Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Satanic Panic

If memory serves, it was in August of 1996 that I received an e-mail from my friend Cheryl in Los Angeles. She said there was an episode of HBO’s “America Undercover” that Friday called “Paradise Lost” and I had to see it. Cheryl is my pal. If she says watch, I watch. I wasn’t expecting what unfolded. Within the first few minutes of the program I found myself deeply disturbed by the way one parent smiled while discussing her son’s murder and mutilation and shocked that anyone could land on death row without a shred of real evidence. I’ve been following this case since.

We tell ourselves we’re too sophisticated for something like the Salem Witch Trials to ever happen again, yet, here it is. Three innocents blamed for an evil that one small town felt could only come from the devil. All three teens were surrounded by either friends or family during the time allotted for their supposed criminal actions, but that doesn’t matter. They went to trial with evidence that was sketchy at best. To the world at large, it would seem their only “real” crime was being a little bit different.

On May 5th, 1993 three 8-year-old boys, Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers, went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. The search was launched in a wooded area known as “Robin Hood Hills,” where the boys often played. The very next day their bodies were found in that same area, beneath about two feet of water. All three boys were tied, wrist to ankle, with their own shoelaces. All three boys had been beaten. One boy died of blood loss due to heavy injuries, which would seem to make him the focus of the attack. The other two boys drown, presumably in that very ditch. The medical examiner didn’t think it important to make certain. Weeks later, very little blood would be found via Luminol test at the site. All that was found should have been attributed to the officers pulling the bodies from the water and resting them on the banks. I’m not a cop. I’m not a criminology student. But I’ve read enough books by Robert Ressler to know you don’t move the bodies, you drain the ditch.

Allow me to draw you a picture of West Memphis, Arkansas based on data from AreaConnect: Population 27,666 (I kid you not.), 42% white, 56% black, the other two percent is a smattering of about everything with .21% American Indian. You’ll understand the relevance of that tiny number later. The median age is 31 and women outnumber the men by 2,000. The crime level in West Memphis is higher than the national average. Theft is their offense of choice, numbering 814 in 2001. There are 29 churches, primarily Baptist with one Catholic. I now understand why it’s called the “bible belt.” My own town has roughly three times as many people but barely twice as many churches, evenly distributed by denomination. Murders? We had one, they had two.

What happens when children are murdered in a small southern town? These simple people, unable to conceive of such a crime, began grasping at any and every straw to make some kind of sense out of this act. Given a police department that was ill equipped and untrained to deal with such a case, you’d point the finger at a local “weirdo,” Damien Echols (18 years old), you’d rope in his best friend, Jason Baldwin (16 years old), and you’d bully a third kid, Jessie Misskelley (17 years old), into “confessing.” Local investigators fumbled along destroying, losing and ignoring much needed evidence.

A juvenile probation officer, who would later be in trouble with the law himself, showed up as West Memphis police worked the scene and launched a rumor that would take the town by storm. He brought up the name of Damien Echols as one likely to perpetrate such an evil. He claimed Damien had spoken with him about starting a cult. Thus the match was struck and the fire of Satanic Panic consumed the town. Rumors flew like a flock of starlings and suddenly everyone had a “Damien story.” I pulled a few gems from the www.wm3.org website: One man claimed that Damien levitated him during a "devil meeting." Another person claimed that they saw Damien wearing "dog entrails like a necktie." Another West Memphis resident stated that human skulls with skin still attached were found in Damien's closet. Another local person stated that they watched Damien kill a dog and eat the heart during a satanic orgy/ritual. Another version of this rumor specifies that he ate the dog's leg. If these people were close enough to have such detail, that is, to know the entrails were from a dog, surely they participated. Why weren’t they on trial? If they didn’t participate then why didn’t they go to authorities with such a story immediately, potentially saving the lives of these children?

One of the earliest and most heinous rumors actually began with a parent of one of the murdered children. John Mark Byers told reporters his child’s testicles were found in a jar of alcohol under Damien’s bed. What kind of parent floats such a rumor? Who in their right mind would want their child remembered this a way? I recommend you view the two documentaries on this case: “Paradise Lost: the Child Murders in the Robin Hood Hills” and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” for a better understanding.

On June 3, 1993 these teens were arrested for the murder of the three children. Later they would be convicted. Evidence exists to prove their innocence, however, it has been dismissed because the judge does not understand Forensic Odontology. They’re young men now, having been imprisoned for 13 years. Damien Echols, the supposed “ringleader,” is serving his time on death row.

I don’t know about you, but one month seems awfully fast to me. Especially when, as you’ll see below, much of that time was spent chasing a rumor, rather than actually gathering evidence in an attempt to find the real murderer(s). In the Laci Peterson case, police gathered evidence for 4 months, regardless of the “tremendous pressure” involved, before making an arrest.

Just by skimming a few books on cults at the library I learned cults kill their own. Reality is very unlike the media portrayal of cults cleaning our streets up of the indigent or snatching children off dirt roads. If they need to kill someone, they draw someone in then cut them from family and friends so they will not be missed. If they want a child sacrifice, they impregnate one of their own.

I asked a fellow who was well educated about cults what one might find in a wooded area where cult activities were supposedly performed. He commented that different things would be found with different types of cults. I explained that the accusation was of a satanic cult. I was surprised by his answer. Learn something new every day! Let me summarize what he said:

First you have to classify them in the correct way. Satanism is not devil worship. They don’t go into the woods, they’re too controlling. They keep to themselves. They’re more interested in orgies and the like. Satanism isn’t worshipping satan. They are their own gods.

Different sects of satanism may intermingle with devil worship or demon worship. With devil worship you’d find demonic symbols, rune script or satanic script carved in the area, a burnt out fire area and candle wax but no sacrificial knives.

The expert asked point blank what the question referred to. I told him there were three young men in jail, convicted of the “satanic sacrifice” of three children. He asked on what evidence and all I could tell him was none. Not a shred. He asked what symbols had been carved into the victims. Symbols?

“There would have been demonic symbols carved on the victims.”

Really??!! (I didn’t bother to mention what the prosecution’s “occult specialist” [see below] said in court. I didn’t want him to choke on his lunch.)

Knowing full well he was innocent, trusting in the judicial system, and seeming to enjoying the spotlight, Damien was all too eager to give information about himself quite freely. That information would later be used against him. Damien professed to be a practitioner, or student, of Wicca at that time. He would state emphatically that he was never part of any group. However, the prosecution would use this against him, equating the earth-centered religion to satanism.

I had planned on interviewing a practicing Wiccan for my article. I thought it would be great to get some information from an active source on their beliefs. However, I just haven’t been able to get one to volunteer. With what I know about this particular case, I understand why. None of them would want to end up on death row. The very basic principles of Wicca are “Harm none” which is self-explanatory and The Three Fold Law. That is to say, anything you put out into the universe comes back to you three fold. If you case a love spell, three will be cast upon you. (Whew, let’s hope he’s not ugly!) If you murder three children 9 close to you will be murdered.

The prosecution would call upon Dale Griffis as an expert in the occult. He pointed to Damien’s particular style of dressing in black as evidence of his occult practices. They actually held up a concert t-shirt in court as proof of his cult status. I surveyed 6 ladies in my monthly Bible Study group. Three had black jeans in their closets. All six had black t-shirts, two mentioned specific concert tees. Other “evidence” mentioned in court as proof of Damien’s cult activities were books he read and music he listened to. I asked about those specific writers and bands used against Damien in court and found two of my ladies have also read Stephen King and two had Pink Floyd albums in their CD collections. One young lady mentioned having seen a movie made of a Stephen King novel. She makes a good point. I bet more than 50% of the people in that courtroom had seen “The Shining.”

Much was made of the just the name Damien. He was actually born Michael. His stepfather introduced him to church. Eventually he would join West Memphis’s only Catholic church and be confirmed taking the name of Damien after Fr. Damien of Molokai. But the people of West Memphis had seen “The Omen” one too many times and would insist he took the name under darker pretenses.

Had Damien lived in California, he would have numbered among the hundreds upon thousands of average teenagers. Moody, loved heavy metal music, dressed in black and oozing of teen angst. During the trial, comments were made about his long black hair. People said he dyed it as part of his “cult persona.” Damien is part American Indian. His hair is naturally black, stick straight and at that time he wore it long. He is also rather pale. A physical appearance “Goth” kids around here strive for. But Damien isn’t from around here. He’s from a hick town in the Bible belt.

As I read Mara Leveritt’s interview with Damien from the archives of the Arkansas Times, one thing hit me hard. This kid has both a monastic and ecumenical heart. He seems a lot more like Thomas Merton or Bede Griffiths than Anton LeVey (who, by the way, never advocated human sacrifice by any means). I was also shocked to read in that same interview that the probation officer who launched the “cult campaign” viewed speaking and reading Latin as satanic. Imagine a worst-case scenario. This kid continued on his path to Catholicism and at some point discovers the “Rule of St. Benedict.” He is drawn to monastic life and becomes a Benedictine Oblate, which is a third order or secular monk. He takes the oblate habit, black hooded robes. He learns to chant the psalms, with his intelligence and love of study probably memorizes them in Latin. If these things had come to pass, there wouldn’t have been a trial. There would have been a lynching.

It should be mentioned that Damien named his first born, Azariah. A good sound biblical name. However, the townspeople were apparently ignorant of the Bible and decided it was a demonic name. In the Book of Tobit: Azariah is the name the Archangel Raphael gives, to hide his true identity, when he comes in answer to a man’s prayer. In 1 and 2 Kings, Azariah is the king of Judah (one of the 12 tribes of Israel.) In 2 Chronicles, Azariah is a prophet of God. In Daniel, Azariah is the name of one of the boys who survives the “firey furnace.”

A well known wiccan author recently told me, “Ignorance coupled with power is evil.”

It isn’t bad enough that Damien is on death row with literally no evidence linking him to the crime. We have Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who really are collateral damage. Simply put, the way to “get” Damien. Reading interviews and watching the documentaries on the case, it’s easy to see why Damien and Jason were best friends. Jason is a happy kid with a ready smile, even in the midst of accusations and small town belligerence. His bright and cheery personality must have alleviated much of Damien’s angst. Jason’s defense attorney claimed it was simply ‘guilt by association.’ Although it’s a true statement, I find it sad that he made it seem as if he actually believed Damien was guilty.

Jessie Misskelley was to be the “tool” police in West Memphis used to “get” Damien. Jessie is another sweet, smiling kid who wants nothing more than to make people happy. A woman he knew who was in trouble with the cops pointed the finger at Jessie as someone who knew something. Police had offered to help her clean things up if she would help them get their man, I mean - teenager. They picked him up on June 3, 1993, for questioning. Jessie didn’t know Damien, and Jessie wasn’t even in town the night of the murders. He was badgered, bullied and shown horrid photos until he coughed up what was thought to be enough material to put Damien behind bars. In a desperate attempt to tell them what they wanted so he could get out and go home, he accidentally implicated himself. After 12 hours in the interrogation room, a very tiny segment of what Jessie said was put to tape as his “confession.”

Much has been made about Jessie’s I.Q. as a reason for his “confession.” However, people falsely confess to crimes all the time. That is one essential reason police don’t tell all the elements of a crime to the media. They need to hold on to enough that if someone confesses the key will be in elements of the crime undisclosed to the media. It is then up to police to research the confession. What is real, and what is bogus. Take the case of Jack the Ripper. Police received hundreds of letters, both mocking and confessing, yet only a one marked “From Hell” would stand out.

