Sunday, August 08, 2004

Our Streets, Our People:
Bearing Witness, 1968-2004



Carol Harvey/ Friday, July 29, 2004.

Media expert and photographer, Robert Terrell, bounced around with 10 or 12 people in an old open-sided British Army truck through the African bush in an area without roads, electricity, or running water.

On safari in Kenya, he visited Lake Turkana in 1984, and in 1985, nearby Maasi Mara. There he experienced “one of the high points of my life.” Maasi warriors gave him “the honor of letting me sit down with them for two hours in the woods.” He felt their spirituality, courage and dignity was beyond anything he had experienced among people living in “civilized society,” where, at every moment, one must “whore some aspects of your being for acceptance.” They did not compromise who and what they were.

Returning to America, he was ultra aware that “emotional and mental problems were rife.” Every other adult seemed to have a shrink. “In traditional life, you just live. If you are hungry you eat. If you want to go for a walk, you go.”

On July 14, 2004, I interviewed Terrell at the San Francisco Meridian Gallery exhibition of his photographic work. We stood in front of his photographs of the Turkana and the Maasi Mara tribesmen and pictures of beggars and homeless people in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

I asked Terrell how these people communicated this sense of solidity.

“They just ARE,” he replied. “They have a dignity about them that, for example, in America, if you get a person of color expressing that publicly without some reservation and polish, this society will stop what he is doing and try to kill that person. It’s what made the United States want to put Mohammed Ali in prison, destroy Jack Johnson, not like Bill Russell, the great Boston basketball player. They want them to be deferential.”

That kind of racism killed Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, I observed.

Near Lake Turkana, a lake in rural Kenya, he and his group talked to three tall handsome Turkana tribesmen who live in grass huts. They wore feathers in their hair. Their traditional East African black cotton robes were suited to their environment. Nairobi’s Mount Kenya has year ‘round snow. The climate is like San Francisco’s.

Of their shoeless feet, he laughed, “If human beings needed to wear shoes, they would be born with shoes on their feet. If you were in the city, you would have to wear shoes to avoid discarded heroin needles and glass.”

Living off the modern grid, the Turkana are a tribe that never moved into the cities. “They live the way human beings lived before they began the processes that we call civilization. These kinds of human beings are important for us to witness and understand. They embody a kind of experience and wisdom that we are increasingly cut off from in the modern world.

“I see them as very sensitive human beings who have a delicate existence. Much of what we probably have lost could be regained by having some more coherent dialogue with them and association with them that was not destructive. If modern scientists and doctors sat down with and talked with groups like this about AIDS and similar diseases --- Do they have any memory, or have they received tales of people suffering such illnesses? If so, what kinds of measures did they take to cure themselves? --- we might be amazed at what they would have to say.”

I asked him why he crossed three continents for 20 years shooting photographs of poor and homeless people in Africa, China, Eastern and Western Europe? Why did he bring this tremendous gift back to us and then continue photographing the San Francisco homeless?

Terrell wants us to know people are kept poor and starving worldwide by the racism of a continuing Western imperialism, by the far smaller groups of white elites, and that connections exist between homelessness in America and abroad.

Terrell identifies himself as a media expert, a journalist and a sociologist who believes that, “if it exists, a record needs to be made.” Terrell’s photographs are intended to hold up a mirror. “These photographs depict us,” he wrote in a ‘San Francisco Bay View’ article. He will “continue shooting until the problem is eliminated.”

“I want dialogue, to touch people. I want a thousand questions. ‘Where am I in relation to this? Why didn’t I already know this? Why could I come (to this exhibit) and be surprised, not just about the whole world, but about my own city?’

“How could somebody come to my town supposed to be one of the richest, grandest, coolest, most beautiful cities, the number one tourist attraction in the world earning billions of dollars a year, and easily take a picture that just as well could have been taken in the poorest Third World country?” It is a picture “not of an aberration but an institutionalized condition.”

It is a norm, I added.

“Right,” He agreed. “It is (a norm) fostered by four or five generations of liberal mayors like Gavin Newsom.”

Robert Terrell’s photographs, now on display at San Francisco’s Meridian Gallery, document the many ways that American and European whites have for centuries manipulated, controlled, and savaged traditional, poor people and people of color around the globe, restricting them to Third World poverty conditions in the larger geographical sections both on and off the modern grid. His photographs of homeless San Franciscans constitute an “early warning” that Third World poverty is on its way to the United States, and for very similar reasons.

