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Six time WNBA all-star, 5 time All-WNBA first-team honoree,  4 WNBA titles, the only 3-time winner of the WNBA Wade Trophy, 2 NCAA titles at UConn, 2 Olympic gold medals, and a 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year. Maya Moore is a beast. One of the best ever to play professional basketball. Ms. Moore’s stats are GOAT-worthy. So why in the world would she stop dribbling, stop shooting in February 2019?

She was 29, on the ascendancy as a professional players. Had another year before she reached 30, the golden year of athletic prowess. What was she thinking? Why stop when she was so near the top?

In sports, far too many choose to continue chasing after monetary rewards. There are not many Saul-to-Paul stories in professional sports. Muhammad Ali refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army is the most noted of that small group who sacrificed glory and gold to stand for principles. 

In Maya’s case giving up the pursuit of financial security and personal happiness was not a solipsism. She had not secretly joined a cult, nor decided to switch from one sport to another. No. None of that. She wasn’t ill with an incurable disease nor blinded by love. She had not loss the age-old tug that impels young athletes to succumb to the pull of feeling responsible for the financial well-being of their family and friends.

Maya Moore was a true believer. She decided to work to secure the freedom of others. Specifically, Maya Moore dedicated her life to voluntarily working full time to obtain the freedom of Jonathan Irons, a man who was convicted and incarcerated in 1998 when Maya was only eight years old. Maya did not meet Irons until 2007. Her story is simply inspiring.  

Most of us may not know her name, but all of us need to know her story. Although the daily routine of training constantly, playing full time in the WNBA, and traveling as a professional baller in Europe and China during the off-seasons had taken a heavy toll, somehow, Maya was able to dig even deeper and undertook the daunting task of working to free an incarcerated man she had never met before.

Two decades into the 21st century, in the 2020 year of a world-wide pandemic, when we all are beset by almost paralyzing social anxiety and by seemingly unending economic and political uncertainty, Maya Moore is steadfast in working for criminal justice reform.

Her calculation had been simple: what would it profit a young woman to gain the world in exchange for her beliefs in her fellow man? That’s an age-old question that Maya Moore answered by the example of her dedication to a cause greater than herself.

She was not forced by the strictures of the coronavirus to give up a lucrative career. Her choice preceded lock-downs and massive street demonstrations. Her 2019 decision was based on her profound belief in the principles of justice. She worked quietly and consistently. You didn’t and won’t often see her on television. Despite her professional achievements, she is not a household name.

As cliched as it may sound, Maya Moore is truly a freedom fighter. Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Maya was reared by her single mother, Kathryn. When Maya was 11, they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Shortly thereafter, the mother-daughter team ended up in Atlanta, Georgia. In a 2010 Atlanta Journal Constitution article, Maya proclaimed, “My faith is the core of who I am”.

We may not all have the basketball talent of Maya Moore or the spiritual dedication she exhibits but nevertheless we all can follow her example. Maya Moore is a stellar athlete who demonstrates that there is more to life than the love of basketball.

 

 

 

 

In Honduras, a Journalist Explores an Activist’s Murder

A conversation with Nina Lakhani, author of “Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet”

In March 2016, gunmen stormed into the home of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres and murdered her in her bedroom. The killing came after years of threats against Cáceres and her powerful grassroots activism. Just a year earlier, she had been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a successful campaign against the construction of four large dams in Indigenous Lenca territory—a project involving the Chinese company Sinohydro and the International Finance Corp., in partnership with a Honduran company.

Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activism. Most killings go unpunished, but seven men were convicted of Cáceres’s murder in November 2018. The hitmen included army officers, and two had received military training in the United States. Nina Lakhani, now the environmental justice correspondent for the Guardian US, covered Cáceres’s grassroots movement for years while based in the region and was the only foreign journalist present at the trial.

 

Lakhani puts Cáceres’s life and death at the center of her new book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet. She spoke with Foreign Policy about Cáceres’s activist education, the experience of covering her killers’ trial as a foreign reporter, and questions that remain about the case.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: At what point during your reporting on Berta Cáceres did you realize this could be a book?

Nina Lakhani: I guess I was spending another Friday night fact-checking a story about Berta. It was a story that we were just about to publish about her name appearing on a [military] hit list, I think. I never wanted to write a book, but I thought, “Maybe I should. It’s one of those stories—someone else is going to come along and do it.”

As I wrote those stories, there was such a reaction. I started getting lots of harassment; there were lots of attempts to discredit me. The heat sort of turned up. As a journalist, that instantly makes you think, “There’s a whole load of people that don’t want any of this information to get out.” That’s really where the seed was planted. It started out as an idea of an investigation into her death, but I think quite quickly I realized that to understand why she was killed, you had to understand who she was and where she came from and the period that she grew up in and became a political adult in.

To understand her life and death, you have to understand the context: the geopolitical context, the global economic context, the military context, the social context, all of those things. Neither her life nor her death happened in a vacuum. I tried to use her story as an arc to try to tell this wider story of Honduras. There aren’t really very many books written about Honduras in English. It’s a difficult place to get a grip on. It’s complicated, it’s dangerous.

It’s not the complete story of Honduras by any means, but it provides some sort of historical context about what’s happening today.

FP: When did you first start reporting in Honduras?

 NL: I went for the elections in November 2013. The idea was to go and cover these elections, which were really the first proper elections since the 2009 coup. I stayed for two weeks and that’s when I met Berta and interviewed her the one and only time. And then I went and did some stuff in the Aguán [River Valley], where at the time campesinoswere being killed—involved in this land conflict with these palm barons. I remember thinking, I’d never really been scared before as a reporter. It’s just militarized to the hilt. I’d been told, don’t stay in the same hotel more than one night because there are spies for the military and police everywhere. After three nights, we’d run out of places to stay.

FP: How do you think the environment in which Cáceres grew up shaped her activism?

 NL:  She was born in 1971. She grew up as the proxy Cold War was kicking off in Latin America. The Guatemalan Civil War was up and running, and there were social uprisings in Guatemala and in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua. Her mom, her maternal grandmother, and her maternal grandfather were all involved in social struggles in Honduras. A lot of activists, guerilla fighters, and thinkers from the region would come to the family home. It became a real hot point for people to rest, to debate, to discuss tactics. She grew up in that environment, hearing people talk about local things but in a global context. I think that’s something that really defined her right to the end, what made her really extraordinary.

On a more personal level, her mother was a nurse and a midwife. She’d accompany her mom to rural outposts to help poor women—mainly Indigenous Lenca women—give birth. These were villages that had been utterly abandoned by the state. There were no basic services: no roads, no light, no running water, no health care, no education. I think that experience of just seeing the massive inequalities, and especially how the impact on women was especially harsh, was very important for her.

And then she went at a very young age to join the war effort in El Salvador—she and her then-partner, who later co-founded their organization [the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras]. She wasn’t a fighter, but she was there on and off for more than a year. It was clear to them that people were taking up arms not because of political ideology but because they were hungry, they were desperate. They were fighting against really deep-seated inequalities.

What they wanted to do when they got back to Honduras was [something that didn’t involve arms]. So they came back and formed their organization.

FP: After reporting on this for years, was there anything that surprised you once you started digging into your research for the book?

 NL: This is true for all of my reporting in the region, but I guess just how in Honduras and the region—including the United States—political power is the second layer of power. It is the economic elites that control everything. In the case of Honduras, they control the banks, the media, retail, everything. And they control the courts, the justice system, the politicians—because they are the ones that give them good or bad press and put money into their campaigns or not. It’s so blatant in Honduras that the vast majority of laws have been written to favor this status quo. That can be said in many countries, but how blatant it was [surprised me]. As did the really deep-seated impunity and corruption.

And as a woman reporting somewhere like Honduras, the everyday misogyny, machismo, just walking down the street, that’s something that you have to think about. Honduras isn’t unique in this, but it is particularly difficult.

FP: How do you think that culture of machismo shaped what happened to Berta Cáceres—not only her murder but also her treatment leading up to it?

 NL: I think that was a key part of the context in which she lived and in which she died: the machismo and the racism. You see in the phone evidence that was discovered in the murder investigation just the casual racism used to describe Indigenous people all the time. The idea for this economically powerful group that a woman, and an Indigenous woman, could interrupt their plan and project—never mind the allegations of corruption—was just unacceptable.

The fact that they chose to kill her in her home, in her bedroom, in her pajamas—it was a real, “We can do whatever we want to you. We are more powerful, and we can dominate you.” The state’s case should have been framed in the terms of a gender-based and a racist killing, but it wasn’t.

FP: What was the experience of attending the trial like as a foreign journalist?

NL: I attended the trial every day, and I worked closely with people involved in the trial. In Latin America, they have a legal system that is based largely on the Spanish legal system. There are no juries. You can have a private prosecution occurring at the same time as the state prosecution. Her family were recognized and identified as victims and were mounting a case that was going to be very different to the state’s case. At the very last minute, they were expelled from proceedings so that didn’t happen.

It was really difficult. The trial had been due to start in September 2018 and then was suspended on the very first day because the victim’s lawyers requested that the three judges be recused. As I was writing up that story, there was a press release shared on social networks from a false group that we believe strongly to have links to military intelligence claiming that I was a violent insurgent and linked to organize crime, that I wasn’t a journalist, and declaring me a persona non grata. And then another one was released maybe 10 days later calling me a terrorist.

I stayed in Honduras because we were wondering if the trial was going to be restarted. That period itself was incredibly difficult because the risk to me had gone up massively.

Trials without juries are not particularly interesting, because the prosecutors don’t have to make a compelling case. It’s very document-based. The state’s case was based on the phone data. The family’s lawyers had  been expelled. [The family] had boycotted the trial. So sometimes it was about six of us in what was the most emblematic trial in Honduras’s modern history. I was the only foreign journalist that covered it.

I had interviewed seven of the eight accused in jail. They knew who I was. The attorney general’s office wouldn’t speak to me; the spokesman accused me of being involved with groups with a dark agenda. It was hostile. It was uncomfortable. And my security situation meant that I was going between the court and where I was staying, trying to change my route of transport every day. It was an intense experience. There was a sort of strategy in place to harass and intimidate.

What’s different this time? Why are the protests having such a major impact?

