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Compassion Fatigue, Peaceful Protest and Perseverance
©Scott Sines

I recently had lunch with a boyhood friend I hadn’t seen in nearly fifty years. We talked about our aches and pains, the kids and grandkids. We talked about who is still alive and who isn’t, not necessarily in that order.

Eventually the conversation turned to current events and he said, “He felt like he was done.” He asked if I felt the same way and I totally fumbled the question. I don’t think about things in those terms but I think I know what he meant.

Sometimes it seems like everywhere you look something is going to hell and you can’t do anything about it. So we do what we always do, get totally stretched out and lose sleep worrying about stuff we can’t possibly control. It’s a real thing called compassion fatigue and it’s exhausting. (Here’s a link to an NYT article about how current events can cause compassion fatigue.)

I had a lot of time to think about that conversation on the drive back to Memphis from Detroit. You see the Klan had a rally scheduled in Shelbyville, TN, in a couple of weeks, and I was kind of, maybe, sort of thinking about going over to protest.

White Supremacists express their views.

White Supremacists express their views.

But I was ambivalent. It was over a four drive and really what difference would it make? I’ve been covering these things since the early 1980’s and the only thing that changes is what they call themselves. They are constantly rebranding themselves as ‘Alt Right’, or ‘Unite the Right’, or ‘White Lives Matter’ but they are still the same old baloney. They are the same old Klan plain and simple

Somewhere along the ride home all those thoughts mashed together and I decided to drive over and protest the Klan rally. What the hell. When I got there it was clear that law enforcement had the lid screwed down tight. So it was what it always is, two groups who hate each other standing on opposites sides of the street screaming hateful words at one another.

I worked my way to one end of the overcrowded pen the authorities had arranged for us and there was a man of the cloth in the middle of a bunch of people. I only call him that because I don’t know if he was a priest or what he was but he was wearing a collar. He was leading about 50 people singing protest songs, the old protest songs.

The racial taunts, hateful as they were, were no match for ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ trumped the ‘Blood and Soil’ epithets. All the chants about ‘Demon Seeds’ and race mixing looked foolish in the face of ‘This Little Light of Mine.”

Eventually the racists wore themselves out. The louder they chanted and the more hateful their words became, the better that music sounded. Finally the racists across from my end of the pen gave it up and moved on. For the first time I can remember I actually saw, and realized it in the moment, what non-violent protest looks like.

On the drive back to Memphis the words of John Kafentzis came back to me. He’s an old friend and former news editor at The Spokesman-Review. In a comments thread on a post about the Aryan Nations John wrote, “The hard truth is you have to engage. The region’s early response was to mostly ignore the white supremacists. That just emboldened them. It took a concerted effort by lots of good citizens and the newspaper to expose them as the ugly racists they are.”

I think he’s right. Shelbyville was only the first stop on the Klan’s dance card Saturday. When finished in Shelbyville they planned to continue to Murfreesboro for another rally there.

But the number of anti-Klan protesters in Shelbyville was more than double the number of Klansmen. The protesters blared Dr. King’s words on loudspeakers and drowned out the taunts. And waiting in Murfreesboro for the beleaguered bigots was another 500-800 anti-Klan protesters. Maybe they got “Hate Fatigue.” More likely they didn’t like being totally outnumbered by a crowd that hated them. Either way they canceled the second rally and nobody got hurt. The only person who got arrested was a Klansman and that seems just about right.

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Tornado makes direct hit on Community Center
©Scott Sines — Around mid-evening the newsroom started hearing reports of a tornado touching down in the little West Texas town of Saragosa. The community was celebrating a pre-kindergarten graduation at the Catholic Hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church when an F4 tornado came right in on top of them. Reporter Gary Martin and I drove through the night, and through the same weather system that dropped the tornado. We got there before daylight.
00118_s_r12ajclh3kn0118Temporary lights were focused on the rubble of the church community center. Survivors dug furiously at the rubble but the death toll rose with the sun. Twenty-two people died at the graduation ceremony and thirty in the entire town.
That was back in the day when newspapers in Texas competed for news statewide and at first light the boys from the Dallas News came in with a helicopter and trench coats. Gary and I had a beat-up Chevy mini-Blazer and a gas credit card.
We got a room at a bad hotel in nearby Pecos. The locals pronounced it Paycuss. We pronounced it Pickass. We got adjoining rooms and used one as an office/darkroom and the other for sleeping. The hotel maids hassled me for chemical stains on the towels, which I promptly ignored.
There’s a lot more to this story involving the journalistic physics of balancing the incredible grief you’re witnessing with an equal and proportionate amount of wild release. In this case it involves the gas credit card, a Harley Davidson and a massive Native American named Big Jake with a fishook shaped scar on his face. That story will wait for another day.
I don’t guess it was the biggest story I ever covered but it might have been the saddest.

