Thursday, July 28, 2016

On the vengeance of a divided country, 1992 and 2016

Associate professor, The Ohio State University

Violence in the Middle East. Upheavals in Europe. Anxieties about American decline. Economic fears. A recent recession. Police brutality caught on video. Interracial conflict. Attacks on the police. A Clinton presidential campaign.

The year was 1992, although it could just as easily be 2016.

On the first night of the Republican National Convention in Houston 24 years ago, primary challenger Pat Buchanan took the stage to deliver his famous “Culture War” speech in which he argued that he and his supporters, the “Buchanan Brigades,” were fighting a religious and cultural war “for the soul of America.” He conceded to his bitter rival, President George H.W. Bush. Although the historical details might be different now than those more than two decades ago—the Persian Gulf War had just ended; Europe reeled from the Bosnian War; the trade war was with Japan; the Cold War ended; Black motorist Rodney King was physically beaten by four White and Latino police officers, the act of which was caught on a home video camera, and Los Angeles burst into flames after their acquittal and mistrial—the anger and frustration of the Buchanan Brigades was a palpable and surprisingly large minority of Republican primary voters.

This minority has grown in influence, from substantial fringe to king-making majority. In the 2016 election cycle, the bulk of Republican voters channeled that particular anger and frustration into the GOP presidential nomination of Donald J. Trump—not just a surprising primary challenge of a sitting president as in Buchanan’s case in 1992. One liberal pundit has characterized Trump’s supporters as deploying vengeance and revanchism. Although revanche is French for "revenge," revanchism has the historical connotation of reclaiming lost territory that is felt to be rightfully one’s own nation’s, specifically the Alsace-Lorraine province of France that was lost to Prussia in 1870. Geographer Neil Smith has connected revanchism to the decades-long gentrification policies that justified the removal of poor people (of color) from cities (see: Neil Smith).

This vengeful logic appears as the ubiquitous slogan that supports causes from all over the political spectrum: “Take Back America.” In 1992, Buchanan ended his blockbuster speech with his own version of this call to not-entirely-metaphoric arms. He talks of how a young group of soldiers who, having recently returned from the Persian Gulf War, protected a senior convalescent home during the Los Angeles Rebellion and how their bravery should inspire citizens through this presidential election and beyond: “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” For Buchanan, we must take back America from “the mob” using “force” albeit “rooted in justice.”

As the antagonists were then in 1992, so they are in 2016: America has been overrun with and must be "taken back" from terrorists, from criminals, from immigrants, from protestors.

Often referred to as backlash politics, much of this anger has been attributed to the perception that America has lost (or will lose) its unequivocal global dominance, no longer the undisputed winner of the Cold War as the lone, unassailable global superpower. The 1990s were riven by such concerns as “balkanization” and interethnic strife that had shaken and toppled governments around the world in the post-Cold War era.

The logic of backlash politics fuels what I call racial equilibrium (see: Chapter 3, "The Territorialization of Civility, the Spatialization of Revenge"). If one group appears to win, then another should lose; eventually the losers win and the winners lose with a net gain zero. To understand racial politics in this way is a reductive, dangerous, and false equivalence. The fatal shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are often argued to counterbalance the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, implying that the deaths of the police officers by Black men now supersede the deaths of Black men by police officers. These deaths ostensibly represent a false choice between support for law enforcement or support for their killers. As my colleague Treva Lindsey writes, “One can mourn the loss of life in Dallas and fight against racist policing. To be clear, these are not opposing positions.”

Comments on the shootings of police in Dallas by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a public intellectual who has been celebrated for his self-professed centrist politics, captures how even the center-left have found common cause with the right:

“Civilization rests on the rule of law, and that rests on respect for officers of the law. I have never liked hearing marching crowds that chant slogans such as 'No justice, no peace.' That is a not-so-veiled threat against the basic rules of civil society. We all rely on the police and other elements of the criminal justice system to maintain order, which is the building block of justice. Look at countries such as Iraq and Libya today, where order has collapsed. The rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle.”

The criminal justice system leads to order, which leads to justice, which grounds civilization. To disrespect police officers, as an element of the justice system, thus destabilizes civilization. The problem with Zakaria’s point about civilization is that he creates a false dichotomy, an implicit us versus them: those who respect officers of the law and support civilization, and those who don’t respect officers of the law and support instead some putative “law of the jungle.” However, if justice is the bulwark of civilization, and the merits or strengths of a civilization is judged by the justice it dispenses, then where there is little justice, there is little civilization even with respect for officers of the law.

What if instead we were to understand the protestors’ chants of “No Justice, No Peace” as a description of the experiences of entire communities, numbers that continue to grow beyond the loved ones that Castile and Sterling left behind? The “not-so-veiled threat” that Zakaria identifies is the protesters’ bringing these injustices and rights violations to the broader U.S. public and forcing these wider audiences with little firsthand experiences to include these injustices as part of the America to which they belong. The more accurate dichotomy, then, is between those who feel they have had justice and peace that can be disrupted by the protesters and those who feel they have never had justice or peace in the first place. In other words, if we feel that our experiences have largely been about justice and peace, then we have been lucky enough to have lived in a world that has been relatively protected from the daily lived experiences of the protesters and the victims of police brutality. The question remains whether we will respect and recognize these experiences as part of the everyday America we live in and the history we claim as our own.