Well, in terms of opinions about the status quo, a lot has changed. However, there is one major difference, a difference that affects every social event, every public demonstration, every situation involving police/civilian conflicts. 

The difference is not the particulars surrounding the happening. Yes, in many cases there are obvious wrongs, and in some cases there are grey areas where it is hard to determine right and wrong. But, regardless of time of day. Regardless of location. Regardless of the nature of the event. None of that is the significant difference.

The difference is twofold: 1. is technology, the other is 2. participation of protestors.

In many of these cases, there are videos of conflicts with the police that are broadcast nationally and internationally. In previous years, it was typical that there would be conflicting stories about what happened.

Particularly when a person is killed by the police, follow-up investigations and even the rare court cases, were dependent on witnesses, with the police being considered not only the expert witness but also their report considered the defining explanation of what happened.

Unfortunately, police versus public engagements usually devolved not only into conflicting versions, but the police were most often adjudicated as expert/truthful witnesses. In other words the courts generally accepted that the police versions and discounted the public’s version. Particularly when the issue involved Black people, regardless of the race of the police officer, the civilian involved was usually criminalized. The encounter quickly, or eventually, was characterized as the police against a violator of law and order.

Technology, particularly the video camera on the majority of cell telephones, literally offers an incontrovertible alternative viewpoint that can literally trump the so-called expert testimony of the police.

In terms of public perception of the police, while video testimony is significant, the critical change is not solely technology. The most significant change is the participation of ordinary civilians as protestors, a participation that is fed by the large number of people who, because of the virus, are now home, beset by “cabin fever”, and who now spend a more than ordinary time watching cable television, which over the last half year have been consumed by stories about first the virus and second, protests of police activities, particularly the murder of Black victims.

The vast majority of protestors would “normally” not be in the streets. However, because of the virus lock-downs, literally hundreds of thousands of people are able to protest, when they otherwise might be at work, at school, or elsewhere. 

Moreover, protestors are no longer mostly aggrieved minorities. The average American who has never run afoul of the police, not even for a traffic violation, now feel impelled to join in protests against systemic oppression.

What might cause this massive participation of people who heretofore had not had a history of protesting police activity? The answer is not simply an opposition to the behavior of the police. Rather, the mass of protestors are also angry not only about a specific incident regardless of how egregious, the protestors are also upset about the virus, the lock-downs, and the major down turn of their personal economic situations.

Consider that a number of the protestors are people who are recently unemployed with no assurance of when, if ever, they will be able to return to work. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, protestors are questioning the fairness of the system overall, especially the fairness of and the “MAGA” philosophy of the Trump administration vis-a-vis the majority of people in the world, a majority which is overwhelmingly non-white.

Because people who are under economic stress and strain are all over the country, and because police assaults continue, we have real and imminent conflict situations that must be addressed. These police vs. civilian confrontations take place at the same time that the ordinary American citizen must now deal with public health/pandemic issues, financial issues (which are exacerbated by the extreme costs of health care), and governmental affairs under Trump, which include wholesale repeal of Obama-era rules and regulations, as well as multiple, documented examples of lies and deceptions told by President Trump and his administration. Millions of us perceive our individual as well as our social lives to be under assault.

Either we confront our numerous problems head on and make positive social change or we will be consumed by the negative consequences of our perilous existence. Regardless of what we do or don’t, for sure, nothing will be as it was.

Like Sam Cooke presciently sang “a change is gonna come”. The nature of our inevitable life changes will be determined to a large degree by our actions here and now. Thus, most of us viscerally understand that today is the time to act. Moreover, because of the confluence and overlap of diverse individual and social issues, a significant percentage of us are “fire up” and ready to engage in activism to address the numerous problems of the day, problems which transcend the limits of race, gender, education, and economic status. For the first time in a long time, most Americans perceive that many, if not all, of us are indeed beset by common problems.

> Joy Denalane–Jazz Open Stuttgart 27 July 2006

Recently, I woke up one morning thinking about a jumble of unrelated dreams and realities. I do not know specifically from where a focus on Germany came. I have been to Germany twice, once for a conference and the second time to participate in a theatre production. I was in Munich for over two weeks and had a number of memorable experiences. Once, as I stumbled around trying to find an out-of-the-way site, an elderly man approached me. He asked could he help me, as he saw I looked lost. I thanked him and was directed on how to find the place I was seeking.

That was years ago, well before Katrina, but I have never forgotten the situation. I had been influenced by American culture to think of Germans in terms of Hitler and as promoters of white supremacy. Fortunately, I’ve successfully worked through my issues with pre-judging individual people based on group stereotypes.

One of my most enjoyable German experiences was musical encounters with Afro-German recordings. Of that cohort of musicians, Joy Denalane is my favorite. Her father is from Soweto, South Africa, her mother is from Berlin, Germany. She is a singer who does both soul music and German music, singing in German and English.  I used to get a kick out of introducing her recordings to friends. 

Here is a radio broadcast, Jazz Open Stuttgart July 27, 2006, shortly after Born And Raised, her third major label release. She’s not only deep into the music, Joy also relates her life story in this concert. Enjoy.

 

>> ‘It’s not enough until everything changes.”
On 2nd degree murder charges being brought up against Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis protestor Zoe Schaeffer says, “I won’t be satisfied until I can wake up and have kids and have them not fear their lives for just being black, for being darker than other people … It’s not enough until everything changes.” — MSNBC

 

It is a cliche but it’s also a truism–everything must change. That’s the way of the world. Everything changes. Even this crazy moment.

Given the turmoil following the murder of George Floyd, what happens next is the more relevant and more pressing question. When will systemic change actually occur?

Political observers are calling June 2020 an inflection point. Classically, an inflection point is a moment of crisis engendering momentous change, the moment when the old authorities unavoidably must and will be overcome.

Can the old guard  hold on regardless of the undeniable reality of an uprising that is visible literally worldwide? Will the youth overtake the elders, especially those old (mainly white) men who are in charge?

Even though everybody seems to know that nothing can or will be as it was yesterday, nevertheless, despite what they might say for televised sound-bites, by calling for calm, civility and an end to rebellion, far too many police and politicians act like they favor moving back to the past rather than proceeding forward into a more equitable future. Regardless of the dangers, all across America there is an unstoppable mass of demonstrators who are demanding change. Caught in the middle of contending and contradictory forces, insistent citizens are marching on behalf of justice not only for George Floyd but, indeed, justice for all. 

Black. Brown. Yellow. Red. & White. America’s got to have it–and what is “it”–well, that’s the million dollar question. Back in the sixties the old order asked “what do they want?”–“they” being Negroes and hippies. Ultimately, “they” got a Black president but it now seems that people realize that was not enough. Regardless who is the titular head, if there is not substantial change, the president alone will not matter. Electing a new president is necessary but not sufficient to create the society we need.

Today, over arching contradictions are three-fold: public health, police brutality, and economic chaos. The combination of these three negative forces is too much. The yoke is too heavy. There is a difficult reality that necessarily must be dealt with.

In the first week of June 2020, the coronavirus has killed over 110,000 people. After massive demonstrations, health officials warn that there will probably be a major uptick in the number of virus deaths. People’s health is a priority and if healthy living is not made available to all, the entire society may fall ill to the virus.

Literally millions of Americans (as well as people worldwide) are grappling with the seemingly intractable conflict of the police against the people. Physical clashes have gone on for well over a week. This is not a battle of good versus evil. This is a battle against oppression, especially when the oppression is wielded by forces that theoretically are supposed to be forces of protection.

Which brings us to a foundational problem: the majority of Americas are experiencing an economic disaster. Unemployment has skyrocketed. College educated, young whites, who have never even jay-walked in their life, are facing a bleak future and they are not silently suffering. The people–all genders, colors, religions, from a multiple of social conditions–people are rebelling.

Congress is at an impasse in terms of what to do about the dire financial conditions. At least a quarter of the workforce is unemployed. Bluntly put: many people don’t have enough money to live and have no prospects of obtaining substantial, long term relief. One stimulus check, even two more checks, won’t solve the problem. The problem is that living a good life under capitalism requires a stable and regular source of money. It costs more to live a good life than too many of us will ever earn.

No one should be a pauper! Every worker–and yes, that includes the unpaid labor of maintaining a home–in exchange for daily care giving and labor, every worker should receive all that they need to live. But the bosses will not just give it to us. We must fight the powers that be for our right to live a good life.

We must fight for our right to live a good life!

ONE: Resistance to oppression is the ultimate act of self love.

TWO: You do not have to know all the answer to righteously question authority.

THREE: The two necessary acts of love are 1. Love of self, which creates a healthy individual. 2. Love of others, which creates a healthy society. Moreover, the individual cannot be truly healthy if the society they live in is sick.

Zoe Schaeffer reminds us: a better world is possible if we are willing to care about others. Sometimes the future seems too scary to proceed but we must be brave enough to stand and fight regardless of our fears. Forward with love of and for each other. Forward for the health, well-being, and sustenance of each other.

Never go back. Forward for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

Zanj Bar (land of the blacks). East Africa, the island territory in federation with Tanzania. I was there in 1974 while attending the Sixth Pan African conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I have many memories. Two of the most vivid–one is pain filled, the other beautiful; non-intuitively, both were in the same spot.

We were taken to the east side of the island, bordered by the Indian ocean. We  were shown and actually touched the boulders in the water that had iron rings driven into the tops of them. They were used as mooring points for Arab slave ships. Enslaved people were chained to those rocks in the water while awaiting shipment. The other image is from the same shore.

I have traveled literally around the world, New Orleans to South Korea, the Caribbean and South America, plus Europe. The most beautiful water I have seen is the blue/green waters on the coast of Zanzibar. It was an absolutely enchanting moment when we were driven to a shamba, a small farm on the east coast of the island. When we arrived, it was just a nondescript, small, white stucco building. But when we were led around to the back of the building, we were rewarded with the entrancing vista of the Indian ocean washing ashore.

At first we didn’t notice the food-laden tables. Indeed, a number of our brothers and sisters in the British delegation had on swim suits beneath their street clothes. Some, without any hesitancy whatsoever, shed their outer garments and dove into the water.

I just stood there, starring at the water. We also went on a tour –picture a romantic ramble through a casbah-like town, and a visit to a cigarette factory built and maintained by the Chinese government, along with a radio station. 

I’ve walked on the great wall of China, danced in a Cuban plaza, stood atop the citadel in Haiti, floated on the beaches of Barbados, and so forth. But the waters of Zanzibar. Those emerald waters, they were unforgettable.

Asante, the first born of the five Salaam siblings, next year you’ll be in Zanzibar.

 

 

 

Retired Marine general, and former secretary of defense, James Mattis spoke out via an essay published in The Atlantic magazine. After resigning from the Trump administration in December 2018, Mattis, the legendary “Mad Dog” Marine general, has written an astounding statement that specifically  includes a stinging and unprecedented denunciation of some of the recent 2020 decisions, declarations, and actions of President Trump.

Some commentators call the Mattis precis a major inflection point, a few say–or perhaps more accurately–a significant and vocal cohort hope that this marks the beginning of the end of the reign of a president who is up for re-election in November. While the election is less than a full six months away and many have already unalterably made up their minds, the more important question is what will happen between now and then. Will thousands still be in the streets? Will the virus significantly diminish? Will the national economy rebound?

So many critical questions. There are a multitude of individual political, health and economic questions each of us will have to confront, and hopefully overcome.

Getting to election day over this next half year of social activity will be a hell of a trek. There is a lot to think about. A lot that a lot of people will be forced to do.

Stay tuned.

Better yet, get involved. And at the very least, vote!

Vote your hopes. Vote your convictions. Whatever your views. Whatever else you do. Vote.

 

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The Case for Letting the Restaurant Industry Die

Tunde Wey.
Tunde Wey, the New Orleans-based activist-artist and cook, has a radical vision of a more equitable culinary world.Photograph by Edmund D. Fountain

 

In late March, not long after the coronavirus brought America’s restaurant industry to a tense and precarious halt, the writer, cook, and artist Tunde Wey posted, to Instagram, the first part of an essay titled “Don’t Bail Out the Restaurant Industry.” “We’re on the cusp of something… ordinary,” it begins. “We’re on the cusp of everything remaining the same.” The piece, which Wey released in ten installments in the course of a week (and later posted in full in his e-mail newsletter), mounts a forceful, deliberately provocative case against the survival tactics that restaurants have turned to in the past two months. Wey, who is thirty-six years old, was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. as a teen; after his visa expired, he spent a decade as an undocumented immigrant before finally receiving his green card last year. He’s spent the bulk of his life in America working in and commenting on the restaurant industry; in his Instagram essay, he outlines its racial and economic segregation, its reliance on destructive agricultural practices, its central role in gentrification and community displacement—and argues that, after past destabilizing tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, the rebound of culinary culture only reinforced and deepened those inequities. 

Wey punctuated his essay with a refrain: “Let it die”—a phrase that also serves as the title of a video that he released, on May 9th, to kick off what he hopes will be a series about the restaurant industry at a time of covid-19-driven uncertainty. (“This is the first of a few episodes, or maybe this is the first and last episode,” he says in the opening voice-over. “We’ll see how this thing goes.”) In the eleven-minute video, shot by Wey and a producing partner, he visits the Oakland restaurant of Reem Assil, a Syrian- and Palestinian-American chef whose political activism has put her in a national spotlight. In virtually all respects, Wey and Assil are comrades in arms, both of them horrified by the injustices of capitalist white supremacy and passionately committed to fighting against it. But Wey hasn’t come to listen and nod—he’s come to fight. In front of the cameras, the pair argue about whether a rigged system can ever be changed from within, and whether the work of consciousness-raising is even work at all. Assil has faith; Wey is unconvinced: “If you … still can’t, within this framework, deliver anything more than important but incremental steps, then maybe is the whole project a wash?”

This sort of charismatic confrontationalism underscores all of Wey’s work. His multimedia œuvre comprises writing, videos, and an ongoing series of high-concept events and pop-up businesses that often blur the lines between commerce and performance art. A preferred medium is the price tag: in New Orleans, where he currently lives, he once ran a lunch cart that asked white patrons to pay more than double what he charged people of color, reflecting the city’s racial income disparities. In Nashville, he hosted a series of dinners where hot chicken was free for the neighborhood’s black residents, while white diners were asked to pledge a hundred dollars for one piece, a thousand dollars for four, and the deed to a property for a whole bird plus sides. Rather than provoking the ire of the culinary establishment, Wey’s events, writings, and criticisms have electrified and entranced them. In a 2019 GQ profile of Wey—a story that is currently a finalist for a James Beard Award—the writer Brett Martin described him as running “an abattoir for food-world sacred cows.”

Wey spoke to me recently on the phone from a public bench in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. The city is a covid-19 hotspot, where, as in so many other cities, infection and mortality rates are dramatically higher among black residents. “Right now I’m in a park and people are smiling and taking walks, they have their dogs. This is next door to the reality of folks who don’t have work, who can’t apply for unemployment, who need to to put themselves in positions that are dangerous and unhealthy so they can survive,” he said. “That difference is the shit I want to address in my work. Not because I’m Superman, but because if I don’t, I’m going to be affected.” This conversation has been edited and condensed.

 

The thesis of your essay is that the restaurant industry is so broken that it’s not worth saving. Did you already feel that way before the coronavirus shutdowns sent the industry into crisis?

I had never said those words explicitly—“let it die”—but I don’t think the sheer force of the idea is anything new.

I will say that with most of my work,  I’m always a little circumspect. So even though the sentiment has always been “let it die,” I had never said those exact words. And it wasn’t like I was super comfortable saying it! I have people who I care about who are part of that industry. So, in a way, the essay is euphemistic—only because I know it’s not going to happen, I know the restaurant industry is not going to actually die, so I have the space to be very forceful.

But it wasn’t just an essay about letting things die, it’s also about what can rise from the rubble. There is something better on the other side.

 

Is there something unique to the restaurant industry that makes it particularly deserving of death?

I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the restaurant industry that makes it more worthy of death than any other industry. But it’s an industry that manages to encompass all the different realities of United States life—and I say “United States” because “American” isn’t the right label to encompass all the folks who live here. I’ll be very specific: let’s say you walk into Momofuku at Hudson Yards. You have your transaction: you’re going to buy whatever they sell, and you’re going to leave. But your money is going to Momofuku, which is owned, in part, by David Chang, and owned, in part, by [the real-estate billionaire Stephen Ross’s investment firm] RSE Ventures, which owns multiple companies. The financing of Hudson Yards was done through private capital but also speculative capital, so there was debt involved. But not any kind of debt, a specific debt: commercial mortgage-backed securities. So, all of that is to say that what makes the restaurant industry possible is maybe different from, say, the airline industry, or mining, or some shit. It’s at the intersection of capital, finance, social life, food production, sustenance. It’s all those things. So I think it offers a very important lens to examine the choices that we make.

 

It makes me think of something the Minneapolis restaurant critic Dara Moskowitz Gruhmdahl tweeted in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, which has been on my mind a lot: she wrote that restaurants are the closest thing the United States has to a social safety net. If you lose your job, you try to find work in a restaurant. If you’re formerly incarcerated, you can get a job in a restaurant. If you’re undocumented, restaurants will hire you.

I don’t know if I like that. There’s a conflation there of a safety net with employment—and with precarious employment, at that. It’s sort of like saying that because we don’t have socialized mental-health care in this country, that prisons and jails are the closest things we have to that, and so if we close down prisons and jails, we’re leaving these folks no option but to be on the street. I’m not equating restaurant work to being in prison, but I think the biggest issue with employment in general—anywhere in the world, but especially in the U.S.—is lack of choice. The existence of precarious jobs is not the same as security. On the face of it, that perspective sounds like an excuse to keep an industry going that’s problematic. It sounds terrible. It’s like somebody saying, “Stay in this marriage, even though you are suffering terribly. Stay in it for your children.”

 

I think she meant it critically—critical of America, as well as sort of hand-wringing about the state of restaurant employment.

Oh, well, in that case—as long as it’s not being used as an excuse to save the industry, then I agree with her. I don’t think we should save anything that causes pain and destruction. I want to be clear that I’m only talking about the pain and destruction that restaurants cause. I don’t think they cause pain and destruction to the exclusion of everything else. They do contribute value.

 

In your hypothetical rebirth of the industry, are there affirmative ways you think we can lessen the pain and destruction, and increase the value?

There are things restaurants can do, but it’s hard to do them in a system that doesn’t already, to use your word, affirm those values.

It’s not like I care about restaurants or workers more than a restaurant owner or a chef, but I do think they are loath to see a future other than what already exists. That’s because of their investment in the current system, which benefits them. I don’t mean to say that the benefit they accrue is so large and so bountiful that they’re consciously trying to keep workers down, though I’m sure that’s true for some corporations. What’s more true is that privilege and power become invisible when you have them. Even restaurant owners who may care about their workers ultimately care more about themselves. Workers care about themselves, too, but they don’t have the power to act on that care. I’m losing my point. What was the question?

 

Are there affirmative things restaurants can change to create a more equitable system?

The options available to workers are limited when this larger system exists as it does. It’s super strange right now to see all this energy around organizing for the benefits of owners and the ownership class. If there’s anything I think should be done, it’s that restaurant owners should abandon entirely their pursuit of a bailout specific to the industry, and focus on policy and government programs that support people generally. If everyone had access to health care, housing, leisure, education for their children, education for themselves—all these things I think are rights—and if all these things they had access to were of high quality, I’m sure some business owners wouldn’t even return to ownership.

The only truly affirmative and sustainable response is a governmental response—one that’s universal, that’s agnostic of industries, at least initially, and that focuses on developing a really robust social safety net, so we don’t have to rely on unfortunate, fake safety nets like poor restaurant jobs.

 

The “Let It Die” video was based on footage you’d shot pre-covid-19, for a different series. What was that originally supposed to be?

It was going to be a show—the working title was “Hard to Swallow: A Food Show Not About Food”—where we wanted to show the consequences of the production and consumption of food. Our first episode was going to be about New Orleans: how it’s a black city, the food is black, the folks that visit there come for all that black shit, but black chefs don’t get the attention. They don’t get the awards. They don’t get the same recognition as white chefs, which they are due.

But then covid-19 happened, and it’s such an overwhelming story, it touches everything—this is, in essence, what our show would have been about anyway. So we decided to re-cut some of what we’d already shot to tell a story about covid-19—one which is about more than the “resilience,” and I’m using scare quotes there—of the restaurant industry but instead is a larger story, one that’s historically grounded in other disasters that have affected communities and industries. What came from that? Who can we expect to win, who can we expect to lose? Spoiler: it’s the same people who win, the same people who lose.

 

Why did you choose to focus on Reem Assil—a Syrian-Palestinian chef based in Oakland, California—for the first episode?

I think Reem is interesting. Now that I think about it, in a way, she parallels Barack Obama. She’s an organizer, she’s someone who is an idealist and doing radical work, but who also thinks that the way to actualize her vision of the world is by working within a more conventional system. She thinks about it like, if she’s on the inside, she can change things from there. The first half of the episode, which we shot before covid-19, is the two of us dancing around that question: Can you renovate a burning house? Can you renovate a single room in a burning house?

I do think, after that conversation, I had convinced her to be less optimistic about working within the system. But, as she says in the show, she believes that you can have a dual existence, that you have to occupy multiple lives. One of the lives she occupies is running a business that sustains her and her family, and one of the lives pushes for a future that is abundantly equitable.

But then, for “Let It Die,” we interviewed her again—this time after the pandemic hit—and she’s now like, “This shit is crazy, and I can’t continue to do the work that I said I could do. You can’t make concessions, because any concessions you make will help you forget or ignore that a radical system can hardly exist in a conventional space.”

That’s interesting, to me. That’s a level of complexity, in a person, that’s hard to find.

 

In the video, after your initial conversation, you do say you think you’ve made her more cynical, but you also say that you might be a little more open to her belief in changing things from within the system.

I don’t think I was converted, though. There’s a difference between cynicism and pragmatism. With cynicism comes a certain dourness, and with pragmatism comes a more concerted choice to act. I guess what I was saying was that after our conversation I felt less sad. Not that I was any more convinced that what she was doing could work.

I definitely believe in making money so you can survive, and I would like to think that the work I do is grounded in numbers and lives. What I believe and what maybe Reem could believe—but she didn’t exactly say this—is that I don’t think money is a solution. I do believe that not having money is a problem. But the part where money is not a solution is so important. It takes us back to the idea of restaurants as a safety net: not having money is a fucking problem, and that’s why people need to work. But having money is not a solution, especially when you don’t have enough.

 

Money has been a subject of so much of your—what do you consider your work? Events? Installations? Public performance-art commercial actions?

My mom’s always like, “How you gonna make money?” and I’m like, look, bro, God will help us all. You can call my work whatever you want.

 

Let’s just stick with “your work,” then. Your most recent event, in December, involved asking hospitals to buy packaged food at a high mark-up, and you’d give the profits to the communities they served.

It’s interesting, because it dovetails with what we’re seeing right now with the pandemic, because it was about racial health disparities. It was born from a conversation I had with a medical doctor who does social-justice work, Michelle Morse. Infant mortality in the black community is higher than white infant mortality, and one of the places where this disparity is especially noticeable is Kalamazoo, Michigan. So that’s where the work began—we called it BabyZoos, because of Kalamazoo.

If you look at what’s being done to address these disparities, all of the efforts are focussed on medical solutions, with a lot of urgency around improving access to care, improving delivery of health services. But the doctors working on these problems, at least in Kalamazoo, they’ll all tell you the issue isn’t just that, it’s a broad range of factors, the so-called “social determinants of health.” Housing, income, education—all these things actually impact the health outcomes of black folks. So what I wanted to do was focus my efforts on the most direct health-correlation factor I could, which is income. It’s about resource transfer to address racial health disparities.

That was the plan. What I found out was that hospitals didn’t care. Hospitals and health organizations didn’t care.

 

What will you do next?

I figure it’s easier to focus on individuals, so I’m going direct-to-consumer. I’m launching a pantry-staples brand in the next couple of months that does the same thing I was trying to do with BabyZoos: sell food products, and distribute the bulk of the profits to black communities. We’re not asking questions, we’re not putting folks who get the money on camera, we’re not asking for testimonials. There’s a tendency among folks who are engaged in charity work to trot out the beneficiaries of the charity, and I think that’s fucked up. We’re just going to say, “Hey, take this money, and use it.

We’re going to be selling salt. The salt is going to be called Lot.

 

After Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt?

Yeah, you got it. I’m also working with [the sustainable spice company] Burlap and Barrel on a condiment brand, Disappearing Condiments, which isn’t up and running yet. We’ll be selling fermented locust beans, which are indigenous to West Africa.

 

Will you be offering asymmetric pricing—charging more to white customers, for example—like you’ve done at some of your events?

No, not with the fermented locust beans. There are some things we’re thinking through with the salt, but I’m not sure if this is the right avenue for it. The idea is just to have a competitively-priced, high-quality product that competes with the more conventional condiments and pantry staples.

 

Like, it’s just a really good salt, and people buy it because it’s good salt—not because they’re going out of their way to buy it in order to exorcise a sense of white guilt?

What I’ve realized with the work I’m doing, hosting dinners, doing these—what did you call them? Public-performance actions? You have to convince the customer of your ideology before they divest of their resources. With the salt, I wanted to try to decouple the two. If you need salt, buy the salt. You don’t need to believe that you are anti-racist, or believe that you are racist, or even believe that the world is fucked up. You can just buy the salt.

I want to create viable products that can compete in the marketplace, so I can extract as much resources as possible and redirect them to communities that need them the most.

 

Isn’t this the same approach that you’re so skeptical of in “Let It Die”? That seems like exactly what Reem was trying to convince you of in the first half of the episode.

I guess! This is not an ideological question, right? It’s a material question. When you can’t buy malaria medicine, or you can’t put food on your table, it becomes about more than ideology. It’s a concrete, material battle. I mean, people are dying. Right now, people are dying. A month ago, in Lagos, where my parents live, there were young, able-bodied men going into neighborhoods demanding food from people under threat of violence. There were other people who formed a militia to encircle neighborhoods to keep those men away. This is reality. That’s not a consequence of Africans or Nigerians being incompetent or unprepared, it’s a consequence of a global system that extracts more and more from Africans, people of color, black folks, working-class folks. That needs to be addressed. If that means running a conventional business, I guess that is what it is. I’m conventional in that sense. I don’t want people to die.

 

Last year, you were profiled by Brett Martin in GQ—and now that piece is a finalist for a James Beard Award. That must feel strange, to see someone be rewarded for observing you closely.

It’s a mindfuck, on a couple levels. A friend pointed out that I myself write about my own life—and now somebody else is being recognized for writing about my life, even though I already do this. Her example—and I thought it was great—was that it’s like somebody going to [the legendary New Orleans chef] Leah Chase’s kitchen, watching her make fried chicken, working with her, taking her recipe, tweaking it, and then winning an award for that recipe. I was like, Shit, that is incredible.

But also Brett, who wrote the essay, is a friend, and he had become more of a friend in the course of the writing of the profile. As we started developing our relationship, I was very critical of his coverage of white people—white chefs, specifically. I remember saying to him, “Brett, this exploration of the minutiae of whiteness is problematic.” I was like, man, we don’t need to read another Sean Brock profile. The shit he’s doing is cool but, with all due respect, we don’t need to hear about him again. Can we get some other people on the books?

 

Do you hope your profile wins?

I hope Brett wins because I like Brett. But it doesn’t matter to me. I actually got e-mails and texts congratulating me, and I was, like, “No, dude, that’s not me, that’s not me at all.” I have a book coming out about my actual life, so maybe people can tune into that.

 

When is that coming out?

I’m still writing it. My editors are being very kind to me.

I do want to say, about the profile, that I’m ambivalent about media, but I also crave it. I need it, because my work is not tangible, and it’s small in scope. So I need these media milestones as reminders of my work, to myself and to others. It’s also my calling card. It lets people know what I’m about. When I introduce myself in an e-mail, I say, “My name is Tunde, I’m a Nigerian immigrant, artist, cook, and writer.” And then I hyperlink to the GQ article and something I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. People click on GQ’s Web site and they see my fucking oily face on there and they don’t even need to read the thing, they just know I’m for real and they give me a chance. I need that.

But I also recognize that GQ didn’t write the essay. It was a person. Brett Martin wrote it. By that, I mean that GQ is a network of people. Brett made the case for me, and then there’s an editor who is also a person—they put the piece together, and it came out. People made that choice. A lot of the time, when some article comes out about me—and I’m sure when this interview comes out, it will happen—people will be like “congratulations,” as if this came by divine force. But it’s people. Helen Rosner woke up one day and was like, “Let me talk to Tunde,” and that’s it: you make decisions, you have the imprimatur of The New Yorker. But The New Yorker is made up of people, and they’re people who are mostly white. So my ambivalence toward these institutions is my ambivalence toward the institutions of whiteness.

My work is no more or less worthy because it’s written about, but I’m so glad it is, because otherwise I would be more disposable than I am.

 

I wouldn’t say you’re disposable.

Shit, Helen, we’re all disposable. You’re disposable, too. The New Yorkercould be like Helen, we’re downsizing because people aren’t advertising anymore. That’s how this works. Same with me. We all have to find ways to keep ourselves indispensable, for the time being.

 

 

MINNEAPOLIS , MINNESOTA – MAY 31: The makeshift memorial and mural outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis , Minnesota. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“Peace on the left, Justice on the right!” is a chant that emanated from the George Floyd memorial program at the site of his murder.

Protests against police brutality and police shootings have reached a new level of nationwide outcries. Up to the response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis by policeman Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, the most famous, and too often most controversial, protest against police murders was the taking of a knee by professional football athlete Colin  Kaepernick. 

Digital technology, and specifically cameras on mobile phones often offer contradictory views from official police reports. Initially, the police report stated that Floyd resisted arrest. But camera footage by bystanders contradicted the initial police report. Specifically, the most damning footage was from a seventeen-year-old woman who posted to Facebook and emotionally distraught gave a statement about what she saw and what she videoed.

TV REPORT ON FLOYD VIDEO

 

Three days later, one of the police officers was charged with third-degree murder. There is nevertheless a long way to go. Jailing and conviction of police officers who shoot or otherwise brutalize and murder civilians, particularly Black men.

Check out this powerful analysis by Trevor Noah, the host of the Daily Show on television.

Stay woke. A luta continua (the struggle continues).