[Masthead] Fair ~ 48°F  
High: 66°F ~ Low: 53°F
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Journalist shares worldly voice

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Sent by the now-defunct San Francisco Examiner to Mexico City in September 1985 to cover an earthquake that had ravaged the city, John Ross returned to Mexico to find a home and a story.

And in 1994, from his vantage point in Mexico City, he witnessed and wrote about the beginning of a revolution that would chase the reigning political party out of national power and challenge the trade policies in this hemisphere and the world. A revolution, he says, continues today.

Ross, a faculty-in-residence educator at Buena Vista University this season, is teaching a January interim course 'Fixing the Zapatistas in History,' a course about the revolution in the state of Chiapas. On Jan. 12 he gave an ACES lecture, sharing the stories of his life.

Standing at a podium in one of the Siebens Forum rooms, wearing a black beret and the Palestinian scarf called a kuffiyeh, Ross gave a personal history of revolution, war and hope to more than 60 students. His vision ruined by diabetes, Ross peered at his notes through a magnifying glass. But his voice, figuratively and literally, has not suffered.

"While I was working in Humboldt County, Calif., I learned that I had 'to always start my story in the street,' " he said. "I still write that way."

Ross told the students he has always been a "freelancer - always called my own shots."

"I value that freedom," he said. "I'm not in this to get rich quick.

"I was on the barricades for a long time. Then I decided to take a step back and write about what was happening around me."

Ross was referring to his brand of participatory journalism. and what was happening around him was revolution.

At the podium, he boomed out a litany of wrongs he has witnessed from Mexico to Iraq and from Africa to the United States, that have been perpetrated, he said, on the working and indigenous poor of the world, many of whom he has known personally and whose stories he has told in magazines, books and newspapers.

Ross' career began in Mexico, but only after personal tragedy.

He first went to Mexico in 1957 with members of Beats - the poets, musicians and anti-establishment types of that decade. He went, he said, to "build a house and lead the writer's life."

But he and his wife lost a child and Ross began going through a transformation as he met his neighbors, many of whom also had lost children.

"I began to realize my personal tragedy was a lot bigger than myself," he told the students.

In fact, he said, the level of infant mortality rates was continent-wide.

"That's when I realized people were coming together to make social change," Ross said. "And I could make social change as a writer."

In 1963, he published one of his first articles and found that journalism could be "something of a dangerous adventure," when he found bullet holes in his front door.

During that turbulent decade, Ross would travel back to his beloved San Francisco and Humboldt County.

He would refuse the Army's offer to be "All That He Could Be," and spend more than a little time in jail for doing "what I could to stop the slaughter in Vietnam." During the 1960s he was arrested 17 times for actions he committed to try and end the war.

His search for stories took him to Africa, to Ireland to report on that country's anti-nuclear movement and back to Humboldt County where he wrote a story for Mother Jones magazine called "How to take apart your neighborhood nuke."

Sitting in a Storm Lake restaurant, Ross fondly recalled 'actions' that he and others in the California anti-nuclear power plant movement took to stop a plant near Eureka, Calif.

"We were the first group to get a nuke plant decommissioned," he said. "But it was sitting on the ocean and a mess of fault lines. One good earthquake and it would have been in the ocean."

Ross also has been a human shield in the months and weeks leading up to the United States' attack on Iraq and has worked in the olive orchards of Palestine.

But it is about his adopted land that he is most passionate.

He told his audience that within hours of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatista revolution began.

"The Zapatistas saw immediately that NAFTA would displace them from the the marketplace," he said. "They are still in rebellion as they are finding their own autonomy - keeping the control of their lives in their own hands. Please buy 'Fair Trade Coffee,' that's a way to support them."

Ross said that because of NAFTA, the United States has been dumping 6 million tons of corn on it southern neighbor.

"Corn is an identity crop for the Mayans," he said. "Corn comes from Mexico, it has a long and rich history there. The Mayas call themselves the 'Corn People."

The small farmers in Mexico still farm almost the same ways as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them, on small plots with small harvests and no subsidies.

"The subsidies and NAFTA allow farmers to dump corn in Mexico at 20 percent of market price," Ross said. "And a lot of that corn comes from Iowa. This is effectively ruining Mexican farming."

Soon after NAFTA was passed, Ross said, the world hunger agency OXFAM predicted that in a worst case scenario caused by the free trade agreement 10 million farmers would be removed from the land.

"The worst case scenario has been realized and continues to be realized," Ross said. "Now where do you think these displaced farmers are going to find money and food for their families?"

Since NAFTA has been signed, more than 3,000 people have died crossing the deserts in their efforts to find work, Ross said.

"As many people have died and more continue to die than all the people who died in the World Trade Center attacks," he said. "They are dying or if they make it, they are making a long trip to Iowa, in part, because of Iowa corn.

"They are coming to work in the slaughter houses, but we don't see them nor do we know their names."

Ross said since the revolution in Chiapas he has been following the farmers of the world more closely. In September he covered the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, that focused on agriculture. Ross said 12,000 farmers showed up from all over the world.

"These people are desperate," Ross said. "They are losing their land. I was standing 10 feet away from the South Korean farmer who stabbed himself to death. He sacrificed himself so others would listen to the farmers."

Ross said it must have worked because the WTO talks collapsed after the suicide.

After the WTO talks, Ross said he wanted to get close to another group of farmers, this time the Palestinian olive growers in the Nablus valley.

"I wanted to help in the olive harvest," he said. "I knew that was the identity crop of the Palestinian people, and that the Israeli settlers were systematically destroying the orchards."

What he hadn't bargained for was being severely beaten by Israeli settlers while helping the Palestinians bring in their crops.

"They had been uprooting and burning the trees," he said. "We came on a spot where we found more than 250 trees pulled up, when suddenly one of our group yelled to run."

Ross said Israeli settlers were coming over the fence and he was caught. "They beat me pretty well all over until some of my friends came back to get me," he said. "I was beaten with sticks and stones, so badly I had to use a cane until just recently."

Coming back down the valley to rejoin the rest of his group, Ross said a city council member told him he was sorry it had happened to him, "Friend, now you know with your body what we have known for 55 years."

From Palestine olive groves to Baghdad wasn't a long trip for Ross. With the drums of war beating throughout America in February of last year, he and a group of international peace activists traveled to Iraq .

"We went to Iraq to act as 'human shields,' placing our bodies between Bush's bombs and the Iraqi people," Ross said. "O-o-o-h, they got mad! (Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld said the government was going to send us to Guantanamo."

They didn't, Ross said, but the 'human shields' kept e-mailing their exact coordinates to the U.S. government to let it know where they were at all times.

"But some of us got stuck between two governments," Ross said. "When that happens you always lose."

Ross said Saddam Hussein wanted to use them to protect infrastructure sites and the 'shields' wanted to protect hospitals and archeological sites.

"We got kicked out," Ross said. "We were too much for Saddam and too much for Bush."

Ross said he his heading back to San Francisco when his class is finished and then he hopes to return to Iraq to report on the Iraqi people.

"If you think a lot of G.I.s are dying in Iraq, multiply that number by 10 to begin to get an idea of how many Iraqis died in the invasion and continue to die because of our presence there," he said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: