Survivors of Torture, Rebuilding Lives in Los Angeles

February 28, 2015

It’s been an overwhelming experience to be working again with Hector Aristizábal and Julian Scharmacher, collecting oral histories from survivors and from their families.

We’ve been very interested not only in the experiences of the asylum-seekers themselves but also in what happens to the second generation, the people who are also affected by exile and trauma but who are too often overlooked.

We’ve met some extraordinary people but fears for safety–their own and their families’–has meant that many of these stories can’t be told.

A small brave group will open up onstage on March 23 and 24, and I am just beginning to post the narratives that have been approved.

You can find information about the free performances and read survivor stories as they go up at our website.

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

Mad Street Scene by Jose Ramirez

March 23, 2015 at Mercado La Paloma, Community Room, 3655 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90007 at 6:30 PM

Facility is ADA-complaint; Food available for purchase; Parking is free in the evening in the Mercado’s lot, on the street, and around the corner at DMV lot on Hope between W. 37th and Exposition.

March 24, 2015 at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, 5257 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016

Reception and Cash Bar at 6:30; Performance at 7:00 PM

Restrooms at this venue up a flight of stairs. Street parking.

More to come over the next year so please keep checking in.

We are grateful to all the participants, to the Program for Torture Victims for their help. For the support that makes this project possible, our gratitude to the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and to CalHumanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


December 28, 2014

The Millions March LA this afternoon was everything I’ve been hoping to see for a long time and I almost didn’t go. Certainly I wanted to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with the call for justice and an end to violence, but I hesitate when I don’t know who’s involved. On the invitation I didn’t see any of the usual names or any of the usual progressive organizations. That turned out to be perhaps the best part of the day.

How many more

After decades of protests starting in the Sixties, I have to say I’ve become sick and tired of showing up. (Except for the extraordinary outpouring in 2006 when half a million people marched peacefully for immigrant rights in downtown Los Angeles.) Usually? It’s the same (old) faces, the interminable speeches, the long adulatory introductions as though no one would actually bother to work for social justice without incessant ego-strokes, the tired and predictable rhetoric, the rival organizations with their varied but usual agendas.

Considering how I feel, I wonder what made me attend the pre-march conversation. I am still exhilarated. What I found at noon in the amphitheater at Pan Pacific Park was an entirely youth-led movement. “A social movement led by the young, guided by elders,” said one speaker. Of the 500 or so people assembled, the vast majority were under the age of 35. A significant number had never before been part of a protest.

I can't Breathe

There were to be no outside organizations leafletting or selling materials. The message was not to be muddied or diluted. Instead of rhetoric, political speech came in the form of spoken word and poetry, including a poem by a nine-year-old girl, with the repeated line We want equality. She got a standing ovation.

We practiced chants and were reminded all chants should be peaceful. If we were to hear anyone being aggressive, we should gently encourage them to chant one of our chants instead.

The organizers had the proper permits and had communicated the peaceful nature of the protest march to the LAPD. A small number of police officers on bicycle rode alongside the march. There was no sign of riot gear, not a hint of aggressive attitude.

I can’t say more without saluting those police officers who do their best to serve with fairness, honor, and compassion within a flawed criminal justice system they did not create. My belief is that change would benefit them as well as the community they serve. I’ve known some great cops and this is entirely sincere that I grieve with the NYPD and all who are horrified by the premeditated and coldblooded killing of Officers Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a deranged individual. I can only hope that the experience of grief, shared in common, will bring people together rather than cause more polarization. I believe we can’t find a way forward–an end to violence–alone.

At the park, we heard the day had three goals:

1. Raise awareness and issue a call to action so that here in LA we can join in solidarity with the Movement across the nation. The march was only Phase One. Organizing for effective action comes next.

2. Bring unity among people who’ve already been involved with people just getting involved in seeking change.

3. Promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.

By the time the march began, the crowd had doubled in size and more people kept joining along the route.

leaving the park

How did the organizers do it? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. There was some outreach. A woman I walked with for a while was visiting LA from North Carolina and heard about the march that morning when she went to church. The word primarily reached the youthful Black community, but throughout the crowd were signs of solidarity.

ASian americansMuslims in solidarityChicanao solidarity

So often, marches in LA on weekends take place in neighborhoods where everything is shut down and there’s no one to see the action. For a change, we had a route that passed through a park, past outdoor cafes and museums. How did the organizers get to be so smart? They did say their names, but I never quite got any of them. I am in awe of this Movement which is about justice, not personalities. WE, not I.

There was a moment when we stopped short. High above the street, a billboard for Selma.


Hands up! Don’t shoot! we chanted.

Don't shoot

I did feel some regret that the written page with chants showed NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE transitioning to KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE. Of course said aloud, the message I wholeheartedly endorse is lost.

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Something very different from the usual bullhorns and shouting. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it.

During the march, we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

The Black youth of America have started something and with or without allies they will see it through.

rest in power

A Family at Christmas!

December 15, 2014

I am so happy! The website I created after the workshop I facilitated for men in transitional housing included their work, their names, their photos. Today I heard from the daughter of one of the men who’d made the deepest impression on me. She had been searching for her father for decades. They are now in touch, stunned, thrilled. I’d say that’s some of the best work I’ve ever done.

Children with Incarcerated Parents: Just Collateral Damage?

December 6, 2014

On Tuesday I attended a remarkable summit meeting in Long Beach: Children with Incarcerated Parents: Trauma, Toxic Stress & Protection. This article just published in LA Progressive offers only a taste of the powerful presentations and discussions.

Feasting or Fasting?

November 27, 2014

I don’t like this holiday but later today I will of course go up the hill for dinner with family.

What are we celebrating? Indians fed us. Then we killed them.

Instead of stuffing ourselves we should be fasting.

The last Thursday of November should be a national day of atonement.

Chant Down the Walls!

November 20, 2014

On Monday, as the sky darkened over LA, I stood across the street from the Metropolitan Detention Center with my friends Tania and Valeska Cañas, a couple dozen musicians, and a couple dozen more activists and supporters and media and decent human beings there to serenade with solidarity the immigrants detained inside the building and facing deportation.

Image by NDLON

Image by NDLON

It’s a weekly event — CHANT DOWN THE WALLS — through which NDLON, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Latino musicians in LA County show up on Monday evenings with music and dance and solidarity. An angry or earnest protest can make a point, but the men locked up inside the building at Alameda and Aliso know very little joy. And so, NDLON brings music, like the brass and woodwinds of Banda la Arrazadora and the norteño sound of Dueto las Voces del Rancho.

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

Voces del Rancho backed by Banda la Arrazadora; photo by Valeska Cañas

From the narrow slits that serve as windows, the detained men wave and signal down to the street with flashlights.

It felt right to be there with Tania and Valeska. They were born in El Salvador. As children, during their country’s civil war, they along with their parents were granted refugee status and resettled in Australia. Today, Tania, theater artist and Ph.D. candidate, also works for RISE, the first refugee and asylum seeker organization in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees themselves. That means viewing “those who seek assistance as members and participants, not ‘clients’.” They proclaim: Nothing about us without us. How perfect to see the same slogan on posters outside the LA detention facility along with the words NUESTRA LUCHA/NUESTRA VOZ. (OUR STRUGGLE/OUR VOICE)

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

Tania and me; photo by Valeska Cañas

and how perfect that we listened and danced to the sound of Los Jornaleros del Norte, musicians who do indeed work as day laborers.

It isn’t Monday tonight, but NDLON will be back at the Metropolitan Detention Center to watch the President’s speech and chant down the walls once more.

For years under Clinton, eight dark years under Bush, and six unforgivable Obama years I’ve watched millions of decent people deported from this country, families torn apart, US-citizen children traumatized and thrown into poverty. President Obama has talked and talked about taking executive action to bring about a more humane immigration policy in the face of Republican refusal to move on legislation. But as he talked, he had more people arrested, detained, abused–I have been inside detention centers and “abuse” is no exaggeration–and then deported than any other president. Did he really believe this tough-guy act would inspire Republicans to cooperate with him? He had to know better. This rampage through our communities accomplished nothing but the cruel destruction of so many lives.

Giving temporary status to at least some of the so-called DREAMers who were brought here as children was one small step. (The requirements were complicated enough to exclude many young people, as was the pricetag on processing the papers.)

Now as we wait to hear if President Obama is finally going to allow more hardworking, contributing members of our society to come out from the shadows, I have to repeat in translation and in paraphrase the words of NDLON Director Pablo Alvarado:

President Obama is about to announce an executive action on immigration. We want him to use his authority under the Constitution and under the law to bring about a fair policy. So far, it’s all rumors and we don’t know who will be included and who will be excluded by what he decides. But even as we celebrate for those who will be included, let us commit ourselves to the others, that we will continue using our voices and our influence until all the hardworking immigrants have rights.


So, the President’s speech:

Some immigrant activists are happy but I’m not impressed. So, enforcement will prioritize deporting “felons, not families”–which is what he’s been saying for years even while ordinary law-abiding parents continued to be detained and deported–except when activists rushed to support people in specific cases. Undocumented immigrants who’ve lived here at least five years and have children who are either US citizens or legal residents can register with the government, pay fines and taxes, and be temporarily protected from deportation. (Of course, undocumented people have been paying taxes all along.) Childless people who’ve contributed to this country get no relief. LGBT immigrants will rarely be able to benefit. Even the parents of DREAMers won’t be eligible under this program, if it ever gets off the ground. And what happens with a new administration? People will have identified themselves to a government that may well turn hostile. In the meantime, though, they can get work permits which, among other things, means less exploitation. This really isn’t much of a gift to the immigrant community, but that isn’t stopping the violent, almost obscene response from some Republican mouthpieces. (check out angry loudmouth Jonathan Wilcox, who used to write speeches for anti-immigrant former CA governor Pete Wilson)

And more money — lots more money– for border patrol and security….Don’t we have more important matters to address with our limited resources?

