Writings on the Wall in the Streets of Oaxaca

Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.

You can view my author page with the Pulitzer Center here

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Pasted onto the walls of the quiet streets of Oaxaca lie eerie reflections of a country descending into chaos.

That chaos often remains unseen within the relative safety of tourist cities like Ciudad de Oaxaca, where I’ve come to interview a writer who’s worked with the Zapatistas, and where rivers of foreigners throng the streets in cool summertime dusks, free from the omnipresent violence which stalks Mexico and the majority of its population like a specter. But even when you don’t see it, even in the tourist zones of carefully cleaned cobblestoned streets, that reality is there. Continue reading

In their wake, US-bound immigrants leave communities plagued by poverty and malnutrition


By Jared Olson (Photographs by Katherine Lewin)

Judging by the glittering decorations and the vines adorning the stores, by the progressive aura of the tourism, or even just by the thousands of foreign hipsters who flock here every year in search of spiritual transcendence- “Los hippies,” as the Mayan locals frequently call them- one wouldn’t at first glance think that San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala, is a place where children are so malnourished that growth-stunted nine-year-olds look as if they’re only five, or where babies are so underfed that the hair slips off their scalps.

It’s a disturbing reality, one which often eludes the tourists passing through here: outsiders happily wandering the lakeside town’s bewitching, cobblestoned tourism corridor, garbed in flowing flower printed dresses and bead-laced scarves, unaware of the slums that exist just outside the insular bubble of tourism-centric businesses. In those cracked neighborhoods of ramshackle metal, poverty rates soar, spawning an array of social consequences for the towns Ka’qchikel Maya residents, especially malnutrition. Continue reading

Representations of the Intellectual, by Edward Said



Had leukemia not stolen him from us fifteen years ago, one could feasibly presume that, were he still alive today, Edward Said would have had a field day with the people still being passed off as “intellectuals” in the West.

Said provides us many visions of what the intellectual should be in Representations, a slim but powerful volume- originally delivered orally for a televised BBC lecture before later being condensed into book form- which probes the role and responsibility of thinking in a world ripe with injustice.

Said, a Palestinian writer, critic and literary theorist whose works illuminated the gaps between Eastern and Western cultures, dedicated his life with a singular devotion to the defense of the oppressed Palestinian people. He wrote books on the history of Palestinian expulsion, spoke and lectured on the beleaguered people’s behalf, and used his powers as a writer and historian to cast light towards oceans of suffering which, in many cases, would have remained otherwise hidden in darkness.

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Jacksonville community members gather to discuss racially-charged ticketing practices


Dozens of people gathered that night to listen to the journalists, who were gathered on a panel that included civil rights lawyers, community organizers, and people who’d experienced altercations with the police themselves

Last Thursday, March 8, 2018, dozens gathered in Jacksonville’s Riverside church to listen to and discuss the findings of two Times-Union investigative journalists- Benjamin Conarck and Topher Sanders- who, in a searing article published last fall titled “Walking while Black,” exposed wide ranging and systematic abuses by the Duvall County Police Department. The police department, the journalists attested, has over the past four years used a litany of draconian pedestrian rules to unjustly and arbitrarily “shake down” anyone they suspected of having committed a crime. The majority of people targeted for ticketing, the journalists found, were overwhelmingly poor and black.

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Chasing Memory in Florida’s Juniper Creek


Griffin Torrey- one of the authors’ two roommates- hanging around over the clear waters of Juniper Creek

Drifting down the headwaters of Florida’s remote Juniper Creek, the lower blade of the paddle held abreast of the kayak draws a thin sucking wake along the surface of the water.

Not even a hundred yards yet from the creeks place of origin- a rocky, moss-laden, subterranean spring of the same name- the water flowing through here, deep in the pine scrub of the Ocala national forest, is unusually, astonishingly clear: the type of water that gives the impression of being suspended weightlessly in the air. Paddling slowly, soft prisms of sunlight dancing in the leafy, turquoise shallows beneath, we make tentative headway down this glassy forest river, which cuts like a silent corridor through a wilderness of pine. Over many moments this morning, we hold our dripping paddles alongside the boats as the current swings us downstream, relishing in what can only be described as fleeting moments of release: all is peaceful in these watery scrublands. All is quiet save the hush of the wind.

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Protesters gather for latest Confederate monument battle in downtown Jacksonville


Atop the tall stone obelisk rising up amidst downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Park, the statue of a Confederate soldier stands at ease, his folded hands resting atop his musket. His expression blank, the rusting green metal face gazes out emptily over the park, a sprawling brick square of fountains and Spanish oaks set snugly beneath the city’s gleaming financial buildings. The park is steeped in dark history, and even today, the atmosphere still resounds with echoes of its old racial tensions. Fifty-eight years ago, this was the site where a mob of Klansmen brutally and notoriously attacked civil rights activists performing a sit-in in protest of Jim Crow segregation. Last Sunday, January 30, those echoes resounded once again, as several hundred activists- followed closely by dozens of pro-Confederate counterprotesters- gathered to protest the statue of the soldier himself, a leftover remnant of the racial discrimination that they believe continues to haunt their city.

