“Justice for Trayvon” in NYC


“Justice for Trayvon” in NYC – Images by Matthew Cassel

Several thousand people marched from Union Square in New York one day after George Zimmerman, a local member of the Neighborhood Watch in Florida, was found not guilty for the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Protesters on Sunday chanted slogans such as “Trayvon’s dead, Zimmerman’s free, that’s what they call democracy,” and carried signs saying the verdict exposed racism within the US judicial system. Some protesters also carried bags of Skittles candy and wore hooded sweatshirts mocking Zimmerman who has said he felt threatened by 17-year-old Martin.

Many onlookers cheered the demonstration, which was much larger by the time it reached Manhattan’s Times Square at nightfall.

Morsi’s supporters running out of options


Egypt’s coup in pictures — mobile viewers click here

Originally published on Al Jazeera English, 5 July 2013

Cairo, Egypt – “May peace and God’s mercy be upon you,” the worshippers said as they looked to the right, and then to the left, before rising to their feet and starting their protest.

“Down, down with the military government,” they roared as they spilled into the streets from mosques across Cairo, calling for the return of Mohamed Morsi to Egypt’s presidency.

They had been saying all week that they were willing to defend Morsi’s presidency with their blood, and today they did.

At least three people were killed when protesters confronted soldiers at a presidential guard barracks in the country’s capital.

Friday was not unlike the beginning of demonstrations on January 28, 2011, when worshippers finished the Friday prayer and joined together in their thousands to march and conquer Tahrir Square – where they stayed until Hosni Mubarak was forced from office.

But today their mission was different. Instead of removing someone from power, they wanted to return someone to it.

“We’re worried about our President Mohamed Morsi,” said Nadia Mustafa, after finishing prayers at al-Istiqama mosque in Giza. She, like many other Morsi supporters, denounced the “military coup” that ousted him on Wednesday, and said she would only accept his return to office.

Abdel Moneim Sharif, another protester, shared that sentiment: “We’re not going to [stop protesting] until Morsi is restored to president and democracy is restored to Egypt.”

But millions of Egyptians opposed to Morsi say his ousting was an act of democracy – as it was the military acting on the will of the people. Their nationwide protests, which began on Sunday to mark one year since Morsi took office, left the army with little choice but to intervene.

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Salmana Abdel Shafi, as he walked through Tahrir on the morning after Morsi’s ousting. “Stability has been restored, and now we can get back to work and life.”

‘Guardian of legitimacy’

On Wednesday night, Morsi’s handpicked leader of the army, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, read a statement in a televised address:

“As the armed forces cannot just turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the movement and call of the Egyptian people, they have invoked their patriotic, and not political, role.”

Morsi “had failed to meet demands of the people”, and was therefore no longer president of the Arab world’s most populous nation”, said Sisi.

But it is that definition of “the people” over which both sides continue to disagree.

Morsi’s supporters echo their leader’s defiant eve-of-ousting speech, in which he referred to himself as the “guardian of legitimacy”, since he had won the country’s first free presidential elections in June 2012.

But opposition figures have said the numbers of protesters in the street is proof that Morsi had lost that legitimacy during his brief one year stint in office.

Gehad Haddad, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood that first put Morsi forth as its candidate, told Al Jazeera he was unsure if it was a majority of the country that opposed Morsi or not.

However, he said many of the country’s problems since Morsi took office were the fault of opposition politicians who refused to take part in the political process.

“You don’t denounce a president midterm because you don’t like what he’s doing,” Haddad said of the opposition.

“You have to man up to your responsibility to build new parties and show up for policy discussions instead of whining about it on TV.

“And they have the audacity to stand next to a military general as he’s doing his coup and say: ‘I’m backing the voice of the people.’

“I don’t think it was a majority represented in the street. I think it was a group of different segments that managed to agree on not wanting the president – rather than on wanting anything else.

“Imagine how they will split once they have the responsibility of [governing] and choices to make.”

Violence

Since Morsi’s ousting, the military has cracked down on his supporters, arresting hundreds, including some in the group’s top leadership. Morsi himself is detained, yet no-one outside the military seems to know where.

While many of Morsi’s supporters have spoken repeatedly about “the blood” they’re willing to put on the line to defend him, most Morsi supporters and military authorities alike have said that violence was something they would rather avoid.

On the road leading to Rabaa al-Adawiya, the military that has been present since Sisi’s announcement on Wednesday, pulled off to a side street to avoid standing in the way of the angry masses.

As protesters on Friday passed military and police installations around the city, some chanted slogans against them, and others threw projectiles, but the majority here shouted down acts of violence, while others formed human chains to prevent the sides from clashing.

It wasn’t until a breakaway march left Rabaa al-Adawiya and headed just a few kilometres away, to an outpost of the presidential guard, when the violence erupted.

Witnesses told Al Jazeera that one man had approached the building’s barbed wire fencing, holding a poster of Mohamed Morsi, when he was shot in the head by a soldier on the other side of the fence. He died moments later.

“He’s not even a Brotherhood member,” one man in tears shouted. “I know him, he’s only a good Muslim and they killed him.”

The army continued firing tear gas and birdshot, as military helicopter gunships circled above.

Other men approached the fence, one man carrying a flower, but it was clear they wouldn’t be able to challenge the well-trained officers on the other side.

Around Cairo, the Brotherhood’s critics have said the group remains well armed and could wage attacks against the state. They pointed to the border with Libya in the west, and to the Gaza Strip in the east as possible sources of more weaponry.

“Those Brotherhood members, they’re all armed,” one man in a cafe told others, as a pro-Morsi march passed nearby.

But many Morsi supporters told Al Jazeera they were firmly opposed to the idea of taking up weapons as a means to win back their power.

‘Back to the grassroots’

Outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the main site of ongoing pro-Morsi protests, men can be seem performing military-like drills, wearing construction hats and padded vests.

Haddad, the Brotherhood spokesperson, laughed when asked if they were meant to be threatening, and dismissed the notion that it was a sign of the group becoming militarised.

“It’s not even going to do anything against bullets, but at least it might deter thugs,” Haddad said.

The Muslim Brotherhood will only use peaceful means to challenge the military, he added.

“We’re going back to the grassroots and the source of real power – the people themselves,” Haddad said. “We’ll see where that takes us.”

But in Tahrir Square and elsewhere across the country, the anti-Morsi crowd has moved on.

They’re not concerned with a return of the Brotherhood. They know that the army, which produced more than six decades of Egypt’s leaders – each of whom waged their own crackdown on the group – is behind them.

Almost all of the journalists covering Friday’s pro-Morsi protests were reporting for foreign media.

One of the army’s first moves after taking power was to close Brotherhood-media outlets and other TV channels that were said to be pro-Morsi in their coverage.

So unless they followed the international press, social media, or attended the events themselves, most Egyptians will have little idea of the protests that took place today.

And with the military keeping tight control, it’s hard to see how the Brotherhood will be able to climb its way back into power any time soon.

‘Protect our children’


US: Chicago school protest 27 March 2013

It’s hard to imagine the mayor of a major US city moving to close dozens of schools located in some of the most violent areas of the entire country. It’s even harder to imagine that mayor having his office announce the mass closings — the biggest ever in US history — while he was away on a ski holiday with his family. But Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel is a special kind of mayor.

Last Thursday Emanuel’s office announced that the city plans to shut 54 schools, nearly all of which are located in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, in order to cover a $1bn deficit. Karen Lewis, the outspoken leader of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, blasted the move as “racist” and “classist,” and so did many other teachers, parents, school faculty, and others on Wednesday during a protest against the closings (images above).

Read a full report of the protest by The Guardian’s Gary Younge.

Repairing a heart

The above images document the before and after of my father’s recent open-heart surgery.

TWO WEEKS AGO doctors cut open my father’s sternum, stopped his heart, and temporarily installed a cardiopulmonary bypass pump as they spent more almost eight hours replacing a damaged mitral valve. It was his third such open-heart operation in just two years. Before that his most recent operation was last November, one that I also returned home for from the Middle East where I live in order to be with him.

Caring for ailing loved ones is something most of us have done or will do at some point in our lives. And as we all know it’s not easy, especially when other factors interfere. One of the things that drove me into activism and later journalism was growing up and seeing my father battle one health issue after another.

At different times during the last two decades my father, like tens of millions of Americans, was without health insurance. That meant he was solely responsible for the exorbitant medical bills incurred from his illnesses. And for years I watched as he struggled to overcome not only his physical problems but the resulting financial problems as well.

“Hello, I’m looking for…” the voice would come on the phone asking for my father. “He’s not in,” I’d say, as he slept just feet away on the couch in his small one-bedroom apartment. Or, I would respond in a less diplomatic fashion and tell them to go to the hospital themselves and ask him for money as he underwent further costly treatment that he couldn’t expect to pay for either. The phone never stopped ringing, and most times I would just ignore it.

For an impressionable kid in his late teens, it made me furious. I had trouble understanding how treatment for the sick and unwell was a political issue and not a basic right. There is no excuse for a country that spends billions on killing people abroad to not invest in healthcare and take care of its own people at home.

In recent years my family has been more fortunate as my father has worked at a job, albeit one he’s overqualified for, that provides him with health insurance. And that insurance has allowed him some of the best medical care available, especially for his last two heart operations when he was transferred to the University of Chicago hospital on the city’s South Side.

I have to say that I am eternally grateful to the staff at the U of C hospital. They do an incredible job at treating people like my father in need of specialized treatment for an organ as complicated as the human heart. The doctors and nurses were both friendly and extremely professional, which was reassuring for us at such a worrying time.

But while the staff has stayed the same, the hospital has changed dramatically. My father’s second heart operation in November was conducted at the old hospital, which seemed perfectly fine in my non-medical opinion. However, it paled in appearance to the brand new $700,000,000 medical facility that opened in February just across the street. As I recently sat gazing out from what’s become one of the tallest buildings on Chicago’s sprawling South Side, I couldn’t ignore the blaring contradictions staring right back at me.

Driving south on Cottage Grove Avenue the hospital emerges behind the trees and low-lying homes like a massive alien spacecraft that landed smack in the middle of the South Side. In an area where some of the only neighborhood shops you’ll find are liquor stores, and empty lots and boarded up homes are visible on every street, the hospital is one of the only signs of development on the South Side.

But that surrounding community is clearly not who the hospital is intended to serve.

In recent months, activists on the South Side have protested at the U of C demanding it open a trauma center to treat gunshot victims. The U of C sits in the middle of one of one of the areas with the highest rates of gun violence in the entire country. However, the hospital isn’t equipped with a trauma center to treat gunshot victims, even when they’re shot almost literally in its shadow. Instead, they’re forced to travel to the nearest trauma center, a journey that has proven to be fatal for some. In 2010 18-year-old Damian Turner was shot less than a quarter mile from the U of C hospital. Turner died en route to the nearest Level 1 trauma center more than ten miles away in the city’s downtown.

Chicago’s South Side is a microcosm of the growing inequality in the US where the bottom 90 percent control less than a quarter of the country’s wealth while the top one percent control more than one-third. And it’s clear that to the authorities the lives of working people simply aren’t worth as much. Since President Obama first took office in 2009, nearly 2,000 people were killed in Chicago before he paid a visit to a single victim’s family. Many of the killings happened within blocks of Obama’s Chicago home. Last year when mass shootings occurred in wealthier areas in Colorado and Connecticut, killing 12 and 26 respectively, Obama was on the scene within days offering condolences to grieving families.

Chicago is hurting, and the status quo can’t sustain itself for much longer. And while the logical solution for many would be for the local government to invest in the struggling communities, Chicago’s mayor has taken the reverse approach and is waging new attacks on working people. Last Thursday, while Rahm Emanuel was on a ski holiday, his office announced the biggest mass public school closing in US history — nearly all of the 54 schools located in predominantly poor Black and Latino communities. It’s no coincidence that those same neglected communities are also experiencing the highest rates of violence.

Being home and knowing my father’s heart is fixed and he’s on the road to recovery couldn’t make me happier. But this city full of many hard-working people just like my father is in bad shape, and if something doesn’t change soon, well, no hospital around is going to be able to repair the damage no matter how shiny its exterior.

A cold day in Chicago


The high was 30 degrees (-1 C) in Chicago today, but the brisk wind made it feel much cooler. Office smokers put on their heavy coats to go outside for the 3-4 minutes it took to get their nicotine fix. Even pigeons looked miserable as they huddled behind bus stops and other wind-blocking barriers on sidewalks knowing it was too cold for any children to chase after them. A perfect day, I thought, to test out my new Fuji X-pro1 camera. Unlike my other Canon DSLRs, the Fuji and its lenses are small and discreet. It’s easy to travel with and doesn’t make me feel like I’m some overcompensating Harley-rider in need of a massive camera around my neck just to take a few pics. Earlier as I strolled around the Loop, Chicago’s downtown, I didn’t feel like I drew much attention to myself, which I like when doing street photography. The results are above.

Death in Chicago

Excerpted from an email to friends back home (video below):

When people in the Middle East ask where I’m from there are usually two things they associate with Chicago: Michael Jordan and violence. I’m always happy to hear the former and hope one day they’ll be just as familiar with Derrick Rose when he returns. And when I hear the latter reference I usually respond with something like, “yeah, but nothing like in this region.” But recently I’ve started to think that’s not really true.

I remember living in Chicago and not being affected by reports of violence that happened in parts of the city far from where I lived. It might sound odd, but now that I live on the other side of the planet, that violence feels much closer to home with every “Chicago” headline I read in various media.

While visiting home recently I wanted to tell the story of Darius McGraw, a young man gunned down last November in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. The multiple headlines of reports on his death mostly read something like, “4 dead, 19 injured in weekend violence,” none mentioned, for example, that he had a two-year-old daughter. I didn’t know Darius well, but I knew the area where he lived on the Southwest Side and the organizers at the now-closed Southwest Youth Collaborative who dedicated their lives to that community. Darius spent almost half of his brief 22 years at the center where he practiced break dance and other activities to organize young people.

My report isn’t much, and it can’t do anything to repair the insufferable tragedy the McGraw family and SWYC community have had to endure. It’s merely an attempt to give a face and name to one of more than 500 people killed in Chicago last year.

Watch our video report below, which can also be found on Al Jazeera’s site.

The story of a Syrian refugee

Originally published as a blog post for Al Jazeera English

Before becoming a journalist I did human rights work in the occupied West Bank. I first visited as a naïve 21-year-old with little knowledge of the Middle East, or really anywhere outside my hometown Chicago.

During my travels through various refugee camps I was shocked learning how almost every single person I encountered had an unimaginable story to tell.

One man served 25 years in an Israeli prison, another woman’s husband was killed leaving her to raise their five kids on her own, a young boy would fearlessly gather stones to throw at tanks invading his camp.

The stories were endless. And the fact that I was unaware of them before I heard them myself is what drove me to become a journalist. I needed to record them so other people could also know.

I felt this same way walking through the Islahiyeh refugee camp in southern Turkey on Saturday.

Home to almost 8,000 Syrian refugees, the camp’s residents have, like Palestinians, endured the most horrific crimes before abandoning their homes in search of refuge. And as I work on a larger story on their plight, there is a story of one person in particular that I feel compelled to tell in full.

As we walked through Islahiyeh I waved to a man sitting at his cigarette stand outside a tent that I later learned he lives in with his family.

His face was covered in bandages and he responded warmly to my greeting so I approached him to say hello and wish him a speedy recovery for what I assumed was a war-related injury. It turned out my assumption was correct.

His name was Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz, and he’s a 43-year-old court reporter from Taftanaz, a part of Idlib province in northern Syria.

On April 4, during a Syrian army raid into Taftanaz against fighters from the Free Syrian Army, al-Ezz says he was taken from his home by the government troops.

He said the soldiers accused him of feeding the rebels inside his home, a charge he firmly denies.

“I wasn’t a fighter, I had nothing to do with the fighters, I was only a civilian,” he told me.

He said the army detained him for a few hours before handing him over to six masked men he described as “shabiha,” the notorious pro-government militia.

He expected to be interrogated, but instead was taken to an empty home with three other local men who he knew quite well. Their hands were bound behind their backs.

Al-Ezz said that one of the masked men standing only metres away took aim with an AK-47s and shot each one of the detainees with a single bullet to the head. Al-Ezz was the fourth to be shot.

He was eager to tell me the names of the other three men: Awad Abdel Kader, Ahmad Jaafar, and Eyad Ghonim. Al-Ezz estimated the ages of the first two men to be around 70 and 60 respectively, and Ghonim he said was only a few years younger than al-Ezz.

He told me that the masked men said very little to the detainees. Only to Jaafar, who had served time in prison accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, they asked, “didn’t you learn your lesson by now?”

Al-Ezz said when it was his turn the shooter pointed the gun at his face and asked, “What were you thinking trying to go against a government that has an entire army at its disposal?”

He doesn’t remember what happened after that, but he said people in the area later told him that from inside their homes they had seen the badly injured al-Ezz stumbling in the streets of Taftanaz before he fell down just 50 metres from his home.

They went to his aid, but seeing him unconscious and his face completely disfigured from the bullet that entered under his left eye and exited under his left ear, they left him for dead covering his body with a sheet. He said it would’ve been too dangerous for them to do anything else as the army was still around and anyone in the street could be captured or killed.

When the army left late that night, al-Ezz’s wife went out searching for her husband and found a man covered in a sheet near their home. He was unconscious, but still breathing.

Because of the severe wound and the blood covering his entire face, she didn’t recognise her husband at first. But after taking the man inside she found al-Ezz’s identity card in his pocket and realised it was her husband.

