The Coachella Music Festival and migrant workers in California

Richard Lui:The Desert Sun) Apr 12 2015 (

Few things show the disparities of wealth in the US so starkly as the annual Coachella Music Festival in Southern California where celebrities mix with the well-heeled to hear top performers over two weekends. Tickets go from over $400 to over $5,000. Last year, the gate grossed $78 million from 579,000 attendants over six days. But just miles away is an agribusiness area where migrant farm workers live in squalid, sub-human conditions without sanitation or electricity.
Reposted from 2012:

This weekend, thousands of music fans converge in Indio, CA (near Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley) for the annual Coachella Music Festival, considered one of the world’s premiere music festivals. The western part of Coachella Valley–now one of the fastest growing areas in the country–has been a resort haven for millionaire movie stars & retired presidents since the 1920s & a haven for retired northerners (“snowbirds”) during the winter months.

Only 25 miles away, Eastern Coachella Valley is an agricultural area drawing 15,000 migrant farm workers during the growing season. Because no housing is provided for migrant workers, homelessness is a major problem with most forced to live out of their cars, on the streets, or in makeshift housing. Hundreds of illegal, unregulated trailer parks built on the cheap provide squalid housing for permanent residents & some migrants. Built on county lands (called unincorporated communities), these trailer parks lack sewage systems, clean drinking water, storm drains, trash pickup, & even power. As a result, residents are plagued by contaminated water & raw sewage backing up in the shower, overflowing in the streets every time it rains, sitting in stagnant pools in their yards. Children play in this raw sewage with rat, mosquito, & cockroach infestations.

Residents attempt to treat these problems which the state ignores by flushing sewage into septic tanks & cesspools (which overflow regularly), by pouring bleach into sewage pools, by digging private sewage pits, but suffer from many public health problems including gastrointestinal illness, respiratory disease, skin infections, & other health problems in an area not served by public health facilities. This racist neglect by the state also means dozens of crops sold around the country are grown in surrounding fields fertilized by untreated sewage.

Certainly the most disgusting of all the environmental outrages in the area is what has been termed “Mt. San Diego”, a 50-foot high pile of human poop dumped by San Diego on nearby Indian tribal land from 1989 until 1994, when a federal court ordered an end to the racist practice. Particulates from the massive heap of feces are dispersed by desert winds to the dozens of communities just a few miles away & emit a noxious stench impossible to shut out.

Although the labor of migrant workers generates the enormous agricultural wealth of California, their conditions of life have been in this bereft & squalid state for generations, existing right next door to lavish wealth. In Coachella Valley, one has to drive through upscale golf courses where celebrity tournaments are played to get to these impoverished hell holes where mostly Latino Californians & migrant workers live. If the stench was near enough to affect the golf games, that pile of human manure would be removed forthwith by the state.

(Photo of Coachella 2015 by Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

Norman Finkelstein’s betrayal of Palestine

Palestinian girl (from Palestinian Declaration) Apr 11 2015

Norman Finkelstein has long played an educative role in Palestinian solidarity through his writings & speeches & is rightfully honored. But his commitment to a bantustate solution for Palestinians (essentially he is a left Zionist) is leading him in a deeply conservative direction. He justifies that commitment with references to international law, as if UN proclamations were sacrosanct or enforceable, & with his claims that popular opinion will not accept a democratic secular state where Jews & Palestinians live as brothers & sisters.

In the past few years he has quite aggressively & contemptuously opposed the economic & cultural boycott (BDS) of Israel, a movement which has transformed Palestinian solidarity from small campus-based groups into an international movement.

On a speaking tour last month at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he spoke on the “new antisemitism” alleged by Zionists. For the past several years, with the rise of Palestinian solidarity, Israel & its Zionist supporters have attempted to yoke antisemitism to anti-Zionism even though a growing number of religious & secular Jews are active supporters of Palestine & oppose Zionism as a racist, right-wing nationalist ideology. For the most part, Finkelstein’s speech was dismissive of these allegations about crescendoing antisemitism.

Despite his dismissiveness & Zionist sensationalizing & fear-mongering about rising antisemitism (ignoring the rise of Islamophobia), antisemitic incidents are increasing in Europe & have been for nearly 20 years, with verbal abuse, physical assaults, vandalism & fire bombings of synagogues, schools, & cemeteries. Zionists, European regimes, & in particular Israel attempt to pin the increasing attacks against Jews on Muslim terrorists.

In 2004, Finkelstein refuted Zionist claims that Muslim youth were responsible for antisemitic assaults. He was responding to a study from the European Monitoring Center on Racism & Xenophobia (EUMC), a European Union group now called The Fundamental Rights Agency. In a 2003 report, the EUMC claimed the increased attacks were by Muslims & Palestinian supporters. In his textual exegesis of the 2003 report (which was never published), Finkelstein rejected the EUMC working definition of antisemitism because it involved not just incidents of violence & vandalism but merely criticizing the State of Israel or comparing Israeli policies to that of Nazis.

In 2004, the EUMC corrected the slanderous allegation that Muslim youth were at fault & acknowledged the perpetrators were primarily incited by or members of white right-wing nationalist groups. That is borne out by annual reports from Europol, the security agency of the European Union, which show most acts against both Muslims & Jews are carried out by thugs from far-right nationalist groups. The incidence of Muslim so-called “terrorist” attacks is less than one percent of total incidents.

So why did Finkelstein claim in his Madison speech that evidence collected over many years shows that every time Israel launches a murderous assault on Palestinians there is a spike in antisemitic incidents in Europe? Why does he draw a direct connection, what he calls a “causal nexus,” between antisemitic violence & Palestinian solidarity? Even worse, he claimed outright that the assaults “have often been perpetrated by disaffected, angry Muslim youth.” Not content to leave bad enough alone, he added “If in recent times, a larger fraction of these incidents are violent, it’s the blowback from the brutish fanaticism currently plaguing the Arab Muslim world.”

In this outrageous slander Finkelstein is parroting Zionist organizations. As reported in the Guardian-UK newspaper: “Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, & very ugly, demons. This is not unusual; police & Jewish civil rights organisations have long observed a noticeable spike in antisemitic incidents each time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares.” The article also reports that in several cities, “chants at pro-Palestinian protests compared Israel’s actions to the Holocaust; other notable slogans included: “Jew, coward pig, come out & fight alone,” & “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” In a pig’s eye! This is slander.

After the Charlie Hebdo (CH) incident, considerable fear-mongering was whipped up in Europe about the rise in antisemitic attacks, with Netanyahu leading the chorus to encourage Jews to flee to Palestine. But in fact, the greatest number of assaults after CH were against Muslims, with 147 assaults reported in France alone & mass Muslim-hating rallies in other countries like Germany. In the week following CH, 26 mosques were attacked throughout France with firebombs and/or grenades. Muslim women were particularly targeted with spitting, things hurled at them on the street, & physical & verbal abuse, including being taunted as “Muslim whore,” & “Muslim bitch.”

Finkelstein is nothing if not a textual analyst; he can damn well find Europol & police statistics on antisemitic & Islamophobic violence but instead relies on Zionist organizations & mainstream media. And this is a regrettable degeneration.

Another troubling feature of his Madison speech is his counsel that if Israel really wants to stop antisemitic attacks it should stop carrying out massacres of Palestinians & stop calling itself a Jewish state “so Jews wouldn’t have to bear the burden for its criminal actions.” He also suggested “official Jewish organizations in the diaspora” should cease defending Israel’s criminal actions so that all Jews are not blamed. Our man is moving backwards here. To speak of a diaspora is to suggest Jews have some kind of historic claim to Palestine when they have no more claim than Irish-Americans do to the Rhineland from whence the Celtics came. But most importantly, is this an appeal for Israel to clean up its public relations image & deny its apartheid character & ethnic cleansing program? Who would be blaming all Jews? Palestinian solidarity which includes thousands of Jews? Or European neofascist groups who blame all Jews just for getting up in the morning?

It’s regrettable to witness such a political decline in someone who has played such an important educative role in Palestinian solidarity. But there is no reason in the world to refrain from sharp criticism when he attempts, even in an insinuating way, to vilify Muslims & discredit Palestinian solidarity. Our first commitment is to justice come hell what may.

(Photo is a Palestinian child from the Facebook wall of Palestinian Declaration)

And the election campaign snores on!

The 2016 election campaign has hardly begun & already it’s hell. Were it not for the clownish nature of the GOP candidates it would hardly be endurable without medication. Now we’re supposed to be all atwitter that Clinton is entering the race. Her speaking style is very much like a narcotic (audiences have to be poked with a stick to stay awake & quit snoring). If I weren’t running for president against the whole lot of them I would consider heavy medications or exile to a place without internet or TV.

Boycott Israel!

“Not a single home of the 7000 that were destroyed by apartheid Israel seven months ago has been built! And you are still wondering why we are angry?And why you MUST boycott Israel? And why the two-state solution should be declared dead? And why Um Mohammed, the parsley vendor, keeps cursing ALL Arab regimes?!”

(from Haidar Eid, who teaches at al-Aqsa University in Gaza)

The Islamic State assault on Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria

The Islamic State (ISIL) assault on Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, is a continuation of the barbarisms of the Assad regime against the camp–showing clearly how ISIL serves counterrevolution. But the assault on Yarmouk resonates & is of a historical & political piece with the 1948 expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland by Zionist terrorist groups like the Irgun & the Stern Gang; with the frequent massacres & Israeli bombings of the refugee camps; & with the barbarous cycles of Operation Ethnic Cleansing in Gaza.

There are now over 5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps scattered throughout Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon in 59 registered camps & many uncounted refugees in unofficial camps like Yarmouk. This is the price paid by Palestinians for the reactionary Zionist fantasy of a Biblical land grant to Palestine combined with imperialist intrigues to control the Middle East.

Yesterday was the 67th commemoration of the 1948 massacre of 600 Palestinian villagers in Deir Yassin by the Irgun & Stern Gang. Since then, there have been countless barbarisms against the camps under the guise of routing out Palestinian terrorist groups. In July we will be commemorating the last cycle of Operation Ethnic Cleansing in Gaza which began with Israeli carpet bombing & continues with massive homelessness, hunger, human suffering, & the continued blockade of Gaza.

Once again, the ISIL attack on Yarmouk to rout out Palestinian terrorists exposes who ISIL serves. Our solidarity requires explaining that connection, building the hell out of the economic & cultural boycott (BDS) of Israel, & demanding no aid of any kind to Israeli terrorism & ethnic cleansing.

Suicide increases among grieving Palestinians in Gaza

Anyone who has lost a beloved to suicide, homicide, or any form of violence knows how complicated & wrenching the grieving process is, how laden with guilt, recriminations, & the second-guessing of every interaction you ever had with the beloved. How much more so to sustain the violence of war & see one’s children, siblings, parents, neighbors bombed to death–as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, & Gaza–& to feel helpless to protect them.

So it is distressing, if not also predictable, to read reports from Gaza that after nearly a decade of economic blockade & repeated episodes of carpet bombing there are now 30 to 40 attempted suicides in Gaza every month. Many agencies have reported on the massive mental health crisis among children in Gaza. After Operation Ethnic Cleansing last summer, UNICEF estimated 430,000 required emergency psychological help & earlier studies estimated nearly 100 percent suffer PTSD. How could it be other when Israeli war planes hunted them down like beasts? And of course this doesn’t account for PTSD among adults who were unable to protect their beloved & often saw them buried in cement rubble. The survivor guilt & helplessness must be overwhelming & compounded by one’s own feelings of despair.

A mental health professional in Gaza said mostly young people attempt suicide through overdoses of medications, poisons, pesticides, cutting, burning, hanging, or jumping from heights. It’s almost too gruesome to consider.

The Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has predicted another assault over Gaza this summer. So international solidarity hasn’t a moment to spare in building the economic & cultural boycott (BDS) of Israel. Every opportunity must be maximized to evangelize for BDS & tell the world the truth behind the headlines. There can be rallies, speak-outs, forums, film showings, teach-ins–but most of all a refusal to buy a single product made in Israel or in Zionist settlements in the West Bank.

The Islamic State: Fundamentalism and Counterrevolution

Rumblings about the nascent peril of Islamic fundamentalism began after the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the brutal US-backed monarchy of the Shah & replaced it with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. It was a popular revolution against an extremely brutal, corrupt regime functioning as a US proxy in the region. For several reasons, including the weakness of revolutionary leadership, the ruling elite of Iran was able to salvage the state under the guise of religion and prevent the popular revolution from advancing further.

The events of 9/11 in New York City moved Islamic fundamentalism from rumblings in academia to a centerpiece of US war propaganda. And yet, in those many years there is little agreement among scholars and journalists on what exactly Islamic fundamentalism, often called Islamism, represents, other than paramilitary violence. That problem is compounded because so many analysts are beholden to US militarism–which is best served by ambiguity and obscurantism.

Of course, now we are told the peril grows and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism encompasses the Middle East as well as South Asia and Africa, especially with the emergence of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

US and European regimes foster the explanation that Islamism is rooted in the Qu’ran, that violent extremism is the political expression of Islamic theology. This generates Islamophobic hysteria making military intervention acceptable. But other explanations have been offered, including radical commentators who see it as anti-imperialism gone awry and a misguided way of coping with colonialism among religious Muslims. We can dispense with contempt the often-cited explanations of evolutionary psychologists who see it as hormonal and genetic to the biology of men–the “warrior psychology.”

The religious character of Islamic paramilitary groups is disputed by Muslims with deep roots in the history of Islamic scholarship who claim fundamentalist xenophobia, violence, misogyny, autocracy, and sectarianism are right-wing appendages having nothing to do with Islamic theology or practice. The extremists are much more likely schooled in the sectarian political conflicts between Sunni and Shia than in scriptural exegesis. And of course that sectarian conflict is exacerbated and fomented by operatives from the US, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to serve their political purposes.

If Islam is a legitimizing factor and not the inspiration of fundamentalism, then is it anti-imperialism gone awry? Tis a peculiar form of anti-imperialism that is armed to the teeth with billions of dollars in armaments, including tanks, Humvees, AK-47s, rocket and grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, howitzers for launching explosives, anti-aircraft guns and missiles, infrared homing surface to air missiles, and machine guns. If we follow the armament trail back to the supply sources–and there is no question US, Saudi, Israeli, and Iranian operatives have done that–we will see who these fundamentalists politically serve–although the standard explanation is the weapons were confiscated from the retreating Iraqi army.

Some political writers characterize Islamic fundamentalist groups from the Taliban to the Islamic State as fascists because of their extreme barbarism and autocratic rule. The term fascism is now used epithetically but historically that designation was not just about the scale of brutality but about the relationship of paramilitary groups and goon squads to state power. In German, Italian, and Spanish fascism, the state bankrolled the goon squads. It isn’t certain what purpose is served by characterizing the Islamic State as fascist when the term is used so indiscriminately today. In many ways, the Islamic State has analogs in Zionist groups like the Irgun and other paramilitary thug squads who violently laid siege to Palestine with the support of European regimes.

What can be said with absolute certainty about the political character of the Islamic State and other fundamentalist goon squads is that they are a counterrevolutionary force in the Middle East and Africa. In that regard, they are a phalanx of US and European military strategy in the region–which explains their early connections to the US military and why they are armed to the teeth. Whether or not they are under direct imperialist sponsorship, their role is to divide Islam along religious lines and exacerbate sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia; create dissension and fracture the unity of ethnic groups; destabilize the region so that US bombers have an excuse to enter the fray.

For decades, the US has successfully worked with fundamentalists in several countries, including most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood), Afghanistan and Pakistan (the Taliban and Mujahaddin), Somalia, and elsewhere. But the US cannot work with popular revolutions like the Arab uprisings, the Intifada of Palestinians, or the Kurds who defended Kobanî with arms.

