(Address by T.J. English upon receiving the award from Lehman College, The Bronx, NY, Oct. 24, 2019.)
I am known primarily as someone who writes about crime – organized crime, the criminal underworld, the criminal justice system. In the commercial marketplace, the term that is used to describe what I do is ‘True Crime.’ But that’s not a term I use or like very much. I believe that what I do, as an author and as a journalist, is to investigate and tell stories that involve social history or contemporary situations of people operating on the dark side of capitalism. Most of the time, these are people who start out from a position of limited power. The dispossessed. There are those among the dispossessed who seek to manipulate the levers of power – to get over on the system – in the interest of their tribe, or their people, or purely for themselves. This is how the Mafia was born. It is in fact how all criminal gangs come into being.
There are, of course, victims in this process. Often innocent victims. People get killed. Murdered. And corruption at all levels of the political and economic system is the lard that greases the wheel. The level at which this activity takes place is what I refer to as The Underworld.
There is an underworld in virtually every country on this planet. And there is an international underworld where many nefarious forces intersect in the name of greed, colonization, subjugation, and the lust for power.
The Underworld runs parallel to the Upperworld, which is the world we see on television, or on the internet, or in the print media. The Upperworld is the carefully constructed world we are meant to see. The Underworld is below the surface. It’s the world we do not see – at least not on a daily basis. It is often decades, or more, before we become aware of events in the Underworld and how those events have shaped our lives.
Writing about the criminal underworld is a challenge. People involved in organized crime do not normally want to talk openly about what they do. They may even interpret the interest of a writer or journalist—snooping around, asking questions – as a threat to their existence.
The big problem for writers, or journalists, is that the forces of the Underworld are often so intrinsically intertwined with the Upperworld, that it is the system itself – the Government – that is threatened by the truth. In the world today, more journalists are killed doing their job than at any time in last 100 years. Look at Russia, where the secret police are trained in the art of assassination of journalists, or the Philippines, where journalists are set up by the government to be murdered, or the United States, where the President has declared that the media are the Enemy of the People.
Some years ago, while covering the Narco War in Mexico for a national magazine, I sought to do more than just write about the situation in Ciudad Juárez, in the U.S.-Mexico borderland, where violence had brought the region to the brink of social collapse. Mexican journalists covering the narco war for their newspapers, or websites, or TV outlets, were being violently intimidated or murdered at an alarming rate. These murders were being carried out not only by gangsters and narcos, but also by corrupt police, and, in some cases, by the Mexican military. Journalists were being forced to flee Mexico with their families and seek political asylum here in the U.S.
After returning from Juárez and writing my article for the magazine, I felt that here was a situation where more was needed than just words. Myself and a group of concerned citizens created something we called the Irish Mexican Alliance. At the time, I was president of an arts organization known as Irish American Writers & Artists. We used that organization as the basis of our initiative to call attention to the plight of journalists covering the narco war in Mexico and the U.S.. In a series of events in New York and in El Paso, Texas we staged fundraiser events for the Committee to Protect Journalist, which had established a legal fund to aid Mexican journalists who were in danger and seeking asylum in this country. These events were a display of cross-cultural solidarity – we had Irish and Latino music, Celtic and Chicano poetry, speakers from a multi-cultural diaspora. And, of course, there was also plenty of Guinness and Tecate flowing throughout the evening.
As we said at the time, you didn’t have to be Irish or Mexican to be a part of the Irish Mexican Alliance. It was meant to exist as a symbol of cross-cultural solidarity, the belief that there is a human connection that is more important than nation-states, more powerful than national identity. And that this human connection is where solidarity and political action can take place and bring about social change.
I believe that spirit is what we are here to honor tonight. I thank you for singling me out for this honor. I’m humbled. And I pledge to you that, through my work, I will continue to bring attention to these issues. And I hope to see you out there on the front lines.