An Interview with Alberto Saldamando at the International Indian Treaty Council
San Francisco, September 22, 1999
When my friend Karen Nyhus and I were housemates out near Ocean Beach in the late nineties we would commute through the morning fog together to our non-profit jobs downtown – she to California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and I to CompuMentor (now TechSoup).
It was through Karen that I first heard about Alberto Saldamando who was CRLA’s Executive Director at the time and who had helped found the CRLA Foundation.
Alberto is a slight man with a long pony tail and a gentle manner. At the time of the interview, he worked as General Counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC). The interview took place at the IITC’s offices on Mission street, late on a rainy afternoon. (This is Part I of the full interview.)
K: Where are you from?
A: I grew up in Sonora, Mexico, in a little border town called Nogales. It’s a town split up by the Mexican and the US border. And I grew up on the south side of the border and when I was eleven we moved four blocks into the United States. The border at the time was really kind of irrelevant. My father tells a story of when my grandfather married my grandmother—he bought a little lot on the hill. And then it turns out when they finally got around to surveying the border in the early 20th century, it turns out that his house was a block north of the border. So my father, since he was born in the house, he was an American citizen.
K: So, are you an American citizen?
A: Yes. But the border came to us, and that’s—actually, that has a lot to do with my attitudes about borders and those kinds of divisions. They are really irrelevant and the issue’s just been so dramatised now. The images of George Washington and crossing the Delaware, and Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine are totally irrelevant to us. The west did not get colonized by the US really until the late 19th century. As a matter of fact, the first contact with the Navahos and the Indian people, like that, occurred around the turn of the century—the late 1800’s. And first contact with a lot of westerners didn’t develop, especially in the southwest—didn’t occur until the turn of the century. So we’re not talking about a very long time in terms of the United States being ”the west.” Really the more appropriate colonial images are Spanish helmeted troops and the church. In fact, the whole history of the southwest still carries the names, carries a lot of the culture—San Juan Capistrano, Los Angeles, Mission Dolores is a Spanish church. So I think you have to remember that when you deal with the southwest. And you also have to talk about migration patterns, of people coming and going, between what is now an artificial border somebody put up. But people have been coming back and forth for millennia. So it’s a different vision of the west than perhaps, what’s his name, Patrick Buchanan might have, or what’s his name, George Will. Their vision of America is a very colonial place—especially George Will.
K: Very eastern.
A: Very English colonial. I kind of mentioned those things because I think history has itsown imperatives. And, it’s totally outside what man would impose. I think history comes into play. I think Latinos are going to be the largest minority without a majority in California very soon. That’s the line of history that’s going to predominate—and it’s not going to be an imposition of English only, or whatever they want. It’s just a matter of time.
K: So the borders don’t hold, is almost what you’re saying?
K: Can I just ask what your age is?
A: I’m 57. I just turned 57 yesterday.
K: Happy birthday. So you grew up in the 40s and 50s.
A: So, I was an American citizen living in Mexico because of my father’s citizenship, primarily. I didn’t really start living in the United States until I was eleven or twelve.
Becoming a lawyer/activist
K: And then, how did you end up here?
A: Well, when I graduated from high school the Vietnamese war was kind of hot. So, I got a deferment to attend college. I went to University of Arizona for four years and then I was still like 21 when I graduated from college, so I got another deferment to go to law school. And then I did that, and other things came up. I think that’s the way things work. You really don’t plan much. I don’t think it’s possible to plan. I think things just work out. I was not a draft resister in the sense that I was burning my draft card. But I didn’t really in my heart feel that there was any need to go kill people who had never done anything to me. I didn’t really see the threat. I really didn’t see the threat of the Vietnamese people against the United States. It didn’t make any sense at all to me. I think if the United States had been really in a war where survival was at stake, I think I would have done it—in the Mexican American community, like, my uncle’s a career military man. I had a cousin killed in the Korean War. I think at the time—I don’t know what it is now, but at the time, there were a lot of—I don’t know if you know what gold star mothers are?
K: Gold star mothers? No.
A: They’re ladies who have lost sons who were in the war and they put their picture out on their front window. The gold star and the picture—in the Chicano community it is military service. I think in most minority communities military service is not a bad thing. It’s a part of upward mobility in many respects. But it’s also done out of a sense of loyalty, patriotism, and I’m not immune to that, but it honestly didn’t occur to me. I just didn’t see how the Vietnamese people could ever threaten the United States or any part of it —I just couldn’t see it.
K: But it sounds like you weren’t part of the anti-war movement at that time.
A: Not at the time, not at the time. No. In fact, I was relatively—considering the Chicano movement in the seventies and eighties—I was relatively conservative when I was young in the fifties and sixties. My parents were pretty much traditional people with middle class value. Church was very important to my mother. Respect for the working people was very much a part of my upbringing.