This division indicates the “two societies” toward which we have moved, not “one white, one black” as the original 1968 Kerner Commission Report read, published after years of urban unrest had sparked across the nation, taking lives and burning out neighborhoods. Instead, our nation today is divided between those who believe the U.S. system of justice is fair and those who do not. These divisions force us to answer hard questions about whether our society and civilization will be marked by the inclusiveness and understanding that so many politicians, policymakers, and pundits insist American society to be. Will our concept of America include and understand these experiences of injustice and unwarranted state violence so that we will protest the killing of one of our own, whether civilian or police?

Now, with consequences far greater than this presidential election, we get to choose: which America will we take back, the one of division or inclusion?


Lynn Mie Itagaki is author of Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout. She is associate professor in the departments of English and women's, gender, and sexuality studies and the Program Coordinator in Asian American Studies at The Ohio State University.

"Lynn Mie Itagaki’s book is an incisive critique of the civil racism that has become dominant in both liberal and conservative discourses of race in the post-Civil Rights era."
—Daniel Kim, Brown University

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empire in an age of robots and drones

Lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow

On July 7, 2016, police forces in Dallas attached a small explosive device to a robot and sent it to kill Micah Johnson, the gunman who shot five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally. Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended the lethal action, insisting, “We saw no other option than to use our bomb robot . . . Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

The remote-killing was the first of its kind on U.S. soil, and generated intense debate about the ethics of using robots to destroy humans. Did Johnson pose an imminent threat at the moment of explosion? What about due process? And when should a robot perform an exceptional act of state violence? These questions mirrored established concerns about drone warfare. For more than a decade, the U.S. military and intelligence communities have killed by proxy.

Outside of “hot battlefields,” from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen’s deserts, Predator and Reaper drones have hunted from above. Hundreds of strikes and thousands of deaths have crystallized a new way of waging war. Bruised by nearly a decade of billion-dollar skirmishes, the White House slowly pivoted to the robotic. Drones circling in the clouds, rather than soldiers scrambling on the ground, became a nonhuman solution to a very human problem. As troops withdrew from Afghanistan after fighting the longest military operation in U.S. history, drones stayed behind: unblinking sentinels in the sky. In Syria and Iraq, Reapers continue to provide the military with a high-definition picture of below. At the outset of the war on terror, the U.S. military had a handful of drones. Now, more than 11,000 unmanned vehicles constitute a robotic armada, from hand-thrown Ravens to the large Global Hawk drone. How can we describe this cyborg imperium?

For millennia, empires have risen and fallen. They are an enduring feature of human history. After launching the war on terror, empire was a term widely used to describe the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoconservatives and liberals alike embraced the idea of a distinctly American empire. In their eyes the world was now a battlespace and the U.S. military a beacon of order. The network of military bases installed in the Cold War expanded to serve a vast military manhunt. Yet as the years passed and the death count rose, the specter of another “Vietnam Syndrome” seeped into the corridors of Washington, D.C. Bogged down in a vicious counterinsurgency, the war on terror had slowly transmuted into a forever war. The Obama administration subsequently oversaw a drawdown of U.S. troops. Behemoth bases were mothballed, and the number of Americans in foreign lands fell.

But did this mean that empire was fading or simply changing?

This question is crucial. Is “empire” still a relevant term to describe the “small footprint” approach enabled by robotic prosthetics? I think so, but the empire of today is unlike anything before. Although empires have always relied on technology to project their power—from Roman roads to British ships—we now live in an age of advanced artificial intelligence, supercomputers, robots, the Internet, and satellite communications. An artificial skin has been grafted on the planet, with earthlings joined together in electromagnetic communion. This has profoundly changed the spaces, subjects, and apparatus of state power. Violence, although a distinctly human activity, is increasingly conducted by proxy. The rise of the Predator drone at the dawn of the war on terror enabled the U.S. military to project power without projecting human bodies. The interface between American imperium and its enemies was mediated by robot. And this continues to materialize a transition away from a labor-intensive American empire to what I call a machine-intensive Predator Empire.

Empire abhors a vacuum, and the U.S. homeland—long a target of police militarization—soon saw Predators deployed along its national borders. The killing of Micah Johnson was therefore the latest case of robotic blowback. Robots from the battlefield are routinely transferred to police departments across the U.S. Financed by the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, together with funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, around 1,000 ground robots have joined a cache of war gear that has spilled onto U.S. streets. And that’s in addition to police drones that are starting to swarm in cities and suburbs.

Robots, whether in warfare or policing, on the ground or in the sky, are clearly changing the conduct and spatiality of U.S. power, politics, and violence. And we are only beginning to understand the meaning of this artificial regime for what it means to be a human. A key battleground will be how democracy, legitimacy, and accountability function in a world where decisions—and the ancient art of killing—are severed from humans.

