War reporter Mark Danner, author of Stripping Bare the Body, and public health doctor America Bracho speak with Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal. President Obama has been holding one meeting after another trying to decide whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan. He would do well to hold off another discussion until he has sent everyone home for the weekend to read this new book with the provocative title, STRIPPING BARE THE BODY, and a cover that holds the eye like a magnet.
The subject is politics, violence, and war, and running through it is an old truth often forgot: you start a war knowing what you are fighting, but in the end you find yourself fighting for things you had never thought of. In the meantime, you make decisions that inflict on people in far-off places suffering you never imagined.
That’s but one stark truth you will find in these pages. The wars we fight, and the violence that feeds them, reveal like nothing else the hidden structures of power in Washington: the personal rivalries, the in-fighting and deal-making, the ambitions that decide our policies and often our fate. STRIPPING BARE THE BODY, you will discover, is a moral history of American power over the past quarter century.
Its author is Mark Danner who throughout those 25 years reported from more mean places in the world than any journalist I know — Iraq, the Balkans, Haiti, and Washington, among them. Despite more than one close brush with death, he keeps going back. He writes for some of our leading magazines and has produced a series of acclaimed books, winning awards left and right as well as receiving the MacArthur Fellowship. All the while Mark Danner has been teaching journalism and foreign affairs at both the University of California, Berkeley, and Bard College in upstate New York. He’s been at this table before, and it’s good to welcome you back.
MARK DANNER: Thank you, Bill. It’s good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: First, the title. Very provocative. Where did it come from?
MARK DANNER: Well, it comes from a former Haitian president, who survived in office for about four months before being overthrown in a coup d’etat, and he said he told me and said in speeches subsequently that political violence is like stripping bare the body, the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s going on beneath the skin. He meant that times of revolution, coup d’etat, war, any kind of social violence going on tends to form anyone moment of nudity, as he put it. In which you can actually see the forces at work within the society stripped bare.
It’s like one of those models in biology class, where you see the body, you see all the organs beneath it, and suddenly you see who’s oppressing whom, who has the money, who has the power, how that power is exerted. And that that is the time to seize a society and look at it, to X-ray it, try to understand what exactly is going on in its intimate recesses.
BILL MOYERS: That’s what one finds in the book, that when you do these moments of nudity or nakedness reveal power structures that you don’t see without that violence.
MARK DANNER: Exactly. Exactly. Whether it’s in the Balkans or Haiti or certainly Iraq the struggle between the Shia and the Sunni, for example, which was complex, multifarious, sectarian, and intrasectarian. Haiti itself struggles over poverty and power. Places a place where we thought a democracy could take root immediately after the Duvalier dictatorship.
But where any democratic vote in which everyone you know, one man, one person has one vote was deeply threatening to the power structure that had existed there for 200 years. Same thing in the Balkans. You know, complex social interaction, complex ethnic makeup which, as so often the case with when it comes to American power, the assumptions of our leaders are that we can apply discrete specific power in a given spot and alter the social landscape. And solve political problems. And in all of these places, I mean, Haiti’s a very good example. 7 million people. Very poor country that the United States has occupied twice in the last century. And was essentially unable to change things. Given all its great power, you know, a country of 300 million, the most powerful military power in the world, and trying to alter the dynamics of a country of 7 million. And we failed miserably. Not least because when you apply American power, and certainly when you send American troops, you start the forces of nationalism in reaction. And we’ve seen that in every place Americans have intervened, including Afghanistan.
BILL MOYERS: But in Iraq, some things have changed, have they not? I mean Saddam Hussein is gone.
MARK DANNER: There’s no question Saddam Hussein is gone. There now is a Shia government in power, which represents the majority of the people of Iraq. Saddam, of course, was a Sunni. And he represented a minority in power. Now, it’s a Shia power, sympathetic to Iran. It’s unclear whether this invasion at the end of the day really helped American interests at all. We do know that it left 100 thousand or more Iraqis dead. It destroyed politically the Bush administration. And it left the American public and I think this is very significant, skeptical indeed about further U.S. military deployments. And this is what Obama has been left with, when he has to try to cope with Afghanistan. A public exhausted and skeptical. I call this in the book the Athenian problem. Which is how do you have —
BILL MOYERS: Athenian meaning Athens of Greece, right?
MARK DANNER: Exactly. How do you have a democratic empire, how do you have an imperial foreign policy built on a democracy polity. It’s like some sort of strange mythical beast that’s part lion, part dragon. You know at the bottom is a democracy, and then it’s an imperial power around the world. And the problem is that the things demanded by an empire, which is staying power, ruthlessness, the ability and the willingness to use its power around the world, it’s something that democracies tend to be quite skeptical about. And this is a political factor that looms obviously very large in his calculations.
BILL MOYERS: When you strip bare the body politic of our own country, after all of these years of war — Vietnam, two wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, of other places — what do you hear with that stethoscope you apply to us?
MARK DANNER: I think that the United States we’re now living still in the backwash of the War on Terror. We’re living still in what I’ve called Bush’s state of exception. Which is to say a state of soft martial law, a state of emergency, state of siege that was imposed after 9/11. Whereby warrantless surveillance was allowed without the supervision of the courts.
Whereby widespread detention was allowed. Not only of illegal aliens but American citizens. And whereby especially torture. Extreme interrogation techniques as some call them was developed, allowed, and legally certified within the Department of Justice. And all of these things represent the legal shadow and the political shadow of the “war on terror.”
Which Obama — a phrase that Obama no longer uses, but that indeed has changed the country I think quite dramatically. And this is something else he has tried to cope with. How do you perhaps change some of these decisions made by the Bush Administration without leaving yourself politically vulnerable in the case of another attack? And we see this struggle going on when the former Vice President, Dick Cheney, comes out advocating not only torture but condemning the Obama administration for renouncing its use. We see the political stakes here, which is that if indeed President Obama is seen to leave the country vulnerable in the wake of another attack on American soil especially he will be politically destroyed.
BILL MOYERS: You say that the decisions being discussed, and about to be made in Afghanistan right now have very little to do with the war in Afghanistan and more to do with the politics in America. Explain that.
MARK DANNER: I think the political background here is extremely important. We have a new president, who made his case on foreign policy during the campaign on his opposition to the war in Iraq. And that opposition, to quote his speech in Springfield in 2002, was built on the perception that he is not against all wars, just dumb wars. So in this construction, the smart — the dumb war was Iraq. The smart war, the right war was Afghanistan. Afghanistan allowed his dovishness on Iraq. So he has come into office having vowed to prosecute that war and fight it, because it was in American interest.
And now he has found, especially in the wake of the failed elections in Afghanistan, that he is getting into he’s taking on a hornet’s nest, putting his hand into a hornet’s nest in a way I think he didn’t anticipate.
BILL MOYERS: You make the point that we’re more likely to be the target of attack because Obama is trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
MARK DANNER: I think that’s true. I think that he is a political threat. And I think you have to look at the character of this war. You know, we’re accustomed to calling it the “war on terror,” even though Obama’s no longer using the word. But it isn’t a war where you try to seize territory. It’s not a war where you’re going to kill every jihadist. It’s a war about politics. Think of a target. What you want to do in this war is prevent people from moving toward the center. That is, you want the people getting the money to not become more active supports. You want the more active supporters to not become active jihadists, to actually go into the fight. So, you’re trying to do something political. You want to stop young Muslims from supporting this movement and taking part of it. That’s the only way that this war will eventually be “won,” quote unquote. And for the — you know, when you look at it in these terms, George W. Bush was an enormous gift to the jihadists. An enormous gift.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MARK DANNER: Because he embodied the caricature of the United States that Osama Bin Laden had put forth. An imperial power using its power blunderingly around the world, suppressing Muslims, repressing Muslim countries, occupying Saudi Arabia. You know, think of that image of Lindy England the young military woman standing in her fatigues, smiling at the camera, holding a leash. A leash that goes down to the neck of a naked Muslim man lying on the ground, grimacing in pain.
Osama Bin Laden, if he had hired the most expensive advertising agency on Madison Avenue, could not have embodied more brilliantly his ideology, which is that the United States is suppressing, humiliating, shaming, undermining the Muslim world, and especially Muslim men. Obama, on the other hand, stands for — you know, he has an African name, he’s black, he has a Muslim middle name, he speaks about inclusion. I mean, look at his Cairo speech. Ideologically, he’s an enormous threat to Osama Bin Laden. Because he does the opposite of what Americans are supposed to do.
BILL MOYERS: As you speak, I think of something that Obama said during one of the debates last year. I believe it was early in January, just as the campaign for the nomination was starting. And he said, and I’m paraphrasing, I’m running for President because I want to change the mindset from waging war to peace. Now, was that naive?
MARK DANNER: I don’t think it was naive. And I think he has begun to do that. I think one of the aspects, you know, one of the reasons behind the Nobel Prize, for example, was a recognition that the rest of the world is so grateful he’s in place. And that he is speaking eloquently about a world of inclusion, of cooperation, and not of unilateralism. Because the Bush administration was really the nightmare that the world had always feared, which is an America unbounded by anything but its own power. Unbounded by international law, judicial processes, anything. And Obama has changed that impression of the United States, which is extremely important.
And ideologically, it’s important when it comes to the “war on terror,” when it comes to, you know, with relations with Europe. European countries, European leaders can cooperate more easily with the United States when the American President is popular among their publics. It stands to reason. These are democratic countries. So, this has had real consequences. The question is: can he make institutional changes? Can he go to the next step? Can he represent inclusion when it comes to multilateral institutions? Can he expand our security council?
BILL MOYERS: NATO, U.N.
MARK DANNER: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: IMF, World Bank.
MARK DANNER: G-20, for example, which where he has indeed taken, you know, what was formally the Group of Eight countries industrialized countries, which made the big decisions on economic, world economic decisions, they met together. He now has shifted that decision-making power — to be fair, carrying on a change that was going on under Bush — to the Group of 20, which actually does include Brazil. It does include India. We have a much broader spreading of decision-making power that I think is extremely important. And that indicates a way to put these beautiful words of Obama into real action.
BILL MOYERS: So, for a moment, I mean, you’ve got a marvelous chapter here on the imagination, as it applies to politics and war. Use your own imagination for the moment, and try to get in the mindset of that group of nice Norwegians, peace-loving people, who are giving their shiny prize for peace to a man who’s only been in office nine months. Who has no real accomplishments to his credit yet. And that’s understandable, only nine months. What were they — what message were they sending? Why did they do it?
MARK DANNER: I think they’re thinking his eloquence, the vision he sets forth is so beautiful, and its beauty now is especially striking because of the darkness that it follows. And the great risk is that those aspirations will remain only aspirations. And we must do what we can do to ensure that they’re not only set forth, but in some way, that they’re embodied by true action. And our way of doing that is to confer this honor on him.
I think they perhaps didn’t anticipate that it might have a controversial reaction within the United States. But I do think it’s a clear expression of this enormous crevasse between the way he is viewed domestically in the United States and the way he’s viewed internationally.
BILL MOYERS: That beautiful vision you talk about, which they seem to be acknowledging, encouraging, and supporting, how does that balance off against the realities of what he faces in Afghanistan?
MARK DANNER: Oh, I think I would not like to be in President Obama’s position in making choices on Afghanistan. I think he’s in a terrible place, where this war is already deeply unpopular among the American public, and deeply unpopular within his own political party.
If he expands it dramatically, as his general, his hand-picked general has suggested he should by sending 40 thousand or more new troops, fresh troops, he will lose much of his Democratic support at home, and be reliant on Republican support. If, on the other hand, he rejects this recommendation, the Republicans will attack him, and it will be part of the bill of particulars that will be cited against him in the event of another attack, along with the renunciation of torture.
BILL MOYERS: I began the show with the reminder that, as you say in here, that we go to war for one thing, and usually wind up fighting for different things we could not have anticipated. What’s our aim now in Afghanistan? What are our basic interests there and what are we fighting for?
MARK DANNER: Well, part of what we’re seeing now is the sorting out on the part of the administration and particularly I think in the mind of the President. In answer to precisely that question, what are our interests?
We’ve been told that our interests are to prevent the regathering of Al Qaeda and Afghanistan as a jihadist base of operations, from which more attacks like 9/11 can be launched. But the fact is that these people have a very light footprint. The idea that you can simply keep them out of a place by occupying it with, in effect, a handful of troops, I think is quite mistaken. There are other places they can go. Somalia, Sudan, various other countries.
So, I think, you know, what happens very frequently, our goals change during a war. The one goal which, George Kennan I quote saying in the book. The reason that we go in is often forgotten, and suddenly the goals become something like maintaining our dignity. Keeping up our international authority. Preventing a loss and the damage such a loss will do to our international profile. In other words, they all become I think what rhetoricians call heuristic. They’re about the mission itself, not achieving anything else.
BILL MOYERS: So, are our troops there dying for primarily political reasons? For prestige, which the diplomats say is essential to maintaining our position in the world?
MARK DANNER: I think that’s a very large part of it. I think the other irony here, and I think it’s important to say this. One is the goals of 9/11 itself, of that attack was to draw the United States into Afghanistan to fight a counterinsurgency as the Soviets had done before them. And like the Soviets, to destroy the remaining superpower. That was actually what they were thinking.
It’s one of the reasons why a major northern alliance leader was assassinated, was blown up a couple of days before 9/11. The anticipation was this would draw the United States in, and the United States would be defeated on Afghan soil.
The fascinating thing is that the Pentagon, of course, at the time in 2001 avoided this. They didn’t want a major ground involvement. They used air bombardment and Afghan allies on the ground. They’ve been much criticized for this. But, in fact, they were trying to avoid what is exactly happening right now, which is a major land involvement, which will become, in David Halberstam’s famous words, a quagmire.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you say our boys, our soldiers there are bait.
MARK DANNER: They are indeed. I mean, it’s fascinating when you look at what the procedures are. You have at the moment anyway a lot of quite small bases. You know, where you have 20, 40 soldiers. And they go out each day on patrol. It’s very difficult territory. Very often, these bases are at the bottom of valleys.
They go out on patrol, essentially trying to elicit or encourage what soldiers call contact, engagement. That is, people shooting at them. It’s the only way they can find the Taliban. So, they use themselves as bait. And then, hope to be able to respond. And they have an enemy who, you know, it’s their territory. They can blend into the population.
BILL MOYERS: Taliban.
MARK DANNER: Yes. And they’re extremely experienced. It’s a thankless, thankless job, I think for the soldiers.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t answer it in Stripping Bare the Body, but you leave me perplexed with the unresolved question of what accounts for this boundless capacity for evil that expresses itself all over the world and from deep in human nature. You have any thoughts about that?
MARK DANNER: I wish I could — you know, there’s this sense, and I say this in the book, that the wonderful voluptuous thing about reporting, the great voluptuous pleasure of it, is that you will look at a place from afar and it will seem — will think you understand it. You will look at Iraq and you’ll say, “My God, look at what’s going on. I understand it. Well, I can say to you this and this and this?”
And as you get closer, as you set foot on the ground, as you talk to people, tens of people, you know, scores of people, as you travel around, as you see what’s going on the ground, bit by bit, your certainty is stripped away, and you know less and less. Until you reach a moment, a couple weeks in, usually in my case, where you’ve been bombarded with sense impressions.
You’ve been bombarded with opinions. You’ve been bombarded with descriptions. And you suddenly think, I know nothing. I know nothing about this place. And that is a wonderful place to reach because you’ve achieved a kind of tabula rasa. You know, now I can try to understand it on my own terms. It’s a wonderful thing about reporting, but unfortunately, it’s not necessarily very good at understanding the ultimate ontological questions that you push — that you just put to me.
What is evil? What is — where does the evil come from that lies behind someone like Saddam Hussein, or Radovan Karadzic, or General Claude Raymond in Haiti. As I say, I’ve tended to find these people — I mean, Saddam, I’ve never met or interviewed — but these other people to be rather disappointing. Their political goals were mundane. What they had working for them was opportunism, was very often cleverness and was ruthlessness.
BILL MOYERS: So evil becomes a tool.
MARK DANNER: I think it — I think it does. It’s a tool and it’s an advertisement.
BILL MOYERS: An advertise —
MARK DANNER: It’s a means of persuasion. If you can — you know, in the Balkan Wars, the ruthlessness of the Serbs allowed them to kill only 100,000 people rather than 500,000 people. They were able, through their own use of rape and mass murder, they were able to send five times that many people fleeing Serb territory. So they used it, in essence to cleanse the land.
Ethnic cleansing, as we called it, quite inaccurately, because the ethnic groups were actually the same. But I wish I could find for you, you know, the ontological source of evil. But I think the more reporting I do, the more I see violence used in an instrumental way. And also, I should say, our own tendency, when we use violence, because the United States does use it extensively — to ignore what we think of as the hygienic use of force.
You know, the Iraq war, in the first couple of weeks — the so-called combat stage, as the George W. Bush administration called it — the best estimate made by the Associated Press of civilian casualties, civilian deaths, which is certainly an understatement, It’s a hospital count so it’s only people who were brought to hospital morgues, was 3400 people. Now this is in two weeks.
This is more than the number in the United States who died in 9/11. And of course, Iraq is a tenth or an eleventh the size of the United States. So the equivalent, on the US side, would be 35,000 people died, civilians, in that war. They were never on camera. You never saw those bodies. You saw very few bodies. It was as if the American army simply marched up the road to Baghdad. And in fact — you know, the military before the war, estimated collateral damage at 10,000, 15,000, something like that.
And you know, when you make a decision like that and say 10,000 to 15,000, or 7000, or whatever the number was, will probably be killed as a result of this intervention, people who have no — you know, are not military and so on — that it strikes me as an extremely serious thing. It’s not like trying to kill civilians in a terrorist attack, needless to say. It’s not, because that’s your intention. But it’s not entirely different. I mean, you are setting out, and knowingly, on an operation that’s going to kill large numbers of civilians. And we tend not to look at it, and then we tend to forget it.
BILL MOYERS: As we —
MARK DANNER: — American amnesia.
BILL MOYERS: As we speak, Congress is about to pass a law forbidding the Pentagon from releasing any more of the photographs of American troops torturing —
MARK DANNER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — Muslims. What does that say?
MARK DANNER: Well, I think it’s a mistaken decision. I think President Obama and the new administration should have gotten this stuff off, out of the way immediately. I think these photographs should have simply been released. And —
BILL MOYERS: Is torture the purest expression of evil that you’ve seen?
MARK DANNER: I think if you’re looking for a pure expression of evil, torture is pretty — is a pretty good candidate.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
MARK DANNER: Well, because you are taking — I mean, it’s also the most illiberal policy, the sort of most diametrically opposed to what we are as a polity. A liberal state has as its heart the notion that government is limited. That there is an area of privacy of our daily lives in which governmental power, state power, cannot intervene.
And torture takes over someone’s nervous system. Torture takes over what they feel. Torture takes over and penetrates into their mind and into their body. It’s not only illegal, it’s immoral. And it’s against — it’s against the heart of what the American political tradition stands for, which is an enlightenment tradition. And in which the abolition of torture, by the way, in the 18th and 17th century, was extremely important. So it’s going back into darkness, I think, in a very dramatic way.
BILL MOYERS: Last question, and an unfair question. You write stories and report. You don’t make policy. But what would you do about Afghanistan at this point, if you were the President?
MARK DANNER: I think that the first point to be made is there is no “solution” in Afghanistan. Solution I put in quotes. We live in an op-ed culture, which is to say, you always need to have a solution. The last third of that op-ed piece needs to say, “Do this, this, this and this.” There is no this, this, this, and this, that will make Afghanistan right.
I think the first thing we need to do is be clear about our interests there, which I think are very, very limited. I think we need to be clear about the fact that our presence on the ground is going far toward undermining the very raison d’etre for our presence, which is to say, we do not want to encourage future terrorist attacks on this country. We don’t want to allow large scale jihadist organizing, if we can prevent it. But our presence in Afghanistan is a major rallying cry for those groups precisely. I would gradually disengage from Afghanistan.
But I think the war is going badly there. And frankly, it’s going badly here. And I’m glad the Obama administration, I think the President himself, has, in the wake of the Afghan elections — because that really was the turning point, the realization that the partner on the ground there was corrupt and illegitimate. And in the wake of those elections — all of the early perceptions about the war that Obama had set out on are being reconsidered.
And I think sometimes we should admire that in a president. Which is to say, it seems to me he’s thinking, “You know what? My original ideas about this place, things I said in the campaign and so on should not bind me and keep me from making the right decision.” And I’m encouraged by that. I’m encouraged by his willingness to reconsider and actually look at the facts on the ground. I don’t know what decision he’ll come to. As I say, there’s no right decision here, as in so many other instances.
BILL MOYERS: This is a remarkable book of reportage and writing, STRIPPING BARE THE BODY: POLITICS, VIOLENCE AND WAR. And Mark, I appreciate your being with me to talk about it.
MARK DANNER: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
BILL MOYERS: President Obama was in Texas today with the first George Bush urging Americans to volunteer for more community service, a good thing to do. Barack Obama actually began his political career as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. Since his run for the presidency, special attention has been paid to this unglamorous and tough line of work. Community organizers go toe-to-toe with the powers that be, and so they are often feared and ridiculed by those who believe America should be run from the top down. Remember last year’s Republican National Convention?
RUDY GIULIANI: He worked as a community organizer. What?
SARAH PALIN: I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.
BILL MOYERS: Despite such rank disparagement, dedicated community organizers never give up. They work at the grassroots to help their fellow citizens stand-up for the change needed to improve their lives and their communities. This year, on the Journal, we’ve reported on some remarkable community organizers. In Chicago, you met James Thindwa, speaking out on behalf of low-income workers for better pay and jobs.
JAMES THINDWA: No more abuse of workers and this is where we draw the line folks!
STEVE MEACHAM: What we’re witnessing is a courageous woman
BILL MOYERS: In Boston, we saw Steve Meacham organize neighbors to fight back against the banks and protect their homes from foreclosure.
STEVE MEACHAM: We have intervened in a key arena, which is stopping eviction after foreclosure! And by doing that we are getting leverage to negotiate good deals with the banks.
BILL MOYERS: Half a world away, in Liberia Leymah Gbowee organized the “Women in White.” They stood in righteous defiance of violence and war and helped topple a brutal dictatorship.
LEYMAH GBOWEE: I am going to be in the front of the line with my sisters. If we get arrested, fine. But just to say, I feel your pain. I’ve been down this road. And I’ll walk this walk with you.
BILL MOYERS: For our final report in this series, we want you to meet a woman whose very name reflects hope and faith in her adopted country. America Bracho came to Santa Ana, California, a decade ago to fight a public health crisis in the town’s Latino community. But her struggle against one disease blossomed into a much broader mission. Over time, she has organized and helped to empower a corps of home-grown leaders determined to help their community. If on this bright summer day you were just a passerby, you would never guess that these people are celebrating a dream coming true.
This young man wasn’t even born when that dream took hold in the dusty ground of this vacant lot seven years ago… But in a few months he and the other kids here will be swinging from monkey bars, playing ball and chasing each other around a brand new community center in a public park that only a handful of hardy souls ever thought possible.
AMERICA BRACHO: Muy buenos tardes.
BILL MOYERS: The creation of this park is only part of our story
AMERICA BRACHO: Welcome to this park, welcome to this project, welcome to this dream.
BILL MOYERS: Our story is also about what people can do when they finally find their voice.
AMERICA BRACHO: If you ask me what that lot means, it means… You could see it like it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a small vacant lot that is going to be a park in an area, in a neighborhood that lacks so much. You could see it that way, or you could see it as one major accomplishment for a community that went from not having any voice to getting a park built.
BILL MOYERS: To get why one small park is a major accomplishment, you need to know a few things about Santa Ana, and its environs. This is Orange County, California — one of the richests spots in the Golden State. Home to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, John Wayne Airport, Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback Church. It’s also home to enough fantasies to fill hours and hours of cable television.
WOMAN: I want the power and the money, and I want them both! Whoo hooo!
BILL MOYERS: For several years now, cable TV has practically camped out in Orange County.
WOMAN: I’m just your typical Orange County housewife.
BILL MOYERS: At least four different series have portrayed this place as a rich, sun-baked oasis stretching along forty miles of ocean beaches. But it’s a different picture here in Santa Ana, whose 350 thousand residents live a world apart from their TV counterparts. 70 percent of Santa Ana is Latino. The average family of four earns just above poverty level wages.
Four years ago, in a national survey of the toughest cities to live in America — a survey that weighed levels of crime, poverty and disease — Santa Ana ranked number one. So it’s hard to imagine a park sprouting up on these neglected streets, but it’s happening here, and it came about in a most unexpected way. It all started when this woman, America Bracho, a public health doctor by training, founded an organization in 1993 called Latino Health Access. The community she wanted to serve was facing so many challenges she knew she couldn’t confront them all at once. So she settled on one to begin with.
AMERICA BRACHO: We did a survey in Orange County among Latinos. And we found that there were major diseases devastating this community. And one of those conditions is diabetes. Diabetes is causing blindness in a very young community. So you find a dad at 40, blind. You find a productive woman at 42, amputated. So this is one of the diabetes programs … (section of transcript missing)
So diabetes not only was a relevant agenda, but diabetes is a great entry point to community work because it’s pretty safe. It’s pretty safe. I didn’t think it was strategic to enter our community dealing with issue of gangs, or with domestic violence. So, we decided to start very quiet. We didn’t say we want to transform Orange County. We don’t want to transform our communities. We just wanted a good program that could produce outcomes.
BILL MOYERS: The best way to achieve those outcomes, Bracho knew, was to recruit her ‘experts’ from among the very people living in the neighborhood, who were themselves living with diabetes. With good training, each one could teach one.
AMERICA BRACHO: We wanted to use the model of ‘promotores,’ which are community workers. And these community workers — we wanted to train them to be in charge of the programs. And there is something powerful in having people with diabetes telling another person with diabetes, “I was there. I wanted to die.” “And guess what? Now I learned to manage my diabetes. I don’t want to die anymore.”
And we started teaching classes in laundromats, in garage, in apartments, in churches, everywhere. Thousands of people with diabetes have come to our classes. Excellent clinical outcomes.
INSTRUCTOR: Uno punto tres.
AMERICA BRACHO: And when we started having those incredible outcomes, then hospitals started calling us. “Well, what exactly are you doing, that you are having these results? We are not having those results even with our doctors and nurses. Can we talk?” So, again, that was our beginning. Latino Health Access is this organization that uses community people as teachers! And they are called ‘promotores.’ And actually, they give results, clinical results.
BILL MOYERS: Within a few years Bracho had deputized dozens of these ‘promotores’, which in Spanish means “promoter.” They fanned out across the neighborhood like missionaries, spreading the word about diabetes and inviting people to their free classes. All this effort started a human chain reaction, one that gets to the very heart of successful community organizing.
AMERICA BRACHO: Promotores are very connected with a community, and they will tell you what is happen immediately. They have the pulse of that community. So what came next was that these community workers started seeing other things in the community. They started identify that many of our clients, many of our participants in the diabetes program were victims of domestic violence. And we created our first domestic violence program.
BILL MOYERS: And on it went. They launched a series of after-school programs for kids. They started classes for moms who wanted to learn how to shop smarter and eat better. They taught a class on ‘healthy weight’ so their kids won’t become obese — an affliction that strikes one in three Latino kids in Santa Ana.
GINA TORRES: Two pounds off! That’s great, Antonio!
AMERICA BRACHO: What I want our community to know is that nobody is going to do this for us. There is a proof to that. You know, there is a proof to the fact that nobody’s going to bring the diabetes program to our neighborhood, and the proof is that it took for us to do it, to have one. In this promotores world, you don’t recruit the brain. You recruit the heart. Because you can train the brain, but you cannot train the heart. So here we are talking about the clusters of skills for the promotores.
BILL MOYERS: Bracho knew about ‘promotores’ from her experience in her native Venezuela as a young doctor in the late 1970s.
AMERICA BRACHO: I practiced in a little town in rural Venezuela. Very, very poor. And I just was a rural physician. When I met these community workers in that town, they had all the kids immunized. And I remember asking them, “How do you keep track of this?” And they show me a shoe rack. And on the shoe rack they had pieces of cardboard with the names of all the kids in town. And they will go — they’d show me — they will go house by house and these promotores will push and push and push to get people to respond and to get all the immunizations up to date. 100 percent of the kids were immunized. There is something about being resourceful. There is something that is in the capacity of the community that you cannot compare with computers and technology.
BILL MOYERS: Bracho came to the U.S. to get her masters in public health at the University of Michigan, and in 1988, she took a job there helping to fight the aids and crack epidemics that were ravaging inner city Detroit.
AMERICA BRACHO: And again there we just did it with community workers. And we hired people with AIDS. And we had addicts. You know, the same model — the peers, the people that can hear them and can reach them, the people that are not afraid to go into crack house because they have been an addict. And the people going to reach the sex workers in those streets, were not afraid of reaching them. But not only were not afraid, they actually love them. You know, when you recruit this sex worker that is infected and now she becomes a community worker and she’s reaching other women, there is some level of love and solidarity. They are not just serving them to have a salary. They are serving them because they have been there, done that. And now they understand that they want these women to have a chance in life.
BILL MOYERS: Irma Rivera is one of the Bracho’s newest promotores. She first came to Latino Health Access to learn how to manage her own diabetes, and she’s been improving her health through exercise and nutrition ever since. Now she’s on staff, teaching others.
IRMA RIVERA: When we come here, we come with that goal — to teach them how to eat healthier, more nutritiously in order to avoid obesity and diabetes for the kids in the future. Because right now, there are a lot of things they’re eating that, unfortunately, the moms don’t know, or are unaware, that are bad for their health. So, that’s our goal. To show them that point of view.
BILL MOYERS: Rivera’s work with Bracho taught her that living a healthy life is even harder when you live in an unhealthy neighborhood. She says, for example, just look at the signs all over the apartment complexes in town.
IRMA RIVERA: In the apartments where a lot of us live, you’re not allowed to run, you’re not allowed to play, you’re not allowed to skate, to ride a bike, to play ball. We’re not allowed to do anything — just be in the room we’re renting, locked up and grabbing the remote to watch more television.
BILL MOYERS: Outside, kids wanting to play encounter chained-up lots that read: “no trespassing.” It’s stunning, actually — block after block after block of vacant lots, sealed off from the community. They’re the result of the city’s oft-promised, yet never delivered, redevelopment plan. What’s left is an urban desert.
AMERICA BRACHO: It’s very dense, it’s a very dense city.
BILL MOYERS: To bracho, the chained-up lots are only the beginning, but they prove a point she often makes: this is a community “designed to be sick.”
AMERICA BRACHO: Some people choose not to see the issues — not to confront of the problems, not to talk about it. It’s really bad.
BILL MOYERS: As evidence, Bracho points out there are more liquor stores in this neighborhood than elsewhere in Santa Ana. She says budget cuts here mean that kids don’t get the required physical education classes in school. As for parks: believe it or not, there’s less open space per resident in Santa Ana than in New York City. Bracho doesn’t think any of this happens by accident.
AMERICA BRACHO: I have to confess, when I see that vacant lots and many other vacant lots, I see injustice. If we are invisible to the people that allocate money, if we are invisible to the people that do planning, if we are invisible to the people that have the resources, there is something wrong with that picture. If you can make the decision, as a political representative, or as the leader of an institution, you can make the decision of putting a park in a place and liquor stores in another place and you put the liquor stores in my neighborhood, and the parks in the other neighborhood, there is something very wrong with that.
That’s French Park. That’s what they call the park right there to your left there, that triangle. This is what, like central park in New York, more or less? Of course, you know, nobody can be active in this park. Here we are facing an epidemic of obesity. And the people cannot move! I always say in a park like this, what can they play? Theoretical baseball? They can draw people playing basketball? You know? We want a place where kids can run, and play, and jump, and be kids.
IRMA RIVERA: I’ve lived in this area for 9 years. Since I didn’t have a place to take my children to play, what I would do is, since the school’s parking lot is here and there are no cars there in the afternoon, I would always take the kids there in the afternoon to play.
BILL MOYERS: Rivera would’ve liked for her kids to use the vast school playgrounds around the neighborhood, but they’re all locked up after school, so they ended up playing in a parking lot. What she saw there would drive her to action.
IRMA RIVERA: Two times, I saw cases in which a child was almost run over by a car in this section of the street. But there was one time when a car did hit a child chasing after a ball. I saw that mom’s reaction — she was so scared, so desperate, to the point that she was crying from such a fright, from seeing that. Such a big crash. As a mother, I felt horrible. I mean, these things can’t happen. Unfortunately, they are happening, because we don’t have any space.
AMERICA BRACHO: Irma was one of those moms that we met, in a local school, when we were teaching classes of diabetes. So here, she’s listening to all of this advice that becomes empty, if you have a community that is designed to be sick. You know, so okay, “So I heard that, my kids should exercise, so they can increase their opportunities for prevention — where?” It is that contradiction that raises your awareness, to a point in which Irma said, “I don’t want to take this anymore — there has to be a way.” And Irma approached us and said, “Can we organize the moms and get a park?” And we said, very much in the Latino Health Access’s style, “With your help, we will.”
BILL MOYERS: And that’s how the campaign for a park began, with Irma Rivera its unofficial leader. She organized other moms, participated in rallies, and hounded city officials. They got the press’ attention too, generating coverage in several local papers. When Rivera and others from Bracho’s group suggested this lot as a possible site for a park, city officials said no. It’s within that proposed redevelopment zone and the city had other plans for it. But Rivera wouldn’t give up.
IRMA RIVERA: This is the City Hall building where I came with a group of moms, many moms, who came to support this point of view concerning our park. We came to talk with our city councilmen, specifically because they have the power to say yes or no. I was a bit scared because I was like, well, maybe they will tell us no, maybe they’ll ignore us. So in the beginning that was my fear, but then I said, no, why be afraid? It’s something that I’m advocating for. It’s my right, it’s the right of my community. Not just me, there are so many moms — if I turn around, I see many moms in the same situation I am. So that was my greatest motivation. And I’m still anxious to see what we started become a reality.
AMERICA BRACHO: Irma is a peer, is a peer to many women in the neighborhood. And she has a lot in common with the women in the neighborhood. When these women look at me, they see that a lot of the things that I have accomplished in my life is because I’m a professional. They don’t relate to me as peer. When they see Irma, and they see Irma advocating and Irma caring and Irma going and offering testimonial, they say, “Well, you know what? If Irma can do this, I can do this. If Irma can open her mouth on behalf of her kids, I can open my mouth on behalf of my kids.” And the only thing that it takes is just to open your mouth.
KIDS: Kids need a park! Kids need a park!
BILL MOYERS: After several years, the pressure started paying off. In 2004, city officials agreed that this lot might work as a possible location, but quickly added that they couldn’t afford one dime towards building it.
So Bracho’s group would have to raise all the money themselves, and build a permanent community center on the site.
AMERICA BRACHO: This is the place — our community center.
BILL MOYERS: It was a huge challenge — they’d need hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get started.
The local hospital, St. Joseph’s, weighed in on their side — even loaned one of their top engineers to help oversee the project. A local grocery chain donated an adjacent lot, making the proposed park a little bigger.
Then, one day, after reading one of those articles about the fight for the park, a wealthy local resident came through with a hundred thousand dollar donation.
It’s taken seven years, but they’re ready to break ground this November. They estimate they’ll need nearly three million dollars more to run the park year after year. But for now, it was time to celebrate.
AMERICA BRACHO: You know that know people talk about hope a lot? Well, we have been talking about hope forever!
IRMA RIVERA: This is something very big for me and I’m very moved to see that we have the support from our community. And I feel very proud of that. We’ve been looking for all the possible ways to get what we now have — thank God — which is this ground. Well, we’re going to start. The seed has been planted. We will accomplish what we want for our children.
[BEGIN ON SCREEN SUBTITLES]
AMERICA BRACHO: This project is seven years of people organizing and asking and finally, after a lot of struggle, the community, Latin Health Access and many other groups, have succeeded in getting this land that you see here.
This land is more than dirt. This land is the dream of seven years for our community to have a place where our children can play. For this project to get this far, we have had to do a lot of asking.
But, it doesn’t matter, I’m not ashamed to ask. And no one should feel ashamed of asking and fighting. What we should feel ashamed about is not participating in providing our families a better life. Because if we don’t do it, no one is going to. This park is here because we chose to participate.
[END ON SCREEN SUBTITLES]
From day one, when we started this project, we said to each other, you know, the most important, but also the most dangerous part in doing community work is when people actually believe they can transform their community. That’s pretty dangerous. Because when people believe that, they want to do that again and again and again.
BILL MOYERS: We have to admire America Bracho for fighting on, as well as those other community organizers around the country. But if they won’t give up, the rest of us have no excuse for sitting it out.
That’s it for the Journal. Go to our Web site at PBS.org and click on “Bill Moyers Journal.” You can learn more about community organizers who make a difference, and you’ll also be able to read essays and war reporting by our guest Mark Danner. That’s all at PBS.org.
I’m Bill Moyers and I’ll see you next time.
This transcript was entered on July 8, 2015.