The Empty City
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 22, 2011
Robert Brumley wants to build a ghost city in the middle of the desert. The CEO of Pegasus Global Holdings, a technology development company, has a surreal plan: Construct an entire city spanning 20 square miles over two years. Build enough homes to shelter 350,000 people. Erect a downtown, cobble together a warehouse district, save some green space, put in an “old town,” even run an interstate right through the middle of it. But don’t let anyone live there.
Humans are disruptive variables.
The uninhabited city will serve as a testing ground for new technologies. Brumley says the project, which is called The Center (short for The Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation) will be open to all sorts of emerging techs.
The technologies he’s most excited about taking for a test-drive are in the fields of geothermal power, water purification, broadband efficiency, self-driving vehicles and security systems. Far from being a Hollywood set, the idea is to make The Center as real as possible. Researchers will have the ability to remotely flush toilets and change thermostats inside homes—things that mimic human habitation. “The more we replicate everything we do city-wise,” he says, “the better we can measure the technology.”
Pegasus Global is based in Washington, D.C. but plans on building The Center somewhere in New Mexico. Brumley says Pegasus chose the state due to its federally funded resources, educated workforce, highway systems and ample amount of undeveloped land. “Add all that up, and it makes perfect sense to go to New Mexico,” he says. “And that doesn’t even take into account the number of sunny days.”
Perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of the $200 million project is that it will be privately funded but will primarily be used by the federal government. “Usually it’s the other way around,” says Brumley. He adds that since taxpayers won’t have to pay for the the project’s construction or operation, it will free up more federal dollars for research. “That to me is the really cool story here,” he says. “This is very quietly becoming a new paradigm on how the government and the private sector interact with each other.”
The final destination for The Center has yet to be selected, but Brumley wants it to be close to an “abundance of raw material,” he says. Ideally, he’d like to place it close to fresh water resources, but he’s also open to using brackish water or saltwater. Since part of the intended use for the project is testing water purification and desalinization technologies, he hopes to eventually be able to sell excess, purified water wholesale to local communities.
The next step is a five-month feasibility study to determine all the details of The Center, including where it will be and what it will look like. Pegasus is looking for public participation on those and other aspects of the project and plans on releasing user-friendly, electronic, 3D versions of the early designs for the city.
Brumley expects to break ground on the project in June 2012 and says it should be functional by 2014. “There is no facility like The Center in both scale and scope and its complexity anywhere in the world,” he says. “I have to admit, it’s a genius project.”
Aid From Afar
Local docs travel to Kenya to help children and mothers
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, November 26, 2009
In the village of Kisesini, which sits southeast of Nairobi in Kenya’s Yatta District, water is scarce and brackish and food mostly comes in the form of nutrient-empty porridge. Breast milk can be the difference between life and death for the population’s youngest members. Nearly half the children in the region under the age of 5 are malnourished.
Breast milk is one of the few reliable sources of sustenance women in Kisesini have for their children. And so when a woman approached Dr. Angelo Tomedi in the village’s health dispensary and asked him for medicine that would dry up her breast milk, he knew something was wrong.
“Nobody stops breast-feeding like that,” he says. He asked her why she had made the request, and she answered, “There’s not a baby to breast-feed now.”
Her child had died the day before while she was out walking. It happened with the inexplicable suddenness that’s all too common in the region. The infant had been sick. Then she realized it had stopped breathing.
“So she just walked back home and buried the baby,” Tomedi says, “and came the next day to get the medicine.”
It’s stories like this that Tomedi is trying to prevent through his organization Global Health Partnerships (GHP), of which he is president and co-founder. (Though there are a few organizations with the same name, Tomedi’s is independent.) The Albuquerque nonprofit is working to improve health care and nutrition in eastern Kenya. To date, GHP has helped open a health dispensary in Kisesini, which serves 75 villages and 36,000 people. It’s trained 150 community health workers within those villages. And it continues to provide supplemental medical supplies and emergency food rations to the area.
The Distance Between Two Points
Health care in Kenya is difficult to find. Facilities are many miles from one another, and the great majority of people, especially in remote villages, are without transportation.
The closest hospital to Kisesini is 37 miles away. Six hundred female basket-makers from the area gathered more than a decade ago with the hope of building a health dispensary in their own village. Putting a portion of their basket sales into a fund for a dispensary, it took them eight years to gather enough money to build most of the structure.
Tomedi is also the director of the Albuquerque fair trade nonprofit store Peacecraft. One of the vendors Peacecraft uses is a fair trade organization called Crafts of Africa. The Kisesini basket-makers belong to the organization.
In April 2006, the UNM Fair Trade Initiative invited Peter Wahome, director of Crafts of Africa, to come to Albuquerque to talk about fair trade. Wahome stayed with Tomedi and spoke of the women’s effort.
By early 2007, GHP raised the funding to complete the building and purchase medical supplies and equipment from UNICEF. It took about $58,000, most of which was donated by Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, a Catholic church on Albuquerque’s Westside. Once the dispensary was built in the fall, Kenya’s Ministry of Health provided a nurse to work there. GHP provides the salary for a lab technician, which costs about $120 a month.
But the dispensary has limits. In Kenya, health facilities are divided into categories, and dispensaries are the most basic. No doctors work at them, only a nurse, and minimal treatments can be performed within their walls. Some health centers can perform vaginal deliveries and have the capacity for overnight care.
Resources at those places are stretched. Tomedi describes one of his visits to a nearby health center, where he says he arrived to find the place devoid of antibiotics. “This is like taking care of all of Santa Fe with no antibiotics in the whole place.”
The dispensary he helped build faces the same problems. And although the Ministry of Health provides the dispensary’s nurse with a supplies budget, it’s never enough. So GHP helps make up the difference.
GHP does its best to keep the dispensary stocked, but getting to the facility is still a problem for many villagers. Since it covers 75 villages, some people have to walk two hours in one direction just to get there and hope they can be helped.
David Broudy, an epidemiologist who works for the New Mexico Department of Health, sits on GHP’s board of directors. He’s traveled to Kenya a couple of times with the organization. He recounts an instance this summer when a woman came to the dispensary looking for help, but the staff didn’t have the resources she needed. “She was pregnant,” he recalls. “When she came to the clinic, her water had already ruptured. She was on the verge of delivering but the labor wasn’t progressing.” He explains how any difficulties in labor are dangerous in the villages because women have to walk so far to find health care. When pregnancies go wrong, both the woman and child often die.
The dispensary didn’t have the equipment for the delivery, so the staff decided to take her to the nearest hospital, which was about an hour and a half away by car. GHP had purchased a used van for the dispensary, so Broudy piled in with the woman, her sister and another relative.
“We took off, turned off the road, and the axle literally fell off the van,” he says. “And you know, you can’t call AAA; there’s nobody else with a car.” They weren’t far from a paved road, so they gave her bus fare. “It was all we could do. And it was the most terrible, helpless feeling that we couldn’t do anything for her. She was hardly better off having come to the clinic.”
But even with all the devastation, Broudy says GHP has been able to see the difference it’s made. He tells a story about the opening day of the dispensary in 2007. A woman was in labor, and it was believed to be twins. The first head was already appearing when they were called to the scene. Even thought the first baby was breached and distressed, they were able to resuscitate him, and the second baby, also a boy, lived as well. When Broudy went back this summer, he saw the woman and her two sons. Without the dispensary, he knows, none of them might have survived.
When the Rains Come
Eastern Kenya and New Mexico have a few things in common. Both are arid and sun-seared. But in eastern Kenya, if the rains don’t come, crops fail, people have to dig deep for water, and mothers walk to houses begging for food.
Kisesini is usually hit by two wet periods a year—the “short rains” from mid-October to December and the “long rains” from mid-March to the end of May. But the region has been plagued by drought for the last two years.
Dr. Angelo Tomedi says more than 95 percent of the donations given to Global Health Partnerships goes directly into programs in Kenya. To date, the organization has spent more than $150,000 to build, train and feed, based entirely off donations. If you’d like to donate, visit ghp-usa.org or write a check to: Global Health Partnerships, P.O. Box 4385, Albuquerque, N.M. 87196.
Even when the rains come, water is hard to reach. There’s no well in the area, so villagers make daily trips to the nearest dried stream beds and dig to find water. In normal years, men dig four to six feet before muddy water begins to pool and they can scoop it into buckets and carry it home. When there’s a drought, they dig 10 feet.
Luckily, this fall, the rains started again. When GHP was there this summer, members built a dam across an arroyo about 10 to 12 feet high and several hundred feet wide. By the end of October, the dam was half full.
Now GHP is raising money to build drill a well in the area. Albuquerque’s Rotary Del Sol is working with other rotaries in New Mexico and west Texas to gather $50,000 to donate to GHP to drill the well, which will also help with irrigation.
For about $25, Tomedi says, the organization can feed one child for a whole month. That number stays with him.
“It’s hard to go out and spend $50 on a dinner knowing you could have fed two kids for a whole month on that money,” he says. “It’s culture shock. When you jump in your car and you buy more groceries than you need and you eat more than you need. And you come back, and it makes you ill."