It cannot be said the US exhibits a coherent, consistent strategy in the region because they are playing a dangerous game, jockeying the contending forces of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and the Islamic State against popular revolution. Their strategy is necessarily improvised. They have to feed the propaganda front claiming they are militarily battering the Islamic State; they have to make sure those armaments get through the supply lines. They have to extemporize a strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq to maximize the Sunni-Shia civil conflict and another strategy for Syria to maintain the barbaric Assad regime.

The monkey wrench in all of this chaos is Palestinian Intifada which explains the extreme barbarism of Israel in Gaza and the US military support for Israel. Intifada stands as a symbol of revolutionary hope against the counterrevolutionary despair of the Islamic State. Netanyahu repeatedly attempts to equate Hamas in Gaza to the Islamic State but despite the political problems of Hamas, it is Israel that is best served by the Islamic State and counterrevolution. No matter what the rhetoric out of the White House, that barbarism is not at odds with US neoliberal strategy in the Middle East. The proxy bombing of Yemen is to destroy the popular revolution just as the Saudi and Pakistan military in league with the US and UK are trying to do in Bahrain, and as the Sisi regime in league with the US Pentagon did in Egypt.

The tragic dimension in all this is the disintegration of the radical and socialist movements that could provide political analyses, alternative programs for action, and political challenge to counterrevolutionary violence. The democracy and social transformation that millions fought for in the Arab uprisings are being swept into the vortex of counterrevolution and discredited as an exercise in futility. That makes the struggle of the Palestinians that much more important. Because still they stand.

We do not have to stand idle rueing for the good old days of Arab revolution. We can continue to educate, agitate, and organize to oppose US and European intervention into the region, including against the Islamic State; we can build the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. The Arab revolutions have been set back and maybe for a while; but they have not been unalterably defeated. The deciding element will be international solidarity with the forces of democracy and social transformation.

Long live the Arab revolutions! Long live Palestinian Intifada!

(Published in:

See also:

Free the five Chinese feminists

Five Chinese feminists - Apr 9 2015

Mao Tse Tung had a lot to say about contradictions because if there was ever a regime that embodied them, it was his. He wrote often on the “correct handling of contradictions among the people” & counseled the method of democratic discussion & persuasion rather than coercion & repression–though he found harsh repression irrisistible when persuasion didn’t work.

And speaking of contradictions, the present Chinese regime is jockeying to create a balance between their autocratic form of socialism & the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism–a sui generis system that isn’t working out any better in mainland China than in Hong Kong–especially for democracy.

There’s no need to wallow in contradictions to honor Mao, but China & the UN will co-host a global women’s summit to promote gender equality & empowerment in September at the UN headquarters in NYC. The invitations are jointly signed by Chinese president Xi Jinping & Ban Ki-Moon, who will both be attendant. This was announced at the UN on March 9th by a leading Chinese woman official the day after International Women’s Day.

Now here’s the double whammy of those contradictions: on March 6th, China arrested five feminist activists named Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Li Tingting, Wang Man, & Zheng Churan on suspicion of “picking quarrels & provoking trouble” for organizing an International Women’s Day action against sexual harassment on public transportation. They were all activists in campaigns against sexual harassment, domestic violence, LGBT rights, disability rights, & employment discrimination.

Their lawyers say they have not been allowed to speak with their clients who are now being held over the legal time limit for criminal detention without formal charges. The arrests are part of a general crackdown & censorship in China against human rights & democracy activists & some are concerned the women will be disappeared into prolonged extrajudicial detention in China’s gulag. That’s one way of resolving contradictions.

International pressure must be put on China to immediately release the five activists. To render solidarity, protest actions have been called at Chinese embassies & consulates on April 11th & 12th (at any hour before 12:00 am April 13th, Beijing time) demanding the release of the feminists now. Those unable to participate can like & share this FB wall:

Limestone mining under neoliberal military dictatorship in Egypt

Egypt--limestone child worker (Mohamed Ali Eddin) Apr 8 2015

Limestone mining in Egypt goes back to pharaonic times. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was completed in around 2,560 BCE & was surfaced in blocks of white limestone–as were many pyramids, some as old as 3,100 BCE. Scholars don’t agree on the character of laborers under the pharaohs but generally agree it was not slavery though it may have been seasonally conscripted. The difference may not have felt different but it was juridically different.