The struggle continues.

The Outdoor Assemblage Sculpture of Noah Purifoy

November 20, 2014

Just months after I moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago, I first saw the work of artist Noah Purifoy when the California African American Museum curated a retrospective of his sly, inventive and visually arresting assemblage sculpture. Purifoy was a leader in the Los Angeles Black Arts Movement and co-founder of the Watts Tower Arts Center. He was at the Center when the Watts riot/uprising broke out in 1965. He wandered the streets, trying to make sense of it all and collected charred debris which he later, with fellow artist Judson Powell and others, turned into a traveling exhibit of art born from the ashes.

At the time of the CAAM exhibit, he had relocated to the high desert in Joshua Tree where there was space enough to create large assemblages. His work fascinated me but it didn’t occur to me you could just head out to Joshua Tree and visit.

Noah Purifoy died in 2004. It was only recently that I received an email that the Cultural Landscape Foundatino (TCLF) had named the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum as one of the most endangered cultural sites in the US. His work covers acres in the high desert, simply sitting there, waiting to be viewed, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation is deeply grateful for contributions to protect the site. For now, you can just show up. As the website doesn’t give directions–but the internet reveals all–I did find the address and will share it below. The website has much better photographs than these!


purifoy 4

purifoy 3

purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 029
Some bits and pieces of the Kirby Express, assembled from household items. It was part of the CAAM exhibit and is too large to fit into a single frame.

part of Kirby Express

Kirby Express 1cropped Kirby

Most of his work isn’t overtly political. But here’s WHITE/COLORED. (The labels don’t show well here.) It may take explaining to the younger generation. Not only because it refers to the ugly past in the South when blacks were barred by custom and law from using the same facilities as whites, including water fountains–but with today’s bottled water and Sparkletts demijohns I’m not sure younger viewers will recognize the object on the left as a water cooler.


At the site, you will find salvaged objects that were once part of people’s daily lives and artwork that is deteriorating,

disintegrating, clothes so affected by years of desert heat and wind and thunderstorm that the shredded tissue-thin fabric looks like something coughed up by bad plumbing.

According to the brochure available as you enter, Purifoy used perishable materials because he was interested in seeing Nature participate in the creative process. Change and transformation over time were part of his vision. So would he want his assemblages protected and preserved?

What is ethical here? Do we respect the artist or the physical art?

Noah Purifoy worked as a social worker and it’s reported how disturbed he was by mental patients left to live in the street, by the poor, by the dispossessed. He made his sculptures out of society’s discarded things. But I believe he always thought, too, of the discarded people. I’d like to think if his work is preserved, it can be a declaration that no human being in the end is disposable.



Heading east on 29 Palms Highway in Joshua Tree, CA, turn left (north) at the light at Sunburst. The road stays paved for about 3 miles. Continue about a mile on gravel to Aberdeen. Turn right. Aberdeen is paved–for awhile. You’ll reach the intersection at Center, just before Aberdeen becomes a dirt road. Turn left on Center (also dirt) and go a short distance to Blair. Right turn and you’ll see acres of Noah Purifoy’s art coming up on your left. A little further on you’ll find a small designated parking area on your right.

Enjoy! and then spend the rest of the day at Joshua Tree National Park to see Nature’s assemblage art.

Joshua Tree 001purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 064JTpurifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 079purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 081purifoy joshua tree 29 palms nov 18.19.2014 073

Three Poems

October 4, 2014

Thank you, Diane Smith, editor of Grey Sparrow Journal, for including three of my poems in the Fall issue. Here they are.

James Lawson: A Sense of Urgency

October 3, 2014

Back in 2008, I interviewed Rev. James Lawson, Jr., veteran (still active) activist for civil rights and social justice, for many hours over the course of several days. The full interview has been too long to publish anywhere, but an abridged version appeared in The Believer in March/April 2013 and I included a link to the piece in this blog. Now I’ve just seen the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published another version, duplicating some of The Believer interview and included material that wasn’t published before. Here’s the new link.

Hey, Diane! Where have you been?

September 25, 2014

Obviously not blogging.

I was down with pneumonia for a while and it’s just taken time to get my act (and breath) back together.

Then it was off to Salt Lake City. The Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation


gave me a mini-grant to get me to town and to the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center for writing workshops with refugee youth. A LOT of them. Ages 5-17. Some recent arrivals just learning English. We’re publishing a little book of their work and I’m posting IF YOU REALLY KNEW ME, the PDF version of it here so anyone who’s interested can download it.

It wasn’t all work. Visits with friends, exhilarating hikes in Bryce Canyon…and now I’m exhausted. I’ll post a few photos and then take a nap!


more hikers

more bryce

canyon 1


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