Archive for November 2011

From a Square to a Cemetery

Recently, on a visit to Poland, I made a pilgrimage to the village where my maternal grandmother was born, Nowy Targ, 50 kilometers south of Cracow in the region known as Małopolska or Lesser Poland. The name “Nowy Targ” translates as “New Market,” and indeed this large village is where most of the region’s trading occurred, with local farmers bringing their produce to market and then spending the proceeds at the dry goods stalls and shops selling housewares. The Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town resembles an idyllic little forest grove, and the one thing a visitor might remark about it is that there are so few graves to be seen here, only a few dozen, most of them missing their headstones. It seems an obvious case of a Jewish cemetery desecrated during the Holocaust, as so many were. But the cemetery at Nowy Targ harbors an even more terrible secret: Every inch of it is a mass grave. It is here that 2000 Jews from the Nowy Targ ghetto were driven together on August 30, 1942, shot, and buried where they lay. The headstones from the cemetery were removed and later used as paving material after the war.

All of this is unfathomable. Who carried out these murders? The victims’ neighbors? Did they personally know the people they were shooting? And even beyond the moral and emotional considerations, how was an operation of this scope even possible in so small a place? Were the victims marched to the cemetery in a grand procession? A few at a time? Were they forced to dig the mass graves in which they and their loved ones would be buried? It is all far too painful to think about. I am so grateful that my grandmother emigrated as a child, nearly three decades before this tragedy.

The number 2000 struck a very different chord in me as well, because on Oct. 14, 2011, not long before leaving for Poland, I had participated in a 6 a.m. gathering at Zuccotti Park, a.k.a. Liberty Square, in New York City. That morning, 2000 of us gathered in and around the park to protect the Occupy Wall Street encampment from forcible eviction by the New York Police Department. Two thousand people were enough to pack every foot of the square – which is about the same size as the Jewish cemetery in Nowy Targ – and create a tight ring around it. And our presence stopped the police; there were too many of us to arrest, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed down from his demand that we all stop protesting and leave. So now I can’t help wondering what would have happened in Nowy Targ that August day in 1942 if 2000 villagers had come to the cemetery to object to the murder of their neighbors. Perhaps the dissenters would have been killed as well. Perhaps the local population approved of murdering the region’s Jews. It’s hard to know, even though this was all not so terribly long ago, less than 70 years. The gray-haired Polish woman I saw raking leaves from the sidewalk in front of the cemetery was quite possibly old enough to remember that day. But she and I lacked a common language, so I could not ask.


In New York, the presence of 2000 dissenters on Oct. 14, 2011 made all the difference. But one month later
Mayor Bloomberg showed us how far he was willing to escalate the struggle to suppress the Occupy Wall Street protests. The eviction of protesters from Liberty Square on Nov. 15, 2011 was carried out violently, under cover of darkness, and under highly questionable circumstances, via an army of police officers in riot gear, armed and organized like paramilitary troops. In an attempt to protect himself and the New York Police Department from public scrutiny, Bloomberg ordered an illegal media blackout surrounding this event. News helicopters were grounded, and fully credentialed journalists were forcibly excluded from the area despite holding NYPD-issued permits, and beaten and arrested if they resisted this expulsion (which many did, since they had both a legal right and a professional duty to cross police barricades to report the story). Weapons employed against the peaceful protesters in the square – who had been asleep when the raid commenced – included pepper spray, tear gas, night sticks and bulldozers. Many were injured. A dog was killed when a tent was crushed despite the owner’s pleas that the creature be rescued. A park open to the public and filled with civilians became a war zone.


My question today is: How can we as a city accept a mayor and a police department that break the law and use violent force to prevent our fellow citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly? The Occupy Wall Street encampment was legal (which is why it was tolerated by city officials for two months); its violent clearing was illegal; the exclusion of the media was illegal; and the mayor’s defying the temporary restraining order issued by the New York State Supreme Court in the early hours of Nov 15, 2011 was illegal as well. (See my last post for details of these transgressions.)
Are you willing to accept violent and illegal activity on the part of those whose job it is to serve and protect you? Are you prepared to live under martial law?