Nevertheless, in all that millennia one would think limestone mining would now be fully automated or that at least the harshest labor practices eliminated. But unfortunately the dynamic of neoliberalism, the barbaric phase of capitalism, is historically regressive & seems intent on simply bypassing feudalism altogether & outdoing slavery in its barbarism–particularly in the degradation of adult labor & exploitation of child workers.

Believe it or not, this is an eight-year-old boy working the limestone quarries of Minya, Egypt, about 186 miles (300 km) south of Cairo. Around 45,000 people, including 5,000 children work in the 1,500 quarries for US $7 to $13 a day. About 80 percent of the quarries are not legally authorized to operate & only a tiny percentage of the workers have social insurance to protect them against injury. The regime has a scam going here since limestone exports is a multi-billion dollar a year industry supplying the construction, pharmaceutical, fertilizer, & ceramic industries worldwide.

If the regime wants those quarries regulated & were committed to eliminating child labor, they could send some of the troops they used to crush the Egyptian revolution & straighten it out within a matter of days. It’s difficult to tell who the profiteers are in the quarries–whether it’s multinational mining enterprises that operate in other parts of Egypt (as part of neoliberal strip-mining of the country) or the military itself which has substantial properties & businesses in heavy industry. But the obscurity of ownership allows the regime to get away without providing social insurance in the case of injury.

In fact, the work is extremely dangerous & workers sustain frequent amputations, electrocutions, & often death. They use outdated, poorly maintained machinery with sharp rotor blades moving at high velocity to cut through the limestone & with electric cords connected to makeshift fuses that snake unprotected & in poor visibility across the quarry. They work without training or safety equipment except the sunglasses and masks they bring from home. The two local hospitals are not equipped to deal with life-threatening injuries so injured workers are usually transported to hospitals nearly 100 miles (150 km) south of Minya. Many bleed to death along the way; many lose their limbs permanently because they arrive too late to save the limb.

The health hazards from ingesting, breathing, & dermal contact of limestone is a mile long: nausea, vomiting, constipation, stomach disorders, mental disturbances, respiratory & skin diseases, irregular heart beat, kidney stones, anemia, excessive urination, coma. And that’s only the half of it.

There is nothing more damning of neoliberal predation than the degradation of adult labor & the profligate use of children workers as part of that process. Most of these children will not live beyond their teens, at least in good health. Many who do survive will be permanently incapacitated in one way or another.

This state of affairs is exactly what the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak was all about: a rebellion against neoliberal colonialism. The Egyptian regime struck a devil’s bargain with the US in the Camp David Accords of 1978 (under that great so-called humanitarian Jimmy Carter), horse-trading support for Palestinians in exchange for arming the regime to the teeth with the most up-to-date arsenal so that the ruling elite, including the military, eight billionaires, & 22,000 millionaires can make a killing off the backs of children & working people.

This eight-year-old boy looks at least twice that & very unhealthy indeed. That “workers of the world” thing may sound so passe, so yesterday, so communist but human decency demands we join together in demanding accountability to justice & the end of child labor. That’s an enormous historic task but if humanity is to move forward we must unite to end the scourge of child labor wherever it rears its ugly bony ass.

(Photo by Mohamed Ali Eddin)

The Haenyeo women of Korea and national liberation

Haenyeo women:Oh Bonghee (Hyung S Kim) Apr 8 2015

There is a remarkable photography exhibit by Hyung S. Kim at the Korean Cultural Service in NYC depicting haenyeo women from Jeju Island, a 700 square mile island 50 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula & a province of South Korea.