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Drought in Central Mexico spurs immigration
©Scott Sines — In the early 1980’s severe drought conditions dried up Mexico’s breadbasket. Crop after crop failed and many small farms were collapsing. Campesinos sold their possessions including the livestock for seed. A surge of men crossing the border illegally into South Texas resulted.

MC_haulingwater_bwMoses Cervantes was one of them. He was a life-long farmer from Guanajuato working illegally in San Antonio as a day laborer. As Rob Tomsho wrote, “One by one he sold his cattle, goats, pigs and chickens until there was nothing left to sell except the land his father had given him 30 years ago. He couldn’t do it so he went north. A small landowner never gives up. It’s all we’ve got.”

At the same time rich agriculturists who could afford irrigation made money on the drought. The picture of the parched field with the three burros in the background is directly across a dirt road from the field with the watered rows. Many of the people working the irrigated fields are families of the farmers whose crops are failing. They needed the money.
Before leaving the small town near Moses’s ranch Rob and I stopped at a little cantina. We ordered a couple of beers and struck up a conversation with an old fellow at the bar. He was a horse rancher and a friend of the Governor of the state of San Luis Potosi. Or so we thought until our errant interpreter showed up and the guy turned out to be a horse thief banned from San Luis Potosi by the governor. Or something very similar to that.

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Guatemalan refugees stuck in the middle
©Scott Sines — During the early 80’s civil wars were ongoing in several Central American countries and large increases of immigrants from any country was a sign of increased fighting. Routine checks with the U.S. Border Patrol revealed a rapidly increasing number of indigenous Guatemalans crossing the river into southern Texas.

Coffee pickerThe Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), a respected Catholic research institute in San Antonio, was receiving reports from its missions in Southern Mexico about refugee camps forming along the Usumacinta River bordering Guatemala. The refugees reported harassment from border incursions by Guatemalan troops ranging from burning crops and homes to wholesale slaughter. The Guatemalan government denied having troops in the region and denied that its forces entered Mexico.

On the Mexican side officials insisted they were doing their best to provide aid but conceded that their efforts were hampered by the remoteness of the camps deep in the Lacantun jungle of Chiapas. Many international agencies offered aid but Mexico insisted that all aid, including millions of dollars provided by the United Nations be channeled through a Mexican government agency and then distributed to the camps. Graft was common. They were making money on the deal.

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Darson and Tille Persyn ran a small vegetable and flower farm right off I-35 just south of San Antonio. I had to pass by there on my way back from Mexico and I always stopped. If my timing was any good I got dinner.

Darson and Tille Persyn ran a small vegetable and flower farm right off I-35 just south of San Antonio. I had to pass by there on my way back from Mexico and I always stopped. If my timing was any good I got dinner.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to wander around take pictures and get paid for it. I never got tired of it. These are just some random pictures taken over time. There are captions where needed.

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Strawberry festival, Poteet, Texas. This was not a hard picture to make. I could have shot it 15 times while the lady was dancing.

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Party for the Mayor — ©Scott Sines — San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros was a political skyrocket in the 1980’s. He was very open with San Antonio Express-News staff and invited a few of us to one of his birthday parties. After the TV cameras left they broke out the funny hats and glasses. Cisneros went on to become HUD secretary in the first Clinton administration. He left the cabinet position amid controversy involving payments to a former mistress.

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Bennie wins again
©Scott Sines — Bernardo Eureste was a firebrand and a flameout. Four times he was elected by residents of the poorest district in San Antonio to represent them on the city council. He was a hero to Latino activist groups.

He was a newsperson’s dream come true. He’d get mad and stomp out of council meetings only to return a few minutes later to give them another piece of his mind. He was elected to raise hell.

And so he did right up until the night three muggers attacked him and a coed who worked for him in his car in the parking lot of a golf course. Bennie ran and the coed took a beating. He later claimed it was an assassination attempt by the city police.

The scandal eroded his support and he eventually lost a re-election bid. He subsequently moved his law practice to Houston, got caught in a fraudulent Worker’s Compensation scheme and was disbarred.

This picture was taken at his victory celebration after a runoff election.

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Thirteen arrested, 11 injured
©Scott Sines — Klan rally, Austin, 1983. Once upon a time, an awful, awful time, we had to shoot color slide film in one camera and black and white film in another. The color was supposed to be for page 1A. Well I’d been waiting and waiting for these smug Klansmen to get in some decent light but they just stood out there in the bright sun that cast deep shadows on their faces. Finally I couldn’t wait any longer so I lowered a camera to about knee-high and pasted them right in the face with a flash. When things got a little touchy later on I went to black and white. Thirteen people were arrested and 11 people — including four officers, six anti-Klan protesters and one reporter — were injured during the Klan’s march to the state Capitol.
Protesters erupt

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The beginning of a bad day
©Scott Sines — To me this is the definition of an “OH SHIT” moment. The fellow on the right was loading corn into the railcar. There was a bar at the end of the loading ramp so the driver could slowly back up until he felt the bar and then dump his load. Well this fellow hit the bar going a little too fast and dumped his load and his dump truck into the rail car.