Ours, after all, is the age of alienation. A toxic individualism rips through the planet, splintering lifeworlds and entrenching a pervasive paranoia. It is little wonder that the machinery of imperialism today reflects this system that birthed it: a grinding war of all against all. In her essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt warned that governments who feel legitimate power slipping away from them “have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.” My fear is that governing by consent, a victory hard-won over centuries, is at risk of being radically overturned by governing by violence. Shoveling billions of dollars within the belly of the Predator Empire risks such an inversion. This would represent a Hobbesian Leviathan shorn of any pretense to protect a unified commonwealth: a state apparatus whose sole duty is to police segregation. A new social contract for the robotic Leviathan of the twenty-first century.

Empire has not disappeared. In the twinkling of satellites, the snaking of undersea fiber-optic cables, and the whir of data storage facilities, a robotic imperium thrives. Perhaps it is more difficult to see than legions of Roman phalanxes, but the Predator Empire exists. It never sleeps or blinks in its attempt to secure a splintering planet. Our task is to wake up to a brave new world marching into a future without us.


Ian G. R. Shaw is author of Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. He is lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow.

"A compelling account of the geopolitics of the drone as it haunts ‘policing, predation, and planet.’ Ian G. R. Shaw's book is as attentive to the historical and cultural geographies of the unmanned aerial vehicle as it is to the preemptive foreclosure of political futures."
—Louise Amoore, author of The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability

Friday, July 15, 2016

The UAW Local 879, 75 years ago: Ford, FDR, and the hard-fought battles behind the launch of this legendary labor leader.

Local 879, seen in this solidarity march in St. Paul, was a national leader
during the 1980s and 1990s in promoting workers' rights and fair trade.
Image from the author's collection.


Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, vowed on many occasions that he would never allow a labor union. When workers at a plant in Buffalo, New York, walked out in a wildcat strike in 1912, he shut the facility down. No one ever doubted his resolve.

So how did the United Automobile Workers (UAW) manage to organize the Ford Motor Company seventy-five years ago? It took the concerted efforts of tens of thousands of workers, the determination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Walter Reuther of the UAW—and most importantly, an ultimatum from Ford’s wife, Clara, who was desperately trying to save the company for their son, Edsel.

On July 18, 1941, UAW Local 879 received a charter to represent workers at Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Various organizations, including the UAW, had been struggling for decades to improve working conditions at the Ford Motor Company—and paying a high price for their efforts. At the Ford Hunger March in 1932, which started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan, four workers protesting unemployment during the Depression were shot and killed by police and Ford service agents. Dozens more were injured.

This Newsweek Magazine cover from June 5, 1937,
has the caption "Dearborn: No Trespass!"
Image from the author's collection.

FDR’s New Deal programs brought hope to the workers of America but apprehension to Henry Ford, who suspected a plot to unionize his workforce. He refused to go along with the National Industrial Recovery Act, setting up a confrontation with Roosevelt—the first of many. Ford was disqualified from bidding on federal projects in 1934. The following year, Roosevelt secured passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier for unions to organize. In 1937 the UAW introduced a new tactic, the sit-down strike, and organized General Motors and Chrysler. Buoyed by that success, Reuther led a march in Dearborn to distribute flyers at the Ford River Rouge plant, which had about 85,000 workers. The marchers were met by a contingent of Ford agents in what became known as the Battle of the Overpass. Reuther and other union organizers were severely beaten, and many bystanders were hurt. Newspapers and magazines published a number of iconic photographs of the mayhem, including one that received a Pulitzer. These images showed a shocked nation what the Ford service department had become: a gang of thugs. Henry Ford was oblivious to the harsh criticism and continued to oppose virtually all of Roosevelt’s programs. David Halberstam wrote in The Reckoning of Ford’s bizarre behavior: “No one could reach the old man anymore. It was a spectacular self-destruction, one that would never again be matched in a giant American corporation. It was as if the old man, having made the company, felt he had a right to destroy it.”

Occasionally it would be standing-room-only at Local 879 Hall, with some
workers outside looking through the window (at rear). The building
is now owned by Erik's Bike Shop.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

As a result of the Battle of the Overpass and other egregious labor violations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Ford to stop interfering with the right of workers to organize. Ford refused and challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB in court. Even after the case was rejected by the Supreme Court on February 10, 1941, Ford still refused to comply. Fed-up workers at the Rouge plant walked out on April 1, eventually shutting down all Ford operations throughout the country, including the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. As the labor battles were ongoing, Roosevelt was preparing for a different kind of battle: war in Europe. American manufacturers were generally cooperative with the military preparedness effort but Ford was characteristically defiant, in part because of his pacifist beliefs. Roosevelt and the military made it clear that the country needed the industrial might of the Ford Motor Company. In August 1940, Ford was awarded a contract to build airplane engines, followed by orders for armored cars and trucks. This was strongly opposed by the UAW, which had still not organized Ford three years after GM and Chrysler. They claimed that Ford was anti-labor, unpatriotic, and a Nazi sympathizer. There was a perception that an increasingly senile Henry Ford was dragging his feet on fulfilling the military contracts. Roosevelt threatened to take over the company. In an effort to tame the “rugged individualist,” Roosevelt had employed federal procurement policies, labor regulations, and a threat to nationalize the company—all without much success. Ford finally capitulated after receiving an ultimatum from Clara to sign a labor contract or she would leave him.

A union election was held on May 22, 1941, which the UAW-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) won in a landslide. A broken Ford agreed to a contract that was signed on June 20. “The company granted the union everything it asked and threw in the union shop and check-off [dues collection] gratis,” the New York Times reported. The national contract would also apply to all branch plants after local ratification.

Labor activists in the Twin Cities were fortunate that they were not subjected to the violence that often accompanied organizing campaigns in Detroit. Several retired auto workers who participated in an oral history program in the late 1990s described the brutal working conditions at the Twin Cities plant in the 1930s, which were comparable to those at ten other Ford branch plants that had filed complaints with the NLRB. The CIO had sent an organizer to lead the local campaign. Clandestine meetings were held in living rooms, and at a Plymouth garage on Lake Street, Minneapolis, which was under surveillance by Ford agents. Workers knew there were company spies at the plant and that they risked termination if they were seen at any union meetings. The Twin Cities Assembly Plant reopened several weeks after the national labor agreement was signed in Detroit. On June 27, more than 1,200 workers attended an evening meeting in St. Paul and 900 signed union membership cards, giving it the needed majority. On July 18, 1941, the Twin Cities plant was issued charter No. 879 by the UAW-CIO. Local 879 opened an office at 444 Rice Street in St. Paul. Several weeks later a delegation from Local 879 met with Ford representatives in Chicago to learn the details of the union contract negotiated in Detroit.

UAW President Walter Reuther (shaking hands at right) presided
at the opening of the new Local 879 Union Hall on Ford Parkway,
St. Paul, in 1955.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

After many years of struggle to win the right to represent workers, the UAW had to abruptly redefine its mission. The first priority was to protect its members, as the plant was being converted from civilian production under Ford to military production under the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). As car production was being phased out, labor leaders at the local, state, and federal levels lobbied to keep auto workers employed in defense industries. On December 7, 1941, five months after the formation of UAW Local 879, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war.

Ford closed the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in 2011. The charter of UAW Local 879 was terminated two years later after it sold its union hall and transferred responsibilities for retirees to another UAW local in Minneapolis.


Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota, forthcoming later this year from University of Minnesota Press. A trained architect, McMahon has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture and has developed and designed several exhibits for museums and galleries in New York and Minnesota.

"Brian McMahon has done an outstanding job of showing how the top and bottom layers of the industrial hierarchy viewed reality—and how they saw and influenced each other."
—Peter Rachleff, Macalester College

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of walls and robots: The future of immigration

Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego

Even before Donald Trump promised to build one, U.S. popular culture was preoccupied with walls—most famously the Wall in Game of Thrones that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings. Contemporary depictions of zombies are set amid fences and fortifications that recall both current and projected architectures of border enforcement, as in World War Z and The Walking Dead. A recent Comic Con allowed fans to interact with actors made up as zombies in a sort of chain link labyrinth that, while based on a Georgia prison from the show, might also suggest the fortification of the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, or any number of immigrant detention centers. Meanwhile, the Fox mini-series Wayward Pines is about a small town in Idaho surrounded by a mysterious wall that not only protects it from degenerate, carnivorous humanoids (derisively called “aberrations” or “abbies”), but that also keeps its residents inside and in line.

Read alongside these examples, Trump’s wall can be seen as a speculative fiction. Recalling Samuel Delany’s definition of science fiction, the future projected by Trump represents a significant distortion of the actually existing security state with its miles of fences, drones, high-tech surveillance, networks of detention centers, and mass deportations. But whereas popular culture mediates the migration security state in dystopian tones, Trump paints his wall as part of a future utopia, but not only because it promises to keep Mexicans out.

The idea of hermetically sealing the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall that Mexico will pay for is widely regarded as impossible and even many of Trump’s biggest fans don’t really believe it will happen—but they love him for dreaming that dream anyway. The wall is thus a utopia in the etymological sense of “no place,” but its appeal lies in what the dream of a wall represents. Imagining the wall is less about excluding non-U.S. workers altogether and more about disciplining them. As speculative fiction, the wall is built out of such racialized and gendered dynamics of subordination and humiliation.

In Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance, I argue that speculative fictions in literature and film—works by Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, Alex Rivera, and Beatrice Pita and Rosaura Sanchez—mediate, in revealing ways, histories of conflict involving migrant workers in California. This is in part because workers and employers have historically fought for conflicting visions of the future. On the one hand, I analyze “agribusiness futurism,” or capital investments in the dream that future technology, especially forms of automation, will result in a utopia of profits undeterred by worker demands. In practice, however, automation led not to the exclusion of workers but to the ramping up of production in ways that required even more. New technology did, however, provide the rationale for deskilling and wage reductions, supplemented with heavy doses of police and vigilante violence that I call, following Carey McWilliams, “farm fascism.” Like the wall, agribusiness technology was historically aimed not at excluding non-white, noncitizen workers, but at disciplining them for better exploitation. So I wasn’t surprised when, in an apparent reference to the Bracero Program, Trump drew a parallel between his employment of foreign guest workers at his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club and the practices of California grape growers, or when at a recent campaign speech in Fresno he was greeted by fans holding signs reading “Farmers for Trump.”