Haenyeo women are deep sea divers who harvest the sea bed for abalone, sea urchin, octopus, & seaweed. Haenyeo are believed to predate the Common Era & there are statues & shrines extant on Jeju indicating they have been around since humans began harvesting food from the sea. Without the use of air tanks or other modern equipment, they dive as deep as 33 feet (10 meters) for several minutes.

In the 1960s, there were over 30,000 haenyeo diving daily; today there are barely 2,500 with most of them over the age of sixty. The youngest Kim photographed was thirty-eight & the oldest over ninety. Discussions of the exhibit point out that this is likely the last generation of haenyeo, that the tradition is facing extinction. Intellectual light-weights suggest that increased shark attacks & heart risks from diving can explain the loss of this tradition. Others suggest young women have other options than this extremely arduous way to earn a living. The more likely reasons are South Korea’s efforts to turn Jeju into a tourist & honeymoon haven & the presence of a new military naval base on the island to handle US missiles which is affecting marine ecology. The base is actively opposed by thousands of Jeju residents who sustain brutal suppression by the South Korean regime.

Whatever Kim’s intentions in his portraits of the women, in many ways the exhibit is analogous to the photographers commissioned by the US ruling elite (including J.P. Morgan) at the end of the Indian wars of extermination to go west & document the extinction of Native Americans. By that time, Native Americans were a vanquished people living in squalor on reservations & the portraits, though stunning, are glorified images to disguise the barbarism of genocide. The people of Jeju of course are not subject to genocide but to neoliberal colonialism.

Many commentators point out that haenyeo women hold a special place in Jeju society; they have more independence, self-respect, & political power. Historically, they were not only skilled divers but also involved in cultural, social, & political affairs. When Japan defeated Russia in the war of 1905, the settlement acquiesced to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. During the annexation there was a continuous struggle against Japanese colonialism often led by haenyeo women because Japan used Jeju as an airbase & military fortress.

In WWII, Japan was defeated after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki in 1945. Over 60,000 Japanese troops & administrators remained on Jeju. Throughout Korea, including Jeju, popular committees formed to replace Japanese colonialism with an independent Korea rid of foreign dominance, including Japan, the US, & Soviet Union. Socialist activists were a central & respected part of the organizing because of their resistance to Japanese colonialism.

Between the Japanese defeat & 1946 Jeju formed a successful self-government based on the popular committees. Korea had been a united nation for over 1,000 years & in the early weeks of liberation from Japanese colonialism there was no sense of division into two Koreas at war with each other. Both the Soviet Union & US troops occupied Korea after the war with the zone of control along the 38th parallel which now divides North & South Korea. Dividing Korea into two warring nations became a US strategy to prevent a left-wing or democratic socialist government from forming.

The US military controlled the south & were alarmed by the popular democratic movements emerging. Under Syngman Rhee (the right-wing anti-communist leader installed by the US as leader of South Korea), military campaigns involving right-wing vigilantes were waged against the popular committees throughout Korea & thousands of activists persecuted & murdered for opposing the partition of Korea. In April 1948, the South Korean military & vigilantes backed by the US occupying army went after Jeju activists. Seventy-percent of the villages were torched & an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 people massacred. The US & South Korea tried to pass the massacre off as a suppressed communist rebellion but it is now recognized for what it was: the destruction of a popular movement to prevent the division of Korea into two warring countries.

The airport near Jeju City is new to accommodate the onrush of tourists & military personnel for the naval base. But excavations under the runways in 2007 turned up mass graves for a few hundred of the thousands massacred in 1948. This sordid history was suppressed for decades by the South Korean government but there is now a museum in Jeju City to memorialize the April 3rd 1948 massacre.

Jeju is now designated one of the wonders of the world & depends on tourism so they’ve built quirky museums like Love Land with 140 outdoor sculptures of couples in myriad sex positions. They’re not trying to outdo the Kama Sutra; they’re trying to make people forget the thousands massacred & still persecuted for opposing military occupation on that beautiful island. They cannot be forgotten until justice has been accounted to & Korea is once again a united, democratic country.

(Photo of Oh Bonghee, a haenyeo diver, by Hyung S. Kim)