The words “martial law” are generally associated with parts of the world in which citizens enjoy far fewer rights and freedoms than we do in the United States. But the loss of freedoms always starts small and escalates. If we accept the barring of journalists from places where news stories are unfolding, it’s only a small step to a government-controlled media. If we permit a mayor to disregard court orders, we invite him to impinge on our legally established civil rights in other ways as well. If you object to the erosion of your rights, it is time to speak out. There is strength in numbers. Call 311 and leave a message for the mayor; send a letter to your newspaper of choice; write your opinion in large letters on a piece of cardboard and show up for a rally; and make sure all your neighbors know what is going on in their own backyard. It is time to make our voices heard.

Who Has Rights?

Let’s be clear: Legitimate acts of governance are not carried out under cover of darkness with a media blackout.
photo credit ©Bryan Smith

It’s good to live in a country with a free press and elected officials who abide by the laws of the land and rule according to the will of the people. Lots of countries around the world do not have that. Some do. Some think they do. Here in the United States, for example, we used to have a much freer press than we do now. Yesterday’s events on the ground in New York City, notably the violent destruction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the middle of the night by the New York Police Department on orders from the mayor, followed by the overwhelming failure of the local and national news media to report on the actual issues surrounding the incident, makes it very clear that the news media in the United States are not nearly as free as most Americans assume. We as a society are in denial about the gradual erosion of our civil liberties.

Here are some inconvenient truths for you to consider:

1. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, ordered the violent eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters to take place in the middle of the night, carried out by police in riot gear using pepper spray (and by some reports tear gas) to disable protesters. This is a protest whose legality city officials had previously acknowledged, which is why it had been allowed to remain in operation as a campsite for the previous two months.

2. Properly credentialed members of the press attempting to cover this story were arrested and in many cases driven away with physical violence by the NYPD.

3. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD violated a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court of the State of New York that was in effect between 8:00 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 15. This injunction prohibited the mayor and police from barring protesters or their possessions from Zuccotti Park.

And here are some details that you probably didn’t see on the news last night:

1a. The eviction was not peaceful. It was planned like a military engagement. Protesters were beaten, over 200 were arrested, any possessions they did not manage to gather in the few minutes’ time they were given were seized and probably destroyed. I met one man yesterday who said his dog was taken away from him. The entire infrastructure of the occupation (kitchen, 5500-volume library [UPDATE: here’s what become of that], media tent filled with electronic equipment, comfort station stocked with donated blankets, sweaters and underwear) quickly wound up in garbage trucks. The city claims that protesters wishing to reclaim their possessions can do so in the sanitation department’s offices over the next two days. I don’t assume much will be found there in salvageable condition. NY1 interviewed one young man yesterday who said his backpack – containing his computer and a change of clothes for a job interview this morning – was forcibly taken from him by police. My guess is that he’ll never see it again. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez was arrested, injured by a police officer, and held for 17 hours before being allowed to speak with his lawyer. He will be holding a press conference to discuss the incident today at noon. Most of those whose rights were violated are not in a position to hold press conferences.

1b. The eviction was part of a nationally coordinated effort on the part of local governments to suppress local Occupy protests at all costs. The mayor of Oakland has admitted this. Whether or not there has been additional coordination of these evictions by federal agencies is currently unclear.

2. Suppression of the Press is a serious matter, and you’d think people would be more concerned about this. News of the beating, arrest and shutting-out of reporters during the eviction was broadcast on CNN and NY1, but not linked on their websites. But there’s a brief mention of the issue in the New York Times, which I was surprised to see, since these days that paper has generally been reporting all the news Mike Bloomberg finds fit to print. The NYT said:

Reporters in the park were forced to leave. Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said it was for their safety. But many journalists said that they had been prevented from seeing the police take action in the park, and that they had been roughly handled by officers.

