Scenes from a wasteland: inside an abandoned Detroit public high school

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Death of a school by scrapping and bureaucratic negligence

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Who really cares about Detroit’s decline or its public schools?

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public school by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting the larger, painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my What Beautiful Life photo blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

Detroit is dying and does this country give a damn?

Broken down Detroit Homes (Photos by Rudy Owens)

The River Rouge neighbhorhood is lined with broken and burned homes, like these.

As a native of Detroit, I present this first of several essays, with a profound sense of sadness. (See my photo blog for my first photo essay.)

Here's the proof if you need it--Michgian verifies I am a Native Detroiter.

Here’s the proof if you need it–Michigan verifies I am a native Detroiter.

It is hard to accept that my birthplace, this once great global city, has become a symbol for American industrial decay and capitalism’s larger ills. At one point, Detroit boasted nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s. Today is barely counts 700,000 residents. [Updated census figures, 5/5/2015.]

In its heyday of bustling industrial production, Detroit served as a global icon for American ingenuity, industrial might, and economic power. During World War II, when the larger metro area produced the country’s war weaponry to defeat the Axis powers, Detroiters proudly called their city the Arsenal of Democracy. In the 1920s and 1930, about 40 percent of all automobiles were manufactured in the Motor City and the Ford River Rouge plant was the world’s largest.

Today, Detroit is known more as the murder capital of the United States, and the arson capital. All told, 90,000 fires were reported in 2008, double New York’s number—for a city 11 times larger—according to Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be. It is the epitome of racial politics. Binelli notes, 90,000 buildings are abandoned, and huge swaths of the 140-square mile urban area are now returning to nature. Beavers, coyotes, deer, packs of wild dogs, and foxes are now reported in the city.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

I just visited Detroit, and the trip had a more profound impact on me than I was prepared for. How is it that our country could undertake two overseas wars to conquer and rebuild nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—and yet abandon a city that helped to make the country the global power it once was.

National partisan politics have played a role, with Detroit becoming a symbol of the Democratic Party’s failure, as a black city and union city, in the eyes of white and conservative detractors. Then there are NAFTA (pushed by Bill Clinton) and industry fleeing the country for cheaper manufacturing from global suppliers and gross mismanagement of the Big 3 automobile companies, two of whom were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers in 2009.

White flight eventually followed long-simmering racial tensions. There have been Detroit race riots in 1863, 1943, 1967, and 1987. Those riots were stoked by historic racism, redlining, job discrimination, and the building of freeways that helped to destroy America’s inner cities. Today, some criminal fringe actors among Detroit’s mostly black residents are burning what’s left of their own city, for at times just the hell of it.

Burned home Detroit Photo

A burned and destroyed home is a common site. This one is near Livernois and I-75.

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, painted a heart-breaking tale of the city’s self-destructive conflagrations through the tales of firemen trying to combat the arsonists. “In this town, arson is off the hook,” said a firefighter to LeDuff. “Thousands of them a year bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it.” (I will do a photo essay of fire-ravaged homes shortly.)

That latest malaise, on top of repeated political scandals and corruption by the city’s bureaucrats and criminal politicians, was a crushing bankruptcy filing in the face of an $18 billion debt. In December 2014, after a year an a half in limbo, a grand bargain was struck with creditors, the city, the state, and private industry that prevented the city from selling its city-owned artwork (Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and more) in the world famous Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera Mural DIA

The Diego Rivera Mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts highlights the brutal and still glory days that once were Detroit, the Motor City.

As I wandered the glittering white palace that is the DIA, I wondered, what’s more important, this art or the blocks and blocks of emptied neighborhoods that most of this country has forgotten.

Tweet After Returning to Portland From Detroit
Coming back to Portland was hard. I posted a comment on Twitter as soon as I arrived back home how bizarre it was to be back in the whitest city in North America, Portland, after spending time in the city that America defines as African-American.

One of the best little health books ever published

Few books stay with me for long. I read them and give them away. One has stayed on my bookshelf, now for 26 years. That book is Dr. Stephen Bezruchka’s The Pocket Doctor. First published in 1982 by the Mountaineers, this pocket-size reference, now being published at a bit more than 100 pages, is exactly what its title implies. It is a guide to help a traveler cope with illnesses many people in the developing world face daily. You can buy it online from many vendors, like Powell’s Books.

The Pocket Doctor Cover

Cover of the second edition, 1988 version of Dr. Stephen Bezruchka’s The Pocket Doctor (personal copy).

I credit this book for saving my bacon and mental health on several best-forgotten nights. It helped me cope with medical problems that are normal for hundreds of millions of residents globally, and for me something I did not experience back in the comfort of the United States. But I am not the only writer and traveler who praises Bezruchka and his book.

Why many trust Bezruchka’s work

Bezruchka is a Canadian-born former emergency-room doctor trained at some of the nation’s best universities (Standford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins). He has both an MD and MPH. He has worked with medical specialists in the developing world, notably Nepal for 10 years. He also has written a great guide called Trekking in Nepal, which I used back in 1989. Today he is a lecturer on global health at the University of Washington School of Public Health (UW SPH) and a nationally recognized advocate for health care reform to improve public health outcomes and to eliminate health and income inequality.

I have taken this book with me now to three continents: Asia, Africa, and South America. I just cannot say goodbye to it, even when my developing-nation jaunts seem fewer and fewer.

The advice it provides has helped me to self-diagnose all manners of common gastrointestinal disturbances, such as food poisoning (nasty and scary in a crappy place), dysentery, and common diarrhea. I also used it to help me obtain the necessary medicine for what I still believe was malaria, which I had in Kigali, Rwanda in 1997.

With this book in my hand, I felt I could handle the predicaments that afflict visitors from developed countries to less-developed areas. In my 1988 published version, 13 pages are devoted to common drugs and medicines that address typical maladies, such as the  antibiotic ciprofloxacin, to tackle infections, with information laid out in a table on a drug’s use, likely place of need (city, remote, “third world”), form, and dosage.

Basic health care advice can be fun with good writing

Bezruchka’s writing is straightforward and direct. In his chapter on drugs, he begins his recommendation with a simple message: “Remember that drugs, though valuable, are not a cure all.” He provides advice on assembling a medical kit, working with doctors at home and abroad, and dealing with major sources of health problems—namely, food and water.

Bezruchka also highlights a major global health issue that is more severe than microbial agents, trauma from vehicle accidents. “Trauma, especially that caused by motor vehicle accidents results in the majority of disability acquired in developed countries,” writes Bezruchka. “This is even more true in third world countries. Trauma causes more disabilities to travelers in foreign countries than all the exotic diseases put together.” That observation remains true to this day, as shown in global health data.

Photo courtesy of the University of Washingston School of Public Health faculty photo.

Faculty photo of Dr. Stephen Bezruchka, courtesy of the University of Washingston School of Public Health web site.

But there is much more. Rabies? Check. Animal attacks? Covered. Ticks and leeches, fever, rashes? All addressed. The two-page section, in my old and battered version, on dealing with stress in less-developed nations is a classic summary of what many first-world travellers experience.

“If the culture shock of a third-world setting with its attendant poverty and hopelessness have you in despair, take steps to improve your psyche,” writes Bezruchka. “Seek out help, another traveler, or a religious organization or individuals.”

Bezruchka even has sections on death and how to cope with returning from travels with an illness. I definitely experienced lingering issues when I came back and took this advice to heart.

Meeting Bezruchka later in life

When I first met Bezruchka in person during my studies at the UW SPH, I mentioned how much I enjoyed his book and used it frequently in Nepal. I even mentioned how enterprising Nepalis had published black-market copies of his book they were peddling on the streets in Kathmandu. As I recall, he considered that a compliment to the value of his work.

Sometimes small and perfectly executed creations are ones that have the most impact. In Bezruchka’s case, there is far too much to choose from to say what is best—from published papers to advocacy to mentorship of future health leaders. I will submit this still fine tome as work that stands the test of time and proves that small is often better.

The enduring influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher

Photography is a highly personal artistic and communication medium. I have found that those who are successful in this arena achieve that status because their work is clearly recognizable. Success is never by accident, and the photographers I greatly admire remain consistently clear and compelling over time, and usually with great impact on others in the field.

Sebastião Salgado comes to mind for me in the field of visual storytelling with a clear vision. His impact can be seen widely in imitators and co-travellers. The same can be said with the husband-wife duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilda and Bernd Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilla and Bernd Becher.

The German couple photographed industrial architecture in Europe and North America for nearly 40 productive years, until Bernd’s death in 2007. Their easily recognizable subjects include water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, timbered homes, and other industrial features.

The pair published books with their images, grouped together in what they called “typologies,” or sets of images of the same objects from different geographic locations, usually in sets of say nine or 21 images. Each image would be photographed identically, with direct frontal composition, no lens distortions, and with a neutral density skyline that did not distract the viewer from the subject.

These ordered collections had almost no captions and simply conveyed the form of the objects, letting the similarities of the objects communicate the meaning without any of the often absurd and blabbering arts-speak that is usually associated with art and photography commentary. (I imagine the Bechers would find such nonsensical writings absurd.)

Their books of photographs, such as Industrial Landscapes and Typologies of Industrial Buildings, compile their work into compelling sets of images. The influence of their aesthetic can be seen in numerous imitators and students, including this series I found recently on abandoned homes in Detroit.

Toward the end of his career, Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, leading to a crop of photographers and a style of picture-taking that is is known as the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” Bernd’s well-known and accomplished students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky, one of the most celebrated photographers of the world who has sold the world’s most expensive photographic print.

Bernd and Hilda Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

I may have stumbled over the Bechers’ work without knowing it. However, I do recall feeling trapped in a hypnotic trance when I discovered a collection of their blast furnace images, or typology, in the new wing at the St. Louis Art Museum in December 2013.

I felt a deep kinship with their interest in industrical landscape, perhaps because I grew up in St. Louis and was surrounded by similar forms in a city the was dying as an industrial center during my years there. I also felt a connection because I sensed something profoundly post-World War II about their work.

Their work is distinctly German to me, and their images are imbued with the personal experiences of two people who were in their adolescence during the Nazis’ brutal reign in Germany, when the world turned upside down, where the Holocaust and slave labor on a mass scale were engineered, and where killing and death were woven into the DNA of every German as a result of the country’s destruction that followed the country’s efforts to conquer Europe and beyond. (Bernd was born in 1931 and Hilla in 1934.)

Like it or not, they were a product of that experience, and I can feel it having also traveled widely in Germany on several trips and having studied this period of history intensely.

What is strikingly odd to me is I do not believe I was influenced by either of them. Yet the way I chose to explore my photographic project documenting concentration and death camps in five European countries closely mirrored the style of the Bechers. Even the way I chose to layout my photographs of crematoria, where murdered prisoners bodies were burned, bears an eerily familiar resemblance to the Bechers’ amazing work.

I don’t know what more to make of this except to say that I feel satisfied that my presentation style and methods are not singular. I also feel that the effect of combining similar images of strikingly mundane but complex objects can have greater weight in the format of a typology.

With that heavy photographic pontification complete, I present a screen snapshot of my crematoria series on my web site, followed by two screen snapshots of the Bechers’ typologies that I found online and also captured as a screen snapshot.

Rudy Owens' series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.

Rudy Owens’ series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.

Screen snapshot of the Bechers' many typologies and series, taken from Google's "image" tool.

Screen snapshot of the Bechers’ many typologies and series, taken from Google’s “image” tool.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide

A long-abandonned Armenian church can be seen in the Karkoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.

A long-abandoned Armenian church can be seen in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.

In September and October 2001, I traveled throughout Turkey for more than three weeks. It was one of my greatest trips ever. I loved the country and really enjoyed my experiences getting to know the Turkish people. I recommend the country to anyone. During that trip, I worked on a photo-documentary project, visiting historic locations of the Armenians. I also visited many other places too, from ancient monasteries, to Greek and Roman ruins, to the wonders of the Ottoman Empire, to Kurdish regions that were experiencing disturbances that have not fully settled to this day.

I did a lot of research before this trip, and received a lot of assistance from some Armenian colleagues I befriended as a result of my interest in photographing remnants of the Anatolian Armenians, who experienced the first clearly documented case of genocide of the 20th century. I do not wish to get into a larger discussion of that topic. I am republishing a story, with photographs, that I published first in 2002. It recounts my travels to historic locations linked to the genocide and Armenian history in present-day Turkey.

I finally got around to publishing this story again, after finding some materials I had forgotten about–the story told through numbers. Since I work in public health these days, I find myself steeped in data and perhaps a bit beholden to it. So with that frame of view, I present a “by the numbers” perspective on my travels in Turkey, this significant crime against humanity, and a point of view that I try to keep in focus when I get lost in the small stuff and forgot the important stuff.

My story, An Armenian Journey, is in PDF format, and because of its large file size at 25 mb, it may take a  while to download. Please be patient, as it well worth your time. A very useful map of the tragic events is published by the Armenian National Institute. A fine collection of historic prints and illustrations of now vanished Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey can be found on the Houshamadyan web site. That site shows pictures of many of the places I visited, and you can compare historic pictures with the pictures I show in my story.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1922, by the numbers:

1  Number of Armenian Villages remaining in Turkey

1.5  Approximate number of persons, in millions, estimated to have been murdered during the genocide against Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.

.6  Approximate number of Armenians, in millions, that the Turkish government today claims died during World War I during what the government called a military uprising.

35  Number of Armenian churches still active in Istanbul, according to a custodian at the Kilisesi Vakfik in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

100,000  Approximate number of ethnic Armenians residing in Istanbul today, according to members of the Holy Mother-of-God Armenian Patriarchal Church, in the Kumkapi neighborhood of Istanbul.

30 Approximate distance, in meters, from the Kumkapi police station to the Armenian Patriarchate (main church for Armenian Christians in Turkey).

5  Number of recognizable historic Armenian religious structures in Erzerum that are either labeled Selcuk or unknown origin.

2,549  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Ottoman Empire (churches, monasteries, parish structures), according to a survey by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1914, on the eve of the genocide (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

464  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Republic of Turkey that had disappeared from the total of only 913 structures with known whereabouts in 1974, according to a survey done of the buildings that year (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

252  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in ruins, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

197  Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in sound shape, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenians” at Ani, the historic cultural capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in eastern Anatolia on the border of modern-day Armenia and inside Turkey.

1/2  Number of surviving Armenian structures in present-day Kozan, called Sis by the Armenians, and the capital of their kingdom in Cilicia in the 13th and 14th centuries and formerly seat of the Armenia Catholicasate.

0  Number of references to Armenia on signs next to these structures.

350  Approximate number of mosques (including the great Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques), bridges, and buildings credited to the Armenian architect Sinan.

1  Number of Armenian religious buildings remaining in Harput, the center of the graphic, first-hand account of the genocide by American diplomat Leslie Davis called The Slaughterhouse Province.

4  Number of monument structures at Liberty Hill in Istanbul to honor Talaat Pasha and the Young Turks, the principal architects of the first genocide of the 20th century.

0  Number of signs outside the now locked and gated memorial indicating the contents inside the weed-covered area originally built in 1943 to honor the former Turkish leader, who was gunned down in Berlin in 1921 by an exiled Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian (in 2001).

2  Number of Armenian spires visible at Isak Pasa Palace, near Mt. Ararat, a complex that contemporary sources say was built by a Kurdish chief in 1685. [Structure is called a Turbet in Let’s Go.]

2  Number of military points passed prior to entering the Ani complex.

3  Number of government and police offices required to complete an Ani application process (taking a quick one hour of time, in 2001).

25  Approximate cost, in U.S. dollars (as of October 2001), to visit the historic Ani ruins.

Number of road crossings open to commerce and road travelers between Turkey and present-day Armenia (in 2001).

6  Number of Armenian churches I visited in Istanbul that are now permanently closed.

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenian” at Akdamar Church, an Armenian church outside Van on an island in Lake Van.

53  Number of days more than 4,000 Armenian villagers in the Hatay Province south of Antakya, on Musa Dagh (“Mountain of Moses”), resisted Ottoman forces in 1915 before they were rescued by Allied warships.

18  Number of languages that Franz Werfel’s best-selling account of the famous siege and rescue–Forty Days of Musa Dagh–has been translated into since its first publication in 1933.

24  The day every April that Armenians the world over mark as their genocide anniversary day, commemorating the date in 1915 that 600 leading Armenians and another 5,000 Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, and almost all killed.

The crowded, congested, contested road: unsafe at nearly every speed

Seattle traffic

Seattle traffic is among the worst in the nation, and it can be downright deadly, according to those who track road-related fatalities.

Every day that I drive to work, I am literally putting my life on the line. I commute roughly 80 miles daily, round trip, from Seattle to Tacoma, navigating one of the most harrowing urban traffic corridors in the Untied States, on Interstate 5 and two state highways. (My story why I am commuting this way will be for another day, but there are good reasons.)

Routinely, erratic drivers dangerously pass me, putting our lives at risk, in order to gain a few extra minutes by speeding. I have seen many accidents, some fatal, on this route over the years, and I am glad that I have my will and living will in proper order in case a truck jack-knifes near me in the rain—and yes I’ve seen that happen twice before on the freeway system around Seattle.

Seattle Road Kill 2001-2009

How deadly are roads in the Puget Sound–take a look at the roadkill on this data map showing types of mortality by form of transportation for 2001-2009.

Judging by this map, we get a fair share of road kill in the metro area I call home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the number of road deaths annually in my home state at nearly 500 (2009). Nationally, in 2012, the United States reported that 34,080 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012, a 5.3% jump over 2011. This ranks as 10th leading cause of death in the United States, if one pulls this form of death from all accidental deaths, in which it is grouped by the CDC epidemiologists.

So by all counts, getting in one’s car (or on one’s bike or in a bus or other form of transportation) and hitting the road can be deadly business in my country, especially given the proliferation of mobile-device users and drunk drivers.

In 2011, cell phone use in the good ole’ U.S.A. was a contributing factor in more than 3,300 deaths and for the previous year, in 387,000 motor vehicle injuries. These are very sobering numbers, and I actually expected there would be more given that I have seen far too many texters during peak travel times in vehicles moving 70 mph. Normally I move over a lane or lay on my horn to snap them out of it.

But this is nothing compared to the perils that passengers and drivers experience globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), road accidents claimed 1.2 million lives globally in 2011, ranking as the No. 10 cause of death, on a list that has some pretty nasty company, including respiratory infections (3.5 million), tuberculosis (1.3 million), and the big killer of children ages 0-5 years, diarrhea (2.5 million).

The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road deaths globally compared to other causes of death (it's No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap

The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road injury globally compares to other burdens of disease (it is No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap

A typical story that one sees with mind-numbing frequency overseas are bus collisions with motorcycles and motor scooters. This November 2012 story, 19-yr-olds crushed to death by bus, notes two aspiring young men were run over by an errant bus driver and dragged 40 feet in Chandigarh, India; the driver then fled the scene. Both of the men’s heads were crushed by the bus’s wheels.

I saw no less than three similar road maulings on the island of Java in 2009, when I visited Indonesia. That island, one of the most densely populated locations in the world, is overwhelmed with low-income and middle-income residents on  scooters competing for space with trucks and army of loosely and unregulated van taxis and buses.

Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation's infamously unsafe and crowded roads.

Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation’s infamously unsafe and crowded roads.

Road accidents alone in Indonesia account for more than 48,000 deaths annually, the 9th leading cause of death in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The United States Department of State offers this stern warning to would-be American visitors to Indonesia–a country I really loved by the way: “Air, ferry, and road accidents resulting in fatalities, injuries, and significant damage are common. … While all forms of transportation are ostensibly regulated in Indonesia, oversight is spotty, equipment tends to be less well maintained than that operated in the United States, amenities do not typically meet Western standards, and rescue/emergency response is notably lacking.”

During my two-week visit in 2009 to the island nation, I rode about a dozen different buses and equally as many microbuses, not to mention the country’s crash-prone domestic air carriers once, their local train service (also unsafe at times), and the far less safe inter-island ferry services. I saw about a half dozen crashes from my bus window, most fatal and usually with motor cycle riders as victims, and from my hotel room I heard one multi-vehicle crash in the middle of the night that clearly claimed many lives. I learned the next day it was between a bus and truck. The bus was totaled.

Roads can really kill you overseas, and so can planes, boats, and trains too

Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.

Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.

The writer Carl Hoffman, author of the book The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, documents the horrendous conditions of ferries, public transportation, trains, planes, and other forms of transport. The book’s online promotion notes that it offers a “harrowing and insightful look at the world as it is, a planet full of hundreds of millions of people, mostly poor, on the move and seeking their fortunes.”

Anyone who has travelled in developing or “middle-income” countries (like, say, Chile or Turkey) knows their life is literally in the hands of drivers who may have no proper training, in busses with no proper maintenance or even reliable brakes. Worse, the drivers of buses and microbuses in countries from Uganda to India to Mexico may trust their fate to Allah, Saint Christopher, the Virgin Mary, or Krishna. Those who have travelled in such places know this to be true, by the many religious deities dangling at the front of public transportation by the drivers’ seats.

Worse, the drivers will often play chicken with their competitors by speeding into oncoming traffic at high speeds while passing other vehicles or simply to “have fun.” I swear I thought I would die on many occasions in: Mexico, Guatemala, Nepal, Peru, Uganda, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, India, and other places that I’d rather forget just now.

accident or more by Birn

When is an accident really an accident, or when it is linked to larger systems issues? This analysis is provided by Anne-Emmanuelle Birn in her description of the social determinants of health (SDOH).

Three separate times, after I lived through the near mishap, I swore I would never, ever take a bus again in a developing nation. Yet I threw caution to the wind, as I needed to get around, and I could not afford to get around any other way. Not seeing the country I was visiting was not an option.