Red, White and Blackwater
An interview with Jeremy Scahill
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, June 26, 2008
Jeremy Scahill leads his book with a disquieting snapshot.
“My son! My son!” The police officer sprinted toward the voice and found a middle-aged woman inside a vehicle holding a twenty-year-old man who had been shot in the forehead and was covered in blood. ...
“Don’t shoot, please!” Khalaf recalled yelling. But as he stood with his hand raised, Khalaf says, a gunman from the fourth Blackwater vehicle opened fire on the mother gripping her son and shot her dead before Khalaf’s ... eyes.
The account happened less than a year ago on Sept. 16, 2007, in Nisour Square, Baghdad. Scahill says 20 minutes after the shooting, where a total of 17 Iraqis were shot and killed by Blackwater operatives, U.S. military investigators were on the scene. The Blackwater operatives from that day claimed they were ambushed by the 20-year-old medical student and his mother in their white Opal sedan, but Scahill says the investigators found otherwise—that the killings were unjustified and unprovoked, and they labeled the incident a “criminal event.”
Scahill says, “Had the Blackwater men that day been soldiers, they would have been court-martialed, and yet they walk around as free individuals.” He adds that the Iraqi government said the day after the shootings that it wanted Blackwater out of the country. Instead, the Bush administration extended the company’s contract by a year.
Here arises one of Scahill’s primary concerns with Blackwater, a private military force contracted by the U.S. government: Blackwater operatives aren’t held accountable, he says, and they act like they know it.
The release last year of Scahill’s book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, dragged the company out of the proverbial shadows, along with the 176 others like it that are now operating in Iraq. Blackwater rose to the bestseller lists and garnered numerous awards, including the George Polk Book Award, and Scahill was later asked to give testimony on Blackwater to the U.S. House of Representatives and later to the U.S. Senate. After the Nisour Square shootings, the company’s name haunted the media and the din of dining rooms across the country.
Now, as media coverage is slipping, Scahill, who has reported from Iraq in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, is releasing an update to his book. The new version includes a thorough account of that infamous day at Nisour Square, along with details on the Blackwater operative who shot and killed the Iraqi vice president’s bodyguard on Christmas Eve of 2006. In a new conclusion, Scahill divulges new Blackwater ventures, including its $15 billion bid to the U.S. government to fight the “War on Drugs” in Latin America.
Scahill didn’t go to school for journalism (“I’ve never taken a journalism course in my life”). Instead, he got his start as “the errand guy” at “Democracy Now!” But getting in wasn’t easy. “I began calling Amy Goodman and saying, ‘I’ll walk your dog, I’ll do anything, I just want to be a part of the show.’ ” After a couple months, Goodman finally agreed to let Scahill come on as a volunteer. “I ended up staying there for 14, 15 hours that first day and sort of never left,” he says. Scahill learned journalism by working with the show and he eventually became a reporter. He’s been a regular contributor ever since.
In 1998, Scahill started writing for The Nation and came on full-time as a fellow in 2005. It was at The Nationwhere the idea to write a book on Blackwater emerged. At one point, Scahill was submitting an article on the company every week. “My editor sat me down and said, ‘Look, pal, we like these stories, but you either got to get a different beat or write a book.’ They basically just said, ‘We’re a small weekly magazine. We can’t be doing a story every week about the same company.’ ” And Blackwater was born.
But Scahill didn’t anticipate the book’s success, nevermind that he would speak in front of both congressional houses as a result of it. The subject has all but overtaken his journalistic life. And although it’s an issue he’s obviously impassioned by, he says he can’t wait to get back to regular reporting. “I’d love to be able to talk about something other than Blackwater for a change,” he says. “Maybe I’ll start being a sports reporter, or write a cookbook ... except I only know how to make toast.”
In the meantime, Scahill is traveling the country to promote the updated copy of his book, trying to educate people on Blackwater. He usually finds audiences responsive, like a group of former marines he recently spoke to in San Francisco.
Members of the military are oftentimes critical of Blackwater, Scahill says, and one of their largest concerns is with the salaries of Blackwater agents. Scahill quotes those earnings at between $650 and $1,000 a day. “In contrast to that, Gen. David Petraeus makes $180,000 a year, and he's the commanding general,” he adds. “So in some cases, he might be protected himself by private security that make more than he does." Scahill says an average U.S. soldier makes about $45,000 a year.
Another point Scahill brings up is that many U.S. officials use Blackwater operatives for protection when traveling to Iraq. It’s a habit Scahill says is a conflict of interest, since officials’ lives depend on the very people they’re responsible for overseeing and investigating. He says many politicians still haven’t woken up to the issue, and it’s one that defines his political views.
"I don't have an ideal presidential candidate,” he says, discussing candidates’ positions on Blackwater. “The reality is this: The Republicans could run a head of lettuce for president. Head of Lettuce could be the candidate supported by the war industry. Ideologically and business-wise, they'd be talking about how Head of Lettuce is going to keep us safe. You know, Head of Lettuce is a patriot. And they've managed to find a candidate with slightly less charisma than a head of lettuce.”
But Scahill’s not a Sen. Barack Obama fan, either. "Obama's position on this is stronger than John McCain's, there's no question about it,” he says. “But I have not guzzled the Obama Kool-Aid, because I've just spent too many years reporting on the Iraq story both from inside Iraq and elsewhere to back the plan that he has.” Scahill says Obama’s plan would require 20,000 to 80,000 troops to remain in Iraq, which would require the use of Blackwater agents.
The U.S. government is now so dependent on mercenary agents in the war that if they were removed, the occupation of Iraq would become “untenable,” he says. " ... The contractors have replaced nation-state allies and forces that would be provided by a draft.”
But an untenable war isn’t necessarily a problem, he adds. Scahill doesn’t believe we need a stronger military. “We should have a military that only engages in defensive operations, not one that is used to conquer other nations at great human cost to people from the U.S. and many nations around the world, not the least of which is Iraq.”
If Blackwater operatives were taken out of Iraq, Scahill believes Iraqis would be instantly safer. “Their job has nothing to do with hearts and minds or counterinsurgency. Their job is only to keep alive the most important people in Iraq by any means necessary; and those people are not Iraqis, they're U.S. officials.”
Scahill doesn’t believe those operatives should be trusted, and he references an analogy used by Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, to make his point. “[Prince] describes Blackwater as the Federal Express of the national security apparatus,” he says. “His sort of line at it is, We want to do for the military what FedEx did for the post office. But the problem with that analogy ... is you can track a FedEx package, you can insure a FedEx package against loss or damage. You can't track Blackwater; that's been abundantly clear for five years. And there's no insurance when something goes lethally wrong. There's no recourse, there's no justice, there's no consequences at all."
Atrisco's Long Goodbye
Westland Development finalizes sale of land steeped in New Mexico history
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, January 18, 2007
It takes a minute for the fumes to hit. Before they do, there’s only red. A sprawling pool of red.
“What is that?”
James Aranda stares at it, waiting for synapses to pop.
Then a whiff of paint thinner … but it can’t be paint thinner.
He looks around for the source. There. A hose.
The smell is stronger now, almost headache inducing.
He follows the hose through a tear in a barbed-wire fence, traces it along the dirt, until it reaches a large, pill-shaped tank. On its side, in black letters, he reads: Warning. Red Dye Diesel. Non-Highway.
No one is there. Just a partially drilled well humming in search of natural gas, a few rusty barrels, a hose spilling diesel by the gallon and a sign declaring “Tecton Energy, LLC.”
Aranda walks back to the gathering pool of diesel and crouches. Sand grates under his brown loafers. A hundred feet away, a cluster of black cows low. Diesel pours into hoof prints. His eyes sink to the ground, his ground.
In this moment, Aranda is one of six-thousand owners of that landscape, all 57,000 acres. The land is interrupted on the east end with the occasional small, inconsequential development. But mostly it’s empty—just a vast fragment of land hugging the western edge of Albuquerque.
Aranda knew he was going to lose it. He knew it would be soon. But he didn’t know it would be like this.
The spilt diesel had all the marks of vandalism. A couple days later, Tecton filed a police report as well as a report with the Oil Conservation Division. State investigators visited the site soon after and found the spill backfilled and cleaned.
But Aranda’s chance discovery of the spill impressed upon him a more ominous threat. Within a matter of weeks, he would be forced to sell his part ownership in the land. Whatever harm came to this mesa—whether from hoodlums, oil companies or developers—its fate would be out of his control.
Westland Development sold itself for a tidy price: $250 million. Company heads signed papers in early December, officially transferring the company and all its assets, but news of the sale came a year and a half earlier, on Aug. 16, 2005.
Aranda was sitting in his father’s living room, shaking off a long day of construction on a house his uncle was building in Rio Rancho.
The phone rang.
A reporter from the Albuquerque Journal was on the other end. A month earlier, the two men met at a legislative interim committee on land grants. But on this day, the reporter had some news. Westland had issued a press release, announcing it was thinking about selling. Aranda, a shareholder in the company, was shocked. He had received nothing from Westland—not a letter, a phone call, an e-mail. Nothing. He thanked the reporter for the information and hung up the phone.
The phone rang again.