Jessie gave police all that he could remember from what he’d read in papers. Some very important details were so blatantly wrong it’s surprising that police would even try to use this so called confession. Jessie would state the children were taken and killed at a time when they were still in school. Jessie would claim the children were tied with brown rope when they were actually tied with their own shoelaces. Police would make excuses for details that didn’t fit, but be adamant about what did. In the end, Jessie refused to allow his bogus confession to be used against Damien and Jason even after being offered a reduced sentence for himself.

Criminal Profiler, Brent Turvey, joined the defense team around 1997. Upon viewing the autopsy and crime scene photos, one thing stood out to him. Human bite marks on one of the victims. He dismissed claims of cult sacrifice and stated that this killing was punitive in nature, aimed at one child specifically. The other two children, seemingly, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dental impressions were taken of Damien, Jason and Jessie. These impressions did not match bite marks on the child’s face thereby showing the teens factually innocent. So why are these kids still in jail? Because the judge doesn’t understand “forensic odontology.”

The devil runs rampant. More and more highly educated people believe. Exorcism and deliverance are on the rise. 10 years ago, the global Catholic Church had 6 active exorcists. As of three years ago, the US alone has over 300. In 2005, the Holy See gave a class in exorcism that proved so popular they had to turn away potential students and schedule a second class. My own local exorcist, a Franciscan monk, has more work than he can handle. He repeatedly sends out requests for prayer.

Deliverance Ministry is one of Protestant's most popular at the moment. What is the difference between exorcism and deliverance? Exorcism is a Catholic rite, involving use of the Roman Ritual of Exorcism. It is done only with the approval of one’s bishop and only after certain criteria have been established. Everything else, including priests and secular individuals not using the rite, is deliverance.

In 1999 the Pope updated the rite, De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam ("Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications"). The rite was first written in 1523 with its last revision being made in 1614. Books on demons, and casting them out, ride the bestseller lists with such titles as “American Exorcism,” “Hostage to the Devil,” and “They Shall Expel Demon.” Even the Vatican’s own official exorcist, Gabriel Amorth has written two books on the subject.

The devil not only makes an appearance to incarcerate the innocent, but his name is also tossed around in attempts to free the guilty. The “I was possessed” plea used by Ronald DeFeo, Jr. and “It wasn’t Scott, it was a satanic cult” defense used in the Laci Peterson case.

More recently, Diane Moore, Michael Moore's mother, is now in jail for vehicular manslaughter. She ran down and killed a 26 year old woman. John Mark Byers, Christopher Byers's step-father, is in jail for numerous reasons. Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch’s step-father, is also in jail. He shot his brother-in-law. Byers and Hobbs spent an awful lot of time searching those woods alone. Factor in the mysterious death of Melissa Byers. Christopher Byers’s mother.

In conclusion, I can honestly say the West Memphis Police Department desperately needs a copy of the CSI first season DVD. It sounds like a joke but if they had such an item, three innocent teens would not have spent the last 13 years in prison. The PD’s own medical examiner was in trouble with Rhode Island for selling body parts and their forensic pathologist flubbed in court as to which day he examined the bodies of the three children. He didn’t see the importance of taking core temperatures of the bodies to establish time of death. He would also change his testimony many times.

I would encourage you to go to the West Memphis Three web site and read the information given. Hope is not lost. Rick Walker, who had been incarcerated for 12 years was finally freed due to family, friends and one determined attorney.

May is West Memphis Three Awareness Month. Hence the reposting of this article. Spread the word. Get active! FREE THE WEST MEMPHIS THREE! www.wm3.org

Thursday, April 13, 2006

End the suffering. Boycott meat!

The Chain Never Stops
By Eric Schlosser

American slaughterhouses are grinding out meat faster than ever -- and the production line keeps moving, even when the workers are maimed by the machinery.

In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him... they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away!
--Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

Kenny Dobbins was hired by the Monfort Beef Company in 1979. He was 24 years old, and 6 foot 5, and had no fear of the hard work in a slaughterhouse. He seemed invincible. Over the next two decades he suffered injuries working for Monfort that would have crippled or killed lesser men. He was struck by a falling 90-pound box of meat and pinned against the steel lip of a conveyor belt. He blew out a disc and had back surgery. He inhaled too much chlorine while cleaning some blood tanks and spent a month in the hospital, his lungs burned, his body covered in blisters. He damaged the rotator cuff in his left shoulder when a 10,000-pound hammer-mill cover dropped too quickly and pulled his arm straight backward. He broke a leg after stepping into a hole in the slaughterhouse's concrete floor. He got hit by a slow-moving train behind the plant, got bloodied and knocked right out of his boots, spent two weeks in the hospital, then returned to work. He shattered an ankle and had it mended with four steel pins. He got more bruises and cuts, muscle pulls and strains than he could remember.

Despite all the injuries and the pain, the frequent trips to the hospital and the metal brace that now supported one leg, Dobbins felt intensely loyal to Monfort and Con-Agra, its parent company. He'd left home at the age of 13 and never learned to read; Monfort had given him a steady job, and he was willing to do whatever the company asked. He moved from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Greeley, Colorado, to help Monfort reopen its slaughterhouse there without a union. He became an outspoken member of a group formed to keep union organizers out. He saved the life of a fellow worker—and was given a framed certificate of appreciation. And then, in December 1995, Dobbins felt a sharp pain in his chest while working in the plant. He thought it was a heart attack. According to Dobbins, the company nurse told him it was a muscle pull and sent him home. It was a heart attack, and Dobbins nearly died. While awaiting compensation for his injuries, he was fired. The company later agreed to pay him a settlement of $35,000.

Today Kenny Dobbins is disabled, with a bad heart and scarred lungs. He lives entirely off Social Security payments. He has no pension and no health insurance. His recent shoulder surgery—stemming from an old injury at the plant and costing more than $10,000—was paid by Medicare. He now feels angry beyond words at ConAgra, misused, betrayed. He's embarrassed to be receiving public assistance. "I've never had to ask for help before in my life," Dobbins says. "I've always worked. I've worked since I was 14 years old." In addition to the physical pain, the financial uncertainty, and the stress of finding enough money just to pay the rent each month, he feels humiliated.

What happened to Kenny Dobbins is now being repeated, in various forms, at slaughterhouses throughout the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking is the nation's most dangerous occupation. In 1999, more than one-quarter of America's nearly 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness. The meatpacking industry not only has the highest injury rate, but also has by far the highest rate of serious injury—more than five times the national average, as measured in lost workdays. If you accept the official figures, about 40,000 meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year. But the actual number is most likely higher. The meatpacking industry has a well-documented history of discouraging injury reports, falsifying injury data, and putting injured workers back on the job quickly to minimize the reporting of lost workdays. Over the past four years, I've met scores of meatpacking workers in Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas who tell stories of being injured and then discarded by their employers. Like Kenny Dobbins, many now rely on public assistance for their food, shelter, and medical care. Each new year throws more injured workers on the dole, forcing taxpayers to subsidize the meatpacking industry's poor safety record. No government statistics can measure the true amount of pain and suffering in the nation's meatpacking communities today.

A list of accident reports filed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration gives a sense of the dangers that workers now confront in the nation's meatpacking plants. The titles of these OSHA reports sound more like lurid tabloid headlines than the headings of sober government documents: Employee Severely Burned After Fuel From His Saw Is Ignited. Employee Hospitalized for Neck Laceration From Flying Blade. Employee's Finger Amputated in Sausage Extruder. Employee's Finger Amputated in Chitlin Machine. Employee's Eye Injured When Struck by Hanging Hook. Employee's Arm Amputated in Meat Auger. Employee's Arm Amputated When Caught in Meat Tenderizer. Employee Burned in Tallow Fire. Employee Burned by Hot Solution in Tank. One Employee Killed, Eight Injured by Ammonia Spill. Employee Killed When Arm Caught in Meat Grinder. Employee Decapitated by Chain of Hide Puller Machine. Employee Killed When Head Crushed by Conveyor. Employee Killed When Head Crushed in Hide Fleshing Machine. Employee Killed by Stun Gun. Caught and Killed by Gut-Cooker Machine.

The most dangerous plants are the ones where cattle are slaughtered. Poultry slaughterhouses are somewhat safer because they are more highly mechanized; chickens have been bred to reach a uniform size at maturity. Cattle, however, vary enormously in size, shape, and weight when they arrive at a slaughterhouse. As a result, most of the work at a modern beef plant is still performed by hand. In the age of the space station and the microchip, the most important slaughterhouse tool is a well-sharpened knife.

Thirty years ago, meatpacking was one of the highest-paid industrial jobs in the United States, with one of the lowest turnover rates. In the decades that followed the 1906 publication of The Jungle, labor unions had slowly gained power in the industry, winning their members good benefits, decent working conditions, and a voice in the workplace. Meatpacking jobs were dangerous and unpleasant, but provided enough income for a solid, middle-class life. There were sometimes waiting lists for these jobs. And then, starting in the early 1960s, a company called Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) began to revolutionize the industry, opening plants in rural areas far from union strongholds, recruiting immigrant workers from Mexico, introducing a new division of labor that eliminated the need for skilled butchers, and ruthlessly battling unions. By the late 1970s, meatpacking companies that wanted to compete with IBP had to adopt its business methods—or go out of business. Wages in the meatpacking industry soon fell by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking is one of the nation's lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. The typical plant now hires an entirely new workforce every year or so. There are no waiting lists at these slaughterhouses today. Staff shortages have become an industrywide problem, making the work even more dangerous.

In a relatively brief period of time, the meatpacking industry also became highly centralized and concentrated, giving enormous power to a few large agribusiness firms. In 1970, the top four meatpackers controlled just 21 percent of the beef market. Today the top four—IBP, ConAgra, Excel (a subsidiary of Cargill), and National Beef—control about 85 percent of the market. While the meatpackers have grown more powerful, the unions have grown much weaker. Only half of IBP's workers belong to a union, allowing that company to set the industry standard for low wages and harsh working conditions. Given the industry's high turnover rates, it is a challenge for a union simply to remain in a meatpacking plant, since every year it must gain the allegiance of a whole new set of workers.

In some American slaughterhouses, more than three-quarters of the workers are not native English speakers; many can't read any language, and many are illegal immigrants. A new migrant industrial workforce now circulates through the meatpacking towns of the High Plains. A wage of $9.50 an hour seems incredible to men and women who come from rural areas in Mexico where the wages are $7 a day. These manual laborers, long accustomed to toiling in the fields, are good workers. They're also unlikely to complain or challenge authority, to file lawsuits, organize unions, fight for their legal rights. They tend to be poor, vulnerable, and fearful. From the industry's point of view, they are ideal workers: cheap, largely interchangeable, and disposable.

One of the crucial determinants of a slaughterhouse's profitability is also responsible for many of its greatest dangers: the speed of the production line. Once a plant is fully staffed and running, the more head of cattle slaughtered per hour, the less it costs to process each one. If the production line stops, for any reason, costs go up. Faster means cheaper—and more profitable. The typical line speed in an American slaughterhouse 25 years ago was about 175 cattle per hour. Some line speeds now approach 400 cattle per hour. Technological advances are responsible for part of the increase; the powerlessness of meatpacking workers explains the rest. Faster also means more dangerous. When hundreds of workers stand closely together, down a single line, wielding sharp knives, terrible things can happen when people feel rushed. The most common slaughterhouse injury is a laceration. Workers stab themselves or stab someone nearby. They struggle to keep up with the pace as carcasses rapidly swing toward them, hung on hooks from a moving, overhead chain. All sorts of accidents—involving power tools, saws, knives, conveyor belts, slippery floors, falling carcasses—become more likely when the chain moves too fast. One slaughterhouse nurse told me she could always tell the line speed by the number of people visiting her office.

The golden rule in meatpacking plants is "The Chain Will Not Stop." USDA inspectors can shut down the line to ensure food safety, but the meatpacking firms do everything possible to keep it moving at top speed. Nothing stands in the way of production, not mechanical failures, breakdowns, accidents. Forklifts crash, saws overheat, workers drop knives, workers get cut, workers collapse and lie unconscious on the floor, as dripping carcasses sway past them, and the chain keeps going. "The chain never stops," Rita Beltran, a former IBP worker told me. "I've seen bleeders, and they're gushing because they got hit right in the vein, and I mean they're almost passing out, and here comes the supply guy again, with the bleach, to clean the blood off the floor, but the chain never stops. It never stops."

Albertina Rios was a housewife in Mexico before coming to America nearly 20 years ago and going to work for IBP in Lexington, Nebraska. While bagging intestines, over and over, for eight hours a day, Rios soon injured her right shoulder. She was briefly placed on light duty, but asked to be assigned to a higher-paying position trimming heads, an even more difficult job that required moving heavy baskets of meat all day. When she complained about the pain to her supervisor, she recalls, he accused her of being lazy. Rios eventually underwent surgery on the shoulder, as well as two operations on her hands for carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful and commonplace injury caused by hours of repetitive motion.

Some of the most debilitating injuries in the meatpacking industry are also the least visible. Properly sutured, even a deep laceration will heal. The cumulative trauma injuries that meatpacking workers routinely suffer, however, may cause lifelong impairments. The strict regimentation and division of labor in slaughterhouses means that workers must repeat the same motions again and again throughout their shift. Making the same knife cut 10,000 times a day or lifting the same weight every few seconds can cause serious injuries to a person's back, shoulders, or hands. Aside from a 15-minute rest break or two and a brief lunch, the work is unrelenting. Even the repetition of a seemingly harmless task can lead to pain. "If you lightly tap your finger on a desk a few times, it doesn't hurt," an attorney for injured workers told me. "Now try tapping it for eight hours straight, and see how that feels."

The rate of cumulative trauma injuries in meatpacking is the highest of any American industry. It is about 33 times higher than the national average. According to federal statistics, nearly 1 out of every 10 meatpacking workers suffers a cumulative trauma injury every year. In fact, it's very hard to find a meatpacking worker who's not suffering from some kind of recurring pain. For unskilled, unschooled manual laborers, cumulative trauma injuries such as disc problems, tendonitis, and "trigger finger" (a syndrome in which a finger becomes stuck in a curled position) can permanently limit the ability to earn a decent income. Much of this damage will never be healed.

After interviews with many slaughterhouse workers who have cumulative trauma injuries, there's one image that stays with me. It's the sight of pale white scars on dark skin. Ana Ramos came from El Salvador and went to work at the same IBP plant as Albertina Rios, trimming hair from the meat with scissors. Her fingers began to lock up; her hands began to swell; she developed shoulder problems from carrying 30- to 60-pound boxes. She recalls going to see the company doctor and describing the pain, only to be told the problem was in her mind. She would leave the appointments crying. In January 1999, Ramos had three operations on the same day—one on her shoulder, another on her elbow, another on her hand. A week later, the doctor sent her back to work. Dora Sanchez, who worked at a different IBP plant, complained for months about soreness in her hands. She says the company ignored her. Sanchez later had surgery on both hands. She now has a "spinal cord stimulator," an elaborate pain-reduction system implanted in her body, controlled from a small box under the skin on her hip. She will need surgery to replace the batteries every six or seven years.

Cumulative trauma injuries may take months or even years to develop; other slaughterhouse injuries can happen in an instant. Lives are forever changed by a simple error, a wrong move, a faulty machine. Raul Lopez worked as a carpenter in Mexico, making tables, chairs, and headboards, before coming to the United States in 1995 to do construction work in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 20 years old at the time, and after laying concrete foundations for two years, he moved to Greeley and got a job at the Monfort Beef plant, where the pay was higher. He trimmed hides after they came up from the kill floor, cutting off the legs and heads, lifting them up with mechanical assistance, and placing the hides on a hook. It was one of the most difficult jobs in the plant. Each hide weighed about 180 pounds, and he lifted more than 300 of them every hour. He was good at his job and became a "floater," used by his supervisor to fill in for absent workers. Lopez's hands and shoulders were sore at the end of the day, but for two years and two months he suffered no injuries.

At about seven in the morning on November 22, 1999, Lopez was substituting for an absent worker, standing on a four-foot-high platform, pulling hides from a tank of water that was washing blood and dirt off them. The hides were suspended on hooks from a moving chain. The room was cold and foggy, and it was difficult to see clearly. There were problems somewhere up ahead on the line, but the chain kept moving, and Lopez felt pressure to keep up. One of his steel-mesh gloves suddenly got snagged in the chain, and it dragged him down the line toward bloody, filthy water that was three feet deep. Lopez grabbed the chain with his free hand and screamed for help. Someone ran to another room and took an extraordinary step: He shut down the line. The arm caught in the chain, Lopez's left one, was partially crushed. He lost more than three pints of blood and almost bled to death. He was rushed to a hospital in Denver, endured the first of many operations, and survived. Five months later, Lopez was still in enormous pain and heavily medicated. Nevertheless, he says, a company doctor ordered him back to work. His previous supervisor no longer worked at the plant. Lopez was told that the man had simply walked off the job and quit one day, feeling upset about the accident.

I recently visited Lopez on a lovely spring afternoon. His modest apartment is just a quarter mile down the road from the slaughterhouse. The living room is meticulously neat and clean, filled with children's toys and a large glass display case of Native American curios. Lopez now works in the nurse's office at the plant, handling files. Every day he sees how injured workers are treated—given some Tylenol and then sent back to the line—and worries that ConAgra is now planning to get rid of him. His left arm hangs shriveled and lifeless in a sling. It is a deadweight that causes severe pain in his neck and back. Lopez wants the company to pay for an experimental operation that might restore some movement to the arm. The alternative could be amputation. ConAgra will say only that it is weighing the various medical options. Lopez is 26 years old and believes his arm will work again. "Every night, I pray for this operation," he says, maintaining a polite and dignified facade. A number of times during our conversation, he suddenly gets up and leaves the room. His wife, Silvia, stays behind, sitting across from me on the couch, holding their one-year-old son in her arms. Their three-year-old daughter happily wanders in and out to the porch. Every time the front door swings open for her, a light breeze from the north brings the smell of death into the room.