Is it really  “just an accident” or something more?

Anne-Emmanuelle Birn, international health professor at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the widely used global health tome called Textbook of International Health, points out the deeper connections that road-related deaths have to poverty and social inequity in undeveloped and middle-income countries. Birn writes that road traffic accidents are the second-leading cause of death for children between 5 and 14 years of age globally, and that poor and working classes are disproportionately affected in most countries. In high- income countries, most of those killed are drivers and passengers, whereas in low- and middle-income countries pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport passengers make up nine out of every 10 road-related deaths.

In Haiti, for instance, the word for local transport is molue (“moving morgue”) and in southern Nigeria locals say danfo (“flying coffins”).

Duncan Green, an Oxfam policy adviser and development blogger, recently wrote an article asking when road traffic injuries would finally be recognized as a priority by the international development community.

In fact a major report released in June 2013 by the Overseas Development Institute, the United Kingdom’s leading development think tank, notes that transportation is not recognized as a human right like access to water, yet it still is a fundamental factor for many to achieve basic human rights. Well-run transportation systems, for people and for goods and services, promote benefits, while unsafe and weak transportation systems harm the most vulnerable citizens.

Given the debate emerging now for future sustainable development post-2015, the deadline set for the Millennium Development Goals, road safety may finally find a way into the broader public health, development, and environment agenda, as a way to tackle this clearly documented major global killer. Perhaps the threat may finally be treated as the international epidemic that is is, globally or closer to home in the United Sates. For me, this includes the roads in the Puget Sound where I spend more than two hours daily to and from my public health job.

Musings on slavery, abolitionist John Brown, and Hollywood’s clumsy embrace of human bondage

News stories continue to highlight the growth of human trafficking in the United StatesEurope, and especially Asia. One estimate puts the number of persons in captivity, either for forced bondage or sex trafficking and prostitution, at 12 million to 27 million. An increasing number of victims are young girls 18 and younger, who become infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDs.

Slavery seems to bring out the worst of humanity, and perhaps is a manifestation of our inglorious inhumanity. Sadly it is, well, about as American as the U.S. Constitution that not only enshrined it, but gave Southern states extra voting power–the notorious 3/5ths clause–for its slaves in the census allotment of Congressional seats.

I still remember when I visited the Philippines in 2003. Male and female pimps repeatedly accosted me within seconds of exiting taxis in front of my hotels in Cebu City and Manila, where I was working on a photo-documentary project. I was sure their workers were sex slaves. When I told them to go away, they mocked me and even offered me young children. It was sobering to realize that I represented a market, a lucrative market, that eagerly comes to countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos to exploit women, even young boys and girls. Though aware of the problem, and having seen evidence of its freewheeling nature in Asia, the unrelenting media coverage of sex slavery has become overwhelming.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation's capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation’s capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

In April 2013, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström lamented: “It is difficult to imagine that in our free and democratic EU countries tens of thousands of human beings can be deprived of their liberty and exploited, traded as commodities for profit.” The United Nations estimates human trafficking nets $32 billion annually—a major transnational business. The United States fares no better. There are slaves being trafficked and sold in my home city of Seattle right now. A local KIRO News story recently reported: “Child sex trafficking – as easy in Seattle as ordering a pizza.”

Visiting Osawatomie, and its place in U.S. history

So slavery was on my mind when I drove across the country in late May from St. Louis to Seattle. I wanted to take a road less traveled and see some out of the way places, including in Kansas. Most of my friends practically laughed at me when I described sight-seeing there. So, I pulled out my atlas and found Osawatomie on the map, about an hour southwest of Kansas City, along state Highway 169

Osawatomie is home to one of the most important battles of the violent pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas, which claimed 56 lives.

Specifically, it is where America’s most famous abolitionist and violent revolutionary, John Brown (1800-1859), fought pro-slavery forces to prevent the then Kansas Territory from becoming a slave state.  All told 30-45 free state defenders, known as Jayhawkers (the University of Kansas’ namesake) fought nearly 250 proslavery militia along the banks of the Marais de Cygnes River on Aug. 30, 1856. Brown’s son Frederick and others died. Many say the war actually began in this small Kansas town that pro-slavers burnt to the ground during the attack.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Ossawatomie, Kan.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.

In May of that year,  Missouri ruffians, numbering 800, had sacked Lawrence, Kan., and burned a hotel, killing one abolitionist. Their strategic goal was to keep an entire race of persons in human bondage and treated as nothing more than property, and expand the inhumane practice and trade into territories recently “ethnically cleansed” of its Indian population by the U.S. Army, based at Ft. Leavenworth.

On May 24 and 25, 1856, at the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown responded in kind, by murdering five pro-slavery settlers with a sword. The mass murder by Brown and his sons was inspired by Brown’s deep Christian faith that he had been called to undertake a divine mission to end slavery and contest its brutality and those of its violent supporters with force.

The repeated and well-publicized examples of slavery’s inhumanity in the United States enraged Brown to the point where he dedicated his life to crushing it and freeing the slaves. (Unlike most of his day, Brown also believed in the equality of races, including Indians, and of the sexes.)

Just two years earlier in 1854, a divided Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ending the fragile 24-year-old Missouri Compromise allowing a balance of pro-slave and free states to join the Union. With the 1854 act, settlers themselves would determine if that “peculiar institution” of slavery, which held in bondage an estimated 4 million persons, or 13% of all residents in the young country, would be allowed. Pro-slavery voters won, but the constitution was disavowed, the bogus legislature tossed out, and Kansas entered a free state in 1861.

One historic political outcome from the four years of fighting in the territory was the rise of a young Illinois politician of the nascent Republican Party, who noted in his political speeches, “Look at the magnitude of this subject! … about one-sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves!” Abraham Lincoln emerged from the turbulence of the era as the standard bearer of his party in the divisive 1860 election that set in motion the war to address what Lincoln accurately noted was the “the all absorbing topic of the day.”

As for Brown after Osawatomie, he travelled in and out of Kansas the next two years of violence before returning East to plan his failed Oct. 16, 1859, raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va.  The raid, with 21 men to trigger a Southern slave uprising, failed miserably.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

Brown was captured, tried in Charlestown, Va., and sentenced to hang to death on Dec. 2, 1859. During his trial he told the court, “Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.”

Southern politicians were terrified by Brown’s decisive and violent insurrection against the U.S. government and their “cherished traditions.” Their paranoia of either a slave uprising or further such “meddling”  precipitated their rebellion against the union.

All of that history seemed overblown and forgotten in modern-day Osawatomie (pop. 4,447). The memorial to Brown and the battle is the John Brown Museum State Historical site. It includes a cabin of a local minister and his wife used as an Underground Railroad station. The cabin survived the battle. The park features a bronze statue of Brown and historic battle markers. It looked a little shabby and unappreciated, like any small-town park without money for upkeep, except it has happened to have two presidential visitors who delivered policy speeches, by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 and Barack Obama in 2011.

Hollywood, Slavery, and the Battle for Kansas

For many of us, however, our perception of slavery is shaped by popular culture. One of two most recent Hollywood treatments of the subject was the scholarly costume epic Lincoln, by Stephen Spielberg. The film did not hide the brutality of slavery; in fact, the film opens with a vicious hand-to-hand battle pitting likely former slave Union soldiers locked in deadly embrace with their white Confederate adversaries. The film is basically a procedural drama how Lincoln’s administration passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to end slavery “forever” in United States, while the nation’s most violent war rages outside of Washington.

The more controversial rendering of slavery is the 2012 Quentin Tarantino blood and gore pre-Civil War spectacle, Django Unchained.  This shoot-‘em up racks up a huge body count in a gratuitously violent revenge fantasy that follows the actions of a former slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He kills perhaps nearly two dozen Southerners, blows up plantation mansions, and frees his true live. Unlike Lincoln, this film was heatedly debated. One review noted, “No single Hollywood film in the last decade has sparked the kind of controversy and wide-ranging response as Quentin Tarantino’s latest.”

The film triggered unrest not because of its brutal violence (nothing new for Hollywood splatter fests), but because of its rival view of history. “The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it’s a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood’s–and our culture’s–treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” according to Jamelle Bouie.

I have black friends who had a distinctly more positive personal reaction to the violent tale than did my white counterparts. While the film’s violence seems designed only thrill audiences, the violence of slavery and of efforts to expand it by pro-slavery bushwhackers in Kansas before and during the Civil War was every bit if not more cruel, if historical records are accurate. Reality actually trumps anything Tarantino could dream up.

The magazine Harper's printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

The magazine Harper’s printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

According to one account, a bushwhackers’ raid during the Civil War on Lawrence, Kan., is considered one of the worst cases of mass murder by the pro-Slavery forces.