In college, however, particularly in law school in the late sixties, when the civil rights movement really began in earnest; I did start getting caught up in the righteousness of that cause. It made sense to me. It made a great deal of sense to me, but I also went through some changes. I grew up in a little town where Mexicans were the predominant majority. So we never dealt with racism. I mean little racist stuff would happen, but it was never really of great import. I remember, for instance, our schools had very few Chicano teachers. They were mostly Anglo people. They were nice people, but they all lived in this one little section of town and everybody else lived in town, and they all had their own little housing together—all these Anglos. A lot of the immigration people lived there too—the border patrol people, the customs people.
K: So like a white neighbourhood…
A: It was a white neighbourhood, and we always figured that was cool. I mean, they wanted to live with their own people. That was fine with us. We didn’t feel discriminated against. And it wasn’t until college that I started getting that kind of feedback, racist feedback. And I kind of shined it on. But then in law school it hit me right in the face.
K: In law school? And were you the only…
A: No, no. There were four Chicanos, but only two of us admitted it.…I started getting involved with the Congress Of Racial Equality that had a chapter at the university. This was actually a little before I graduated from undergraduate school. I remember once the Tucson garbage department would not hire blacks. So, we’d get up at four in the morning and go picket and the garbage truck would go in and out. One time, the cops beat some people up. I wasn’t there that day. And the leader was poked in the stomach with a baton. And he had valley fever—and it went into his lungs or something—and he died. It took him a while to die. So, that kind of bothered me some. The whole thing fell apart for a while—the organization did. People just didn’t know what to do. We didn’t accept that kind of *violence*. It wasn’t that big of a deal—it just was not that big of a deal, but this was Arizona and Arizona has always tended to be relatively conservative. It wasn’t a bad place, but it’s almost like some kind of apartheid system of separate development. You know what I mean?
K: Between whites and Chicanos…
A: Yeah, except in this little border area where the Mexicans are the majority on both sides of the borders. When the veterans came back from World War II, from my father’s generation, they started electing the mayor, and the city council, and they started hiring policemen. The only Anglo office holders when I was growing up was a guy from the ranch—a county supervisor who represented the ranchers and the sheriff. But that’s because he was involved in rural areas too. … In the late eighties, Arizona had a Chicano governor and it was reported once that he was introduced as “my favourite wetback.” I mean, this guy was governor, and this was a big function in Phoenix, and the guy was introduced as “my favourite wetback.” So I think those kinds of attitudes persist to this day.
K: When did you come west?
A: Well, I joined the Peace Corps. I got a deferment to go into the Peace Corps ‘cause I still had time to go. So I went to Southern Africa, to a place called Lesotho. It was the first Peace Corps contingent in the sixties, the late sixties. I was not here for the Siege of Chicago—I heard it on the radio. I was in Spain when Kent State happened. I came back to a United States where people my age had been really radicalised. And to a certain degree they had caught up with me because I had been radicalised in college—especially by that experience with the garbage men. I think it took a couple of things to find out where it was, you know—and youth at the time got clubbed, and the whole Chicago Convention. That was a trip. I heard it on the radio. I was in Africa. The whole thing with Lyndon Johnson not running, and Jackie Onassis marrying Aristotle Onassis, a man landing on the moon. I was in this little village in Africa listening to Voice of America and BBC every night. So all that happened while I was out.
So I came back to the east coast and travelled overland. Stayed with some friends I’d met in the Peace Corps. I had friends in New York City and DC, and I took a bus trip across—I went to LA. I had this ninety day bus pass. I had been admitted to the Bar in Arizona before I left. I visited a friend of mine who was also a lawyer and I’d met in the Peace Corps. He worked for legal services, which was a brand new thing at the time. In a place called Pacoima, which was like the slums of the San Fernando Valley—the black community—Black and Chicano community. I liked Pacoima because it was a place of great diversity where blacks and Chicanos predominated. It was really a very diverse place. And people seemed to get along well. And they said they had gotten an OEO [Office of Equal Opportunity ] report. OEO was trying to get them to hire a minority attorney, so he needed a minority and one of my friends recommended me. And I went to talk to the director and he turned out to be a very nice guy. We ended up friends. He was all bent out of shape and he said, “Well, alright, you can start whenever you want. Just don’t come too late, or leave too early, and we’ll get along fine.” Minority attorneys aren’t worth a damn[“], so I kind of thought about it. All I had was five dollars in my pocket and a backpack.
K: And a job offer.
A: And that’s really what it was. So I thought well, I’ll take this job -it was like for six hundred dollars a month, six or eight-hundred – and then go back to Arizona.
Working with burnout and California’s Employment Development Department
K: Did that lead you to CRLA [California Rural Legal Assistance]?
I worked as a legal aid lawyer for about three or four years and then I started looking for another job. I was really burnt out on legal services. One of the things you have to learn as a legal aid lawyer is how to say no, and I didn’t learn that until the second or third year, and by that time, I had all these impossible cases. So I decided to find something else to do. I started calling people up to see what was available. I called CRLA to see if they had openings. I had met Jose Martinez who was the deputy director of CRLA. We hit it off really well. We met at a conference and I went to have breakfast and sat at the counter and he sat next to me and we just started talking and it was like we knew each other all our lives. It was an interesting experience ‘cause I felt real comfortable with him. I didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t know who I was, and we just hit it off real well. So I called him up and he said, “Well you know Jerry Brown is looking for a lawyer.” All these people in the Secretary of State’s office were leaving for the campaign and they needed to replace them for six or eight months. I thought it would be a nice change for that time. I could go to Sacramento and stay for eight or nine months or whatever it was, and then get away from clients. I was burnt out on clients. I think if an activist is honest with you, the burn out is a recurring phenomena and you learn how to cope with it, or you just never keep it up. It’s impossible to be an activist and not get burnt out. Impossible. You should write a book about burnout.
K: No! It’s the opposite of what I want to do right now.
A: But it’s important.
K: It is. It’s one of my questions…
A: For activists it’s an occupational hazard.
K: But how do you cope with it?
A: There’s different ways. I’ve always coped with it by looking for something else to do. Something that interests you—different. It can’t be less stressful, ‘cause I think activism per se is stressful—personally, it makes big demands on your personal life. It makes big demands on your time.
So anyway, I thought I could do that, you know. So I met Jerry Brown, he offered me the job. I went to Sacramento. The scuttlebutt was there was an Assemblyman who was Speaker of the House—Mancini, or something. I even forget his name, talk about how times change, but at the time he was a powerhouse. He was Speaker of the House of the Assembly; it was a powerful position and everybody thought that he was going to win the Democratic nomination. That was it. That was the popular wisdom. But, it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t have any greater expectations than working till the end of the year. The pay was better. You know, you’re in some funky apartment, you save your money, then, you can come back, and look for something else.
Well Jerry Brown won the primary, and then he won the general election, and then he became governor. I ended up first with the Employment Development Department with Jim Lorenz, who was founder of CRLA. Naturally, he brought in a lot of CRLA people—excellent lawyers, really good lawyers, really good people—very bright, mostly Ivy League. I liked them a lot. We worked together very well. I was head of the legal department of EDD and these guys were coming in as consultants to this or that, so I got to meet a lot of CRLA people. There was a focus on farm workers.
There was an issue with farm workers and the employment department. Not only unemployment insurance, but there was a court order requiring the EDD to provide more employment services for farm workers. When we came in there were two employment services—one was for everybody, and the other was for farm workers. And so all of the retraining, all of that stuff, other jobs, non-agricultural jobs, were never offered to farm workers. They reported to a field office that would only tell them where there was farm work. And so we had to deal with that. It was those kinds of problems. First time I talked to a guy at EDD about it he said, “Well, Al,” he said, “Farm workers like doing it that way. They don’t want to go into an office where they don’t recognize anybody, where they feel out of place, where they have to dress different.” I said, “Have you ever been in an unemployment office? The people don’t dress up to go to an unemployment office.” He said, “Well they just feel more comfortable on their own.” I said, “Well if you allowed them intothe office they would be among their own! They’d be there so they wouldn’t feel out of place at all! They’re be other farm workers there too, you know.” So, it really kind of upset me. We finally got it straightened out.
I heard real horror stories about the Reagan administration when he had been governor. There were all these skeletons in the closets. They had this corporate mentality. They called applicants for employment insurance “customers.” They administered a lot of these, where they just imposed these real, culturally, I mean even culturally for white people—you just don’t treat people that way. There’s this memo I found where my predecessor said they had a Work Fare program – they wanted everyone washed and ready to work. Those attitudes are just – America’s not just a racist place, it’s also very socially conscious and the poor take the brunt of it. I imagine there are just as many white people who are poor as anybody else and they get it too—they do. It’s a fact. I think really when we work in struggle that we have to remember that you just can’t exclude white people, because a lot of them are in the same boat you are. One of the things that impressed me about going to England—I agree with Andrew Young that the English invented racism, and the way they invented it was that they imposed their class structure in the colonies. So, even the poorest of the poor of the English was just one step above the darkies and this was very consistent with their class system. And they do it to each other—they discourage—they treat people shabbily. It’s a problem I think, a real problem—social discrimination. I think that has a great deal of overlap with racial discrimination. I think poor white people play into it. “I may be the lowest of the low, but I’m better than you, at least I’m not you!” It’s just another way of dividing people as well. I saw that in England. It really blew me away when I saw that in England.