On the July 11, 2004, KPFA radio talk show, Sunday Salon, hosted by Larry Benskey, Terrell spoke of Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11, saying the filmmaker reveals “back stage behavior.” Wolfowitz slicks his hair down with spit. A dazed Bush has just been told the second plane hit the towers. “Such footage is usually edited out, providing a standardized and sanitized perception of who our leaders are. It also demystifies power which is why the right wing is so upset.”

A journalist and media expert, Terrell is on the same ambitious mission as Michael Moore. Through his photographs, he brings us the reality of an international world which the mainstream media under-reports and distorts.

In similar fashion, the media manipulates our sense of our national reality, focusing on “the lives of the elites, portraying an America that is foreign to the majority of people in the country. They don’t have that much money,” asserts Terrell, or “that nice a house. Then people feel, if they are not living that way, something is wrong with them.”

Likewise, homeless people are marginalized, even criminalized because they have been unable to attain this illusory existence in a hostile culture providing no work, no affordable housing, and no medical care.

One of his most powerful photographs is of a homeless Gulf War veteran sitting on Market Street dressed in Army fatigues, an American flag in his begging can and a sign saying “Never again,” as if arrested forever in the trauma of combat.

In 1994, Terrell photographed a young mother with two babies, one in a carriage, sitting on the street. Here is the “Welfare Queen,” Reagan so cruelly labeled. Her children are now teens at risk for further homelessness.

Terrell speaks of the genetic superiority assumed by some in the white minority, a tradition going back in Western culture to Aristotle. One doesn’t have to scratch very far beneath the hype to understand that Conservatives promote the distortion that the American middle class and poor are out of work and homeless because they, like peoples of color across the globe, are genetically inferior.

These mostly white racist elitists neatly sidestep the fact that the Conservative agenda set in motion by Ronald Reagan, and promoted by those George Bush calls in Fahrenheit 9/11 “my base” have created an impossibly criminal culture without jobs that pay enough to meet exorbitant rents they charge. They play a shell game “protecting” Section 8 housing by reducing senior and elderly benefits. They under fund affordable housing. They justify obscene money and power grabs by shifting the blame to those less monetarily fortunate.

Wealthy conservatives seem to be trying to turn the entire world into a product. They have tried to purchase the infrastructures of the poor peoples of color of Bolivia and India, and commodify even their water for profit. Some say they bombed the poor and middle class Iraqi peoples of color for their oil.

While supporting the concept of a social safety net, Terrell eschews Progressive “helper/patient” models, defined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, if they undermine the in-born ability of people to take care of themselves in a nurturing environment.

Terrell’s photos tell us the back-story truth of what is happening both in and outside of the United States beyond our isolated range of awareness and our national denial.

Most Americans carry European travelogue snapshots in their minds of colorful trips on the Rhine, the luxuriant green hills of the Black Forest, or German villagers dancing in lederhosen. Yet, Photo 19 in Terrell’s exhibit offers the unexpected image of a homeless German man hunched against the glass front door of a Munich bank, a Porsche and expensive shops reflected behind his slumped figure. Picture 16 depicts a skeletal man kneeling on a sidewalk of expensive shops in Madrid. His downcast eyes peer into his hand where a wealthy woman places money.

Everywhere and always, these beggars and homeless people gaze down in subservient poses. A woman in Beijing prostrates herself over praying hands beneath the feet of an indifferent crowd. On a Hong Kong street, a peasant from the country bows next to begging baskets while the legs of a colorfully silk clad woman pass by.

A San Francisco resident since 1991, and professor at Cal State Hayward, Terrell teaches the ways in which mass communications affects national Third world development. Traveling to China in 1980, he edited copy for “the Time Magazine of China,” ‘The Beijing Review.’ In 1996, he made one of many return trips to Beijing and Hong Kong, tracking pre-modern China developing into the economic colossus it is becoming today. He was also in Europe around the time of the Berlin Wall collapse. He traveled throughout sub-Saharan and West Africa as a Fulbright Professor and lecturer photographing people suffering the crippling aftereffects of the British Empire’s racist exploitation still evident today.
One evocative photograph was taken in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1985, a very poor former Italian colony. A small boy has wandered out into the street in the morning, probably on his way to a communal bathroom. Unable to make it, he squats above a stream of diarrheal gruel that betrays he has ingested nothing solid the day before.
Said Terrell bitterly, “Italians abused the people of Somalia in the same fashion as the British, the French and the Dutch did the peoples of Americas. They were worked as if they were animals. There was no decent infrastructure for them. They were purposely kept uneducated. To the extent they could be used by the Italians, they were supported. Where they could not be used, they were neglected. The Italian military still control the banks, mass communications, and education. These post-colonial tragic places are all over the world.”