This time it was state Rep. Miguel Garcia. He, too, had heard from the Journal reporter.
Aranda got off the phone and called a friend to tell him the news. Then he told his father. Simply, frantically, his father looked at him: “We have to stop it.”
That Westland might be sold meant more than the transfer of a company. To Aranda and his father, it wasn’t about money. It was about land, and what that land meant. More than 300 years ago, that land had been given to the Arandas’ ancestors, the people of Atrisco, by the King of Spain and named the Atrisco Land Grant. After centuries of languid development, the heirs of Atrisco voted to transform their birthright into a corporation, thinking the change would make it easier for them to develop the land to benefit their people.
What the Arandas learned that August afternoon wasn’t just that their company was thinking about selling. They learned that their heritage was in danger. So they formed an organization to try to save it.
Last year marked Albuquerque’s 300th birthday. Reminders are nestled throughout the city: manhole covers emblazoned with our Tricentennial, dedicated twin towers perched off I-40 ... countless billboards. Meanwhile, as the border to Albuquerque cuts off to the west, so grows the region of Atrisco, with a history even older than that of our city.
The original people of Atrisco, or Atrisqueños, were Tslascalan Mexican Indians who followed Juan de Oñate into the region from Mexico in 1598. In the years between 1620 and 1660, Atrisqueños migrated to a plump section of land next to the Rio Grande and settled El Valle de Atlixco, named after their old town in Mexico. With this wave of settlers came Pedro Gómez Durán y Cháves, a sergeant in Oñate’s troop.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced Atrisqueños out of New Mexico. But in 1692 they returned with Diego de Vargas, who declared all previous land claims in the area void. Durán y Cháves’ grandson, Fernando, was a captain in de Vargas’ movement and petitioned for the parcel of land where he and his family had lived before the revolt. His request was approved, and in 1692 the Atrisco Land Grant was formed, becoming the oldest documented land grant in New Mexico history.
The next 200 years were ripe with war, land deals and power struggles. The United States laid claim over New Mexico, but the Atrisqueños held onto their land. Exactly two centuries after the Atrisco Land Grant was conceived, Atrisqueños petitioned the U.S. government to officially incorporate their land into the Town of Atrisco, and in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a patent approving their request and granting a total of more than 82,000 acres.
Atrisqueños wanted to use their new position to create rich development that would benefit their people, and so in 1959 they sold a small portion of their land, intending to spread the profits among themselves. But many Atrisqueños complained about the sale, saying most of the profits never reached the people. Development on the land struggled.
A law passed by the New Mexico Legislature in 1967 gave some Atrisqueños hope. The law allowed land grants to be reorganized as for-profit corporations. Heirs to the land grant would become shareholders in the corporation, with all stock staying within original bloodlines, never to be sold or transferred to non-heirs. Slightly more than half of the Atrisqueños voted to go through with the transformation, and that year Westland Development was born. About 20,000 acres of land given to the Town of Atrisco by Roosevelt had since become the unincorporated parts of Albuquerque’s South Valley, and so Westland was left with the remainder of the common lands, 59,000 acres.
Yet the stagnation that had plagued Atrisco as a township continued in its new form as a company. And over the next 20 years, shareholders accused the company’s board of directors of abusing their power. Lawsuits were filed and settled, but in 1989, a reform slate of candidates for the board was elected into office, including Barbara Page, who served as the company’s CEO through the end of 2006.
The new board promised progressive change that would benefit shareholders: a scholarship fund, job opportunities for heirs, smart development that would reap significant profits for shareholders. But the economic growth promised never came. No scholarship fund was created. Virtually no job opportunities arose. Development was scarce—the only major deal Westland made occurred in 2000 when the company sold 2,000 acres to the U.S. Park Service for $33 million to form part of the Petroglyph National Monument. The sale was greatly contested among shareholders, who in the end didn’t see much reward for their loss of land. In the years leading up to Westland’s proposal to sell in 2005, shareholders received no more than $1 per share in annual dividends.
When James Aranda heard news of Westland’s plans, he feared the meager dividends would motivate shareholders to favor the sale. Before the Westland board could sell, they needed a two-thirds majority approval of their shareholders. Shareholders got as many votes as they had shares, and the proposal from the development company who wanted to buy Westland offered hundreds of dollars a share if the sale went through. Those with more shares would get more money, and more votes. Aranda worried that his ancestors’ land, because of Westland’s failure to develop it wisely, would now be developed by someone else.
In the days following Westland’s announcement, Aranda and his father formed the Concerned Heirs of Atrisco with three other shareholders. News of the sale had started to seep into the community, but still no letters or explanations had come from the Westland board. The Concerned Heirs wanted to tell shareholders about the details of the sale and encourage them to vote against it.
Aranda’s group grew as aunts, uncles, cousins and sisters joined among non-family members. Eventually, the group hired a lawyer to get documents from Westland. They contacted the press and advertised their position against the sale. As the Concerned Heirs toiled, other efforts to quell the buyout surfaced.
Nicholas Koluncich has a room full of boxes. And on the side of each of those boxes is spelled: Westland/Atrisco.
If you follow him up to his office, he has more boxes. And a bookshelf filled entirely with big, black binders. And on the side of all of those? “Westland/Atrisco.” Koluncich uses the contents of these boxes to fight the sale of Westland Development. His various clients depend on him to do so.
These days, it may be too late to stop the sale, but in January 2006, Koluncich had hope. So much hope, his phone flooded with calls.
Koluncich had heard about Westland’s proposal and talked to a couple shareholders who were interested in taking legal action against it. He bought an ad in the Albuquerque Journal in December 2005, asking shareholders for information. Dozens of people called, but most wanted the same thing from him: information. Some shareholders didn’t understand the details of the sale and felt they weren’t getting answers from Westland, so they called Koluncich. A number of people wanted to file class actions to stop the sale.
With six separate lawsuits and 15 clients with the same purpose, Koluncich has given up taking cases unrelated to Westland. The depositions, court documents and records kept in his stockpile of boxes are massive. He’s recruited the help of a larger law firm to assist him.
Koluncich’s lawsuits take issue with the way Westland set about selling itself. In particular, the cases outline concerns with the board’s Class B shares. In the company makeup of Westland, two types of shares exist: No Par, common shares owned by heirs, which can be bought or traded among shareholders; and Class B, shares controlled by the board that aren’t accessible to shareholders.
The Westland board created and awarded themselves Class B shares in the early ’80s. Soon after, lawyers told the board shares couldn’t be created or awarded without shareholder approval. And so in 1983 the board crafted a Stock Bonus Plan that would allow such activity and brought it to shareholders for a vote. It was overwhelmingly rejected. The next year, the plan was introduced again, and again it failed. According to one of Koluncich’s lawsuits, the board then forged shareholder signatures to pass the plan—a claim backed by testimony from former CEO Gil Cordova that he discovered many forgeries while hand-checking votes.
The Stock Option Plan disintegrated in 1986 with a letter from the board that said the plan caused dissatisfaction among shareholders. Yet for the next 20 years Westland board members continued to issue themselves Class B stock.
Upon the sale of the company, the Westland board made more than $12.9 million on their combined Class B shares alone. CEO Page made more than $3 million on her Class B shares; board director Sosimo Padilla made more than $6.5 million. In early 2006, the proposed sale of Westland included the issuance of 35,000 change in control shares that would be given to the board if the sale went through—an amount that would have equaled $11 million. Koluncich filed a complaint in February 2006, asking to get rid of the change in control shares, and a week later, his request was granted.
Today, Koluncich is still working to take the Class B shares held by the board and distribute them evenly among all shareholders. And, even though final papers in the Westland-SunCal deal have been signed, Koluncich is still trying to the stop the sale.
Most of Koluncich’s clients feel the Westland deal falls short of the land’s true value. The offer to buy Westland, presented by SunCal Companies, was to purchase the shareholders’ 794,927 shares for $315 each, for a total of $250 million. In addition, the California-based company agreed to establish an entity named the Atrisco Heritage Foundation, which would receive $1 million a year for 100 years. The uses for the money haven’t been determined and would be decided by the entity’s board of directors once they’re appointed. Also included in the deal is the creation of Atrisco Oil and Gas LLC, which would manage any oil and gas revenues that spring from the land. The SunCal deal states that shareholders will receive 100 percent of all rents and royalties from current oil and gas leases and 50 percent from leases created after the sale.
Yet clients, along with other shareholders like Aranda, believe the land is worth much more than SunCal’s offer. Sitting in the only direction Albuquerque can grow and harboring a potential wealth of mineral, gas and water rights, SunCal bought the land for little more than $4,000 an acre.
On the morning of Nov. 6, 2006, a mariachi band trumpets into a large conference room at the Kiva Auditorium. Following the steel-stringed guitars and violins walks Barbara Page, clapping along to the music as she trots to the front of the room and takes her seat behind a placard bearing her name. To either side of her are Westland’s remaining board of directors, and standing at the podium with glasses and starched white hair is Westland attorney Thad Turk, who calls the session to order.
This is the day. After a year of postponed shareholder meetings, it finally arrived. The fate of Westland and the Atrisco Land Grant will be decided.
The room shuffles. A baby cries. Shareholders work their way to one of two microphones, labeled “In Favor” and “In Opposition.” They each have 90 seconds if they choose to use them.
Some shareholders go to their designated microphones to voice support. Others ask the board questions.
A man stands up and asks why SunCal was allowed to collect ballots for shareholder votes preceding the meeting. Another wants to know what happened to the ballots SunCal collected.
Page says she doesn’t understand the question.
The man restates it: Where did the ballots go, who has them now?
Page asks if anyone from SunCal is there who can answer.
A few seconds pass and a SunCal representative stands up and makes his way to the “In Favor” mic. He explains the collected ballots were all given to the company Moss Adams, which is tallying the vote.
Later, a woman declares she wants to transfer her allotted 90 seconds to Jerome Padilla, a member of the Concerned Heirs of Atrisco.
Turk calls her disruptive, says her behavior won’t be tolerated. The woman, standing in the aisle, asks again. Turk calls for security to remove her.
Protests rise from seats around the room. Shouts echo as guards guide her away. Then Turk speaks again. She can stay if she behaves herself. The woman sits down.
There are more comments from shareholders, more questions, and eventually Page leans over the podium and announces the meeting has ended.
Commotion. This is too soon, some murmur around the room. We thought we had more time. Page says it again: The meeting is over. Go home.
There’s disruption and some people leave. After a couple minutes, Turk gets on the mic: The meeting isn’t over, just the time for discussion. Shouts come from shareholders. Page gets back on the mic: I’m sooorrryy, she proclaims, stretching each letter.
Some shareholders stay, point fingers at Page, Turk and other board members. The microphones cut out—the noise from the crowd swells. Minutes pass and the microphones turn back on. Page looks relieved. She leans in once again, calls for people’s attention: It’s time to place your votes.
Two weeks later, Westland announces the sale passed. 72.4 percent of common stock voted in favor, as did 97.75 percent of Class B. In the first week of December, Westland signs papers with SunCal, transferring the company and all its assets. A few days following, Page retires.
Back on the mesa, Aranda stands up, scuffs the ground with his feet. The stream of diesel is tapering. He didn’t come here expecting ... this. He came here to see the land. Feel it. The vote from the shareholders’ meeting was announced a few days before, and he didn’t know how much longer he could call the land his own.
When he was a kid, Aranda would go quail hunting with his dad and brothers on a piece of Atrisco land off Unser. The first time he went with them, around the age of 7, he was too young to hold a gun. But he’d tag along anyway, joining them on trips further south where they looked for bigger game like deer. He doesn’t recall much about those trips, just the cold, and the habit he had of avoiding the bathroom, or the lack of one, while they were out. He could go up to a week. His father would freak out. But he was fine.
When he was around 12, Aranda took his hunter safety classes and joined his family. He learned how to stuff dove with jalapeño and goat cheese and make rabbit cacciatore.
But it’s been years since Aranda shot a rifle or went out to his old hunting ground, now braced by houses. At the age of 30, he has other things to do.
He stands with his hands in his jeans, leaning back against the wind. The gusts on this mesa would be perfect for harvesting; it could make a nice profit for heirs. But it’s too late for that.
The hour is also getting late—there’s just enough time to drive to the other place he wants to visit today, his favorite place. He gets in the car and heads for El Camposanto.
Down a steep, stone-pocked hill that leads to an Atrisco graveyard from a street off the South Valley, a rooster clucks and gargles amid its harem of front-yard hens. On the other side of the headstones, abutting a 5-foot surrounding brick wall and entrance, loom large, quiet, faux adobe homes. It is near this last entry that a sign, pounded into the dirt, reads: El Camposanto (the cemetery).
Aranda no longer notices the sign as he steps carefully between graves, noting names, wondering which of many unmarked headstones was raised for his great-great-great grandma. Perhaps that one, overrun by a bouquet of cholla cactus. Or this one, here, caving in and dusted with leaves. Maybe it’s one of the graves encased by white iron fences, which are hauntingly reminiscent of cribs.
Aranda never wanted to live by a cemetery, but this one ... this one feels like home; he comes here for reflection. He didn’t grow up in the neighborhood, didn’t visit the graveyard as a child, but the place reminds him of something. Maybe it’s his ancestors.
On the South Valley end of El Camposanto runs a street that leads to the main road, called, fittingly, Atrisco. Adjacent to where the street and road merge sits a plot of land that once belonged to Pedro Aranda, an ancestor from seven or eight generations back. The neighborhood is vibrant with the scent of piñon and fried fish, where grandmothers shuck corn on porches and crack the necks of their own chickens.
Up on El Camposanto, Aranda peers into the neighborhood. From here, the smells of the valley are masked, replaced by the musk of old roses.
The valley keeps to itself, and so does the graveyard. El Camposanto belonged to Westland, which was charged with caring for it. The place was neglected. After the sale, it’s unclear who will maintain it. Instead of emptied wastebaskets, fresh dirt and weeded beds, the cemetery settles for more colorful signs of affection: wreaths, weathered teddy bears, paper roses, garlands.
Aranda turns and watches the long shadows in the graveyard stretch longer. It’s hard to pull away, but he knows: It’s time to go.
Peeling the Whitewash
An interview with Amy Goodman
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 28, 2006
Amy Goodman is tough. She’s smart. She’s precise. And she may very well be the busiest journalist alive. When I grabbed the attention of the “Democracy Now!” host last week over the phone, I asked her how her day was going. I received a two-minute response on the number of cities she’d been to since that morning, the number of lectures she’d presented and the order of bookstore signings she was soon to attend, including one in Albuquerque this Thursday, Sept. 28.
Apparently, Goodman’s been going five miles a minute since junior high, when she discovered journalism in the neighborhoods of Long Island. She soon went on to become the editor of her high school newspaper, the Maroon Echo, and a few years later landed herself at Harvard, where she received a degree in anthropology. After spending 10 years as the producer of the evening news show at WBAI, Pacifica Radio’s station in New York City, she co-founded the left-wing “Democracy Now!” in 1996, now one of the most well-known syndicated news and opinion shows in the country.
Along her path in journalism, she’s won numerous awards, wrote a New York Times bestselling book with her brother, investigative journalist David Goodman, called The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them, and was once nearly killed while covering the independence movement in East Timor in 1991 during what is now known as the Dili Massacre. Now, she and her brother have a new book out: Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.
Last week, the Alibi snagged a few minutes with Goodman in between a lecture at the Mike and Mary Wallace House in Ann Arbor and a fundraiser in Detroit to talk about the role of media, the secrecy of the Bush administration and things everyday citizens can do to “unclog the information artery.”
One of the focuses of your book is the current state of the media. Can you talk to me about the “information war” this country is in?
Well, I think that we are just facing a grave crisis. In this time of war, it’s absolutely critical we have an independent media because information is power. Information is the currency of decision-making in this country. It’s how we make decisions and determine the policies in this country and around the world. And we need to have accurate information, we need to have a media that doesn’t whitewash the images of the war, that just presents them to us as horrifying and frightening as they may be, and then people make up their own minds.
In your book, you talk about how the Bush administration has used the media to manipulate its public image, and part of that is through, as you said, whitewashing the war. How is what the Bush administration is doing different from what past administrations have done?
It’s just that the media’s more consolidated so it has more power. With consolidation, the biggest effects didn’t start during Bush, they started under Clinton with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It’s just concentrated even more, and that’s a serious threat to democracy because you need more media owners. What matters are the media moguls who are gobbling up the smaller TV and radio stations, not to mention the consolidation of newspapers.
Where do you think that consolidation leaves the role of journalists today?
Well, like the title of our tour is “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” we have to break the sound barrier, bring in the voices of everyday people who are deeply affected by these policies. Present news from the victims’ perspective and those that are doing things to change the world, not just that small circle of pundits in Washington who know so little about so much explaining the world to us. That’s why grassroots media’s so important—grassroots, global, unembedded media like “Democracy Now!”
“Democracy Now!” is in its 10th anniversary, and that’s just amazing growth—it’s now in 500 public radio and television stations, low-power FM college community stations and, of course, in Albuquerque on KUNM, [and many more]. I think it’s just a testament to the hunger for independent voices, the millions of people who hit our website, who access the program in general, every which way.
It seems like there’s a lot of intimidation out there for journalists right now, a lot of journalists being prosecuted for publishing information about the government. For instance, just a couple weeks ago charges were brought against Greg Palast by the Department of Homeland Security. Do you think that has an effect on the amount of information that’s coming out? Do you think journalists are being quiet because they’re scared of what might happen to them?
Uh-huh. I think the pressure comes top-down. I was just with this group of journalists who were talking about the pressures within their media organizations to go along with the war, to not present as many rebuttals to the administration. We call it in Static the “Access of Evil.” That’s trading truth for access in order to get that next quote. You know, you don’t want to challenge the government as much cause you might not get that quote.
We call the book Static because in this high-tech digital age, the high-definition television and digital sound, we get ever more static—that is, a veil of distortion, lies, half-truths, misrepresentations—when what we should be getting is static of another kind, the dictionary definition: criticism, opposition, unwanted interference. We shouldn’t be covering for power, we should be covering power. We are the fourth estate, we shouldn’t be for the state. And we should cover the movements that make static and create history, or create static and make history.
In your book you talk about the days following Hurricane Katrina, and how the media was, as you say, “unembedded” by the government and reporting honestly and openly about what was happening in New Orleans. And you say it was the opposite of what’s happened in the media with regard to Iraq and other national issues. Where do you think the media stands post-Katrina? Do you think reporting has become more honest or more fearless, or do you think we’ve backtracked to where we were before?
Katrina was a good example of what the media should do—show up. A side effect of President Bush not responding and sending in troops is that there were not troops to embed with. So we got unembedded reporting—we got reporting from the victims’ perspective in Katrina in New Orleans, and it really shocked the nation. That’s very important. I mean, you saw bodies floating by, reporters crying as they talked to people who just lost their loved ones in the flood and the hurricane and the aftermath and the drowning of this American city. And we rarely get that in the corporate media. It is a model for the way the rest of the media should be. For example, covering in Iraq—bringing us the pictures of the babies, the women with their legs shot off, or blown off from cluster bombs, soldiers dead and dying. It’s our job to show this. I once interviewed Eric Brown, the former CNN anchor. He said it’s really a matter of taste. Well, I think it’s the war that’s tasteless.
What do you think keeps journalists from showing the information they’re supposed to show in this country?
I think editors and publishers either were feeling pressure or creating pressure. For example, you have the New York Times exposing the NSA spy scandal, and that was a very important piece. The only problem was they did it a year after they had the piece. They did it in December of 2005, when they had it more than 13 months before. Just do the math. That is, they had it on the eve of the election, and people care about spying. But the administration asked them not to run it, and so they didn’t. Now, let’s take that again. The people who are running for re-election asked them not to run it, and so they didn’t run it. And they ultimately ran it a month before one of their reporters was going to publish it in his own book. That would be a little embarrassing—theNew York Times not having what a New York Times reporter was exposing in his book. And so they published it. We’re not supposed to be working for the state, we’re the fourth estate.
When talking about things like wiretapping—the true policies of the Bush administration—do you think most Americans are aware of what the Bush administration has done and is doing in regard to torture and wiretapping and all these other issues you mention in your book? And if they’re not aware, do you think the American people would stand for those things if they knew they were happening?
I think that they wouldn’t. I think that these issues matter: spying, lying, dying. The American government spying on Americans, lying about the pretext for war, soldiers dying as a result, not to mention Iraqis—this matters to the American people. We need a press that’s defiant. We need a press that is there to expose what is going on, to monitor the centers of power, as the Israeli journalist Amira Hass said. We’re not there to win a popularity contest, we’re not entertainers. We’re reporters, we’re supposed to go to where the silence is.
For people who are reading this interview, or people who read your book, or who listen to “Democracy Now!” and try to pay attention to things that are happening in the country, what can everyday citizens do to fight back and try to bring awareness to the general public?
Support independent media to get the truth out. Read a great variety of sources. Support KUNM, support KSFR in Santa Fe, support public access. Use the Internet so we don’t lose it—the whole issue of net neutrality is absolutely key, that we all have access to this great grassroots globalizing force that is the Internet, not just the well-off corporations getting privileged positions on the Web. It is absolutely critical we open up the airwaves, we unclog the information artery, so that all can have access—that makes for a healthy democratic society.
You’re one of the most well-known journalists of our time right now. What got you into journalism, and did you ever imagine it would take you this far?
Well, I always did journalism at a grassroots level. In junior high school and high school I was editor of my high school newspaper, the Maroon Echo, in Long Island, as were my brothers in their years. And that was our hobby, that was the thing we did as a way to, well, at the time it was to hold the principal accountable (laughs). It’s about holding people in power accountable. And it was just one way to work on social justice issues, and expose things that separated people, that made it more difficult for some than others. And I guess that’s just always been my way of dealing with that—of working to make the world a better place.
Not So Beastly
The real pit bull problem
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, July 6, 2006
I’m staring at eight pit bulls. They’re all in a row and stacked on top of each other, tucked inside those plastic dog carriers that come in muted colors like light blue, beige and gray. The dogs come in a similar color scheme—some are light brown, others dark, some tan with white trim, and one a curious shade of grayish-blue. That’s the baby—only six months old and she still looks like she could herd a whole flock of sheep without the least bit of trouble. They call her Tempest.
I’m waiting for the doors to those plastic carriers to open and for those eight pit bulls to step out, one-by-one, and sit in a straight line to pose for a photo. Honestly, it's a little intimidating. But out they come, one-by-one, and aside from the occasional escape and subsequent toe-licking from Tempest, the pits do exactly what they’re supposed to: sit for a portrait and dart playful, curious looks in my direction.
Pit bulls have gotten a bum rap. Considered in the public consciousness to be one of the most dangerous dog breeds in existence—indeed, some believe it to be the most dangerous—the pit bull is viewed as a fickle, unpredictable dog with a tendency for baby-mauling and other sorts of dastardly behavior. But the breed hasn’t always borne such a stigma.
Teddy Roosevelt had a pit bull. So did Thomas Edison and Helen Keller. At the turn of the century, pit bulls were heralded the “All American Dog.” So what’s changed?
Tempest and the others are finished posing. When their owner, Lisa, gives the appropriate command, they get up and shuffle around like a pack of kids who’ve been sitting in class for too long.
As the pits pant and sniff, I think of the pit bull breed ban which was renewed last spring in Denver, making it illegal to own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor or sell a pit bull within city and county limits. Letters were sent to pit bull owners from Denver Animal Control, warning them about the ordinance. A few weeks later, workers came to people’s homes to confiscate their pets. One month later, approximately 150 pit bulls had been taken and euthanized. Some owners fled the city; others hid their dogs. To date, nearly 900 pit bulls in Denver have been confiscated and/or put down since last year.
As Tempest takes another lick at my toes, it's hard to imagine how such a drastic situation has come to pass.
Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?
Denver isn’t the only city that’s taken issue with pit bulls—China, several Western European countries and numerous municipalities across North America have placed restrictions or bans on the breed as well. People are scared of pit bulls, and if you believe the headlines, they have every right to be.
It seems as though every couple months we’re bombarded with a series of stories on how dangerous, aggressive, wild and ferocious pit bulls are. National headlines like the recent “Pit Bull Attacks Girl” and “Pit Bull Attacks Police Horse” are familiar examples. Just this last April, Albuquerque heard all about the two young boys that were attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull in the South Valley.
Yes, headlines are scary. Headlines are so scary, in fact, that in 2004, the New Mexico State Legislature debated instituting a statewide pit bull breed ban. Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort sponsored the legislation. “It’s incomprehensible that people would want to have dogs like that,” she says. “It’s very irresponsible of a family to raise potentially dangerous dogs like [pit bulls]. There’s a definite pattern, a difference with this breed.”
Beffort says she was prompted to bring the bill after reading numerous headlines one spring about pit bulls attacking young children. Her bill wouldn’t have been as extreme as Denver’s—allowing people to keep their pit bulls as long as they had a bond on them and forbidding the breeding of pit bulls. “[The bill would have] allowed them to phase out,” says Beffort.
Beffort’s bill failed, but another bill aimed at stopping dog attacks was passed that year and signed in 2005. Gov. Bill Richardson’s Dangerous Dogs Act is not breed-specific and requires that aggressive dogs be licensed and properly contained by owners. It also mandates that dogs not be chained for prolonged periods of time. If the owner fails to comply and the dog seriously injures or kills someone, the owner can be charged with a third- or fourth-degree felony.
At this time, Beffort says, she doesn’t plan on supporting another breed ban until enough time has passed to see if the Dangerous Dogs Act is effective. “This summer, if there are dog attacks and if people are prosecuted—because it’s now a felony—and it’s handled as it should be, I’ll be happy,” she says. “But if it doesn’t curb dog attacks, it’s irresponsible to continue to allow these operations to go on.”
Yet not everyone’s thrilled about the idea of a pit bull ban. In fact, some folks find such legislation completely ineffective. “Breed-specific legislation is unnecessary,” says Rena Distasio, a pit bull advocate and cofounder of Responsibly Adopting Albuquerque’s Pit Bulls (RAAP), a newly formed program out of the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals working with the city animal shelters. “If we enforced the laws we already have—leash laws, non-roaming laws, anti-drug and gang laws, anti-fighting laws—we wouldn’t need legislation like this. When a community gets upset when something happens, they go first to breed-specific laws.”
Rutledge Beard, a counselor with Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless who uses her two pit bulls in therapy sessions, is also against such legislation. “Breed-specific legislation is not about dogs,” she says, “it’s about taking away people’s freedom to choose what kind of happiness they want. It’s saying we’re too stupid to decide what kind of dog we want. It’s more of a civil rights issue.” Beard adds that “a lot of times, [breed-specific legislation] is very classist and racist,” and cites a quote from Aurora, Colo., City Councilor Bob Fitzgerald, who sponsored a pit bull breed ban for Aurora based off Denver’s. When asked why he brought the ordinance to the Council, Fitzgerald said on record, “We don’t want ‘those people’ here,” referring to the pit bull owners from Denver who were likely to flee the city because of the ban and move to Aurora.