Under a pale overcast sky, the sun lost in a diffuse of white, protesters gathered in the parks central pavilion a little past 2 pm.

Fearful of violence similar to that witnessed in Charlottesville last August, Jacksonville police virtually locked down the area surrounding the park in preparation for the event: they shut down all surrounding city blocks, cordoning off all incoming streets. They patrolled the area with dozens of officers. And they separated opposing camps between two rows of bright, neon orange barricades. As people began to coalesce in the plaza, the police droned out every few minutes through the booming echo of an unseen megaphone: “The police respect ALL points of view! Please do not instigate violence!”

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St. Augustine protesters gather for their latest demonstration against local Confederate monuments


By Jared Olson (Photos: Joseph McCann)

Amidst the raging storm of controversy that’s enveloped the movement to remove and recontextualize St. Augustine’s Confederate monuments, protesters both black and white- followed closely on their heels by Tea Party counterprotesters bearing bright red rebel flags- amassed for their latest demonstration in the cool evening twilight of Monday, January 22nd.

The protesters, led by black minister Rev. Ron Rawls, amassed along the Granada street sidewalk next to the Lightner Museum, where city officials inside discussed mounting pressures over recent months calling for a community-wide reconsideration of the monuments. Deploying the booming echo of their voices, the protesters had gathered outside the building to project their presence to the deliberating local politicians, who were hidden by tightly curtained windows within the museums forebidding stone walls. As the evening light failed and gave way to darkness, the anti-Confederate protesters swung into a chorus of chants deploring the monuments and the racism behind them, while on a corner down the street, the counterprotesters echoed back with periodic volleys of insults, their bright-red rebel flags luffing like soft sails in the breeze.

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The 2017 Hurricane Season was a Vision of the Future

On the night Hurricane Irma made landfall over Florida, I sat in my living room, sweating in the darkness, listening to the raging of the wind outside.

The wind came in waves: vast, pulsating, hurricane force gales, some upwards of a hundred miles per hour, crashing, heaving, and receding over our house like long curling swells over a rock in the ocean. It was a palpable wind, its sound so immense that you almost felt you could feel it from within the house. Outside, one heard the periodic, brittle crack of trees as they heeled over under the blasting force of the wind. And when one peeked outside- as I did several times, against my better judgment- one saw there in the maelstrom a broken but unending river of debris, swept up ineluctably by the unceasing waves of wind. For a moment, standing there on the back porch, I watched as the storm-stricken landscape was briefly illuminated, its contours revealed as a transformer burst in the distance.

I returned to the living room, which after several hours without power had become ungodly hot, and waited there anxiously, beads of sweat congealing over my forehead, listening silently to the sounds of the night.

None of this scene would’ve been particularly disturbing were it not for a peculiar fact: we were far inland, sixty miles from where the damage was supposed to be at its most severe, and yet we were still feeling the effects of a storm so massive that its total volume engulfed the entire state of Florida.

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MLK Day Demonstrators Celebrate Memory of Civil Rights Warrior

By Jared Olson (Photos: Katherine Lewin)


Two marchers carry the American flag towards downtown St. Augustine in a demonstration of remembrance to Dr. Martin Luther King: a man who is now revered in the same town where he was once brutally attacked and imprisoned

Under the cold bluebird skies of last Monday, January 15th- Martin Luther King Day- St. Augustine demonstrators amassed in front of the squat brick walls of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, a traditionally black congregation, to celebrate the memory of a civil rights hero in a town where that hero was once notoriously hated.

Congealing along the sidewalk into an amoeba of people whose numbers eventually crested at two hundred, the demonstrators – people black and white as well as young and old – stood shivering under an armada of American flags, held aloft loosely in the soft morning wind, as they waited for the yearly procession to get underway: a route that would take them from the steps of the storied black church, where Dr. King once thundered in indignation against racism, to the downtown market square, where black slaves were once auctioned off like cattle and goats.

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North Florida protesters gather to show solidarity with striking prisoners


Protesters reading from the manifesto of the striking prisoners inside, who are seeking to improving conditions and end what they perceive as quasi-“slave” labor

By Jared Olson (photos: Katherine Lewin)

A little past 3 pm, in the midst of a coppery gold, cloudless North Florida winter afternoon on January 15, 2018, protesters gathered on the rural road facing the remote Lake Butler Correctional Facility. They came together to speak out against mass incarceration in America and the unpaid “slave” labor of convicts, and to show solidarity with the prisoners inside, who were then participating in a statewide, daylong labor strike.

The protesters – a group of former convicts, veterans, union activists and distraught mothers – coalesced into a noisy caravan as they left their cars along the roadside, and marched back and in front of the facility, where state laws permitted them the right to assemble. (Within prison property, protesting is proscribed as an illegal offense).

Beating makeshift drums, blowing into trumpets and carrying signs, the stream of protesters led a rising chorus of chants:

“Brick by brick! Wall by wall! This prison slave camp has to fall!’

“We, will end, the department of cor-RUP-tion!”

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