On the other hand, I also analyze “farm worker futurism”—efforts by farm workers and their allies to use technology, especially visual technologies like cameras and computer screens, to imagine other worlds beyond exploitation. From the late-1940s grape strikes in the San Joaquin Valley to the early 1990s, when the United Farm Workers helped organize a fast in solidarity with janitors at Apple Computers in the Santa Clara Valley, Farm Worker Futurism engages the dialectic between agribusiness and farm worker futurisms in visual culture. In opposition to forms of agribusiness sovereignty partly secured by domination of the visual field, farm workers have claimed what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “right to look”; thus, studying their visual culture enables the reconstruction of a subaltern “counterhistory of visuality.” Viewing agribusiness from below reveals how farm workers and their allies have appropriated visual technologies to imagine better worlds and project different, more egalitarian social orders.

Starting with the image on the cover, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer is threaded throughout Farm Worker Futurism. As the director explains, he

basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States (and Mexico) if they keep going the way they’re going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven’t seen before: the U.S. from the outside . . . In this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It’s kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.

In Rivera’s near future, the border has been closed and water in Mexico has been privatized behind a giant dam. The water company in the film suggests not only contemporary efforts to privatize water in Latin America but also the large-scale, state-sponsored water projects such as dams and canals that have historically fed California agribusiness. Recalling Star Wars and the destruction of the Death Star, in the climax of Sleep Dealer, three working-class Mexican characters commandeer an automated drone in the U.S. and fly it across the border to destroy the dam. As if anticipating Trump’s wall, the film thus concludes with a utopian fantasy of seizing technology from below, in opposition to state-supported corporate enclosures.


Curtis Marez is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of Farm Worker Futurism, for which an online companion "Cesar Chavez's Video Collection" is available. He is also author of Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, the former editor of American Quarterly, and past president of the American Studies Association.

"In Farm Worker Futurism, one comes face-to-face with the techno-fascism that was routed around daily by the collective actions of laborers who hacked the future with anticipatory illuminations and critical disturbances. This is not science fiction, but it is futurity-as-history that drives science fiction into the present for activist, artists, and critics. Curtis Marez has written a unique and highly accessible book that calls on us to perform the speculative seeding of the future as farm workers to make new worlds grow now." —Ricardo Dominguez, University of California, San Diego

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ann Treacy: Fiction is woven of fact, history, and hard work.

Ann Treacy holds her family's past close, and features this image in her house.
Her grandmother, whose story figures into Treacy's latest fiction, is pictured dressed
in white. 

Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure here.


The Search for the Homestead Treasure is a middle-grade novel about a Swedish boy befriending a Gypsy boy on a farm in Goodhue County, Minnesota, in 1903. It seems I’ve been “pre-writing” this book all my life.

My grandmother was a young girl in 1903 on a Minnesota farm. She feared large horses, and had a sister, Annie Koehnen, who died of diphtheria in 1893 at the age of eight. Life expectancy for Americans in 1903 was forty-nine years. Children commonly died from diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, and measles. My family's details and more have simmered for years, distilling into this work of fiction in which fourteen-year-old Martin Gunnarsson tries to hold his family together on the homestead where his Swedish ancestors died of diphtheria during the Civil War. Martin’s life is complicated when Pa suffers a logging camp injury, and again when he befriends a Roma boy, Samson—and cannot let his family know. Martin discovers his Aunt Cora’s diary, penned 40 years before and hinting at a family treasure. But what exactly is he looking for?

When I was growing up, an old family photo hung in our living room (pictured above), and now hangs in mine. My grandmother is the youngest child, wearing white in front. Annie is the pencil sketch in the middle. This photo would have been taken sometime between 1900 and 1910—a momentous time in US history, though I also think of it as a quiet time.

During that first decade of the century, following the depression of the 1890s and before the world went to war in the teens, President Theodore Roosevelt governed a country of 80 million people (compared with roughly 323 million citizens today). It was a time of many firsts. The first World Series (a best-of-nine series) was played in 1903, with the Boston Americans winning five games to three over the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year, Orville and Wilbur Wright made aviation history with their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Farmers still mostly used horses, although there were some automobiles—about eight thousand throughout the country.

I wanted to bring alive historic details for young readers, including what farming with horses was like; the difficult work of rock and stump clearing; and pumping all the water needed to fill a bath tub, then emptying the tub by hand. Today kids think that "working out" means exercising. With few social or government programs, our ancestors who could not afford to feed their children often sent to them to “work out” as free farm help, where they labored in exchange for food and board.

Many nations of the world have nomadic people known by various names as Gypsies, rovers, walking people, and travelers. Gypsies came to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, when many Europeans immigrated. For all of her 101 years, Grandma Minnie (who was born in 1896) spoke of her childhood fear of Gypsies who roamed the rural countryside. She blamed them for the theft of anything from clothes off the line to kidnapping. Whereas Grandma would never have spoken to them or gotten closer than seeing Gypsies perform tricks in town on a Saturday night, I used to wonder: what if you could get to know one of the Gypsy children personally?

This chair belongs to a former neighbor of Treacy's,
whose family set this chair outside their dwelling and
offered goods to the traditionally nomadic Roma people.

The Roma history in Minnesota intrigued me again when I was in college, helping an elderly neighbor clear her attic. We discovered an ancient chair, pictured above, which belonged to her grandparents. When Gypsies were in the area, they set the chair outside their cabin with chickens tied to it, or left fresh loaves of bread on it, believing that by sharing enough they would not be stolen from. The Roma did not have the habit of knocking on doors, and had different ideas about distributing wealth. The Minnesota Historical Society suggested I read farm journals for background information, as rather little is recorded of Gypsies in Minnesota. Perhaps they shunned photography, and newspapers of the day tended primarily to report their presence in an area as a warning, such as this August 15, 1895, account from the Red Wing Daily Republican:

A number of gypsies who have been in camp near this place for the past few days, canvassed the city yesterday, begging money and making themselves a nuisance generally. Some of the merchants say that it required close watching to keep them from carrying away articles in their spacious pockets or bundles which they carried with them. A trained bear and monkey, and the singing of antiquated songs by young girls, were some of the methods used to attract attention and draw pennies from the pockets of our citizens.

This story could have been set in any Midwestern farming community. Traveling Roma (commonly referred to as Gypsies from a mistaken belief that their ancestors came from Egypt) immigrated to North America when most European immigrants came. From the late 1800s until the mid-twentieth century their traveling lifestyle brought them from town to town and farm to farm throughout the states, territories, and provinces of North America, where their culture often clashed with others, including other immigrant groups. Yet despite cultural differences, children and young people have a way of developing friendships through shared experiences.

This piece was adapted from the Author's Note that appears in The Search for the Homestead Treasure.
Enter a drawing to win a copy of The Search for the Homestead Treasure!
Deadline: July 14, 2016.

Ann Treacy is author of The Search for the Homestead Treasure and coauthor (with Margi Preus) of A Book of Grace. Her writing has appeared in Lake Superior Magazine as well as Highlights for Children magazine. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Marshall Avenue near Finn Street (Marshall and Finn are horses in the novel). She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Author Michelle Cliff dies at 69

Cliff's writing serves as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world.

The University of Minnesota Press is deeply saddened to hear of Michelle Cliff’s death. Cliff embraced her many identities as a light-skinned Creole, a lesbian, and an immigrant in both England and the United States to prove the intersections of prejudice and oppression. She never shied away from difficult themes of colonialism, race, gender, and sexuality and balanced her powerful messages with a personal and lyrical writing voice. Able to transcend the genres of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, Cliff’s writings serve as a model for how to confront the dualities of our complex world and how to bring attention to suppressed voices.

The Press extends its sympathies and condolences to Cliff’s friends, family, colleagues, and students. We are proud to have published If I Could Write This in Fire (2008), Everything Is Now: New and Collected Stories (2009), and Into the Interior (2010).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Minnesota boxing legend Scott LeDoux stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali

Scott LeDoux, also known as Minnesota's Rocky, stares down Muhammad Ali
before their five-round exhibition in December 1977.
Image courtesy of the family of Scott LeDoux.


Scott LeDoux loved talking about Muhammad Ali. He fought the champ in a five-round exhibition in Chicago in 1977. LeDoux and his manager visited Ali at his California mansion and watched movies together. And LeDoux loved telling the story of Ali meeting Scott’s first wife, Sandy.

“How did he get you?” the champ asked Sandy LeDoux.

“He got me when I was young,” she told Ali.

LeDoux’s introduction to Ali came in February of 1964, when Scott was a teenager. Cassius Clay, the brash Olympic gold medalist, fought the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in Miami that night, and LeDoux listened intently to the round-by-round recaps on his Philco radio. I was 13 at the time and remember crawling under my covers with my transistor radio, rooting for the charismatic challenger against the evil Liston, all the while trying to contain my excitement from my parents, who assumed I’d gone to sleep.

Like many children of the 1960s, Ali would become one of my heroes—and it all started that night. Years later, I met Ali—and promoter Don King—in a New York hotel elevator, a surreal experience, to be sure. But sharing an elevator with Ali and sharing the ring with the champ were two very different experiences. And LeDoux couldn’t wait to go toe-to-toe with Ali, even if for only five rounds in which Ali wore headgear, oversized gloves, and about 20 extra pounds.

This is what he told Ali at a press conference promoting their exhibition:

Float like a buffalo
Sting like a tank
You couldn’t hurt me
If you were swinging a plank
You may be big
You may be fast
You fight me
You’ll end up last.

To which Ali replied, “Not bad for a white boy.”

This is the essence of what attracted me to LeDoux. It started in 2007, when I worked as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and LeDoux was an Anoka County commissioner. The county was bidding for a stadium that would house the Minnesota Vikings, in Blaine. I was at the Minnesota State Capitol, covering the evolving story. LeDoux never ducked a fight and rarely ducked any questions. He became a source.

But I wanted to know more about a stadium that, ultimately, would be built in Minneapolis. There were more important questions to ask LeDoux.

“What was it like to get punched in the head by George Foreman in his prime?” I asked LeDoux.

“Why would you ask that?” LeDoux responded.

“Because,” I told him, “I’ve never met anyone crazy enough to suffer through that.”

LeDoux told me that Foreman bloodied his nose and opened a 12-stitch gash above his left cheek.

“George Foreman hit me so hard my ancestors in France felt it,” LeDoux told me—and anyone else who asked.

That’s how the seeds for my biography of LeDoux, The Fighting Frenchman, were planted. LeDoux was a boxing historian who loved telling boxing tales. More often than not, when LeDoux regaled me with boxing stories, the conversation always floated like a butterfly back to Ali.

LeDoux loved to tell the story of Ali agreeing—in principle—to fight LeDoux for the title and how the dream unraveled when Ali lost his championship to Leon Spinks, the young Olympian who took a pounding from LeDoux when LeDoux and Leon fought to a draw in Las Vegas.

The title fight with Ali never materialized—not even after Ali reclaimed his crown by defeating Spinks in a rematch. But Ali remained a presence in LeDoux’s life. Ali was ringside at the old Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, when LeDoux fought Larry Holmes for the title in 1980. And LeDoux was part of the undercard when Ali fought for the final time, in the Bahamas.

Through the years, Ali and LeDoux continued to occasionally cross paths, thanks in part to LeDoux’s charitable work or his travels as a ringside announcer for ESPN. LeDoux, who died in 2011, said he last saw Ali in 2006.

When you examine their careers, it’s hard to place Scott LeDoux in the same category as Muhammad Ali. The last person who would do that was LeDoux, who reminded doubters that he wasn’t a cheap date. But he wasn’t Ali. When you hear the title “The Greatest,” you think of Ali and only Ali.

Yet, during the days following Ali’s passing, I could not help but marvel at how fate linked the careers of LeDoux and one of the dominant personalities and athletes of all time.

“Guys like Ali have it every night,” LeDoux said. “Guys like me have it once or twice in a career.”


Paul Levy was a writer for the Minneapolis–St. Paul Star Tribune for thirty-five years. He has written for the New York Times, ABC News, the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, and Mother Jones.

"Nobody ever gave 100 percent like Scott did. You can argue about his technique, but not his heart and effort. Of course, after every fight he lost, he’d say, ‘He never touched me,’ or that it was a lucky punch."
—Bob Lurtsema, Minnesota Vikings legend

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Carelessness and fate: One man's survival on the open sea

Built to haul enormous cargo tonnage to ports all around the Great Lakes, the Morrell
was one of only a handful of 600-foot freighters at the time of her launching in 1906.

An excerpt (modified from the Prologue) from the forthcoming book Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell and One Man's Survival on the Open Sea by Michael Schumacher.

We are giving away advances of Torn in Two. Sign up for a chance to win here.
Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

Dennis Hale pulled his car into the Bethlehem Steel plant just in time to see the Daniel J. Morrell reaching the Buffalo breakwater on Lake Erie, a short distance from the plant's Lackawanna loading dock. It was eleven in the evening of November 26, 1966. Hale, a twenty-six-year-old watchman on the bulk carrier, had missed the boat—quite literally—on other occasions, but never with so much riding on it. If he failed to make this last trip of the season, he would be forfeiting his annual bonus, vacation pay, and extended vacation pay, adding up to a loss of six to seven thousand dollars.

Hale had not been home for Thanksgiving. He could have accepted this as part of the downside of working on the lakes late in the season, but when the Morrell was sailing on the return trip to Lackawanna, New York, the boat's master, Captain Arthur Crawley, learned that the Morrell would be required to return to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, for yet another load. The Morrell, along with her sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend, would be substituting for the stricken vessel. The additional voyage would be the Morrell's thirty-fourth run of the shipping season.

There was no reason, other than carelessness and bad timing, for Hale's not being on the boat. When the Morrell had arrived at Lackawanna, she could not immediately unload. Two freighters were ahead of her at the dock. Hale viewed this inconvenience as an unexpected opportunity: his Ashtabula, Ohio, home was only three hours away, and since it took nearly eight hours to unload the average freighter, he estimated that he could drive home, see his wife and spend the night in his own bed, and return to Lackawanna in plenty of time to be back onboard the Morrell before she sailed for Minnesota.

Hale left as soon as he found someone to cover his watch duty. John Groh, a twenty-one-year-old deckwatch on the Morrell, hitched a ride with him.

Hale, it turned out, miscalculated how long it would take to unload the boats—and Crawley's determination to leave the docks as soon as possible. The Lackawanna-Taconite trip was a long but familiar haul. This one promised to be a little rougher than most.

Weather forecasts called for stormy weather on Lake Erie, and Crawley ordered water added to the Morrell's ballast tanks. The extra weight would allow the Morrell to ride lower in the water, giving her better stability. The smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie was notoriouis for the ferocity of its late-autumn storms.

As soon as they knew they were stranded, Hale and Groh visited the Coast Guard station and radioed Crawley. Crawley had little choice but to accommodate the two tardy crewmen. Already short-handed in his crew, Crawley wanted the two onboard. The Morrell, he told them, would be taking on a load of coal the next day at Mullen Dock, near Windsor, Ontario. Hale and Groh could rejoin the crew at that time.

Hale assured him that he would be there.

The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advances of Torn in TwoSign up for a chance to win here. Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.

In addition to Torn in Two, Michael Schumacher has published three previous books about the Great Lakes: Mighty Fitz, about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald; The Wreck of the Carl D., about the loss of the Carl D. Bradley; and November’s Fury, an account of the Storm of 1913, the deadliest in Great Lakes history. Dharma Lion—his acclaimed biography of Allen Ginsberg—will be reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press this summer. He recently edited The Essential Ginsberg and is currently writing an account of the 1968 presidential election, also to be published by Minnesota. He lives in Wisconsin.

"Michael Schumacher's latest book is tragic, gripping, and hard to put down. He captures the fury of the Great Lakes as a winter storm rips a steel hull in two and tosses the crew into the lake’s cold, dark maw. What happens next is a true survival tale."—Cary Griffith, author of Savage Minnesota and Lost in the Wild

Thursday, June 2, 2016

In 1920s Minnesota, Prohibition created moral dilemmas, violence—and opportunity.

To be alive is to take risks every single second of every single day.
—from Mary Casanova's Ice-Out


The University of Minnesota Press is giving away advance copies of Ice-OutSign up for a chance to win here! Deadline for entry is June 30, 2016.



As with my earlier novel Frozen, the inspiration for Ice-Out's setting comes from where I live on Rainy Lake, Minnesota. Perched in our 100-year-old home, I gaze across the bay at the lift bridge that joins Minnesota and Canada. It's easy to imagine an earlier time during Prohibition when trains with concealed casks of Canadian whiskey rolled through this sleepy village of Ranier. When federal agents discovered a railcar with Canadian whiskey, they rolled the confiscated casks onto the frozen shore and shattered them with axes. Recognizing a different kind of opportunity, locals rushed in with cups and buckets.

In the early 1920s, Ranier and nearby International Falls formed the backdrop for a compelling cast of historical characters and events. A wealthy industrialist was determined to turn the watershed into a series of hydropower dams. A budding environmentalist fought to stop him. A corrupt sheriff known for taking bribes was dismissed by the state governor. The newly appointed sheriff and his deputy, overly zealous to stop bootlegging, bent the laws to their own ends. To the outrage of locals, for example, a bootlegger was shot in the back as he crossed the river, returning to Canada; the sheriff claimed the bullet ricocheted off the water. When two bootleggers were arrested on Rainy Lake, one man begged not to be handcuffed and lost his life when the law enforcement vehicle went through the ice; the remaining bootlegger was blackmailed into secrecy. A kingpin Ranier bootlegger with ties to Chicago won the devotion of his many employees, who chose to serve prison time over testifying against their employer. As a rivalry between this bootlegger and the sheriff escalated, the unthinkable happened: on a routine arrest at a shack for check forgery, the sheriff and deputy were shot and killed.

Owen's character—a young man trying to support his family and establish a business amid the ambiguous moral standards of his hometown—is shaped largely from stories about my own father. Born in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the Depression, my father's early years were hardscrabble. As a boy, and at his mother's instruction, he trailed his father from bar to bar to gather his father's loose change. To earn money for groceries, he raised, trained, and sold white rats. Owen's journey became a way for me to explore my own father's drive for success and his determination to create a different life for himself. I wanted to explore the nature of ambition and what propels us. Owen's father tells him: Everything comes at a price. When does ambition blind us to costs along the way? In the end, Owen must confront hard choices—and the truth—in order to understand the restorative power of love and the true measure of a man.

On this northern frontier, Prohibition created opportunity. Bootleggers smuggled high-quality whiskey via trains, Model T's rigged for rough terrain, small airplanes, and boats. Poised to transport booze from Canada to a thirsty nation, a cottage industry exploded, and with it, accompanying violence, moral dilemmas, and countless untold stories.


Mary Casanova is author of more than thirty books for young readers, ranging from picture books like Wake Up, Island to novels like Frozen and Moose Tracks. Her books are on many state reading lists and have earned the American Library Association Notable Award, Booklist Editors' Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. She speaks frequently around the country at readings and library conferences. She lives with her husband and dogs in a turn-of-the-century house in Ranier, Minnesota, perched on the Canadian border.