“Most pit bull owners are viewed as criminals, gangsters,” says Beard. “This is the dog of the working class.”
Still, Beffort thinks getting rid of pit bulls could potentially solve a myriad of problems in the community. “Pit bulls are involved in drug trafficking, backyard breeding and dog fighting,” she says. “If we ban the pit bull, [opponents] think there will just be another dog that gets into the arena of fighting and [takes the pit bull’s place]. Let’s worry about that if it happens.”
The Great American Pit
It’s a commonly held belief that pit bulls bite down with 2,000 pounds of pressure and have locking jaws. The problem with such statements is that they're not true. In fact, according to a study by a National Geographic scientist, pit bulls only bite down with 230 psi, the same as nearly every other breed of dog its size.
Perhaps one of the reasons the myth originated is because pit bulls, unlike many other breeds, have a tendency to hold on and not let go when they bite—giving the impression that they have uncanny strength or that their jaws lock.
Pit bulls have also garnered fear in the community because of their method of attack. Many pit bulls try to inflict a maximum amount of damage on their opponents by tearing and shaking when they bite. They’re also less likely to growl before pouncing, although they do exhibit other signs of warning. As cited in a February 2006 article on pit bulls in the New Yorker, a scientific review of the breed states, “They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression. For example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.”
Yet the notion that pit bulls are inherently aggressive is also false, as is the idea that all pit bulls, or even most pit bulls, are dangerous. In a study of 122 breeds of dogs by the National Temperament Testing Association, it was found that American Pit Bull Terriers passed with a rate of 83.4 percent, beating out the scores beagles received (78.7 percent) and nearly tying with golden retrievers (83.6 percent). What about the idea that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs around children (hence the attention-grabbing headlines)? You might have guessed—that sentiment’s also false. In fact, pit bulls were once regarded as the “Nanny Dog.” They’re no more dangerous to children than any other canine.
Speaking of other canines, pit bulls aren’t the only dogs that have been reported to attack people. You may or may not remember hearing about the Pomeranian that mauled and killed a 5-week-old baby girl in California in 2000. Or, surely, you’ve heard about the Frenchwoman who received the world’s first face transplant this year, prompted by an attack from a Labrador retriever.
According to a report from the Albuquerque Animal Care Center, in 2005, 669 cases of dog bites were reported in the city. Of those, 131 were from pit bulls, but 57 were from Labrador retrievers and 75 were from German shepherds.
It’s hard to tell what those numbers mean without understanding the overall population of those breeds in the city, and such data is hard to come by. However, numbers on the ratio of breeds of dogs Animal Care sees in a given year are available. Last year, Animal Care received 17,057 dogs. Of those, 4,298 were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Therefore, even though pit bulls represent about 25 percent of all the dogs Animal Care saw last year, they're only responsible for approximately 19.6 percent of the number of dog bites reported. This suggests that pit bulls actually bite less often than other breeds as a whole.
Another pit bull myth is that the term “pit bull” refers to a single breed of dog. The term actually refers to three breeds of dog—the British-bred Staffordshire Terrier, the American-bred American Pit Bull Terrier and the American-bred American Staffordshire Terrier.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all, which may eventually lead to the pit’s downfall, is the idea that pit bulls are aggressive toward humans. In truth, pit bulls have been bred to be just the opposite.
In the early 1800s, pit bulls were used throughout Britain in bull-baiting and bear-baiting, but in 1835, when the bloody sport was declared cruel by Parliament and was abolished, the dogs were bred for other uses. Dog fighting, which, unfortunately, persists to this day in Albuquerque and in other parts around the world, became popular and pit bulls became the dog of choice for the sport. With this in mind, pit bulls were bred to be intelligent, level-headed fighters who disdained other dogs but adored humans. Early and organized dog fighting included a number of traditions, one of which was that a referee had to be able to enter a ring of a dog fight, pick up a dog it was unacquainted with and hand it to its owner to be carried out of the ring without being bitten. This was such an important, not to mention logical, part of dog fighting that any dogs that bit the referee were culled.
Pit bulls were brought to America in the mid-1800s. On this side of the Atlantic, they continued to be bred in the same manner, and usually ended up as either fighting dogs in the city or working dogs on farms or ranches in the West. Around World War I, pit bulls became popular as family pets and were featured in pro-American propaganda posters, thus becoming the “All American Dog.”
Making Heads or Tails
So if pit bulls are such temperamentally sound, human-loving, all-around fantastic dogs, why are there so many horror stories about them in the news?
“Pit bulls were raised to be all-purpose, human-friendly dogs. The media gives it hysterical coverage,” says Distasio. “[But the real problem is that] dogs are abused, chained, they’re not spayed or neutered. It’s a people problem, and the government doesn’t address it.”
Distasio believes many of the “problems” with pit bulls are a result of social issues—and people not understanding the breed or caring for it properly. “Throughout history, only a small percentage of pit bulls were used to fight. You could train them to do anything,” she says. “I know pit bulls that herd cattle, pull wagons—they’re athletic, working dogs.” She adds that in order to fulfill their instincts, part of caring for a pit bull is providing it with more exercise than you would most dogs. Without an hour or two of exercise a day, she says, a pit bull can become frustrated.
“We forget, in the Disneyfication of dogs, that dogs are wolves. It’s in their genetics,” she says. “They have a high drive to chase and kill—but genetics are skewed. In collies, for example, they’re skewed to chase and gather and not kill. Pit bulls are high-drive, working animals. If it’s chained [and not properly socialized], and a toddler it doesn’t recognize as human comes into its territory, what’s going to happen? That usually only happens with unsocialized, abused animals.”
Keeping dogs on chains is a big factor in how dogs react to people, Distasio says. Many people get pit bulls because they think they’re good guard dogs, or because they look tough. But Distasio says the pit bull was “never intended to be a guard dog.” She says because pit bulls were bred to work alongside people, keeping them separated from the family, like anything kept on a chain, is bound to drive them insane.
Additionally, Distasio says pit bulls are oftentimes mischaracterized because they have a tendency to be aggressive toward other dogs, which stems from their early breeding history. Such behavior can be misinterpreted, leading people to believe they’re also aggressive toward humans.
“Dog aggression is not a gateway drug to human aggression,” says Distasio. “A dog that’s dog aggressive is not a bad dog, you can manage it. A dog that’s human aggressive should be put down.”
Dogs that have temperament problems are more common these days due to backyard breeding. “Backyard breeding” is distinct from “hobby breeding.” The latter adheres to strict health guidelines during the breeding process and takes the time to get puppies properly certified. The former abandons professional breeder guidelines and breeds dogs usually for the sole purpose of making money. Backyard breeders don’t usually have their dogs temperament tested and don’t know if they’re compatible for breeding. Their dogs can also suffer from inbreeding, says Distasio. Such circumstances lead to health problems, poor genetics and oftentimes come from less than ideal animal living conditions. Dogs that come from backyard breeders are typically not representative of the breed as a whole.
Another unfortunate trend of backyard breeding is that pups that aren’t sold are oftentimes dropped off at animal shelters, increasing the number of dogs that are euthanized and perpetuating stereotypes of the breed. Pit bulls, Distasio says, have been a favorite for backyard breeders for the last couple decades, since they became the latest dog “fad.”
RAAP, the program Distasio helped found, is working to help the increasing amount of pit bulls that come into the shelters. Part of the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, a volunteer-based organization that works to improve the lives of shelter animals and increase their chances for adoption, RAAP works through the city shelters to educate people on and eventually help foster pit bulls. Started in January, the program is still gathering volunteers and recently started giving out pit bull information packets to potential adopters, which talk about common pit bull myths and how to properly care for pit bulls, among other things. By this fall, Distasio and other RAAP members hope to begin education outreach for the public and for law enforcement. By this time next year, they hope to have a foster program up and running.
Even though 25 percent of all dogs that came to Animal Care last year were pit bulls, they only made up 14 percent of the dogs that left, meaning an unrepresentative number of them were euthanized. Despite the large numbers of pit bulls that come into the shelter and are euthanized, an official pit bull rescue group doesn’t yet exist, although some people do individually foster animals.
“There will always be a breed that’s the pariah,” says Distasio. “But we never learn to take responsibility for our actions. Do [politicians or the media] look at the real problems? No, they want sound bites. And then the community gets hysterical.”
One for All …
Frankie and Diego were both rescued shelter dogs. Now, the four- and two-year-old (respectively) pit bulls are certified therapy dogs with the Delta Society—the largest and oldest registry in the country. They’re also deathly afraid of chickens.
Their owner, Rutledge Beard, the counselor with Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless (AHA), gets to see the effect her dogs have on clients firsthand. Frankie and Diego work in conjunction with Beard, helping homeless women and children to emotionally heal from trauma while AHA tries to help them get back on their feet.
Frankie’s specialty is depression symptoms. His main duties include hanging around and taking naps with clients, especially kids who are 10 and younger; he also partakes in the occasional round of dress-up.