The meatpacking companies refuse to comment on the cases of individual employees like Raul Lopez, but insist they have a sincere interest in the well-being of their workers. Health and safety, they maintain, are the primary concerns of every supervisor, foreman, nurse, medical claims examiner, and company-approved doctor. "It is in our best interest to take care of our workers and ensure that they are protected and able to work every day," says Janet M. Riley, a vice president of the American Meat Institute, the industry's trade association. "We are very concerned about improving worker safety. It is absolutely to our benefit."

The validity of such claims is measured best in Texas, where the big meatpackers have the most freedom to do as they please. In many ways, the true heart of the industry lies in Texas. About one-quarter of the cattle slaughtered every year in the United States—roughly 9 million animals—are processed in Texas meatpacking plants. One of the state's U.S. senators, Phil Gramm, is the industry's most powerful ally in Congress. His wife, Wendy Lee, sits on the board of IBP. The state courts and the legislature have also been friendly to the industry. Indeed, many injured meatpacking workers in Texas now face a system that has been devised not only to prevent any independent scrutiny of their medical needs, but also to prevent them from suing for on-the-job injuries.

In the early years of the 20th century, public outrage over the misfortune of industrial workers hurt on the job prompted legislatures throughout the United States to enact workers' compensation laws. Workers' comp was intended to be a form of mandatory, no-fault insurance. In return for surrendering the legal right to sue their employer for damages, injured workers were guaranteed immediate access to medical care, steady income while they recuperated, and disability payments. All 50 states eventually passed workers' comp legislation of one sort or another, creating systems in which employers generally obtained private insurance and any disputes were resolved by publicly appointed officials.

Recent efforts by business groups to "reform" workers' comp have made it more difficult for injured employees to obtain payments. In Colorado, the first "workers' comp reform" bill was sponsored in 1990 by Tom Norton, a conservative state senator from Greeley. His wife, Kay, was a vice president at ConAgra Red Meat at the time. Under Colorado's new law, which places limits on compensation, the maximum payment for losing an arm is $37,738. Losing a digit brings you anywhere from $2,400 to $9,312, depending on whether it's a middle finger, a pinkie, or a thumb.

The meatpacking companies have a vested interest in keeping workers' comp payments as low as possible. IBP, Excel, and ConAgra are all self-insured. Every dime spent on injured workers in such programs is one less dime in profits. Slaughterhouse supervisors and foremen, whose annual bonuses are usually tied to the injury rate of their workers, often discourage people from reporting injuries or seeking first aid. The packinghouse culture encourages keeping quiet and laboring in pain. Assignments to "light duty" frequently punish an injured worker by cutting the hourly wage and forbidding overtime. When an injury is visible and impossible to deny—an amputation, a severe laceration, a chemical burn—companies generally don't contest a worker's claim or try to avoid medical payments. But when injuries are less obvious or workers seem uncooperative, companies often block every attempt to seek benefits. It can take injured workers as long as three years to get their medical bills paid. From a purely financial point of view, the company has a strong incentive to delay every payment in order to encourage a less-expensive settlement. Getting someone to quit is even more profitable—an injured worker who walks away from the job is no longer eligible for any benefits. It is not uncommon to find injured workers assigned to meaningless or unpleasant tasks as a form of retaliation, a clear message to leave. They are forced to sit all day watching an emergency exit or to stare at gauges amid the stench in rendering.

In Texas, meatpacking firms don't have to manipulate the workers' comp system—they don't even have to participate in it. The Texas Workers Compensation Reform Act of 1989 allowed private companies to drop out of the state's workers' comp system. Although the law gave injured workers the right to sue employers that had left the system, that provision was later rendered moot. When a worker is injured at an IBP plant in Texas, for example, he or she is immediately presented with a waiver. It reads: "I have been injured at work and want to apply for the payments offered by IBP to me under its Workplace Injury Settlement Program. To qualify, I must accept the rules of the Program. I have been given a copy of the Program summary. I accept the Program."

Signing the waiver means forever surrendering your right—and the right of your family and heirs—to sue IBP on any grounds. Workers who sign the waiver may receive immediate medical care under IBP's program. Or they may not. Once they sign, IBP and its company-approved doctors have control over the worker's job-related medical treatment—for life. Under the program's terms, seeking treatment from an independent physician can be grounds for losing all medical benefits. If the worker objects to any decision, the dispute can be submitted to an IBP-approved arbitrator. The company has said the waivers are designed "to more effectively ensure quality medical care for employees injured on the job." Workers who refuse to sign the IBP waiver not only risk getting no medical care from the company, but also risk being fired on the spot. In February 1998, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that companies operating outside the state's workers' comp system can fire workers simply because they're injured.

Today, an IBP worker who gets hurt on the job in Texas faces a tough dilemma: Sign the waiver, perhaps receive immediate medical attention, and remain beholden, forever, to IBP. Or refuse to sign, risk losing your job, receive no help with your medical bills, file a lawsuit, and hope to win a big judgment against the company someday. Injured workers almost always sign the waiver. The pressure to do so is immense. An IBP medical case manager will literally bring the waiver to a hospital emergency room in order to obtain an injured worker's signature. Karen Olsson, in a fine investigative piece for the Texas Observer, described the lengths to which Terry Zimmerman, one of IBP's managers, will go to get a signed waiver. When Lonita Leal's right hand was mangled by a hamburger grinder at the IBP plant in Amarillo, Zimmerman talked her into signing the waiver with her left hand, as she waited in the hospital for surgery. When Duane Mullin had both hands crushed in a hammer mill at the same plant, Zimmerman persuaded him to sign the waiver with a pen held in his mouth.