Al-Ezz said that his wife and neighbours, knowing he needed urgent medical care, discussed what options they had to help him. The only medical centre in the area was a government hospital, and going there could be risky if they thought he was an FSA fighter or supporter of the opposition.

In the end they decided on the government hospital, and when they arrived they told staff that he had been shot by armed “terrorists,” the term often used by the government for the opposition forces.

After a three-hour investigation, al-Ezz said intelligence agents in the hospital found no evidence that he was connected to the FSA or opposition groups and so he was admitted for treatment and operated on soon after.

A week later, while still in the hospital recovering and awaiting additional treatment, al-Ezz said that local men he thinks had links to the shabiha visited him in the hospital. He suspected their visit was to investigate whether rumours were true or not that one of the four men that were supposed to have been executed days earlier had somehow survived.

Almost immediately after they left he fled the hospital, fled Idlib, and fled Syria altogether coming to Turkey and arriving in the Islahiyeh camp where he remains today, six months later.

The entire left side of al-Ezz’s face is completely paralysed and he’s unable to close his left eye that he covers in bandages. He said that he still needs specialised treatment, including surgery, but that the procedures would cost tens of thousands of US dollars, money that he doesn’t have.

And Mohamed Ayman al-Ezz was just one person in one refugee camp whose cigarette stand I happened to pass.

Istanbul street 2

One day I want to live in Istanbul. It’s an incredible city, and probably the easiest to photograph in. I took a few images on a brief stopover on my way from southern Turkey near the border with Syria back to Doha.

My first time in Istanbul was exactly one year ago when I posted some pics taken with my G12. But as you’ll see if you compare the two posts, the quality of those images is nothing compared to the ones in this post all shot on my Canon 5D MKII.

 

Egypt elect’s a president

It was an historic moment in Egypt. More one year after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptians took part in free elections to choose their next president. Below is a sampling of my coverage for Al Jazeera English just before, during and after the elections.

In pictures: Egypt’s colourful campaign:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Aboul Fotouh rallies support:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Brotherhood mobilises for Morsi:

image: Matthew Cassel

In pictures: Sabahi tours Cairo:

image: Matthew Cassel

The faces of Egypt’s voters:

image: Matthew Cassel

In Pictures: Voting in the Nile Delta

image: Matthew Cassel

Egypt election results spark angry protests:

image: Matthew Cassel

 

 

War on Iran?

Iranians welcome their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Beirut in October 2010. (Matthew Cassel)

History was repeating itself. At least that’s what I was beginning to think a few months ago. The US media, like in 2003, was using all its strength to bang the drums of war, although this time in Iran. It was non-stop, every morning I’d wake up to find an article about why Israel and the west had to take action to stop Iran.

Unlike during the lead up to the war with Iraq, this time I was a journalist and not a student activist. I had been planning to go to Iran last month to cover the elections, the effects of sanctions and to gauge feelings about a potential western strike and, of course, to take pictures in that beautiful country. But alas, I was never granted a visa and any visit to the IRI was put on hold.

The below are a couple piece I was able to do from outside Iran. In the first piece I look at a very small yet telling sample of English-language media and how it’s been covering Iran. Fortunately, it seems cooler heads are prevailing and the calls for war, while still very much ongoing, have quieted down somewhat:

Media roundup: An imminent strike on Iran?

In the article I quote Colin Kahl, who responded to claims that Israel’s 1981 of Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear sites actually stopped Iran from developing the bomb. Kahl wrote:

“By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organise the programme. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault.”

In the second piece I had the honor of speaking to Hooman Majd, one of my favorite contemporary writers on Iranian affairs. Majd has written two books on Iran in recent years, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend (one and two).

I remember reading his first one which was published just a year before the contested 2009 elections and subsequent protest movement. Majd captures a certain level of nuance that I previously thought all English-language media had been somehow allergic to.

Here is a quote taken from the interview, Hooman Majd on Iran and sanctions:

“(For) the average Iranian it’s hard to see what comes next if you have these crippling sanctions, if you try everything to destroy the Iranian economy, which is what basically America is set out to do. And President Obama said himself that (Iranians) are going to hurt, and that’s the idea to continue trying to do that. But to what end? To try to get Iran to capitulate on its nuclear programme? Well, like I said before that’s not going to happen.”

It is my own personal feeling that a strike on Iran, a country already sandwiched between two US-occupations, by Israel or the west would immediately spiral into something much bigger that would easily encompass the entire Middle East and other areas. And this region already has enough people dying from the wars and occupations at present, it doesn’t need any more.