“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Mobile apps are so entrenched in our daily lives it's easy to forget their impact. But apps have truly changed the world.
Throughout time, technology has changed how we interact with the world, each other, and ourselves. In centuries past, the compass enhanced our ability to explore, the steam engine revolutionized our ability to perform difficult tasks, and the printing press radically changed the way we circulate information.
In this century, we've seen artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and autonomous cars. But the technology that has most drastically changed our daily lives is the one in our pockets. We often look at smartphones and the apps they contain as mere entertainment, but it's hard to ignore how phone apps have changed the world.
It's interesting to consider life before the phone or telegraph. In those days, most people didn't travel much further than their hometowns. Because of that, one's social circle was kept relatively small, further necessitating social acceptance. Even if you did have social connections beyond your hometown, communication was kept by letters, making it challenging—though not impossible—to maintain a relationship.
Because of social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, messenger apps like Facetime and Zoom, and even dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, our social circle has expanded beyond those in close proximity. Those of us who feel outcasted by their immediate society don't have to become recluses the way they might have in previous centuries. You simply need to open an app to find their own tribe.
There's a reason for the expression "knowledge is power." Throughout history, knowledge has been entrusted to the educated few—those with access to literacy, books, and the ability to do research. Even as public libraries arrived on the scene, people were bound to whatever books were available in their section of the world.
Smartphones themselves already put an astonishing amount of information into the hands of the everyday person. But mobile apps change the world of information even further by organizing the mountains of information, making them accessible and digestible. Apps like Duolingo teach new languages, streaming services connect us to online classrooms, and teachers create new apps to augment instruction.
Employment has followed a similar model throughout time: you choose a career and remain in that profession for the majority of your life. We see this with the apprentice and the squire of yesteryear and the office worker of the 20th century. Work provides a sense of stability for workers and employers, but for some it contributes to a sense of monotony.
In recent years, we've seen a rise in the "gig economy." This model emphasizes independent workers hired for short-term employment. Rideshare services like Uber began this model, and apps like Doordash continued it. Even streaming apps like Spotify and YouTube allow creators to make a living based on their own ideas and not based on their employers' wants.
Mobile apps are now part of our society's landscape, for better or worse. Recognizing their impact will allow us to decide what kind of impact they will have in the future.
For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Activist Sara Gozalo from @NewSanctuaryNYC tells us about how they're working to empower immigrants during this dar… https://t.co/l1OK0TSFvA— Jezebel (@Jezebel) 1541169069.0
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violencewww.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
What would Democratic Socialism mean for the economy?
Democratic Socialism, a subset of the democrat party, has been thrust into the spotlight recently with the shocking victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a 10-term incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez often referred to in the media as AOC, is a self identified Democratic Socialist, as was 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Despite this newfound prominence, the political affiliation is still widely misunderstood, often confused with communism or European style socialism. So what exactly is Democratic Socialism? And how would a Democratic Socialist platform affect your life?
According to the biggest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), "Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives." This polished and condensed definition sounds good, but it's difficult to grasp what it actually means in practice. To help you understand, we've broken down the four pillars of Democratic Socialism to explore how their implementation in the American government could affect your life.
Workers Control Means of Production/The Importance of Unions
Perhaps most central to Democratic Socialism is the belief that American industry should be controlled by the workers who run it and the consumers who gain from it. Generally, they believe in a decentralized economy, though they think some indispensable portions of industry, like energy and steel, should be government controlled. As the DSA puts it, "We believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect."
In practice, this decentralization would likely mean the fruition of things like workers cooperatives and publicly owned ventures. Essentially, this economic model would mean that it would be much more difficult for a few people to get obscenely wealthy while those on the bottom of the economic ladder remain impoverished. Instead, everyone would have fairly equal opportunity to profit off the success of a business, creating a more widespread sense of ownership over the success of the economy, therefore stabilizing it. Unions are an important part of this pillar, as Democratic Socialists believe unions are essential in order to hold companies accountable to their workers and to empower workers to challenge capitalism as a concept.
Capitalism Promotes Greed and Must be Regulated
Democratic Socialists believe that capitalism has the inherent tendency to keep the rich rich and the poor poor and that capitalist corporations will always act in the interest of maximum profit at the expense of all else. Therefore, private corporations must be regulated by the government in order to ensure that they look out for the wellbeing of workers and lower rung employees. With this kind of philosophy implemented, there would likely be a strengthening of labor laws, a higher minimum wage, expanded parental leave, the prevention of foreign outsourcing to low wage countries, and the prevention of environmentally harmful activities.
A Minimum Quality of Life for All Citizens
This is perhaps the simplest pillar of Democratic Socialism though likely would prove to be the most difficult to fulfill. Essentially, Democratic Socialists believe that all human beings have the right to sustenance, housing, clean water, healthcare, education, and child care, and that the government should ensure these things are accessible to all US citizens. This would likely mean significantly more spending on social welfare programs and expansion of government housing, which would inevitably require higher taxes. Of course, with the implementation of the other pillars of Democratic Socialism, more people would have a better chance of reaching this minimum quality of life even without an expansion of welfare programs.
Importantly, healthcare is an essential part of this equation in the eyes of Democratic Socialists. They don't merely believe in "medicare for all" health care system, but also that medical facilities should be publicly run and doctors publicly employed.
Grass Roots Means of Achieving Power
As mentioned before, the welfare of the community is important to Democratic Socialists, meaning that the election of the individual is also seen as having the tendency to play into the patterns of the centralization of power. A traditional Democratic Socialist would likely reject the concept of election altogether, instead opting for grass roots organization and mass mobilization. But as shown by AOC and all the other Democratic Socialist candidates elected this year, most who ascribe to these beliefs recognize that it's necessary to participate in the democracy in order to insight change, but still maintain that true change and empowerment comes from the mass mobilization of the people.
What can we do to fix it?
As we thrust forward, full-throttle into a modern era defined by convenience and consumption, it's easy to blind ourselves to the effects our everyday lives have on the environment around us. Whether it's the choking yellow clouds that pour from our smokestacks or the heaps of refuse we leave behind us every trash day, one thing is clear: we're living with the garbage we create. We've only mapped about five percent of our oceans, but our garbage has reached seemingly every corner. 19 billion pounds of trash, a large portion of which is plastic, is dumped into the sea every year. This number is set to double by 2025.
Most trash that ends up in the ocean lands somewhere in five "patches," located in our oceans' various doldrums. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a debris-ridden swath of ocean that's thousands of miles wide. Currently, it is estimated that the combined weight of the world's garbage patches is somewhere near 200 millions tons. To make matters worse, fish have begun consuming microplastics, creating a health crisis not just for marine life, but for the people who rely on the ocean for food. So, what's the solution?
Trash, trash, and more trash.
Unsurprisingly, it's pretty difficult to scoop up and remove millions of tons of plastic from our oceans. While nets are partially effective, they have a tendency of picking up fish and by extension, inadvertently destroying the ecosystems they (the nets) are trying to protect. Boyan Slat, a Dutch Inventor, famously came up with another solution in which he places gigantic trash capturing barriers in the ocean. According to his site, the plan is to launch a set of these barriers into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch later this year. Slat's own estimates assure investors that his company (The Ocean Cleanup) can reduce the amount of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50% within five years. Still, there are detractors. Many scientists insist that focusing on collecting trash with this method is a waste of time. According to a report by marine biologist Jan van Franeker, the negative effects of plastic in the water tend to dissipate after laws governing plastic use are put into place. It's "something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input," says van Franeker. The concern among scientists is that Slat's flashy invention could possibly move the spotlight off of more tenable solutions, such as legislation to prevent plastic dumping and the use of plastic bags.
The Ocean Clean Up project in action
Considering the fact that 80% of ocean pollution comes from land-based garbage, reduction of input is the definitely the more clear-cut way to fix this problem. One step would be the enactment of a federal container deposit law. Essentially, a deposit law forces consumers to pay a small fee (typically between 2 and 15 cents) for each bottle or can at purchase. This fee can later be refunded when the recycling is brought back to an eligible return center, such as a supermarket.
Presently, only ten states have programs in place to buy used plastic and aluminum containers, despite the fact that about 50% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. In states where bills regarding container deposits have been passed, the amount of aluminum and plastic beverage containers has dropped by as much as 84%. In many ways, these programs seem like a no-brainer but, unfortunately, many lawmakers conflate (purposely or otherwise) container deposit laws with their larger ineffective cousin, the litter tax. A litter tax is imposed on manufactures and retailers of recyclable goods and is used to fund various anti-littering campaigns. These taxes haven't proven to be effective. A deposit law actively incentivizes consumers to recycle, because they lose money if they don't. The problem is, beverage manufacturers don't want these laws, as they raise the in-store price of everything from beer to bottled water. For obvious reasons, this translates to lower sales.In order to correct our current course, Americans will need to adopt new attitudes and policies around how we produce and deal with our trash. Putting the health of our planet above our desire for profit may be a good place to start.