Unlike IBP, Excel does not need to get a signed waiver after an injury in Texas. Its waiver is included in the union contract that many workers unwittingly sign upon being hired. Once they're injured, these workers often feel as much anger toward the union as they do toward their employer. In March, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the legality of such waivers, declaring that the "freedom of contract" gave Americans the ability to sign away their common-law rights. Before the waiver became part of the standard contract, Excel was held accountable, every so often, for its behavior.

Hector Reyes is one of the few who has managed to do something productive with his sense of betrayal. For 25 years, his father was a maintenance worker at the Excel plant in Friona, Texas, a couple of hours southwest of Amarillo. As a teen-ager, Reyes liked to work in the plant's warehouse, doing inventory. He'd grown up around the slaughterhouse. He later became a Golden Gloves champion boxer and went to work for Excel in 1997, at the age of 25, to earn money while he trained. One day he was asked to clean some grease from the blowers in the trolley room. Reyes did as he was told, climbing a ladder in the loud, steam-filled room and wiping the overhead blowers clean. But one of the blowers lacked a proper cover—and in an instant the blade shredded four of the fingers on Reyes' left hand. He climbed down the ladder and yelled for help, but nobody would come near him, as blood flew from the hand. So Reyes got himself to the nurse's office, where he was immediately asked to provide a urine sample. In shock and in pain, he couldn't understand why they needed his urine so badly. Try as he might, he couldn't produce any. The nurse called an ambulance, but said he wouldn't receive any painkillers until he peed in a cup. Reyes later realized that if he'd failed the urine test, Excel would not have been obligated to pay any of his medical bills. This demand for urine truly added insult to injury: Reyes was in training and never took drugs. He finally managed to urinate and received some medication. The drug test later came back negative.

On his fourth night in a Lubbock hospital, Reyes was awakened around midnight and told to report for work the next morning in Friona, two hours away. His wife would have to drive, but she was three months pregnant. Reyes refused to leave the hospital until the following day. For the next three months, he simply sat in a room at the Excel plant with other injured workers or filed papers for eight hours a day, then drove to Lubbock for an hour of physical therapy and an hour of wound cleaning before heading home. "You've already cost the company too much money," he recalls one supervisor telling him. Reyes desperately wanted to quit but knew he'd lose all his medical benefits if he did. He became suicidal, despondent about the end of his boxing career and his disfigurement. Since the union had not yet included a waiver in its Excel contract, Reyes was able to sue the company for failing to train him properly and for disregarding OSHA safety guidelines. In 1999, he won a rare legal victory: $879,312.25 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Under the current Excel contract, that sort of victory is impossible to achieve.

Federal safety laws were intended to protect workers from harm, regardless of the vagaries of state laws like those in Texas. OSHA is unlikely, however, to do anything for meatpacking workers in the near future. The agency has fewer than 1,200 inspectors to examine the safety risks at the nation's roughly 7 million workplaces. The maximum OSHA fine for the death of a worker due to an employer's willful negligence is $70,000—an amount that hardly strikes fear in the hearts of agribusiness executives whose companies have annual revenues that are measured in the tens of billions. One of President George W. Bush's first acts in office was to rescind an OSHA ergonomics standard on repetitive-motion injuries that the agency had been developing for nearly a decade. His move was applauded by IBP and the American Meat Institute.

The new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which oversees all legislation pertaining to OSHA, is Rep. Charles Norwood, a Republican from Georgia. Norwood was an outspoken supporter of the OSHA Reform Act of 1997—a bill that would have effectively abolished the agency. Norwood, a former dentist, became politically active in the early 1990s out of a sense of outrage that OSHA regulations designed to halt the spread of AIDS were forcing him to wear fresh rubber gloves for each new patient. He has publicly suggested that many workers get repetitive-stress injuries not from their jobs, but from skiing and playing too much tennis.

For Kevin Glasheen, one of the few Texas attorneys willing to battle IBP, the plight of America's meatpacking workers is "a fundamental failure of capitalism." By failing to pay the medical bills of injured workers, he says, large meatpackers are routinely imposing their business costs on the rest of society, much as utilities polluted the air a generation ago without much regard to the consequences for those who breathed it. Rod Rehm, an attorney who defends many Latino meatpacking workers in Nebraska, believes that two key changes could restore the effectiveness.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Play hard, sleep hard. Oh the life of a cat.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Vatican official calls for more just relationship with animals

John Thavis
Catholic News Service
Dec. 2000

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Human dominion over the natural world must not be taken as an unqualified license to kill or inflict suffering on animals, a Vatican official said.

The cramped and cruel methods used in the modern food industry, for example, may cross the line of morally acceptable treatment of > animals, the official said in an article Dec. 7 in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

The article, titled ``For a More Just Relationship With Animals,'' was written by Marie Hendrickx, a longtime official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

She said that in view of the growing popularity of animal rights movements, the church needs to ask itself to what extent Christ's dictum, ``Do to others whatever you would have them do to you'' can be applied to the animal world.

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church'' says it is legitimate for humans to use animals for food and clothing, and to domesticate them for work or leisure.

But Hendrickx pointed out that a small but significant change in wording was made between the catechism's first edition and its official Latin edition on use of animals for medical experimentation. Such experiments are now called morally acceptable only if they contribute to caring for or saving human lives.

Moreover, the catechism says that in general it is ``contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.''

Hendrickx said the question today is whether "the right to use animals to feed oneself implies raising chicken in cages that are each smaller than a notebook.''

"Or raising calves in boxes where they cannot move or see the light of day? Or pinning down sows with iron rings into a nursing position so that piglets can suck the milk without ever stopping, and thus grow faster?'' she said.

Likewise, she questioned whether the right to dress oneself with animal skins meant it was morally acceptable to let fur-bearing creatures die slowly in traps from hunger, cold or bleeding.

Hendrickx also questioned treatment of animals in traditional spectacles that have survived into the modern age, like bull-fighting or ``throwing cats or goats off a bell-tower.''

She was referring to the tradition in a Spanish town of tossing a goat from a 50-foot bell tower into a piece of tarpaulin, to mark the beginning of the festival of St. Vincent, the town's patron saint. The town gave up the practice earlier this year after years of protest from animal rights groups.

She said that spectacles involving cruelty to animals are sometimes justified as ``cathartic'' acts that release collective aggression. But experience shows the opposite is true: where brutal spectacles are popular, aggression only seems to increase, she said.

Hendrickx said that in applying church teaching, Catholics should remember that causing suffering to animals should be avoided unless there are serious reasons to do so. Feeding oneself or one's family is a legitimate reason, but the sole motive of profit is not, she said.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness Thereof, Oh, God, enlarge within us the Sense of fellowship with all living Things, our brothers the animals to Whom Thou gavest the earth as Their home in common with us . . . May we realize that they live not For us alone but for themselves and For Thee and that they love the sweetness Of life.”
    — St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (330-379)

“The saints are exceedingly loving and gentle to mankind, and even to brute beasts. . . . Surely we ought to show [animals] great kindness and gentleness for many reasons, but, above all, because they are of the same origin as ourselves.”
    — St. John Chrysostom (347-407)

“Since factory farming exerts a violent and unnatural force upon the living organisms of animals and birds in order to increase production and profits; since it involves callous and cruel exploitation of life, with implicit contempt for nature, I must join in the protest being uttered against it. It does not seem that these methods have any really justifiable purpose, except to increase the quantity of production at the expense of quality—if that can be called a justifiable purpose.”
    — Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Excerpts from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger by German journalist Peter Seewald

Seewald: Are we allowed to make use of animals, and even to eat them?

Ratzinger: That is a very serious question. At any rate, we can see that they are given into our care, that we cannot just do whatever we want with them. Animals, too, are God's creatures, and even if they do not have the same direct relation to God that man has, they are creatures of his will, creatures we must respect as companions in creation and as important elements in the creation.

As far as whether we are allowed to kill and to eat animals, there is a remarkable ordering of matters in Holy Scripture. We can read how, at first, only plants are mentioned as providing food for man. Only after the flood, that is to say, after a new breach has been opened between God and man, are we told that man eats flesh...Nonetheless...we should not proceed from this to a kind of sectarian cult of animals. For this, too, is permitted to man. He should always maintain his respect for these creatures, but he knows at the same time that he is not forbidden to take food from them. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.

— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, leader of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
- Now Pope Benedict XVI
I made Seitan from scratch last night. It was SUPER easy and tastes better than the stuff I get in stores.

Garden of Vegan (er, I think...) had a basic recipe.
La Dolce Vegan had an "instant" recipe.

Whole Foods only had basic gluten flour(also called vital gluten flour), but not instant.

I compared a couple of basic recipes online and did a sort of "mix." Some basic recipes were too basic - just flour and water. Others were too complicated - Juliano style - 30 ingredients long. The optional items are things I tossed in to the most basic recipe to make it more flavorful and more nutritious.

One cup of gluten flour makes almost three cups of Seitan. Not a single one of these recipes mentioned that the stuff expands almost three times its size!!

Seitan is high in protein, which makes it very satisfying as a meal. It's also very low in calories! Like tofu, it absorbs what ever flavors you cook it in. I love to make "bowl" food. Just one bowl of dinner. One pan, veggies and seitan. One bowl. Yum Yum!!

A cup of gluten flour
2-3 tablespoons Nutritional Yeast (optional)
Some hot water.
Some Tamari or soy sauce (optional)

You can add poultry seasoning and make "chicken." Or vegan worchestershire and make "steak."

Put a very large pot of water on the boil, add some soy sauce. The gluten will absorb the soy sauce. If you want more flavor use veggie broth instead of water. Or a combination of water and broth. I added dulce for extra nutrition.

Sift the two powders together, then add the tamari. Add the water a little at a time, kneading with your hands. It's not sticky. The gluten holds together very nicely.

If your flour is fresh, you'll get one big blob of wheat meat. If it's not fresh, little bits will come off. You can still cook it! Don't throw it out!!

Take that big ball of gluten and pour COLD water over it. Knead it under the water. A bunch of stuff will squish out. Pour that out. Add more cold water and knead. Keep this up for 5 or 10 minutes. If you don't rinse and knead enough, it will come out spongey. The more you rinse and knead - which takes out the starch and fiber - the more "meaty" it gets.

Some recipes said to set it aside for half an hour. Others did not. Your choice...

Then roll it out, or just squash it. I had fun playing with the stuff. Take a knife and cut it. It gets very "rubbery." So flattening it can be a challenge. I cut it in bits about the size I normally eat - not knowing each bit would get HUGE! So while it was boiling I took bits out and cut them in quarters. You can boil it in large flat pieces and make "steak." Just remember that it will expand!

Toss all your bits in the boiling water. An hour to an hour and a half. The longer it cooks - the firmer it gets.

Store it in the fridge, in the broth you cooked it in.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Isn't this cute? I've been trying to get a photo of my new kitty up for well over a month. But just couldn't get it properly launched into cyberspace.

This is Zotikos. Zoti for short. I adopted him from the local pound. I just discovered he's a pedigree Turkish Van from a local breeder.

  • Turkish Van

  • Zoti is nuts. Into everything. He's brought Miss Sophie out of her shell. Kicking and clawing I think, but brought her out of her shell. He talks constantly. I would never for a moment have thought I'd find a cat more talkative than my Maine Coon was. But Yoshi only talked when spoken to. Or when ratting out his brother Murphy. Zoti talks all the time. Unless he's asleep. He'll be out in the living room playing and talking. He calls to Sophie - who is napping as I read in bed. She looks up and calls back.