K: It’s pretty stark.
A: In England it’s in your face.
K: When did you start working at CRLA?
A: After the ALRB, like when I was at the ALRB a position came open at the CRLA. By that time I had a whole bank of CRLA people that I knew and we all were encouraging me to apply.
I applied and got the job.
K: You were there for how long?
A: Eight years—’76 to ‘84.
K: So that took you to San Francisco?
A: So then we moved to San Francisco.
K: So, ’84.
A: I needed to leave.
K: Was this the burn out thing?
A: It was burn out. It was also—I didn’t think I was doing the program good anymore. When you start applying the same solutions to the same problems, something’s wrong. And, I was still applying the same solutions to the same problems. So I figured hey, I’m not doing anybody any good. Some of those problems are really intractable. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to resolve them. Every organization has it’s own culture, and CRLA’s culture is difficult. The way I tried to use that, was directing it out. I don’t know who—Tom Hayden, or Barney Frank, or somebody that said that—something along the lines of “the left was littered with a bunch of bodies and the killers were all from the left as well.” And, I think that’s true. I don’t know why it is, but progressive politics—I don’t know any other politics. Maybe the republicans are just as deadly. Maybe they’re just as mean. Maybe they’re just as egocentric. Maybe they’re just as nasty, and they very well could be. Whenever you’re in a highly charged, emotional setting people turn on each other, and they do, and it happens everywhere. And, you rely on people you trust and hope that they don’t do anything to you, and you try to be trustworthy as well. And as long as you can maintain that, you can get something done. But, when you start losing it—when you get to fifty percent—it’s time to go. But, I did last at CRLA a lot longer than I ever intended to. I only wanted to be there for about four years max—‘cause it is a very demanding job. But then, Reagan hit, so the problem became survival. And we did. The foundation has worked out—I created the CRLA Foundation. I was the founder and it’s doing very well. We do good programs. We don’t take federal money. We continue lobbying, which was the big thing. We did not want to lose lobbying. But it was primarily immigration rights, farm workers—issues that were relevant to the foundation were prohibited by the Legal Services Corporation. I’ve been on the board of the Foundation for a while—almost ten years. I didn’t want to be on the board, but…I never wanted to be on the board of CRLA. I think it’s very bad to have ex-directors on the board, ‘cause then you always say, “I didn’t do it that way,” stuff like that. I didn’t want to be in that position.
K: So you’re not on the board of CRLA, just the foundation?
A: Yeah. Actually, I’ve been pretty good. I’m also on the board of Central American Refugee Center. I also helped set up CARECEN . After I left CRLA, I did a few things. I went to the National Economic Development Law Center and was there. I didn’t like it. I was with the Institute Laboral De La Raza for about a year before that. I was trying to build a program—labor services to immigrant labor, but the money just ran out, and I was laid off. So, I went to NEDLC. But I really missed the clients. I missed the client contact. I saw an ad in the paper that Catholic Charities was looking for a lawyer to do their immigration work. They had a little immigration office—a one-attorney immigration office on 16th Street. At the NEDLC I was doing a Ford Foundation grant—doing organizational development for incipient refugee organizations. So I was working with Salvadoran organizations primarily—social services for recent immigrants and asylum seekers. I was in Long Island and this kid comes in from Guatemala—he was a medical student in Guatemala—and he had gotten home, and he found a note tacked onto his door that he was going to be assassinated, so he just split. And he showed up in Long Island for some reason. He came out, hooked up with a Salvadoran refugee—a young guy too, who was going to Long Island. So he said, “I’ll go with you. I’ve got not place to go.” And I spent an afternoon, as a matter of fact, not doing any business, but just talking to this guy—really interesting guy. It was actually an involved story because there was also a lady. This white lady from Long Island who had come to the office to see how she could help, and she ended up taking him home—and for her that was a gigantic step. He was this dark guy, straight black hair, young man; and she was living alone. And throughout the conversation she kept arguing with herself—“oh, my daughter’s going to kill me, I can’t do that.” So we just kept talking to the guy. And she took him home—gave him a bed in the basement. I’m sure everything worked out, but for her it was a gigantic step—this middle class Long Island matron. Anyway, so I had been introduced to it. So I went to Catholic Charities and I said, “I do not want to do anything but political asylum work. If you want me to do other kinds of work, I can’t go. I will not take a case that is not political asylum.”
K: Why not?