Last night NY1 featured a interview with reporters holding press credentials issued by the NYPD (including Lindsey Christ of NY1) who had been prevented by the NYPD from reporting on the story. The best coverage of the media blackout I’ve seen thus far is by the smaller local news site DNA.info, and also on The Tech Herald. Cameraman Luke Rudkowski captured video footage of his own expulsion from the park (starting at minute 5:00), and photojournalist Graham Rayman of the Village Voice provides a blow-by-blow account of his nighttime encounter with the NYPD at Zuccotti Park. But even though the major media are not covering the blackout, make no mistake: this is a major story. For related coverage, see Truthout’s excellent reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement in general as well as a number of stories in the Daily Kos.

3. The Mayor broke the law all day on Nov. 15 by defying the temporary restraining order issued by the State Supreme Court. Perhaps you would like to read the injunction he chose to violate? All right, here’s a copy. (Note that the restraining order was in effect from 8:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. “or as soon thereafter as counsel may be heard” – which was late afternoon). So how do you feel about having an elected official ignore a court order and use physical force to enforce its non-enforcement? In my opinion, elected officials who break the law should be asked to resign. I hereby call for Mayor Bloomberg’s resignation.

So now the future of the Occupy Wall Street encampment is in the hands of the heroic volunteer lawyers who will go to court to seek redress for the violations of law and civil liberties carried out yesterday. But Mayor Bloomberg no doubt has a great deal of influence over the decisions of the local court system, and he knew what he was doing when he created a “fact on the ground” in Zuccotti Park yesterday. Even though protesters do have a legal right to occupy this property (including with tents), what use is it to have rights when armed members of the local police force are standing in front of you demanding to search your bags and person for so-called restricted items (such as sleeping bags and tents)? Zuccotti Park, which the major news media are now telling us has been “reopened,” is currently surrounded by a fence, and anyone wishing to go inside must submit to a search. Will the people of New York continue to take the erosion of their freedoms lying down? I hope they will not, and fear they might.

Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street has developed a life independent of its physical campsite, and will clearly persist even if these violations of civil liberties continue. A National Day of Action has been called for tomorrow, November 17, in coordination with Occupy movements all over the world as well as local unions. Keep an eye on the official and unofficial OWS websites for details to come later today.
Oh, and Occupy Wall Street still has a large and active Translation Working Group. We have been translating the documents of the occupation into twenty-six languages (and counting). You can read many of these documents here.

From Tunis to Berlin

On Monday evening, just before leaving Europe to return to NYC, I stopped by Occupy Berlin one last time to see what had been going on in the week while I was in Poland. When I arrived with a pair of journalist/political scientist friends in tow, we had to look for a while to find the Asamblea in the dark – the lawn in front of the Reichstag is virtually unlit – but were tipped off by a bicycle adorned with a sign reading “The next spring is sure to come.” When we joined the group, I was surprised to hear that the Asamblea was being conducted in French, via a skillful simultaneous interpreter. It soon became clear that the crowd of 35 or so that had gathered for the Assembly included a contingent of young North Africans who were visiting Berlin as guests of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. These visitors, from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, were telling stories of the revolutions closer to home (some of them were key players in their countries’ protest movements) and offering suggestions to the Berlin occupiers.

One man from Morocco who introduced himself to me a bit later told me he had been surprised to find both the manner and the matter of the protests in Berlin so similar to what he’d experienced at home. At the same time, some of the questions asked during the Asemblea brought differences to light. At least twice, for example, North African visitors asked what the demands of Berlin’s Occupy were. Of course, the revolutions of the Arab Spring did come with demands: these protesters were out to depose leaders and topple governments. In New York, on the other hand, the absence of specific demands has repeatedly been cited as a strength, not a liability; lots of people think so, including Slavoj Žižek. My favorite quip about this, overheard on the Internet: “Hijackers make demands; movements get things moving.” It isn’t clear yet what the desiderata of the Berlin protesters will be, and whether or not actual demands will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Occupy movement does appear to be encroaching on the German mainstream. Newspaper coverage is steadily increasing. I even found an article on politics and the economy in the Nov. 8 Berliner Zeitung that ended with its author, Harald Jähner, tipping his hat to the protesters: “The Occupy movement has so far managed to steer clear of the traditional thought patterns of the old Left and is fighting to save capitalism from capital. This would be doing our democracy quite a service indeed.”

As the Asamblea continued, there was a lot of talk about the encampment at Klosterstrasse 66 (on private property owned by a church somewhere in the hinterlands behind Alexanderplatz) and the working groups currently putting together the Berlin movement’s ideological backbone. Since the ones doing pretty much all the talking were a core group of loud and well-spoken men, one of the visitors, a Tunisian woman wearing a headscarf, spoke up to ask whether it was the custom in Berlin for only the men to talk. She pointed out that in her country, women had protested hard for the right to be heard, and she certainly expected women to have that right in Germany as well. After this, the interpreter (who had somehow wound up running the meeting, which was thus being conducted without the “progressive stack” generally in use at Berlin’s Asambleas) started recognizing more women to speak, including me.

From what I can see, the main order of business in Berlin these days is figuring out what the movement wants to be and what it will stand for. It’s clear that economic inequalities will be a central issue, as they are in the U.S.

Occupy Berlin is also clearly committed – more than its American counterparts – to forging alliances with other Occupy movements in other countries. And translation pays an enormous role in this. Early on, organizers began to incorporate simultaneous interpretation into English, Spanish, and French in their Asambleas, providing areas in which visitors can sit to hear the human mike become a bilingual mike. This is certainly something that might be tried out at Occupy Wall Street as well, though at Liberty Plaza a regular spanish-language Asamblea General is held each Sunday at 5:00 p.m. I look forward to watching Occupy Berlin continue to develop and seeing what else we can learn from international Occupy movements here in New York.

Three Four Great Translation Events in NYC

I’m on the road (currently in Kraków for the Conrad Festival) and not in a position to blog in as much detail as I would prefer, but I wanted to be sure to draw your attention to three excellent translation events coming up in New York over the next week in the Bridge Series (or in collaboration with it). The first one is tonight! I really wish I could attend all of these, but I won’t get back from Europe in time.

1. Wednesday Nov. 2, 7:00 p.m:
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Jason Grunebaum, both respected translators from the Hindi, will read from their work and speak at McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street). Jason has a smart, thoughtful article on translating Uday Prakash in a volume on translation I’m co-editing with Esther Allen for Columbia UP, and Mehrotra is a distinguished translator of many works. This should be a great conversation. More info here.

2. Thursday Nov. 3, 7:00 p.m:
Did you know that William Carlos Williams translated from the Spanish? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen has just edited By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams, 1916-1959 for New Directions and will be at the Americas Society (680 Park Avenue) on Thursday to present the book. He will be joined by poet and critic Julio Marzan and ND editor Declan Spring. Admission is free, but reservations are required. More info here.

3. Friday, Nov. 4, 7:00 p.m.:
Three of the most illustrious editors of translations in NYC – Drenka Willen, Barbara Epler and John Siciliano – will be coming together to speak about the process of acquiring, editing and promoting translations. I’ve spoken at length with all three about translation and worked several times with the brilliant Barbara Epler (whose editorial touch verges on the miraculous), and if there’s anything about the topic these three don’t know, it’s probably not worth knowing. This event will be held at The Center for Fiction at 17 East 47th St. (between Fifth and Madison). More info here.

4. Wednesday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.:
The Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco is having its NYC launch event for the forthcoming TWO LINES volume entitled Counterfeits. Luc Sante (a co-editor on the volume) will be MC’ing, with translators Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters, and Adam Giannelli, plus author Magdaléna Platzová reading – a great line-up! This night of literature from Egypt, the Czech Republic, Argentina, and more is being co-produced at McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street) by the Bridge Series. Wine reception to follow. Sure wish I could be there. More info here.

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