Burying the Dead and Unloved
There are times in everyone’s life when something profound occurs to us—events that should change should change us by teaching a valuable life lesson. I’d venture that I experienced countless lessons while in the ol’ clink-clink, but time and time again I think back to a time when I was up on the Canadian border in the early winter of 2007 at a relatively bonerable “labor camp.” Unfortunately, these minimum-security camps are now all closed, but they allowed inmates to go out into the real world and work in the community. Granted, we got paid 15 cents an hour, but in hindsight, it was a pretty great place, as prisons go.
I’ve always enjoyed physical jobs like landscaping and such. Most of my labors at the camp reminded me of my upbringing in suburban Connecticut—I shoveled snow, raked leaves, and mowed lawns with an enthusiasm that made our boss (a.k.a. the CO) happy to have me as part of his five-man crew. In appreciation for our hard work he bought us eggs and bacon for breakfast, which we cooked up at our off-site shack that came equipped with an electric stove. His wife even used to cook us barbecued chicken every once in a while, and he would bring us venison occasionally—either ground up or made into sausages. He was a good man at the end of his career who admitted severely mistreating inmates in the past after he saw one of his coworkers get murdered by an inmate at Great Meadows in the 80s. It took him a long time to realize that not all inmates were scum and it was important to let his anger go and deal with inmates on an individual basis, just as you would any human. Many COs don’t treat inmates as real people, so just having a normal employee-to-boss relationship with him was nicer than you can imagine. Little things like this made incarceration more bearable.
I worked with that crew for about six months before I got shipped out to another facility. It sounds crazy but I got comfortable at this camp and was a little sad when I packed up. The next spot I went to was awful. I started working there in January, and almost immediately some guys who had been working the grounds for a couple years, started joking about the bodies piling up in a shack by the prison cemetery that we would be burying as soon as the ground thawed. I honestly thought they were fuckin’ with me.
Alabama’s Strip Clubs of Death
A strip club regular in Rialto, California, was so obsessed with a dancer he went to the club for several months specifically to see her. But when she refused to go home with him one night a few weeks ago, he shot her in the face—and then he shot himself in the head.
The stripper survived and is now in stable condition. The man is dead. And this kind of violence isn’t particularly rare. According to various local news reports I’ve been combing through, strip clubs in the US have already seen at least 11 shootings this year, which resulted in nine deaths. And that number doesn’t even include the bouncer at a Tennessee strip club who was shot with an arrow.
Reasons for the shootings vary. Most of the time, it’s the result of a fight between patrons that gets out of hand, or a drunk who’s thrown out of the club and comes back with a gun for revenge. In a few cases, they were robberies gone wrong.
But what causes the violence? Your regular armchair psychologist might say the combination of booze and boobs causes men to revert to a primal state and try to kill each other. Richard McCleary, one of the few criminologists who have studied this subject, claims that violence happens because strip clubs with lax security attract unsavory people who carry weapons and end up causing violent situations.
The truth is probably a combination of the two theories, with a dash of America’s gun-obsessed culture thrown in. At least, that’s how it is in Alabama.
Meet Sohel Rana, the Most Hated Man in Bangladesh
Mayday in Bangladesh: “The serenity of Jurain graveyard seems more than other days on Wednesday as 32 workers whose bodies remained unclaimed made their final journey,” is how the local Daily Star described it.
And now begins the sideshow. It’s much more engaging than the main event, it must be said. Yesterday, theNew York Times’ Jim Yardley, who has been excellent on the subject of labor abuses in Bangladesh, delivered a short and amazing profile of Sohel Rana, the 35-year-old owner of Rana Plaza, the massive factory outside Dhaka which collapsed last week, killing at least 400 workers.
Rana appears to be typical of a certain type of Bangladeshi garment magnate: crass, vulgar, nouveau-riche, and involved in equal measure in organized crime and high politics. He rode with his entourage on motorcycles, he’s accused of dealing in guns and drugs, he seized the land where he and his father built Rana Plaza from small landowners by force and through illegal paperwork, and he was protected by corrupt officials.
He was involved in the youth league of the governing Awami League. Which, to put it mildly, is not quite the same thing as being involved in the Young Republicans. The youth wings of the national parties in Bangladesh often function as nothing more than massive gangs: the two main parties are crony organizations at the top and depend in large part on intimidation and politics-at-the-end-of-a-brickbat at the bottom. Every few months or so they call “general strikes” to protest this or that policy or as a pure show of force—the country largely shuts down and any unlucky auto-rickshaw driver caught violating the strike risks a beating or murder.
Hey, UK, Are You Glad Margaret Thatcher Is Dead?
Brace yourself, as this bit of news has gone vastly unmentioned on social media today, but Margaret Thatcher is dead. Britain’s first female Prime Minister passed away this morning after a stroke and leaves a relatively mixed legacy, in that she still has her supporters who stress that everything she did was completely necessary, she has an overwhelming number of people who despise everything she stood for, and she has the people who hate on her because it’s kind of punk or something?
I wanted to see whether a mention of the Iron Lady still manages to provoke as visceral a response in death as it did when she was alive, so I had a walk around London and asked some people a question: Are you glad that Margaret Thatcher is dead?
Ben, 21, broker: I wouldn’t say I’m glad that she’s dead, no. I disagree with her politics and I suppose you could say I’m hoping her politics die with her, but I’d never say that I’m happy for someone to die.
What do you think her legacy is?
She defined modern conservatism, to an extent. She was a polarising figure—I certainly didn’t like her fiscal policy or her foreign policy—and I don’t think she was a friend to the lower classes.
What’s your initial reaction when you hear the name Margaret Thatcher?
Well, she was the first female Prime Minister. You’ve got to give her credit for that.
That you do, Ben.
Laura, 33, project manager: Who cares? She was old, right? She’s already out of office. I’m from Germany, so I don’t really care that much.
What’s your impression of her leadership?
She was known for being really strict, really hard, right? That’s my impression, anyway.
What do you think her legacy is?
I think to rule a country as a female, that’s important. Being the first female Prime Minister, she showed that a woman could hold her own on the global stage. As far as specifics, it’s not really for me to say what her legacy is. I’ll leave that to people who lived here during the Thatcher years.
Relax, Soda Isn’t Killing Anyone
Today, the left-wing blog ThinkProgress freaked out over a study that linked soda and other sugary drinks to 180,000 deaths globally each year. According to that study, “one out of every 100 obesity-related deaths around the world can be tied to sugary drinks, which directly exacerbate health conditions like diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer… the over-consumption of those beverages increased global deaths from diabetes by 133,000, from cardiovascular disease by 44,000 and from cancer by 6,000.” One of the study’s co-authors, Gitanjali Singh of the Harvard School of Public Health, said that these tens of thousands of deaths “should impel policy makers to make strong policies to reduce consumption of sugary beverages.” ThinkProgress went on to note that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to do exactly that, but the courts struck his proposal down and now, Oh God, New Yorkers will keep drinking lots of soda and, presumably, keep dying from sugary drinks. I hope you’re happy, you cranky libertarian types. The right to drink whatever you want that you cherish so much is killing innocent people.
Man, where to start?
1. 180,000 deaths worldwide per year is, like, hardly any deaths. The CIA World Factbook says that 107 people die every minute, which works out to roughly 154,000 deaths a day. If soda is killing as few people as the study says, it’s not a hugely urgent problem.
2. The American Beverage Association—a.k.a., Big Soda, so take this with a grain of salt—pointed out inBloomberg that the study’s abstract, which was published by the American Heart Association, doesn’t include a methodology and wasn’t peer-reviewed, so it’s impossible to check the researchers’ work. They say the American Heart Association “calculated the quantities of sugar-sweetened beverage intake around the world by age and sex; the effects of this consumption on obesity and diabetes; and the impact ofobesity and diabetes-related deaths,” but the raw numbers weren’t on the website so we have to take them at their word.
Your Clothes Are Making Indian Cotton Farmers Commit Suicide
In the same month that 125 Bangladeshi fabric workers died in a factory fire, a film aiming to expose the tragedy of unrestricted globalized fashion called Dirty White Gold reached its Sponsume target of £18,000(about $27,000). The film begins by examining the hundreds of thousands of Indian cotton farmers who, saddled with economic hopelessness, have taken their own lives. It’s a jolly little piece.
A Center for Human Rights and Global Justice report describes the root of the problem: At the turn of the millennium, Indian farmers who had been given access to a wider range of products after India’s market liberalization started buying genetically modified Bollgard Bt cotton seeds from the Gates Foundation-backedMonsanto corporation. The seeds were able to resist and kill the common American Bollworm cotton pest, making them an instant hit, with 85 percent of cotton grown in India being Monsanto-controlled Bt cotton by 2009.
However, the seeds were expensive, and spiralling prices (coupled with planting restrictions from the multinationals selling the seeds) led to farmers approaching money lenders for hefty loans that eventually turned into unmanageable debt. Almost 300,000 cotton workers have committed suicide to date, some of them by drinking the same insecticides they were sold by multinationals. And those suicides also bring up wider questions about the ethics of the fashion industry as a whole, in that this cotton is used in the clothes that end up absolutely everywhere.
India’s embrace of the free market opened the floodgates for international money and, perhaps predictably, the corporatization of agriculture vanquished the need for the small-to-medium scale farmers who used to own and control the productive process. For roughly 100 rupees per day (about $1.80), these people are now contracted to spread toxic insecticides and fertilizers, often with little or no protective clothing. I called up the director ofDirty White Gold, London-based journalist Leah Borromeo, to see if the situation could possibly get any more depressing.
Leah Borromeo interviewing Hanuman, an indebted cotton farmer
VICE: Hi, Leah. How far along into the film are you at the moment?
Leah Borromeo: Some days I feel like I’m a quarter of the way done, and other days I feel like I’m only an eighth of the way done. It’s going to be out in 2014, toward the end of summer. I’ve got a deadline, so I’m trying to get everything done by then, but I can’t rush nature—quite literally, in this case.
What made you want to work on this topic in particular?
I was doing it as a straightforward magazine article, but I ended up bringing a camera with me and found so many stories within that surface story. Then I found there was a real, genuine chance to express globalization, capitalism, consumerism, and all the wider political and social arguments through the medium of this story.
Yeah, you could look at it as a single issue, but obviously the problem is vast, and arguably a consequence of global capitalism.
It embodies absolutely everything. Fashion is the one piece of art that people tend to consume either consciously or unconsciously. The two best foils for relating to consumerism are through food or fashion. Food is quite a niche thing, because not everybody eats meat, but everybody—for the most part—seems to wear clothes.
MEXICO CITY: WAS THE PEMEX BLAST A BOMB OR AN ACCIDENT?
The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex—Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people—is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City’s brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.
Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.
According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack—another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.
Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas. The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obredor, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to “defend” Pemex from “privatization” with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.
How Are We Going to Die?
Illustration by John Bogan
According to history, the end has been forever nigh. If God isn’t about to destroy us, it’s our own weapons; if it’s not civil war, it’s foreign enemies or aliens. As such, it’s easy to get lost in the magnificent spectacle of uncertainty that plagues our very existence and lose sight of the things that might actually kill us all.
Stuart Armstrong is a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, where he’s been on a mission to gauge what sort of doom might befall mankind. The FHI makes it its business to track a bunch of legitimate apocalyptic risks, and Stuart was kind enough to offer me some insight into four of the most plausible:
“It’s either going to kill us all or we’re going to cope with it. Even if we just get human-level AIs, these things can be copied and trained; we can take the best of them and then we can network them together and form supercommittees with the intelligence equivalent of, say, Edison, Einstein, George Soros, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Plato, Goebbels, Bernie Madoff, and Steve Jobs combined—each entity brilliant in its own narrow domain and then networked with one another, running millions of times faster than any normal human.”
“With the ability to program cells as one programs computers comes the ability to engineer viruses, bacteria, and animal cells for specific and potentially deadly purposes. For the moment, what we have are basically superhackers who are making genomes that express certain things and propagate themselves.”
“With nanotechnology, we can build machines for spying and for military purposes on the tiniest of scales, seeding them throughout the ecosystem. This could collapse the need for trade and allow a completely disarmed state to build an arsenal in a single day, destabilizing the world.”
“The weapons of the Cold War are still out there, and their deadliness hasn’t decreased. Recent research has demonstrated that the nuclear-winter scenario remains plausible, even for a small-scale nuclear conflict. And proliferation remains a perennial possibility, especially if technological developments allow nonstate actors to get in on the game.”
Bring a box of tissues and read more from our Hopelessness Issue:
The Secret Drinker’s Handbook
Don’t Get Caught
The Right to Die Is the Right to Live
The New Orleans Murder Wall Won’t Stop Growing
Historically, New Orleans is the city of jazz, Mardi Gras, and semi-functional alcoholics. But while its residents are famous the world over for drinking hurricanes and showing their tits in exchange for plastic doubloons, their city also has a reputation for being a murderous, poverty-stricken town run by some of the most corrupt public servants in the country. In 2011 alone, there were 199 murders on the streets of New Orleans (around three a week). Defined by the amount of killings per capita, New Orleans is officially the murder capital of America, and with a homicide rate around 20 percent higher than the next city on the list (here’s looking at you, Detroit), the problems are snowballing out of control.
In addition to ongoing problems from Katrina, communities in the poorest parts of New Orleans are also being ravaged by an 8 – 10 percent unemployment rate, which isn’t helping to curb a growing culture of violence between youngsters in opposing areas. This, combined with an underground gun trading circuit, is turning Louisiana’s largest city into a powder keg.
Last year New Orleans police seized almost 350 illegal, unlicensed firearms in just two months. Although relatively clandestine for the moment, there are apparently licensed gun owners willing to buy and sell firearms for the sole purpose of distributing them on the streets of New Orleans to murderers and gang members with criminal records.
Despite the influx of illegal guns and the fact that murder rates have been on the rise for the past three years, there’s a strong feeling among residents that the government is turning a blind eye to the escalating violence in New Orleans.
A local priest from a church about two blocks from the French Quarter is trying to bring greater awareness to the problem. Father Bill Terry of St. Anna’s keeps a record of every murder in New Orleans on the outside of his church wall as an ever-growing tribute. He records the deceased’s name, date of homicide, their age, and how they were killed. I spoke to Father Terry about his project.
VICE: Hello, Father. How did the violence in New Orleans get so bad that you felt the need to start recording the deceased on your church wall?
Father Terry: First of all, I want to make it very clear that this problem cannot be blamed solely on Katrina. It’s been bad for years. It’s growing like a virus. The killings in New Orleans are a phenomenon—over 74 percent of the murders are between people who know each other. It’s different because they’re not always motivated by drugs, either. A lot of it is relational. Here people fight for turf, but not in the classic sense. It may be one neighbourhood fighting another, but it often has nothing to do with drugs or the economy—it’s bizarre.
A lot of it has to do with retaliation, too. The city has political subdivisions called “wards.” If somebody gets shot in the 7th Ward, for instance, people living there who are of this murderous nature usually decide to go to the 6th Ward where the shooter was from and just shoot somebody there—anybody at random. A lot of very innocent people get killed because of this.
How do you keep up with recording fresh murders on the wall when people are killed so regularly?
A person in the Dioceses of Louisiana gathers all the records, so we get a weekly list of the murder victims. Then, every two weeks I go outside and put them on the board.
And most of the deaths are from shootings?
Yes. Ninety-seven percent of the murders—believe me—are by gun.