Category Archives: politics

registering the homeless to vote

Not long after I came to the US my friend Sarah convinced me to go on a road trip with her to register voters ahead of the 2008 election that brought Obama to power. This is a piece I wrote at the time. I don’t know whether the situation has changed much in the last four years concerning the disenfranchisement of homeless voters. I’d be interested to know if anyone has more information.

a homeless man in Las Vegas

I have just returned from 10 days spent registering voters in Nevada and Colorado, two states that could go either way in the upcoming election.

In some ways the trip was not unusual. Right now large numbers of politically-motivated activists, Democrat and Republican, are migrating to swing states across the US, knocking on doors, standing outside strip malls, trying to secure crucial votes that could prove the difference in an election that once again looks like it’s going to the wire.

Though we were certainly part of this general trend, myself and my friend Sarah (who accompanied me) stood at a distance from party politics.

There was no proselytising for one thing: We weren’t interested in telling voters who to vote for, only to vote. Our road trip also concentrated exclusively on a single demographic; the hundreds of thousands who sleep rough in America every night. Outside homeless shelters in Las Vegas and Christian missions in downtown Denver we tried to enfranchise the poor and destitute, tempting them with bags full of cheeseburgers and cups of cigarettes. Kneeling on the sidewalk of a dimly-lit street to help a Vietnam War vet with a head full of liquor write out his social security number; listening to their hard luck tales and the incoherent ramblings of crack addicts.

It was an experience and an education. One of the most glaring insights was the extent to which the homeless in the U.S. have been abandoned by the political process.

Democrats are traditionally seen as the party of the poor and dispossessed and it was clear from talking to the homeless on the streets of Nevada and Colorado that majority planned to vote Obama.

It is a fact both parties tacitly acknowledged last week in Ohio when they clashed over a six-day window in which voters can register and vote in the state on the same day. The measure would clearly benefit the homeless, whose chaotic lifestyles can make the simple act of getting to the polls on election day a near impossibility.

Ohio Democrats support the move; Republicans do not and have challenged the voting window in court.

In spite of the obvious advantage they hold, there was little evidence that Democrats in Nevada and Colorado were reaching out to this small but potentially significant pool of voters. At the Obama campaign office in Las Vegas our plan to target rough sleepers was met with incredulity. They could offer no advice on where we might find homeless voters, and seemingly had no plans to reach out to them themselves.

In Denver they were more encouraging, though equally bemused by the tactic.

Maybe this is not so surprising. There’s no doubt some of those pledging support for the Chicago senator on the streets of both states would raise more than a few eyebrows in polite Democrat society.

Our first sign-up was Mark, a 48-year-old ex-con we met outside a 99-cents Taco restaurant in down town Vegas.

Mark had half his teeth missing and a deep tan from riding out in the sun all day on a beat-up mountain bike. He had spent nearly half his life in prison, and whilst inside became a member of the notorious white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood. Nonetheless he said he was planning to vote Democrat, “for the black man.”

Perhaps the failure to engage with the homeless can also in part be explained by state laws on voting rights that have for a long time excluded many of those who find themselves on the street.

A large proportion of America’s estimated 750,000 homeless have criminal records, and until recently many states prohibited former convicts from voting. Civil rights groups claim the restrictions were rooted in racism since the number of states passing laws stripping convicted criminals of the vote doubled in the years after suffrage was extended to blacks and, then as now, a disproportionately high volume of African-Americans went through the prison system.

In the last few years legal challenges have returned voting rights to ex-cons. With a handful of exceptions most states, including Nevada and Colorado, now allow former felons to vote. (Although most states still don’t extend that right to those currently serving time).

It appears, however, that no-one has bothered to tell the people concerned. The most consistent response we heard on the street was: “I ain’t allowed to vote. I’m a felon.”

For those at the margins of American society, rehabilitation is a long, often lonely road.


obama and the tall tales of politicians

(LONDON, England) When Americans go to the polls this November, there will be many factors that influence where they eventually decide to cast their vote: The Iraq War, the economy, political allegiances, image, age and race — these are all things that could affect voters’ choices.

Yet as the two leading candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, do battle on these and other issues between now and election day, it could all boil down to one simple question.

Whose story do you prefer?

It may not come as much of a surprise to hear that politicians are adept at telling stories. But in the modern political age, our leaders have increasingly relied on creating narratives around themselves and their ideas to communicate with us.

“If you look at the political landscape today, you see leaders everywhere consciously building a story around themselves,” says Tony Travers, a political analyst from the London School of Economics.

Take the Democrats’ great hope, Obama.

The Illinois senator’s team has woven a carefully crafted narrative around him based on the notion of change — a “change we can believe in” as the campaign slogan puts it. Time and again in speeches, Obama also promises to unify a divided nation.

These twin messages of change and unity have struck a chord, particularly among the young and ethnic minorities. They are inclined to take Obama at his word, even though they might mistrust high-minded statements like these in the mouth of another politician.

A key reason for this is that Obama’s life story perfectly echoes the central narrative of his campaign. The son of a black Kenyan and a white Kansan, who has apparently come from nowhere to become the Democrats’ presumptive presidential candidate, when Obama talks about unity and change he sounds authentic.

The Republican candidate also has a story to fall back on. Fearful of being too closely associated with an unpopular president, McCain’s team has painted him as a political maverick with a reputation for integrity and moral courage.

As with Obama, this fits neatly into his extraordinarily dramatic personal history: A Vietnam War veteran, the senator for Arizona was shot down by the North Vietnamese on a bombing mission in 1968 and held captive for five and half years. In that time he was repeatedly tortured after refusing repatriation on the grounds his father was a U.S military commander.

It is clear both candidates are aware of the appeal of their respective stories, having both published best-selling books about their lives. McCain’s memoir “Faith of My Fathers” was even made into a television film — and he frequently refers to his past in speeches.

Storytelling is a good way to reach out to an electorate who might otherwise be switched off by a drab listing of policy.

Crafting an interesting narrative, by contrast, is much more likely to get folk listening. After all, who doesn’t like stories?

McCain and Obama are not blazing a trail with this technique, however.

According to Travers, political storytelling has a long history. The British wartime prime minister and renowned orator Winston Churchill created a story about the British national character to boost morale and retain support for the war effort, says Travers.

“It was based on Churchill’s own slightly mystic view of the British as this island race,” he says. “This view of Britain — that many were uncomfortable with — nevertheless became a useful, stylized picture in convincing the country to fight on when all appeared lost.”

Other political leaders have unconsciously had narratives attached to them, he says.

Ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer. After she was elected Britain’s first-ever female prime minister the press picked up on this modest middle-class background, parodying her as the frugal housewife with a tight grip on the nation’s purse strings.

Although not of her own creation, she used the narrative to convey an image of herself as a safe pair of hands guided by economic common sense.

“It crept up on her. It was an evolved narrative that she was ultimately quite comfortable with,” says Travers.

In the modern political era the template for great storytelling was created by Bill Clinton during his 1992 election campaign.

The famous “Man from Hope” documentary distributed by the Democratic National Committee has Clinton recounting the moving story (about himself) of a little boy from a town called Hope, Arkansas, who dreams of “being part of something bigger than themselves.”

Political experts have called it the “greatest narrative commercial ever written” and there is no doubt that since it was made its format has been borrowed from heavily, as well as its content — Obama’s personal memoir is called “The Audacity of Hope.”

However, should we welcome storytelling in politics or is it ultimately a distraction from the real issues? Perhaps. But witness what happens to leaders who have tried to take politics away from narrative and go back to facts and figures.

The current British prime minister Gordon Brown retains an obsession for statistics and numbers, but his monotone attempts to convey this enthusiasm in speeches in the British parliament have contributed to his plummeting popularity.

The truth is we’re all suckers for a good story, and it’s just a matter of which one sounds the most convincing.

This article was first published on CNN.com on 19 December, 2008.


survivalists ready themselves for meltdown

(LONDON, England) Derek is compiling a survival guide on how to cope after the total collapse of society. It is, as you can imagine, a big job.

Already he has 58.8 gigabytes of material stored on his computer, he tells me impressively.

Derek (this is not his real name — he says he doesn’t want me to use his real name “for obvious reasons” that he never gets round to explaining) considers himself a survivalist.

The survivalist movement grew up in America in the 1960s. Encouraged by Cold War-era government’s calls to build nuclear fallout shelters, and concerns over currency devaluation, individuals and groups began to take steps to prepare themselves against the worst.

Many survivalists in the U.S. relocate to the northwestern state of Idaho, stockpiling food, and quite often guns and ammunition, and learning how to be self-sufficient in order to survive or “disappear.”

To those who have heard of it at all, survivalism is sometimes associated with extremist views. In the U.S., the movement has occasionally been hijacked by far-right groups attracted by its rejection of much of government and its fierce defense of the right to bear arms.

For example, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was obsessed with survivalism as a teenager, setting up a generator and a store of canned food and potable water in his basement.

For defenders of the movement, like Jim Rawles who runs a survivalist blog and lives “in a very lightly populated region west of the Rockies” this perversion by a “lunatic fringe” distorts the true message of survivalism, which is, in many ways, just about personal freedom.

Derek, 60, who moved from London to the countryside in the southeast of England four years ago, puts it another way.

“There’s going to be absolute pandemonium when it does happen, so I just want to be prepared so that I’m not a burden on anyone,” he says.

What this disaster might be is anyone’s guess, says Derek, but he’s got his hunches.

Climate change is high up on the list. Also up there is the fallout from a global economic collapse, possibly resulting from a state of peak oil — the point where oil production reaches its peak and thereafter goes into freefall.

Even so, Derek suspects he may not live to see the meltdown he predicts is on its way.

This is perhaps why his own preparations are rather spartan. Aside from the survival manual, he has a backpack filled with a few essentials – what survivalists term a “bug-out.” He keeps the rucksack in the trunk of his car; it contains a stove, dried food, blankets, boots, clothes and “a spare set of me and the wife’s pills.”

Jim Rawles is taking no such chances. A former U.S. army intelligence officer, he lives on a ranch in an undisclosed location with his wife (who he refers to in his blog affectionately as “the Memsahib”) and their children.

Their life is almost entirely self-sufficient: They keep livestock, hunt elk and the children are schooled at home. Stored away in the ranch somewhere is a three-year supply of food.

For a city dweller it sounds almost idyllic, though Rawles — a gently spoken and affable man — insists it’s a lot of hard work.

“The majority of survivalists live in suburban areas and they see a life away from that as an ideal,” he says. “Unfortunately, from a practical standpoint it’s not possible so I think for some of these people we’re living out their fantasies.”

When he’s not looking after the ranch or re-ordering the food supply, he devotes much of his time to the blog, which he says now receives up to 70,000 visits a week.

A life-long devotee of survivalism — he had his first “bug-out” packed when he was just 14 — the 48-year-old has become an unofficial spokesman for the movement.

He has penned a number of books on preparedness, including a novel called “Patriots: Surviving the Coming Collapse.” Set in the near future, it imagines a period of hyperinflation and socio-economic collapse, providing guidance on how to cope.

Although a work of fiction, Rawles believes the reality is not far off.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest lynchpin is the power grid. If it were to go down, either through economic collapse or a terrorist atrocity, then the cities are going to become unglued.”

Of course, none of this kind of talk is that new. The nature of the threat may have changed but groups of various descriptions have been predicting a breakdown of society since biblical times — and very occasionally they’ve been right.

What does seem to have changed, according to Rawles, is the type of people willing to take that threat seriously.

Not only does he believe that the movement is experiencing its largest growth since the late 1970s, but he counts among the new converts an increasing number of greens and left-wingers.

“They’re worried by peak oil; the climate shift; the fragility of the economy. They share a lot of the same concerns as our conservative readers,” he says.

But with so many possible doomsday scenarios to choose from, isn’t it difficult to know what preparations to make?

Rawles says you need to be versatile. For example, a home shelter, he says, should be able to serve as a storm shelter against hurricanes, a pantry, a secure room for storing weapons, and as a fallout bunker in the event of nuclear attack.

It all sounds vaguely terrifying — but Rawles insists he’s not being paranoid.

“I really don’t consider it alarmist, and knowing what I know about the fragility of society I wouldn’t sleep soundly if I hadn’t taken the preparations that I have.”

This story was first published on CNN.com on 2 May, 2008


africa’s sham democracies

(KAMPALA, Uganda) In the closing week of campaigning in Uganda’s presidential elections last month, incumbent Yoweri Museveni held his final public rally at an airstrip on the outskirts of this capital city. The 62-year-old Ugandan ruler stood imperiously in his trademark broad-brimmed hat above a crowd of supporters chanting: “No change, no change!” The event seemed more like a victory celebration than an appeal for votes.

The suspicion that Museveni’s victory was a foregone conclusion has grown since he was comfortably elected to a third term despite widespread accusations of fraud, intimidation and misuse of state funds. International election observers said Uganda lacked a level playing field for its first multiparty elections in more than two decades, while a spokesman for the main opposition, the Forum for Democratic Change, went further: “This election was as free and fair as it would have been under Saddam or Hitler.”

The same story is being repeated across Africa as nations — often in response to pressures from the West — introduce democratic reforms that their leaders are then accused of manipulating to stay in power.

Christopher Albin-Lackey, an Africa specialist with Human Rights Watch, said, “These governments have become increasingly adept at using the trappings of Western democracy for repressive ends.”

One exception to the continental strongmen may be Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in Washington on Tuesday and met with President Bush in the Oval Office. He called Sirleaf a “pioneer.”

“You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people,” Bush said.

It’s still too soon to know whether Sirleaf, who won election late last year, will be able to effect changes in the desperately poor country — 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list — that would make democracy work. If she does, it will be a rare African success.

Political reformers and human rights groups said that across the continent, leaders are exploiting democratic processes to give their governments a veneer of respectability.

In Ethiopia, for example, May’s elections were marred by accusations of vote-rigging by the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In the months that followed, more than 100 people died in clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.

Zenawi, who like Museveni fought his way to power in a coup, has since used the state apparatus to quell dissent, putting on trial more than 80 alleged ringleaders — including opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists — on charges ranging from treason to genocide.

In North Africa, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed opposition candidates for the first time in September, rather than give voters only a yes-or-no ballot choice. But opposition leader Ayman Nour was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges that Egyptian democracy advocates contend were trumped up.

Albin-Lackey said rather than replacing state violence, in most cases so-called reforms were being used to complement and conceal brutality that was continuing unchecked.

Though abuses have not gone unnoticed in the West, they have largely gone unpunished in Uganda and elsewhere.

The arrest of Uganda opposition candidate Kizza Besigye after he returned from self-imposed exile at the end of last year led to two days of rioting in Kampala and a storm of criticism from foreign donors. Britain, one of Uganda’s biggest donors, withdrew $27 million of aid in protest.

Museveni’s government remained uncowed, and Besigye was charged with rape and treason, severely limiting his opportunities to campaign. After the election results were announced, a judge cleared Besigye of rape, dismissing the prosecution case as “crude and amateurish.” But Besigye still faces treason charges in the high court, and the army is pursuing terrorism and weapons charges.

In Egypt last year, an international furor followed Nour’s first arrest on charges of forging signatures on election documents, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed an official visit in protest. The government released him but did not dismiss the charges.

After Mubarak easily won the election, Nour, who got 7.6 percent of the vote, was rearrested on charges that included insulting the president. On Dec. 24, he was convicted and sentenced to five years hard labor.

Professor Aaron Mukwaya, a lecturer in international relations and security studies at Mekere University in Kampala, said Western governments are caught between a desire to promote democracy and maintain security in notoriously unstable regions.

“The main preoccupation of the West when dealing with Africa is stability,” he said. “They don’t want the whole continent descending into civil war, so they tolerate leaders who are not democratic but who offer peace.”

While this pragmatic approach may have restored relative stability to countries once torn apart by infighting, he said, the abuse of the institutions of power would inevitably lead to disaster.

“Almost all state institutions in these countries are under the direct control of the ruling party. So, for example, during the last elections in Uganda, everything from state TV to the military was mobilized to ensure a Museveni win,” Mukwaya said. “The problem comes when you have a change of regime. Then these institutions are left in tatters because they were never given the chance to develop independently. And then you are back to square one.”

He said even institutions that had managed to maintain a degree of autonomy, such as the media and the judiciary, were punished if they stepped too far out of line.

After demonstrations in October, the Ethiopian government shut down all independent media in the country for more than two months.

In Kenya this month, heavily armed and masked police smashed into the offices of the country’s second-largest media company after its criticism of the government over multimillion-dollar corruption scandals. About 3,000 Kenyans protested the raid in the capital.

“They will allow just enough freedoms to give everything the appearance of normality,” Mukwaya said. “But if you overstep the mark, then you are in trouble.”

Or as Kenya’s Internal Security Minister John Michuki put it at a news conference after the police raids: “If you want to rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

This was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 March, 2006