On Aug. 21, 1863, 450 pro-Confederates Led by Bill Quantrill staged an early-warning raid and mostly showed no mercy, slaughtering about 180 men and boys as young as 14. Most of the victims were unarmed and still in their beds when the killing began. Another famous bushwhacker in the region, a psychopath named “Bloody” Bill Anderson, reportedly scalped victims before he was tracked and killed, and then beheaded as an example.

The official Hollywood rendering of “bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s efforts to end slavery remains Michael Curtiz’s unsavory pro-slavery 1940 Western called the Sante Fe Trail (you can see the whole film here). The movie stars Errol Flynn as future Confederate General Jeb Stuart, then-actor Ronald Reagan as future Indian-killing General George Custer, and Olivia de Havilland as their mutual romantic interest. The film  renders a staggering historic whitewash of not only slavery and pre-Civil War America, but of John Brown’s actions in Kansas to contest the bushwhackers during the mid- to late 1850s.

Brown is portrayed by Raymond Massey as a bug-eyed, villainous psychopath bent on murder and revolution to end slavery, while Southern gentlemen like Flynn’s Stuart are true Americans who claim the South can work out slavery on their own terms.  There is no portrayal of slavery’s base cruelty, only abolitionist violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859--an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859–an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

In an even more bizarre twist, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis is rendered as moral voice of wisdom, telling the graduating cadets: “”You men have but one duty alone, America.” This was the same Davis who owned slaves and dedicated himself to ensuring slavery’s survival as head of the pro-slave states doing everything they could to break away from that country.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fel Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fe Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The only “black folk” seen in this disingenuous Dixie-cratic rendering of reality are powerless, witless slaves who cannot think for themselves. After a firefight that sent Brown fleeing, a husband and wife slave couple from Texas caught up in Brown’s violence reveal themselves to Stuart as misguided lovers of the white slaveholding class: “Well, old John Brown said he gonna give us freedom but, shuckin’, if this here Kansas is freedom then I ain’t got no use for it, no sir,” drawled the wife. Her husband added, “Me neither. I just want to get back home to Texas and set till kingdom come.” I suppose that means he’d get a good whipping if he fessed up for trying to win his freedom.

As one film commentator noted: “In the years before 1960 most portrayals of slavery in cinema were like it was in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. The slaves were happy and contented and too simple to live on their own. The Civil War was unnecessary and brought on by a handful of fanatics in the North.” The film’s final scenes show Brown before he is hung in 1859, followed by a happy kiss of the newlyweds, Flynn and de Havilland, all two years before the entire country entered its greatest conflagration that claimed more than half a million lives, finally “ending” slavery as a legal institution in the United States.

Former Klansman becomes part of Hollywood whitewash of Southern bushwhacking

The other noteworthy and historically inaccurate portrayal of Kansas-related bushwhacking violence is Clint Eastwood’s disturbing 1976 revisionist film The Outlaw Josey Wales. While supposedly based on a true Southern fighter, the film rewrites the script of historic events. Instead of violent Confederate bushwhackers who murdered indiscriminately, as they did in Lawrence, Southerners are portrayed as victims of murderous Jayhawkers and Union soldiers, who kill innocent women and slaughter surrendering prisoners, and hound Wales to Texas. The film was based on a novel, Gone to Texas, by Asa Carter, also author of a popular kid’s book called the Education of Little Tree.

At the time the film was made in 1976, it was unknown that Carter had reinvented himself. Instead of being a Cherokee Indian as he claimed, Carter was in fact a former Alabama Klansman, avowed racist, and speechwriter for Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. The books served as a clever reinvention for a man preaching against “government intrusion,” as Carter did for Wallace with racist hate language. Even his supposed Cherokee words were fiction. As for Josey Wales, the film helped to reinforce Southern stereotypes of Northern aggression and Southern innocence (despite its holding 4 million in captivity), while boosting Eastwood’s maverick filmmaking career.

In 2013, in an era when slavery seems to be as thriving an enterprise globally as it was in the antebellum South, perhaps it is time reexamine on the big screen the complex events in Kansas and Virginia and that fanatical revolutionary who committed his life to ending the institution forever. I just do not want the filmmaker to be Eastwood, Tarantino, or even Spielberg, nor a vampire camp production. Time to let someone else tell a tale that still needs to be told. Love or hate him, Brown was right about slavery’s stain on the nation. Brown’s enemies “could kill him,” wrote freed slave and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “but they could not answer him.”