A: Because of the need, that’s what turned me on. I never wanted to be an immigration lawyer.
K: So all those years you were doing immigration, but it wasn’t your main interest?
A: I rarely did immigration, until I got to Catholic Charities.
K: Isn’t CRLA mostly immigration?
A: No. There were some cases… it wasn’t that we provided those kinds of services. CRLA, when I was there, was primarily labor, a lot of labor stuff. Fair labor standards act, Farm Workers Protection Act—immigration stuff—was [how] we would mount campaigns against H2 workers when that spectre raised [its] it’s ugly head; which it continues to do to this day. In fact, a lot of those issues are the same issues. Instead of a short-handled hoe you’ve got people digging up—pulling out weeds with their hands. In fact, I was suggesting to someone, why not just re-litigate Carmona—you know?—but oh, no, no. [That was the short handled-hoe case.]
Political Asylum Cases
K: So Catholic Charities—you said only political asylum cases. Did they accept that?
A: Oh yeah. They loved it. Political asylum cases are not easy.
K: This was in the late eighties?
A: Eighties, early nineties.
K: Who were the asylum seekers at that time?
A: I started with the Salvadorans, obviously. Then I got into a lot of Guatemalans and Indians—a lot of young men who didn’t want to kill anybody. I could identify with that. In fact, many of them had been victims of the military. They didn’t want to be in the military—a lot of that. There were also university students, a tailor—a couple of tailors actually. Tailors are intellectuals in Latin America, actually, like printers. In non-industrialized societies they’re the ones with education; they’re the ones with skills—barbers also—kind of—and medical practitioners, nurses and midwives, really. In small world communities teachers are also very much respected. It’s a totally different way of life than we have in the United States. At the end, I started doing Haitians, and it’s really kind of sad. Catholic Charities closed the program in 1994, but what I was getting was a lot of Cambodians—You know the war in Nicaragua in ‘89, ‘90, and even Guatemala. Salvador stopped around ‘91,’92 I guess with the heavy duty political killing. Guatemala’s going through the tail ends of that—there’s still political killings in Guatemala. But there were a lot of remedies being offered ..so a lot of my political asylum friends were getting shunted off into other forms of relief. I started doing Chinese cases—mostly intellectuals from the cultural revolution—older people. And then, I started getting Cambodians who had been victims of the killing fields when they were like nine or ten years old, that were so terrified of going back that they just didn’t want anybody to know—and I did one and then two more came. And I did those two and more came. So it was going to be—I had—I really thought about going into private practice at that time.
K: And focusing on that.
A: Yeah, just keep on doing what I was doing—I was good at it. I enjoyed the practice. I really enjoyed it, but I needed a vacation. In a way Catholic Charities really treated me very shabbily, if you want to know the truth.
K: Paid you poorly?
A: No, no, no. They showed up on December 30th and said, “You’re going to close your office—close your program on the 31st of January. You won’t get overtime. You won’t get comp time. Just close out your cases.”
K: That’s terrible.
A: So we tried to reason that you can’t do that. “We’ve got this and this and this.” And they were just adamant. At the end of February they took our keys and took the files.
Politics of Aid and Charity
K: Was it political?
No. How can I say this? People’s conception of charity, and what charity really is—is two different things. I don’t think there’s anything charitable about it. And, I have doubts to this day, frankly. The church does serve as a vehicle for some good works, but more often than not it’s run as a business; and I don’t know, there’s some great activists coming out of the church—Pastors for Peace, Witness for Peace— these are spiritual people, and they’re doing it from their spirituality, and I went to a lot of delegations. I used to go to Latin America about once a year from ‘86 to ‘94 and so I got to know a lot of North American activists. This was all church related and there’s some very good catholic activists in San Francisco to this day. The whole Sanctuary movement was based on religion. So I can’t say that they are not really good people, really good movements. I mean the whole socialist movement in the thirties was Catholic, well a lot of it was… but it’s ultimately—the bishops and the cardinals are on a different wavelength, and when business decisions are made, they’re made in a business-like way. [Even to this day, they keep getting off these pastors who are sexually abusing children and ask parishioners to pay for it..] At Catholic Charities it was the administrators who were looking at it as a business. They took Catholic Charities off to a non-charitable direction and their idea at the time was they would only leverage money. So, if you get a contract from the city to do AIDS work—and they got the contract from the city—then it was worth investing money in it, because they were getting back from it.
K: So they were funder driven.
A: Right, but if it was immigration services—if it was pro bono—it had to go. There didn’t seem to be any way of reconciling the need, the community’s need with their vision …I came up against them a couple of times at the ALRB, and it was like, this is not a problem, it’s a war. Many times when a lawyer approaches a contentious matter—but you’re looking at it as a problem—then it’s possible to have a solution. But, if you’re looking at it in terms of war, then the solution is you win, or you lose. And I think it’s much better—especially in my old age—I think it’s much better to see if you can resolve your problems before you get into a war. It’s a lot less debilitating. I think it’s much more productive. Even when you’re dealing with people who are essentially pigs, because they also see. There’s no side to them that says, “this is a problem and lets see if we can have a cost effective solution.” And that’s their bottom line.
It was much easier at the ALRB to deal with a corporate grower than it was to deal with a small grower. The corporate grower saw it as the cost of doing business and saw that as company…You examine the cost effectiveness, resistance—examine productivity, and you come to a business decision. So if you could make it worth while, then you resolve the problem. So, in a sense you see, the benefits of activism are making it cost effective not to settle. And that’s essentially, I think, the role of an activist—regardless of what the issue is. In our world, in our corporate world, in the world that we live in today, you have to make it cost ineffective for them not to settle. And when you start looking at it from their perspective then you get a better insight into how you can get what you want. You’re not going to get to them by appealing to morality. You have to go to the public to appeal to morality in order to force them to make a cost-effective resolution of the matter. But, if you understand what you are up against, I think you can be much more effective.
There used to be lawyers—there was one in particular—who used to make every asylum case a moral issue. Judges don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear that. You’ve got to make a record that if he rules against you, you’re going to appeal on it, and maybe win, even from the Board of Immigration Appeals. That’s what they look at. They don’t want to make a moral decision. They don’t want to try the civil war in El Salvador every day of the week. And yet, a lot of activist lawyers start off wanting to litigate the broader injustice of the matter. And that’s really another insight I think. If you’ll never get at the broader injustice, you’re not going to do that with one case, or even one person—especially in the practice of law. But it’s so incremental. And, it really is not what you win from the other side, but what you win for your own. As time goes on, I really think—like the American Indian movement—It’s much more important that Indians know they have a right, and act in accordance with that right, than it is for the government to recognize it. Because once you act in a self determined manner, then the government has to deal with it. But if you’re sitting around saying, you’ve got to recognize our rights, and as long as the government doesn’t, you don’t exercise that right—you know—it’s pointless. So I’ve come around to the conclusion in activism too. It’s not just what you do against the other side, but you should be able to use that struggle against the other side to actualise your own people. And it’s absolutely true. I try not to do human rights complaints unless there is an organized body out there that wants me to do it.
K: You mean of an individual, unless they’ve got people behind them, or communities?
A: A community wants something, but the state is being unresponsive. So, you use a human rights complaint to put pressure on the state to respond to the community. If there is no community…For example in Rapid City, South Dakota they found twelve to fifteen bodies of Indians dead inside of a year, in and around the reservation. It’s just too much. I mean there may be organized skinheads—whatever—there’s got to be something. A lot of them were inebriated, but not all of them. About half had alcohol content. But, nobody’s trying to force the government to do anything. People are complaining and there are families that would like to see something done, but there’s no community. There’s no community wanting to deal with the government. So I can file my complaint, but what do you want the government to do? What is it you want? We’re not there yet…
Lessons for the Left
K: Do you think that the left in general is learning these lessons?
A: No. I see people making those mistakes now. It’s part of the problem of being human. I think most people learn by their mistakes. Very few people are smart enough to learn before their mistakes. But people come around. That’s why progress is so difficult I think. And that’s why things are cyclical. I mean I used to think like, 1910 was a period of great social activism, the thirties were great social activism, the sixties were great social activism, and I’ve been waiting for the nineties since 1990 ‘cause I figured it would be thirty year cycles. Something happened to our history. I mean the cycle’s gotta come around but it hasn’t happened yet.
K: Do you feel it’s coming?
A: It’s got to come.
K: I mean do you see anything around you that gives you that sense—that looks like signs of progressive growth?
A: In the movement that I’m working in now, the American Indian Movement—I use that in caps, as well as small letters—the movement of Native Americans—I see a tremendous growth, tremendous consciousness just in the five years that I’ve been here. It’s incredible, and it’s international. It’s not just people are raising consciousness now. There’s something happening. There’s something out there. I really see it. I believe it. I think it’s going to happen. Whether, or not, with everybody else. And, a lot of it is people acting in accordance with the rights that they have, as opposed to waiting for someone to tell them they’ve got a right. There’s a lot of that.
K: How much would you relate it to Chiapas?