Terrell insisted he could get in his car and find a child like this in the Central Valley of California in less than three days, possibly three hours. “Mexicans come up, pick your food, live in shanties. They don’t have indoor toilets, or running water. The Republicans and the white people are voting, `Let’s keep them out of the schools and the hospitals.’

“It’s one of the most troubling photographs that I ever took.

“There are people in America who rage all the time about welfare: `I don’t want to support people on welfare, and they are lazy,’ and so on. But, most of the people on welfare are children. A child could not be guilty, particularly one like that.

“So, somebody in Italy, and somebody in the United States, which essentially took over that Italian colony when the Italians left after they lost in the Second World War, is susceptible for being prosecuted for crimes against humanity.”

In Photograph #6 a bright-eyed rosy-cheeked Beijing boy in 1992 leans on crutches unaware of his bleak future. His legs are severely deformed from polio, a common disease outside America. Though Hong Kong is one of the world’s wealthiest cities, street begging is not unusual.

This picture illustrates the economic apartheid in modern capitalist societies. “You either have money, straight beautiful legs, and nice clothing, or you have nothing. You live like an animal on the streets, and people are absolutely oblivious to you. There are more Mercedes per capita in Hong Kong than there are in London.”

This photo was shot before the British left in 1997. Terrell stressed that The West did not complain about Hong Kong not having Democracy under 100 years of British colonialism. When the Chinese took over, “all the stories lead in the Western Press about Hong Kong as if they don’t have Democracy. So, if white people rule you, you don’t need to have Democracy.”

The patterns Terrell observed during his extensive travels taught him that, with globalization and the loss of American jobs, middle class and working poor from steel workers to farmers will become progressively poorer. Enormous numbers will end up homeless.

The modernization of international markets has caused masses of people to flood into major cities worldwide. “The New York Times stated, this weekend, (July 7, 2004) that more people in China have left their homes in search of a better job than there are people in the United States. There are over three hundred million people on the road. It’s the largest migration in a country in the history of the world.”

Are they coming from rural areas to the cities?

“Yes. And, the same thing is happening here,” said Terrell. “Economic systems that have traditionally sustained people are breaking down (from) the impact of globalization and modernization. People are drifting into cities all over the world. Virtually no major cities are without homeless people. Virtually none of them are capable of dealing coherently with the hoards of people. There is no indication (this will) end any time soon, and a lot of indications it is going to accelerate.

“American cities are relatively young, globally speaking. All of the older cities in the world are surrounded by permanent shantytowns that have a larger population than the enfranchised wealthy people who live in the City --- Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta.” Rings of slums like those around Beijing, and Johannesburg could spring up around Chicago, New York, and Boston.

“We have gone through a golden age when it was possible, sort of, to have cities that didn’t have indigent people if you didn’t count the niggers and the Indians, because those people never had adequate housing in the history of America. They just weren’t counted. Not roads. Not medical care.”

Terrell insists, “White people at warp speed are moving to minority status.” As more and more white Americans join poor and homeless peoples of color, “This is…the challenge that is going to be facing us. For the first time, you cannot say San Francisco does not have a homeless problem as long as you don’t count the Chinese quarters. You’ve got to look at the whole city. Virtually no administrations of American cities have ever had to do that before.”

Robert Terrell would like to see us “address the historic role of whites and white racism vis-à-vis the current world order.” He believes that “`Whiteness’ as a frame of reference and grand organizing paradigm for the world we live in today needs to be confronted, deconstructed, and “dismantled in much the same manner as was Nazism.”

Noting that Hispanics, for example, are rapidly becoming the largest ethnic group in our nation, he suggests we collectively ponder on the image that most accurately reflects the American racial identity.

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