Beard talks about some of the people Frankie’s helped—a 9-year-old girl with poor social skills sticks out in her mind. A verbally aggressive child who had trouble making friends, Frankie acted as a playmate for the girl, and helped her learn how to interact with other people. Diego’s great with infants and toddlers, and kids who act out with aggression.
The two pit bulls serve as a good example of what the breed can accomplish—they seem far from the stereotypes of pit bulls that often make national and local headlines.
The eight dogs I started my day with are also good examples. All highly trained in obedience, and most in agility (timed obstacle courses), they’re perfect models of the working dog pit bulls are programmed to be. Their owner, Lisa, who requested her last name be omitted for this article, has worked as a trainer at the Acoma Training Center on Wyoming for eight-and-a-half years. She, too, has a couple certified therapy pit bulls. She also has an agility champion, one rescued ex-fighting dog and two pits with herding titles. Of course, the rules were recently changed in herding competitions, banning pit bulls along with several other breeds from competing. But Lisa says they still like the practice. Toe-licking Tempest is still too young to know what she’ll be, but her obedience training is well underway.
Lisa takes one of the better agility dogs, Vixen, out to the obstacle course to show me what she can do. Vixen darts back and forth through plastic tunnels and over ramps with a broad smile, stopping on point every time she’s cued. I catch a shot of her flying mid-air through a hanging tire.
Now that’s something.
The Forgotten Continent
An interview with Paul Rusesabagina, the man behind Hotel Rwanda
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, April 20, 2006
“Those 100 days were started somewhere, were started by someone, and never ended, because the killings never ended.”
Paul Rusesabagina seems like the kind of man you'd want sitting next to you if the plane went down, if the train crashed, if a bomb hit. Not because he would necessarily be able to save you, but because you know that if it was at all in his power, he would.
As he speaks about the atrocities he has witnessed, his carefully paced African accent staying the course, I cannot help but feel like a child listening to a great poet, or spiritual leader, or politician. Every word is chosen. Every syllable placed. And with each breath, I hear his story. His story is, in the truest meaning of the word, great, even if incomprehensibly tragic.
If you have not heard of Paul Rusesabagina, then you likely have not seen Hotel Rwanda, a film that tells the main events of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the course of 100 days, nearly one million citizens of Rwanda were massacred. And while pleas went out to the nations of the world for assistance, not one country answered. No one came to help.
The culmination of a deep-rooted conflict between two of Rwanda's ethnic groups—the Tutsi and the Hutu, the genocide, although technically over, in reality still lingers in the country today. People are still disappearing, criminals have yet to be prosecuted, justice remains absent. And still, no one comes to help.
Rusesabagina likes to say that his role was small. In truth, as the manager of the Milles Collines, a luxury hotel located in the heart of the slaughter, he managed to save the lives of more than 1,200 refugees by sheltering them at the hotel. The hotel offered no protection beyond its international connections; but Rusesabagina did all he could to save himself, his family and the people within the hotel's walls, who awaited certain death outside them. He phoned around the world asking for assistance, and when none came he resorted to using favors owed to him to buy temporary protection. None of the people who took shelter at the hotel were killed. When he and the refugees at the hotel were finally able to escape the conflict by crossing rebel lines to a refugee camp, he returned shortly after to aid in cleanup efforts at the hotel. He remained in Rwanda for another two-and-a-half years, until members of the current government tried to kill him and his family and he fled to Belgium to seek asylum, which is where he lives today.
Since 1994, Rusesabagina has been touring all over the world, helping to raise awareness about the Rwandan situation, as well as other conflicts that are ignored by the international community. He has also established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which works to support, care and assist the children orphaned by, and women abused during, the genocide in Rwanda. Most recently, he has written a book, An Ordinary Man, which chronicles the events of and around the genocide, including many things that were not included in the film Hotel Rwanda. This Saturday, April 22, he will be in town to discuss his new memoir. Last week, Mr. Rusesabagina took the time to sit down over the phone with the Alibi to talk about genocide, justice and American responsibility.
What is your life like now that the genocide is in the past and you've escaped that kind of climate?
Well, let's say that that kind of climate, you can never escape it. Because it always follows you wherever you go. You can never forget your friends, your family members who are still in the country. The kind of life now, I think I'm very busy. I have a foundation, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. I have been speaking a lot, all over the world, having speeches everywhere. I have been writing a book, An Ordinary Man. So I have been busy since I left Rwanda in 1996 up to now.
And what is it like to be so busy and to be getting so much attention?
Well, myself, I feel like a normal person. I take myself to be like the poor; that young boy who was born on a farm, grew up on a farm, went to school abroad, and later on became a hotel manager. I can never be anyone else beside a hotel manager.
I read some other interviews you've done, and it seems you don't like the word “hero” when it's addressed to you. How do you feel about that word?
I feel a little bit (laughs), can I say offended? I don't take myself up to that level. So I think of myself as a normal hotel manager, who did his job, from the beginning to the end, but I'm not anyone special.
Were there many others during that time who were trying to help in Rwanda?
Oh yes. Actually, that is what surprises me. There were many people who died trying to help their neighbors. And all of those who died, no one calls them heroes. Because if there are many Tutsis who survived, they were saved by their neighbors. To me, those neighbors, those victims, are the heroes. And, unfortunately, they seem to be forgotten.
One of the reasons more attention has come to Rwanda in the last couple years is because of the movie. What are your feelings about the fact that it took a film to bring attention to something like this? Do you feel that people should have been following it all along, that it shouldn't have taken a movie to bring their attention there?
Unfortunately, it took a movie to draw attention, the international community's attention, to those 100 days. And those 100 days were started somewhere, were started by someone, and never ended, because the killings never ended. It took a movie to show Hotel Rwanda. I wonder if it would again take a movie to show Hotel Darfur, for instance, or Hotel Congo. In the Congo since 1996, when the Rwandan army entered in that country, up to now, about four million people, I say four million people, have been killed. And again the whole world stands by, watches, and doesn't say anything.
A few months ago I went to Darfur to witness with my own eyes what is going on. It is exactly what was going on in Rwanda in between 1990-94. In between [that time] in Rwanda, the rebels were killing, Tutsi rebels were killing Hutus; and as a result, when both presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed, all Hutus took machetes and started butchering Tutsis, and the world was there to watch and see. And even today we are watching. And at the end we might say, “Ah, we have seen it. Those people have killed each other.”
When you were in that moment in 1994 during the genocide, how did it feel to have no one come?
I can never describe how I felt, because I can't find words. I cannot tell you that I was bitter. Was I angry? Those words are so simple. I cannot tell you that we were abandoned; it is too simple. I can't find words to describe what I was feeling. In the end, I was doing all I can, phoning the whole world, sending faxes whenever I couldn't. I phoned even the White House, I phoned even Paris, Brussels, New York, everywhere. But nobody seemed to be willing to help, and nobody did, from the beginning to the end. So how can you feel ... . If you can find a better word, we can use that one.
What did the White House say when you called them?
No one seemed to be concerned. Each and every person I was calling was telling me, “But, sir, this is supposed to be treated by my colleague.” “Who is your colleague, can I call him?” “Uh, let me get his number, I might come back to you. I'm sorry, I'm having another line.” So you can imagine. You hear that described in An Ordinary Man; I'm very clear with that.
What are your feelings now toward the countries you called that didn't come; for example, the U.S.?
Before I started speaking, I felt bitter against everyone. But when I started touring, promotingHotel Rwanda, then speaking all over the world, I noticed that the people themselves are not informed. Even about the Rwandan issue—the people are not informed. I wouldn't blame the people as well. Their leaders were informed, of course, they knew what was going on. But again, I can never blame a whole nation, say that a whole nation abandoned us. In the end, we want to appear on the scene, and also play a role. So we have, again, to get involved in whatever is happening all over the world, so that at least we can try to change things.
Have you come to any conclusions as to why countries didn't come at that time to help?
Well, there are so many reasons. First of all, not only Rwanda, but the whole of Africa is a forgotten continent. Africa is left to Africans as if it was not a member of the United Nations. If you recall what went on in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, the same Clinton Administration that did not intervene in Rwanda when approximately 1 million people were killed in 100 days, 15 percent of the population. The whole world intervened in Yugoslavia, but never in Rwanda. Why didn't they intervene in Rwanda? Because Africa, I think, is a forgotten continent.
Do you think the U.S. has a responsibility to intervene in those situations?
Definitely. As the sole, the only policemen of the world, the only powerful country being the United States, the U.S. has been given a very heavy burden, a very heavy responsibility. I think that is a test from above. Because the U.S. is a strong nation, it is the only one that can change things.
You've spoken to some of this already, but do you think there are things happening around the world today that we're ignoring that we should be paying attention to?
I think that all of these things which are happening should be taken seriously. It is a shame to see dictators, like in the Sudan, killing their own people, butchering them, stealing their money and bringing it in the West, keeping it in the banks, and this money, stolen, is never frozen. It is a shame to notice that, all of these strong Western superpowers, to not send a strong signal to those dictators and at least let them know that whoever kills his own people will one day face justice. This is a shame to mankind.
It seems one of the biggest tragedies in the media right now is that people are so unaware of what's going on, and that maybe if people were more aware, that might make a difference. Do you think that the U.S., as an example, is unaware of what's happening in much of the world right now?
No, I can never think that the U.S. are unaware. Even if someone can tell me that, I will say no. The United States are informed.
What are things like right now in Rwanda?
In Rwanda right now, things unfortunately never improved. Today, you have again people who are disappearing. Can you imagine someone disappearing? A colonel disappearing?
The government has taken about 100,000 prisoners into the Rwandan prisons. All of those people are not tried, since 1994. And the year the Rwandan government got $1.2 billion in Geneva in 1994, to rehabilitate and do justice, justice was a priority. And many people were trained. But all those guys who were trained never worked as judges. Today, justice has been stopped. For 12 years, not 5,000 have been effectively convicted. Do you take that to be normal? That is a failure. And 50 percent of prisoners, if not more, have got no charges. But whenever you talk, they pretend not to know there was a genocide in this country. So the genocide has become a master key to each and every door.
So what do we need in Rwanda? We need justice to be done. Hutus and Tutsis who have killed, they are both killers. They have to be brought to justice—tried, convicted. That is the real way of doing things. And then Hutus and Tutsis have got to come, through dialogue, communication [and] negotiations, to reconcile, and then wield the country.
Do you see any response from the international community right now?
Unfortunately, even now, the international community is standing by, watching, and doesn't want to do anything.
What do you hope people will take away from your book? What message do you hope to leave with them?
The people will take from my book, a message: the powers of words. Words are a very good weapon. They will learn everything about Rwanda through the powers of words; words which can be the best weapon, if used for a good cause, and the worst weapon, if used for evil. The power of words is very important, and my book raises awareness with what happened in Rwanda, what is happening now, and what is happening all around us, especially on the whole of the African continent. So my main objective was to wake up the international community, raise their awareness, so that at least they can do something about other regions.
Searching for New Orleans
An interview with Diane Rimple, a doctor from the University of New Mexico Hospital who spent 10 days in the aftermath of Katrina
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, October 6, 2005
A college professor once told me that in order to write about big ideas, one first had to write about small ones. Everyone wants to tackle love, or life, or the profound influence of one's mother, she said, but hardly anyone can do it well, or in a way that a thousand others haven't done it before. To get there, one has to start with threads, buttons, the way her rosary smelled. The small things paint the scenery. The subject is implied.
The same might be said for Hurricane Katrina, an event so monumental, so profound, one finds it nearly impossible to comprehend. To understand it, to shape the meaning of it, we must first look at the smaller things. The dust on the lens of the cameras that took the photographs that litter our newspapers. The crack in the voice of an evacuee on talk-show radio. The ways people from all over the country have tried, by any means, to help.
Dr. Diane Rimple helped in her own way; and on Aug. 30, the University Hospital doctor left for New Orleans as the medical director with the New Mexico Task Force I Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), a group operated by FEMA. The team of 70 packed in a hurry, unaware of what their job would be or where they would do it. Normally relegated to searching for survivors in collapsed buildings in disasters such as 9/11, Katrina was a mission for which no one was prepared.
While rescue workers maneuvered boats to search for survivors, Rimple stayed on land to treat those who needed medical aid and watch over her team.
Here, she talks to the Alibi about her experiences. Let's start with the small things.
How did your team deal with the general atmosphere when you arrived in New Orleans? Were people feeling stunned and shocked by the situation?
Totally. It was chaotic. Just complete chaos. Locals were hopping in boats and rescuing people; it seemed as if every personal fishing craft was lined up on the bridge going into New Orleans waiting for dawn to go into the water. So there were just thousands of people motoring out there and helping people get out along with the more professional teams. And [there was] no electricity. And no running water. And it's 100 degrees. And 99 percent humidity. And still, completely still; there wasn't a breath of wind for the first couple days. And the water stank. It was definitely surreal.
Talk to me about your experience over there. What was it like to go into one of the greatest American cities and see it in that state? I mean, the water was fairly toxic at that point, right?
We had no idea, though. We had no idea, and so there were a lot of rumors, a lot of “what's in there?” talk about refineries and chemicals and, of course, sewage. So there's a whole decontamination process that you would use for any chemical spills or weapons of mass destruction or anything like that, so essentially we were decon-ing anybody who fell in the water. But even if you were out in a boat and got your feet wet, your shoes, anything, was decon-ed.
And what's that process?
It's mostly soap and water. Water is the best decontamination solution there is. Soap, water, bleach and then rinse off. Which is a little difficult when you have no water except for what you bring with you.
How much water could you bring with you?
Palettes and palettes of it. But you're talking about 70-odd people who have to drink a heck of a lot of fluids to maintain hydration in 100-degree heat with 90 to 99 percent humidity. So every bottle you use for decontamination is a bottle you can't drink, or that you can't wash with. FEMA was supposed to have a lot of this stuff set up, but it was so early on and it just is difficult. The roads were in bad condition, it was hard to get things in and out, and it was such a huge area of devastation, you couldn't just say, “Well, we'll call down the road and have them send a truck of water,” because Baton Rouge was inundated with evacuees and so they were going through their own crisis up there. I mean, people talk about not being able to get supplies this side of Baton Rouge. You had to essentially go to the other side of Baton Rouge before you could get anything.
What were some of the most heartening and horrific experiences you had out there?
Well, the team had many true saves. I mean, saves where people were running out of water, they were literally trapped in their houses, and somebody just heard them tap on a window or call out and took the boat across and broke into the house to get them out. There were many cases of people who were in water up to their chest for five days, waiting to get out and were just waterlogged or trapped; sitting on top of refrigerators, that sort of thing. I think they definitely had the ultimate in the agony and the ecstasy in terms of making several really great saves—people who you knew were going to die had they not been rescued very soon; and yet they also had to deal with being up close to death, and to people who had drowned, and bodies; that we, in the medical group, didn't see. Because they weren't doing any body recovery; they were going after survivors. This was early on in the disaster, so they were just going for the people.
I think another thing that made people feel really good was the animals [we rescued]. We were able to get a hold of the local SPCA, who would come in like the cavalry at the end of the day with their trucks and pick up 30, 40 animals at a time and take them to a shelter. And they made the commitment that they would not euthanize any animal that had a tag.
Reading the news, I heard all these fears about being near that stagnant water for so long, about what was in the water; dead bodies and everything. The papers talked about the fears of certain diseases coming back, like typhoid. Was that a reality—the fear of those kinds of diseases taking over?
I think there was concern but not fear. In the sense that we had a couple of people whose boat capsized and they ended up in the water. And we just did really good decon, and we didn't treat them with antibiotics right away and said, “Look, if you develop symptoms you're going to be treated.” The vast majority of the things we ended up seeing were not water-related illnesses. We had to worry about diarrhea, and mostly they're worried about E coli. For our team, we were more worried about upper-respiratory viral sort of infections that get passed around like in daycare centers. So at least at this point we're not seeing serious diseases among the rescuers.
So was there any kind of fear when you were there? I know the newspapers were talking about the looters, and people walking around with guns, and these kinds of things; and not knowing if the situation's going to get worse or if the weather's going to change. What was the mindset there?
To be honest with you, we had no TV, we had no information except what we were getting from the briefings through FEMA, we were totally isolated. So all I know is what I experienced and what I saw, and I never felt threatened in any way by any of the folks who were there, and the vast, vast majority was just happy to be out and happy to see a doctor.
Do you feel like this country is prepared to deal with a big crisis like this? From what we read, it seems like the reaction time to this was slower than it should have been. Do you feel like you're in a position to make comments on that?
I'm not really in a position. But, stepping outside of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue hat, as a physician in the community, as someone who does emergency medicine and is hyperaware of disaster medicine just through UNM's Center for Disaster Medicine—I mean, we do a lot of this work here at the University and people really are training the rest of the state and country here at UNM—we all know that what we've been told is you can't depend on the federal government in the first two to three days of a natural disaster. Communications are down, transportation is down, it just takes time to fly, drive, boat anywhere, and from a local management standpoint, you have to have your own plans. So from that standpoint, I think it's all about being self-reliant for the first 72 hours.
I think the message has been traditionally to cities and municipalities in the country that you have to start making your own plans. You want to individualize your response based on what you know about your community. And I think that's a legitimate model, and I think that people with far more experience than I have need to figure out whether it's a viable model. I think it's a rational model, but it needs to be determined whether it's one that stands up to reality.
What did you take away from this experience?
I think I took away from it that you have to depend on yourself, and you have to have a personal plan, and you cannot think that anyone else is going to bail you out of a really terrible situation because, regardless of how much manpower and money is thrown at a catastrophe, there is lag time and people with the best of intentions get overwhelmed.
Did this experience change your mind about the government or the American people?
No. I'm just so thankful that I was in the position [to help]. I think so many people wanted to help; and what a fantastic position to be in to be able to help, and to be asked to help. It's the definition of what I have wanted to do with my life, and to be able to do it in my own country and to be able to have a regular job and yet be able to do this as well.