Thoughts to Move Us Forward
On the morning of October 15, 2011, Scottish university student Kevin McCullough left his home in the suburbs of Edinburgh and wandered towards George Street. McCullough was twenty-three years old with red hair, a freckled face, and wore circular glasses with thick black frames that were starting to crack. He was the son of a financier who made his money in venture capital, the nephew of a bank executive, and the grandchild of a real estate magnate. But on that particular day in October, McCullough was interested in the backlash developing against people like his close relatives, people who had become ultra-wealthy and exerted great control over the communities in which they lived.
McCullough’s destination was St. Andrew’s Square, a public space in a well-to-do shopping district of New Town Edinburgh, where dozens of disgruntled Scots had gathered directly in front of the global headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland to protest the influence of money on their democracy. Local day laborers, students, and disgruntled townspeople held cardboard signs decrying the “1-percent,” the group of people who pull the decision-making levers at the highest levels of business and government, and triggered the financial crises across the world beginning in 2008. A banner was draped on the entrance gates of the Bank that read, “We are not goods in the hands of bankers and politicians.” The protestors, many of whom were dressed in wrinkled plaid shirts and worn out chinos, circulated around introducing themselves to each other. One man dressed in a gray tweed suit and dark sunglasses stood atop a wooden crate, directing people to a picnic table that held copies of a handout detailing proper etiquette in the Square. Tents were pitched and a miniature campground was created, where the protestors vowed to stay until some sort of changes were made to make Edinburgh a more equitable and fair place to live.
As a go-getting finance and economics student, McCullough couldn’t understand why the protestors in St. Andrew’s Square were rallying against Scotland’s financial and political elite, or openly disparaging wealth, or casually hanging out in a green space rather than looking for a job and becoming wealthy themselves. Walking through a maze of scattered tents listening to people discussing ways to topple banks and eliminate concentrated power was strange for a young man who was raised to believe that big banks are important to the world’s economic success, and correct political decisions can only be made when a few people are involved. But McCullough was always interested in three things: making a lot of money, controlling others, and the people opposed to those who make a lot of money and control others.
The movement that was brewing in St. Andres Square mattered to McCullough because he wanted to be a mover-and-shaker like his family members. He spent his life learning the ins-and-outs of the finance industry and developing the characteristics vital to success in business and politics. When he was young, for instance, McCullough’s parents made everything negotiable – from his allowance and bedtime, to his punishments, to the annual family vacation spot – to teach their son how to talk smoothly and persuasively, and how to create a deal that is fair to all of the parties involved. They also taught him how to turn a little money into a lot of money: by the time McCullough turned eighteen, he had made nearly £45,000 through smart investments and savings.
Business, politics, and leisure are not, for McCullough, activities to be separated. Success in one leads to influence in the other; leisurely activities can turn into business transactions quickly. Where some devote all of their extra time and money to non-wealth-building activities like vacations and charity work, much of McCullough’s ambition is more explicitly money-centered. He spends his free time searching for new investments to make and politicians to schmooze, so that his climb to the top of the social ladder can be finished sooner.
About a half-hour after McCullough arrived in St. Andrews Square, the group of protestors had swelled to nearly one hundred and fifty. And a twenty-something female named Mary with crimped black hair and a thick Edinburgh accent began shouting through a megaphone asking everyone to gather directly in front of the gates to the Royal Bank of Scotland. For the next twenty minutes, Mary talked passionately about the purpose of the gathering. “We’re here to take back control. We’re here to reclaim a voice in parliament,” she said. She presented herself as a calm yet assertive woman, continually inserting unveiled jabs at corporate bigwigs and politicians. “They sit in faraway places trying to control our lives, getting richer while we get poorer. They’ve intentionally created an unfair and unequal society, and we’re here to fight back.” The crowd erupted into applause. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer. Let’s go!”
If it sounded like a rallying cry, it’s because it was. The group was about to head off on a march through the crowded and narrow cobbled-stoned streets of Edinburgh to let it be known that, in their eyes, something needed to change – society wasn’t working for them. Mary had been planning the march since about the beginning of August 2011. Since she felt the traditional paths to changing society were too crowded with special interests, greed, and unaccountable politicians, Mary had to get attention another way: She had to create a spectacle. “We have an idea of equality that needs to be spread. We have to reclaim our city,” she told the group. “This is not just a problem in Edinburgh – this is a worldwide problem. But we can start the solution here.”
As McCullough walked through the crowd, he came across a group meeting. A large sheet of blue paper with white gridlines had been rolled out onto the damp grass for display, and several protestors gathered around to give their input about the exact path and details for the march through the streets. Each person’s input was welcome – some were focused on getting to the locations where the most townspeople would see the march, others worried about getting in front of newspaper reporters and developing defined goals, and some wanted to know what would happen after the march was over. They were drawing rectangles on the paper to represent buildings throughout the city and triangles to triangles to represent spots, mainly around the University, where they might be able to convince others to join the protest. They were scribbling words on ripped up paper grocery bags, trying to come up with a slogan. They were chaotic, but organized. There was no single person in control of the meeting, and all decisions were finalized only when a majority of meeting participants agreed on a course of action. Each person who wanted a vote was given one. Each person was able to delay a vote without question to voice opposition. It was democracy as intended.
McCullough wanted to figure out why all of these people had shown up in St. Andrews Square on that particular day in October. After all, the global financial crisis was already three years old and governments have been corrupted by money ever since governments have existed. Civilizations have always been divided between those individuals that rule them, and those individuals that merely exist within them. What was the tipping point that sent all of these angry Scots pouring into the streets? To find out, McCullough turned St. Andrews Square into his personal laboratory. He became a participant observer in the protest. Not a mole trying to destroy the fledgling movement to protect his wealthy family, but a curious student wondering about its the origins and motives.
…To Be Continued…Tweet
The media narrative of the 2012 presidential race began with one question: could Mitt Romney, the former moderate Governor and presumed frontrunner, navigate his way through a fiercely conservative primary to capture the nomination and take on President Obama in November? Romney managed to maintain the frontrunner spot, but his closest competitor changed almost weekly. Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were all within striking of Romney at some point only to fall back in the polls. As each took their turn rotating through the lectern to the left of Romney on the debate stages, the news coverage changed, too. The main narrative remained – who would challenge Romney – but the peripheral coverage seemed to escalate in its wackiness. Audiences learned of Rick Perry’s family’s hunting ranch that had a racist name, Hermain Cain’s possible affairs at the National Restaurant Association, Newt Gingrich’s three wives and his plans to put colonies on the moon, Michelle Bachmann’s salsa skills, and that never-had-a-chance Jon Huntsman likes to ride his Harley and was a musical theater prodigy.
If electing a leader of the free world weren’t so serious, the news coverage of the 2012 election thus far might not be so bad. But the onset of a cable news world has led to a society where the media holds a substantial amount of power in presidential elections. The media choose what audiences get to know about a candidate, how audiences understand a candidate’s policy positions, and can ultimately held decide how an audience votes on election day. Today, though, the news has turned from an institution of relative objectivity and civilian service into a more fragmented, profit-driven machine that puts sensationalism above important, honest, and intelligent debate. Presidential campaign coverage is now focused more on the “horserace” – which candidate is ‘winning’ on a given day – as opposed to the issues of the campaign and the candidates stances on certain issues. The news media also has new standards for what is newsworthy. Conflict, emotion, and gaffes always trump strong policy proposals and serious inquisition.Tweet
Gabriella’s journey from Mexico to the United States began with heartbreak. In November of 2002, Gabriella was an owner of a grocery market with her husband, Carlos, in Ciudad Juárez. The two of them spent ten hours a day stocking shelves, placing orders, and helping customers. “We had a great life,” she says. “After we closed the market for the night, we’d each grab a mango out of the basket by the bananas and walk to the city park down the street. We’d hold hands, sit on a bench, watch the people walk by and count the skyscrapers being built until it was time to pick these two up from football practice,” she says, pointing to Hector and Jorge.
But then the drug cartels arrived - “They were like sharks, smelling blood all over the city,” Gabriella says – and she found herself and her family in great danger. Ciudad Juárez is ground zero in the Mexican drug war; its border with El Paso, Texas makes it a strategic location for cartels trying to get their drugs into the United States. Nobody in the city was safe and many residents, like Gabriella, had to change their habits. “We never went out anymore,” she says, “we had to change our market’s hours so we wouldn’t be out after dark. We stopped taking our mangoes to the park, and Hector and Jorge stopped playing football. We would have been kidnapped.”
The violence in Ciudad Juárez has increased over the past few years. Over 3,000 people were murdered in 2009 and 2010 in relation to the drug war. But in the early part of the 2000s, when the Sotos were there, it was, at first, more of a mental torment. The fear of being randomly killed was somewhat new to the city. At first, they didn’t know how to act, so they watched what others did. Others kept their kids in the house, so they did too. Others stopped going to the Friday evening fiestas, so Gabriella and Carlos bought piñatas for Hector and Jorge to swat at in their bedroom. They quickly began to feel insulated against the impending violence. “I had nothing else to do anymore but go the market, work, close the market, and then come home,” Gabriella says. “I felt safe. But I knew something was wrong.”
Gabriella and Carlos’s grocery market sat on a corner in downtown Ciudad Juárez that was in disputed territory of two competing cartels. They routinely arrived there in the morning only to find graffiti on the brick facades and the windows smashed in. Carlos was intent on keeping the business going, finding inspiration in the neighboring shops whose owners slept in their buildings during the night to make sure the cartels stayed away. It only worked for so long, though. Corpses began appearing in public places and there were rumors of decapitations happening. And one morning when Carlos opened the door to his market, two cartel members shot him pointblank. He died immediately. Gabriella found him almost an hour later after she arrived from dropping Hector and Jorge off at school.
“After the day he died, I never went back to the store,” she says. “I didn’t clean it, I didn’t stop deliveries, I didn’t do anything. Our mangoes stayed next to the bananas. I just couldn’t go back.” Gabriella’s market is now a refuge for the criminals who killed her husband. They killed the owners of the other shops too. Now the entire block, instead of offering fresh fruit and vegetables, barbers, tailors, and shoe shiners to the people of Juárez, it traffics cocaine.
Three months after the murder of Carlos, Gabriella decided that she needed to move to America. The intensity of crimes was increasing and females were becoming popular targets. Mexico in general was being flooded by drug-related corruption. She had to get out, for herself, but also for Hector and Jorge. “America was close; we could walk here,” Gabriella says. “But the drugs from Juárez go straight to El Paso, we couldn’t go to Texas. We had a friend come to DC when the cartels first moved in. We just followed. We wanted the American Dream.”Tweet
Part 1 of a story about Gabriella Soto, a Mexican immigrant living in DC, trying find her own American Dream.
Five nights out of the week Gabriella Soto walks with her two sons through Washington DC’s most dangerous neighborhoods to the Congregación Bautista Hispana, where the three of them stand in line and wait for a free meal. The entrée varies, everything from baked chicken with rice and baked potato to the more common watered-down soup with a turkey sandwich. But meals are always served with a piece of freshly baked bread, a small carton of milk and a piece of fruit. Guests sit at long wooden tables arranged in rows in the gymnasium, which during the morning hours, functions as a play area for the one-hundred-and-fifty children who attend daycare at Congregación Bautista. Mealtime conversation is mostly in Spanish, except when young children are around; then it turns quickly to English.
Hector and Jorge, Gabriella’s sons, are served meals in school, but the food from Congregación Bautista is often the only sustenance that Gabriella receives during the day. After being laid off from her job stacking produce in a grocery store, she no longer has a steady income. She is ineligible for government benefits and without money in savings she relies on the community of the Congregación to feed her and her boys most nights of the week.
Congregación Bautista is a Spanish-speaking Roman Catholic church that serves as a place of worship for many Hispanic immigrants in our nation’s capital. The church holds three masses on Sundays and two on Wednesdays. The pews are always full and Mass is rather distinct in its practice of Catholicism. The traditional ‘call and response’ is replaced by communal song, palm-on-the-forehead healings, and an emphasis on prophecy. More than a place to rejoice in God’s presence, though, Congregación Bautista is a gathering place for the growing Hispanic population in Washington DC who still feel out of place in their new city. Over seven hundred and twenty five people pass through each week. Gabriella is just one of them.
Gabriella is a short, round women in her mid-thirties, with long, flowing black hair and thick, unkempt eyebrows. Her face is small, her ears large, and her thick, square glasses constantly fall off her sharply sloped nose. She is a brown woman from Mexico with poor complexion. She is a generally happy woman, and when she feels her world turning drab her vihuela – the guitar-like instrument often found in mariachi groups - comes out and she tries to rescue herself from sadness by playing some traditional music that she has not yet mastered. Gabriella’s only vihuela training came from an instructional book her father gave to her when she was just a young girl in the bustling metropolis of Ciudad Juárez, where her family lived in a nice two-story middle-class home. Now Gabriella lives in a rundown studio apartment above a pizza parlor with a picture of her father above a mattress that lies on the scuffed-up floor, a cat, a few important books, and she wakes up at 5:30 each morning to prepare Hector and Jorge for school before she grabs an empty milk jug and roams the streets begging for passerby’s spare change.
It was on a Friday evening in the summer of 2010 when I first met the Sotos. I was standing in the Congregación Bautista gymnasium as the nightly meal was being served and I noticed them sitting alone at the only round table, tucked away in a back corner. Gabriella slathered butter on two pieces of bread for Hector and Jorge and then proceeded to peel and slice the oranges they had just received. “¡Coman!,” I heard her say, as it echoed off the walls and linoleum floors of the gym. As a guest in the church that night, I stood patiently with my tray of food as the regulars found their normal seats. After the line disappeared and everybody seemed to find a place, Gabriella and her sons still sat alone. I quietly approached, asked if I could join, she nodded, and I sat down.
Over our bowls of tomato soup with chunks of bacon, Gabriella began to tell me the story of how she went from a nice, middle-class lifestyle in Mexico, to being at a dinner table with me, in the United States, eating food donated by others. Her English was poor, having only used it sparingly in Mexico, but Hector and Jorge were able to help her along because of their language lessons in school. They often completed her sentences and offered suggestions for words when she was struggling. “It’s a journey,” Gabriella said of her life, “and it goes something like…” she paused. “This!” Hector shouted, helping with the pronoun.
…to be continuedTweet