A: Chiapas has been very influential. The Zapatistas have been very influential with regard to, especially American—North and South American Indian communities—in terms of raising that consciousness. I’m not sure where Chiapas is now. Bill Means [a founder of IITC] analogised the Zapatistas to Leonard Peltier. All they know is what people tell them. They’re really isolated. So all they know is what other people tell them, and their perceptions may not be right, you know? And after a while, when you’re in that kind of isolation, you may not really have all the facts. You may not really be able to move—I don’t know. I don’t mean to be critical, because they’ve been incredibly influential, but it’s like it’s stagnated. The United Nation, the creativity it began with, it’s like it kind of ran out of ideas. I don’t know if it’s fair or not—But they’re still an important community. They’re extremely important.
K: So how are they affiliated, if at all to the International Treaty Council?
A: We don’t have any direct relationship with the EZLN.
K: But you’re an international…
A: We support their objectives, but we’re essentially a—we have good relationships with an organization called the Congreso Nacional Indígena – the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico, which is a congress of Zapatista organizations and communities. And so we work with them. We’ve included in our delegations to Geneva, their representatives, the CNI. We’ve done human rights complaints together. We had a good relationship. We were invited to their meetings. We were asked to do certain things, but it’s not a direct line to the Zapatistas—the EZLN.
K: Do you call yourself an activist?
A: I guess I should, if you really try to define an activist. If someone said we were having a meeting of activists, would you like to come, I’d say sure.
K: I’m looking for the right word… I’m looking for a… I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with that word who do the work of activists.
A: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something bad. But, when you start thinking about the word and what it means—even though you may have some doubts as to what it means—I mean if it’s somebody whose concerned about the state of the human race, or about the community, or is willing to take initiative to try and correct injustice, or a bad situation—to a degree self motivated—then I’d say that’s an activist. I don’t know; have you looked it up in the dictionary? I’d say in the sixties the word was defined by the manner in which it was used. You had Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, SDS and anti- war movement, and they were all called activists. Nobody seemed to mind. I think it’s possible to call Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez…
A: Yeah Ghandi. That’s a mega activist. That’s a king activist. Those are people who control history. Most of us can only try to participate in history. But it takes us where it takes us. We can’t control where history’s going to take us. We can try to have an influence. But we’re shuffling along like everybody else. I think Ghandi, King, Mao Tse Tung, Lenin maybe—maybe Lenin—[and Jesus] the world is different because of them.
K: Can you change the world?
A: There’s an old progressive saying: “Think globally, act locally.” You can have an effect on your immediate environment, your own community. But you do have to think about it in global terms. It’s very possible. Not only possible, but necessary, and desirable that people attempt to affect their immediate environment. That’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise they’re going to get bombed, and I think to a degree they are—especially in San Francisco—this is a town for community activists. Every time you turn around there’s some demonstration, or a meeting, or “come and do my cause.” I mean every time you go someplace there’s people handing out leaflets on other issues. We’re preying on ourselves you know, but that’s cool. That’s the kind of town San Francisco is – it’s small—so, we kind of bump into each other all the time. But we have—but, I think yes, it’s possible to affect your environment. The closer it is, the more amenable it is to being affected by your own initiatives and actions.
K: Does that mean you think people should take up local causes? Their focus should be local?
A: I’m not sure about that. No, as a matter of fact, I can’t say that I’m acting locally. I try to act locally. I’m on these boards. I try to go to local events. I vote. When I have, I’ll go to different meetings and show support, but my work is international.
K: So you aren’t saying everyone has to start locally?
A: No, but the kind of work I do is in support of local communities internationally and I think that’s a very important distinction. I don’t do that work. But I support that work in other communities—people who are themselves trying to affect their immediate environment. But it’s them that are going to make the changes. See the international arena is just one more place to go. As a matter of fact, it’s the place to go when you really can’t go any other place. The best place to look for observance and respect for human rights is in your own neighbourhood. If you can get the city council, or if you can get the county government, or if you can get the state or the federal government to observe, and respect human rights, and ensure that your human rights are respected—that’s the best place you can go—that’s where you can go. In the United States you can go to court. You have local remedies. So when those remedies run out, especially like it did for American Indians, there’s no place to go, but international.
The whole object of international work—you’re trying to embarrass the state to such a degree that it will deal with the local community who are making demands. It’s almost like, you file a compliant and the UN writes to the state department and says—what’s going on around here, wha t’s the situation—and then the state department goes to the Department of Justiceand asks what’s going on down there, and the Department of Justice goes to the tribal government—what’s going on down there—and the tribal government goes to the guy who’s really doing the beating up, and taps him on the shoulder, and all these people are looking at him. And they stop. And, some of that works. When you’re dealing with traditional human rights it does work. And if the government doesn’t respond, then the UN, after a long time, does respond. Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico—the UN is responding to Mexico even now, but extremely slowly. But it’s attempting to—not without a great deal of criticism. You kind of have to wonder what the UN is good for.For many people in the world that’s all there is—some poor slob, in some prison cell, in some barracks, in some basement, in Mexico or Columbia. If the world knows about him it saves his life… ‘cause the Columbians knows he’s there, the Mexican government, or the military knows he’s there, but nobody else does. So those kinds of traditional human rights – the right to integrity of your body, the right to life, the right to due process—those recognized human rights, I think the UN, on an individual basis, can be effective. But, it still has a long way to go with regards to group rights, with the states willingness to even observe human rights.
