the Northern Triangle

People don't undertake a journey this terrible for no reason. The reality is that El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have become unbearable for these refugees, no matter how much they might wish they could stay in their homes.

Poverty is widespread in the Northern Triangle. Parents must watch their children go hungry. Family farmers are forced off their land, flooding into cities where there are no jobs. Homelessness is common.

Violence is out of control. Many of the people leaving the Northern Triangle have had family members killed, have witnessed murders, or have been themselves threatened with rape and other deadly violence in their home countries. Young people are subjected to forcible recruitment into street gangs, with their families as hostages. The military and police rule society with a heavy hand.

How We Got Here

Why is life so difficult for so many Central Americans? To a large extent, the blame lies with the policies of the US government, and with the power of US corporations.

For over a century, the US has acted like Central America was its private plantation. The US has invaded the region over and over. It has backed corrupt military dictators, overthrown democratic governments, armed and trained vicious death squads. The CIA has manipulated and assassinated its way up and down Central America. And US economic policies have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people.

Here are just a few examples of US political-military intervention in the Northern Triangle:

Repressing El Salvador

  • In 1932, the US helped suppress a peasant rebellion in El Salvador led by Farabundo Martí. Tens of thousands of rebels and civilians—many of them Indigenous—were systematically massacred.
  • In 1944, the US supported a reactionary coup.
  • In 1960, the US supported another right wing coup.
  • From 1980 to 1992, the US enthusiastically funded, trained, and directed a military dictatorship, whose main purpose was to crush a popular leftist-led uprising. Some 70,000 people were killed by the Salvadoran military and death squads under the direct sponsorship of the US. Thousands more were raped or tortured. During that period, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled to the US, which deported many of them back into the war zone.

Destabilizing Honduras

  • In 1911, the US launched a coup to overthrow its elected government. After that, the country was afflicted by a series of military dictators propped up by Washington.
  • In the 1980s, the US set up military bases in Honduras, turning it into a launch pad for waging war against Nicaragua. Thousands of US troops trained, armed and dispatched the right-wing Contra guerillas from Honduras, in violation of US and international law.
  • As recently as 2009, the US backed a coup against reform-minded President Manuel Zelaya.

The Pattern Repeats in Guatemala

  • In 1954, the US organized a coup against the reformist Arbenz government. This coup led to a long guerrilla uprising, which was brutally suppressed by a US-led counterinsurgency campaign. The tactics of this counterinsurgency included aerial bombing, use of napalm, and the eradication of whole villages.
  • In 1970, when US-backed President Carlos Arana took office, he said, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so." The US-sponsored regimes that followed Arana in Guatemala had the same basic philosophy. Turning a blind eye to all their brutality, the US gave political support and tens of millions of dollars to the Guatemalan military.
  • In 1978, Rios Montt became dictator, in a coup that had full US support. Montt unleashed a campaign of genocide against the Maya. Villages were bombed and looted; civilians were raped, tortured and executed. During the long Guatemalan civil war, some 200,000 civilians were killed by the regime and allied right-wing death squads. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled the country.

An Economic Thread

Running through all of the US violations of sovereignty and human rights in the Northern Triangle, there 's always been an economic thread. The almighty dollar is behind it all. US policy has been formulated to serve the US corporations that profit from Central America’s resources and labor. For instance, several brazen US interventions in Guatemala and Honduras were specifically intended to benefit the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands), whose low-wage fruit plantations were fantastically profitable.

Maybe the best way to sum up the history of US colonialism in Latin America is to quote Marine General Smedley Butler, who helped lead US military campaigns in Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti. In the 1930s, he wrote: "I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism."

CAFTA Devastates Farmers

Over the last few decades, the US pressured and bribed Central American politicians to join what is called CAFTA-DR. CAFTA, like NAFTA, is a trade pact designed to override national laws, favoring the interests of large multinational corporations. Given the economic and power imbalances in the Americas, we shouldn’t be surprised at how that worked out for Central America. US banks and commercial interests have now taken over large parts of the financial systems and retail trade in the Northern Triangle, and US manufacturers have overwhelmed local industries.

But maybe the biggest effect of CAFTA has been to drive small farmers off their land. Under CAFTA rules, small farmers can't possibly compete with well-financed, large-scale global corporate agribusiness owned by investors from the US and other wealthy countries. To give one example of the impact: Not long ago, Honduras used to be a net exporter of agricultural products. But now it imports more food and other farm goods than it exports.

CAFTA specifically forbids any national legislation by Central American countries that would allow them to protect their small farmers—even farmers trying to sell products to their own local markets. Hundreds of thousands of family farmers have fled out of the countryside, flooding into the cities, where they find little but unemployment and crime.

On top of all this is the impact of the US-fueled drug trade, and the US's "War on Drugs," each of which lines the pockets of Miami bankers while undermining one Latin American society after another. Gangs like MS-13, which was exported from Los Angeles to the Northern Triangle by the US government, thrive in this environment of chaos and corruption.

There’s a Word for This

US policies and corporate greed have left a lasting legacy of poverty, civil strife and social violence. Every time the people of Central America resist, the heavy fist of the US and its military puppets slams down on the peoples’ movements. Demands for fair trade by Central American countries are met with economic blackmail by global banks and the US, intent on enforcing the wishes of the large corporations.

There's a word for this relationship. The word is imperialism. This parasitic relationship between the US and Central America has been a constant destructive force for generation after generation, during both Republican and Democratic administrations. The whole time, it’s been justified by naked racism and victim-blaming. When we see desperate people from the Northern Triangle arriving at the Mexican border, we must recognize that it’s US imperialism that has forced them to make this painful exodus.

The Responsibility of US Citizens

Under international law, and in light of basic decency, all countries are expected to provide asylum for people seeking refuge from persecution, war, social violence and disasters. But US citizens have a special responsibility to give refuge to the people that US imperialism—in its cold-blooded search for profit—has cruelly driven from their homes. Citizens have a special obligation to defend the human rights of Central Americans, and to repudiate every racist attempt to demonize and dehumanize them. And finally, beyond the immediate human rights crisis at the border, US citizens have every moral and practical imperative to help rebuild the countries that the US has pillaged and devastated.

For Further Reading and Study:

A Century of U.S. Intervention Created the Immigration Crisis

How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis

How US policy in Honduras set the stage for today’s migration

The devastating effects of American intervention in Guatemala

The Impact of CAFTA: Drugs, Gangs, and Immigration

Video: The War on Democracy

UNHCR: Claims from Central America

CISPES: Community in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador