Compassion and Solidarity: Les Miserables and the Plight of Syrian Refugees

President Francois Hollande of France announced yesterday that his country will continue to honor its commitment to settle 30,000 refugees over the next two years. This is in stark contrast to the bigoted and racist responses from various U.S. Governors and GOP presidential candidates, many of which have called for Nazi era registration ID cards for Muslims and the closing of mosques, effectively torching the First Amendment on the spot.

Navigating through all of the hate and ignorance towards the millions of people that are fleeing war can be depressing. In this moment it seems appropriate to invoke some lessons from the literary masterpiece that is France’s own, Les Miserables. 

At the beginning of the book the noble peasant, Jean Valjean, is leaving the galleys after spending 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s seven children. He spends 5 for theft and the rest for repeated escape attempts.

Jean Valjean

After many miles of traveling on foot seeking refuge he is taken in by the gracious Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Dinge. What happens next is one of the most beautiful acts of compassion and goodwill in all of literary history:

The bishop, who was sitting beside him, touched his hand gently and said, “You didn’t have to tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is Christ’s. It does not ask any guest his name but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me; don’t tell me that I am taking you into my house. This is the home of no man, except the one who needs a refuge. I tell you, a traveler, you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. Why would I have to know your name? Besides, before you told me I knew… your name is my brother.”

One would like to think that somewhere deep in the French spirit and the spirit of the world the words of Victor Hugo reverberate from the past and continue to have a lasting effect on the way we treat one another. Whether we have read this book or not; whether we live in the West or the Middle East or South Asia, our humanity shines brightest when we show compassion and solidarity in the darkest of times, this is something that Victor Hugo illustrated so well in his grand epic about a poor peasant that stole a loaf of bread.

Photo: Frontispiece of Les Miserables via archive.org

Reading of this section available here at Awesome Stories

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A Benghazi Resident’s Take on Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” Movie

Brave New Libya

Benghazi just can’t catch a break. As if an all-out war isn’t enough, the city is being vilified nation-wide by those who see the war as a misdirected endeavor, and the people of Benghazi are being accused of, yes, destroying their own city! I won’t point out the insensitivity and blatant ignorance of this stance. If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, you’ll be familiar with the slippery slope that led our city to the circumstances it’s in today. The war is horrific and it’s hurting us, but it was also an inevitability brought about by the same people currently pretending like there were other options.

One of the very first incidents that sparked the descent down this slope was the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens. This event launched the start of Benghazi’s international vilification, as pundits and citizens alike decried the Libyan revolution and the international intervention that bolstered it. “We shouldn’t have…

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Origins of the police

Works in theory

The Five Points district of lower Manhattan, painted by George Catlin in 1827. New York’s first free Black settlement, it became a mixed-race slum, home to Blacks and Irish alike, and a focal point for the stormy collective life of the new working class. Cops were invented to gain control over neighborhoods and populations like this. The Five Points district of lower Manhattan, painted by George Catlin in 1827. New York’s first free Black settlement, Five Points was also a destination for Irish immigrants and a focal point for the stormy collective life of the new working class. Cops were invented to gain control over neighborhoods and populations like this.

In England and the United States, the police were invented within the space of just a few decades—roughly from 1825 to 1855.

The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it.

Besides, crime has to do with the acts of individuals, and the ruling elites who invented the police were responding to challenges posed by collective…

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From Mike Brown to Eric Garner, the Specter of Revolt is Haunting NYC.

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“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin LutherKing Jr.

Louie Michel

A specter is haunting New York City, the Specter of Ferguson.

Virtually every major news outlet, member of the black liberal establishment, and authority figure in government has been stressing the importance of peaceful, nonviolent protest to the killing of Mike Brown. They say that rioting is counterproductive and accomplishes nothing. They are wrong. Proof of this can be seen in the local and international response to the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in NYC.

– July 27, 2014, in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner was murdered by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s vicious chokehold for selling untaxed cigarettes. His murder was caught on camera by a brave bystander by the name of Ramsey Orta and uploaded for the world to see. Eric Garner’s murder gained some national news in the United States and outcry from various civil rights organizations but soon after fell out of the 24 hour news cycle. Garner’s death became just another black man brutally killed with impunity by law enforcement despite the incontrovertible video evidence, including Mr. Garner himself pleading, “I can’t breath, I can’t breathe” numerous times before he senselessly died. His death was on the verge of being shelved in the rolodex of “another black man murdered by the cops.” Then Ferguson happened. People began to stand up to injustice by doing something other than just march. They began to defy curfews, expose the militarism of the police-industrial complex, and make history rather than be shaped by it.

– August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Mike Brown is gunned down and killed by officer Darren Willson. The shooting took place not because Brown robbed a helpless person at gunpoint but because he was stopped for jaywalking! As most people in this country now know, Darren Wilson was acquitted by a grand jury that was led by a law enforcement friendly prosecutor, Robert McCulloch. Riots broke out in Ferguson after Mike Brown’s death, as well as when the announcement was made that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson. These riots sparked protests and mobilizations across the country and spearheaded a 21st century discussion of institutionalized racism, militarism of communities, policy brutality and systemic impunity in the age of Obama.

What did the peaceful protests that took place against the death of Eric Garner accomplish other than a few news pieces and the same old condemnation by the black liberal establishment led by the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson? Not many people in this country even heard of Eric Garner before Mike Brown’s death. In the end the few days of direct action in Ferguson created more attention and were more effective than the peaceful protest marches on behalf of Eric Garner.

In Ferguson they torched cars and businesses, resisted the police by throwing their tear gas canisters back at them, refused to disperse and courageously made their voices heard to the world on their own terms and no one else’s. And their resistance instantly gained international attention. From France to Russia to China to Iran, Ferguson was front page news around the world   and it wasn’t because people peacefully marched like they did in Staten Island. No, it was because they employed the tactics of direct action to bring attention to the fact that a unarmed black teenager was killed by a white officer and nothing was done about it.

The monopoly of violence that the state possesses should never go unchallenged, particularly when a great injustice has taken place. There is nothing wrong with peaceful marches and nonviolent civil disobedience, but we must not be fooled into the false narrative that direct action and violence as it is defined by the state is always wrong.

Expect resistance!

Authorities in Ferguson – Expect Resistance!

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The state has a monopoly on violence.

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Deron Wilson, the police officer that killed Michael Brown, further proves what many of us have known for too long: that the state is the only legitimate source of violence in our society. It validates its impunity through a judicial system of kangaroo courts that protect the rich and oppress the poor. Domestically it imprisons black and brown people at astronomical levels via the prison industrial complex and literally obliterates entire cities internationally.

And they expect us to listen to them when they demand we remain peaceful?

Haven’t we remained peaceful long enough? We marched one million strong in opposition to the invasion of Iraq (again) in March, 2003. We peacefully marched to demand justice for Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham and Michael Brown. To no avail.  While police were stopping and frisking black and brown people in 2012 to the tune of 500,000 in 2012 in NYC not one banker from any of the major financial institutions that caused the financial crisis was put in jail.

Many of us knew when Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor that presented the case to the grand jury, was selected to present the case that the decision was already made. His family ties to law enforcement guaranteed his partiality and commitment to protect the interests of law enforcement. We’ve had enough!

When Eric Garner was brutally choked to death on camera in Staten Island, NY, there was discontent. People marched in protest to his death. But after a few news cycles his death was no where to be seen in the news despite how blatant the evidence of his murder was.

In Ferguson the protesters responded with rage and that rage generated global attention and placed Civil Rights in the age of Obama front and center. Michael Brown’s death became front page news around the world. It also brought global attention to the fact that the Department of Defense is supplying local law enforcement with weapons and vehicles that are used in war, not local policing. What caused the international light to shine on Missouri ? It was the extremely brave activists that defied authorities and refused to do what they were told. Ferguson will be remembered not because people did exactly what the authorities forced them to do but because they defiantly protected the spirit of Michael Brown. His death will not be remembered for the quiet lines of people cowering to the police, but by people at the barricades that fought back to the oppression that the hangs so heavily in the air in America.

Expect Resistance!

Occupy Comics Review: love letter to an ongoing struggle

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The Occupy Comics anthology was finally released a few days ago via Black Mask Comics and it is nothing short of breathtaking. It is an example of the the great things than can happen when the spirit of the DIY punk attitude converges with some of the greatest talents in the comic industry. What they have produced is a love letter to one of the most inspiring social movements in recent history. The comic is alive. It is a living, breathing collection of stories and art that will live on and, just like the movement itself, continue to inspire for generations to come.

The project was organized by Mat Pizzolo and funded by a simple Kickstarter page.  A few of the of the contributors include Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead), David Lloyd (V for Vendetta), Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night), Joshua Dysart (Swamp Thing, Unknown Soldier), and the legendary Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell).

There are vignettes and short stories about everything Occupy: historical snippets of the Homestead Massacre, the Occupy Sandy efforts to assist people out in Far Rockaway, and the touching story of a family getting evicted from their home. All these works serve as powerful stories that encompass the struggle for social justice. Occupy Comics explores many different aspects of the movement, including a vignette from an “evil” banker that engenders sympathy from even the most anti-capitalist of Occupy supporters. The work is poignant while being non-partisan when it comes to the ideological vistas represented in OWS and that is one of its greatest strengths.

Anyone who participated in Occupy Wall Street before its main hub in Zuccottii Park was was brutally razed by Michael Bloomberg and his repressive army will immediately be transported back to the park where all of the great discussions, activism, interaction and protest took place on a daily basis. Reading through the comic is like opening a time capsule to the days when thousands of people were coming down to the park or marching against all of the impunity and criminality that precipitated the largest global economic crisis since the Great Depression.

One of the highlights of Occupy Comics is the brilliant essay by Alan Moore. His piece alone is well worth picking up the anthology. He wrote a 23 page article entitled, “Buster Brown at the Barricades: Foment in the Funnies and Comics as Counter-Culture.” Many people have been writing off Mr. Moore lately because of his acridity and criticism of the mainstream comics writers and the industry as a whole. Perhaps he hasn’t read a lot of their work. Perhaps he is a little jaded, but he is correct in his lamentations and opinions and his article proves that he continues to be passionate about comics and the power that they have wielded throughout history, both politically and as a story telling device. By reading his piece one gets the sense that his criticism comes from his sadness and frustration over the potential of what comics could be if they were not hijacked by the philistines in the entertainment industry.

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His article also reads like the perfect condensed history of the comic book: From its beginnings on the back of stones that nameless toilers stacked on ancient Egyptian pyramids to the Prohibition bootleggers that smuggled their booze from Canada, comics have always been a medium where the dispossessed, illiterate and unloved found solace, where the origins of the political cartoon scribed on an unused carton in 17th century Italy spoke truth to power. Occupy Comics is the perfect manifestation of that power and potential. It is a throwback to the origins of comics and a contemporary protest piece that will stand the test of time and serve not as a monument to a movement defeated, but a rallying cry to a struggle that continues every hour of every day.

To purchase this comic go here

NASA funded study warns of societal collapse-or, godspeed you bleak civilization!

NASA study

A trending article in The Guardian, along with a recent study funded by NASA written by Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas and Eugina Kalnay, warns of the imminent collapse of global civilization. In their paper they maintain that two major themes reoccur throughout history that contribute to the collapse of societies: “(1) Ecological Strain and (2) Economic Stratification.” They also say that technology will only solve so many issues before it becomes obsolete at preventing the collapse. It sounds alarmist, but in 2014 the precariousness of planet Earth and the fragile fabric holding it all together becomes more strained every day.

They point out that societal “collapse” often appears as trivial but is indeed backed up by historical data. “The rise-and-collapse” process has occurred many times over the centuries and for largely the same reasons. From ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Maya, civilizations rose to great heights only to precipitate eventual collapse and downfall. They observe that the rise-and-collapse of civilization is the norm rather than the exception to large agrarian based civilizations.

One would not be mistaken for feeling compelled to believe that modern society is prone to the same fate. In fact, not only does their study, along with the thousands of years of the historical record say so, but so does any observation of the current state of the global capitalist economy. Capitalism, from its very inception, is a system based on compound, exponential growth. This, of course, is a great problem on a planet with finite resources. The ecological strain that the planet is currently undergoing due to this phenomenon is one of hitherto unprecedented heights. From global warming to resource extraction and unimaginable pollution the Earth is under extreme duress at the same time the expanding middle class in China is being told that with market discipline they will be able to behave like consumers in the U.S. This obviously is not sustainable but the system is not built to effectively and critically think about this. With every country under the the spell of global capitalism the rapacious onslaught on the world’s natural resources will continue unabated for the foreseeable future in the name of GDP, “progress” and “modernity.” Something has to give, the question is when.

The second major theme, economic stratification, is also rampant throughout the world and growing more acute in the U.S. each day. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at its highest point ever on March 5th, 2013. There are indicators all over that illustrate how the richest of the rich are doing better than ever while the poor and working class are suffering at near immeasurable levels. In 2012, the top 10 percent of  earners took home more than half of the country’s income– the highest recorded level ever.  Porsche reported its best year ever in 2012 and anyone living in NYC can simply walk down the street in Manhattan and see just how many high rise luxury rentals are being built, in fact, 2013 was the largest luxury real estate boom in NYC history. This explosion of wealth for the 1% is contrasted by the continued immiseration of the proletariat. Poverty has risen in the U.S. since the Great Recession despite the ostensible “recovery.” And perhaps the most condemning  report from Oxfam recently found that “Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.” This stratification is extremely dangerous to political systems, particularly in the democratic tradition, as the disparities pose serious threats to political inclusion, government stability and the general welfare of people.

The specters of the past are not haunting us, they are already here, waiting to usher in the end of civilization as we know it and from the way things are going we welcome it.

At least we will have a soundtrack for it. . .