I filed a complaint with the repertoire on religious intolerance concerning the situation of Big Mountain and relocation. And I think this really created a need for the Treaty Council taking the struggle over land into other arenas, because religious practice for Indians is land. So when we start taking the human rights that are traditionally there, by putting them in the context of your own reality, it puts a different spin on it, and you get a more sympathetic reaction. In fact, the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical groups have recognized for a while now that this is a religious issue, as well as a political issue.
The Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance found that the US was not complying with it’s human rights obligations with regard to American Indians and religious practice. And he cited Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye’s mission to the United States the Rapporteur on executions, who investigated the US for the death penalty – the US use of the death penalty. Most people in the US don’t realize that that is a violation of human rights. It’s standard. I mean the US has been condemned soundly by the Organization of American States Human Rights Commission, the United Nations, the Human Rights Committee… soundly condemned, including the Rapporteur. Soundly condemned for the execution of people generally, and even worse, the execution of the mentally infirm and under-aged people. And you’d think that’s not an issue—in the US that’s not an issue. There are special investigators – thematic Rapporteurs who have responsibility for particular human rights throughout the world—a quasi-judicial function. Because the US is not subject to anything except the OAS Declaration on Human Rights, you can’t file in any UN forum. You can’t file a complaint against the US., because it’s always been very careful to avoid individual complaints. It’s never adopted protocol 1 to the ICCPR – The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It’s never adopted any of those; it’s always reneged on them. So an individual cannot file a complaint against the US, but you can use thematic repertoires to do that. Another issue that I’ve gotten into a lot—especially with regards to the United States—is that you can get to them but through the Rapporteur system, and not through the conventions. It’s very interesting. It’s taken the Treaty Council to a different level in terms of the work its doing. Anyway, they decried, they both decried in their reports. This is only the second time the United States has been investigated by the UN for any human rights violations, and it’s the first time the United States has ever been investigated for its treatment of Indians. The report was issued in spring this year. So, the US considered themselves a bedrock of religious freedom. It’s true. It’s the bedrock of relative freedom for organized religions, but it’s not the bedrock for indigenous people.
K: Who in the US ends up defending the US?
A: The State Department… the State Department has been totally silent about the report. They have not responded—at least to our knowledge.
K: Are they obligated to?
A: Well, now that there’s been a finding that the United States does not comply with it’s human rights obligations, my job is to take it some place else, and that’s what I’m trying to think about. I may have a hook. A lot of activism is persistence. Really, you can’t be an activist unless you’re really persistent. You’re not going to get very far if you’re not, because it’s just not amenable to the issues that are normally addressed, are not amenable to any kind of quick resolution. In fact, I would say that most activism is generational, and all you can do is participate, and hope that other people will take up the cause—because the kinds of changes, the kind of world that the activists that I know, want, are probably not going to be accomplished in our lifetime. I see there’s a difference between reform and activism. In reform you’re just reshuffling the cards. I mean the difference between a republican and a democrat is three hundred bucks to a welfare mother. I mean it’s not substantial. It doesn’t really affect the most pernicious defects of a particular system. You’re really trying to change some very powerful things. For instance, racism in America is very powerful. Things have gotten better, but it’s there. It’s there. And we don’t see it that much in San Francisco, to be honest with you. I mean honestly, San Francisco is a very different place. But, you do see it the minute you go to Oakland or LA. It’s there. I can’t see—I can see people working on the issue, persisting, persisting, persisting, and I think history will one day correct it.
K: OK so if somebody, some young person came up to you and said, well, you know I want to
make the world a better place, what should I do? What would you tell them?
A: I see that a lot.
K: Do people come up to you a lot and say that?
A: The question is asked in different forms. It’s always the same kind of insecurity.
K: How to get involved…
A: And, those are the kind of people that are not gonna.
A: If they have to ask…
A: If nothing turns them on enough to say, “I’ve gotta do something about this,” or “I really like what I’m doing,” or “I really like this. I don’t care if I don’t get paid,” or “I don’t care my mom wants to kick me out of the house, I want to do this”—because they like it, because for them something grabs them—if they have to ask permission to do something—then you have to tell them to just live a little bit longer, and see what happens.
© Kerry Nelson