eyes on the U.S.

Lexus Man: Dark Thoughts On Miami's Miracle Mile

A Latin American writer describes a single moment in time in Miami, where the sad contradictions of American culture were on full display.

Miami Beach, Florida
Miami Beach, Florida
Ricardo Brown

-Essay-

MIAMI — The other day I saw a Lexus stop at the intersection of Miracle Mile and Ponce de León in Miami. For those unfamiliar with Miami, it’s one of the city’s — nay the world’s — wealthiest districts. High-end boutiques such as jewelry stores displaying Rolex and Cartier watches are all over this district. Furniture stores here sell couches that are more expensive than a condo in Marbella.

There is an enormous Barnes & Noble bookshop here, always full. These days, some books die alone for lack of readers, but the Barnes & Noble on Miracle Mile is flourishing. And while a book store is not necessarily a symbol of material prosperity, in this Barnes & Noble customers buy a lot of art books — you know, the ones that cost hundreds of dollars each.

There are restaurants with outlandishly expensive menus. Pedestrians are well dressed, men in the sharpest suits and ties, and women with both the budget and taste to make them look like they belong in Vogue magazine. Many of these people work in law firms or with multinationals whose U.S. headquarters are here, in Coral Gables.

Sometimes you’ll see someone walking his dog, always a thoroughbred like a French bulldog or Maltese. Elitist dogs owned by elitist people. That’s the environment here. It’s a kind of Beverly Hills in Florida, without the occasional film star but not without women pretty enough to be in Hollywood. And yes, as I was saying, there was the Lexus man.

The traffic light was red. The Lexus driver was an older man, driving alone. He wore a dark suit. He suddenly takes out a hamburger and practically devours it an instant – two ferocious bites, like a giant shark gulping down a seal. He then lowers the driver’s window and throws out the wrapper and more paper from his favorite fast food chain.

The wrapping falls onto the road — all this in the short time before the traffic lights change to green. A few seconds, definitely less than a minute. When the light changes, the man steps on the gas and speeds away like a bullet train on Miracle Mile.

Inexplicably, I feel sorry for the man. He is in a hurry. Life is hurried in this country, and desperate. I recall Henry David Thoreau’s adage that most men live lives of quiet desperation. I don’t recall the context of that remark, but it may be irrelevant. I imagine the Lexus man to be desperate. He eats fast food in a luxury car, while rushing to some place.

I don’t understand why I felt such compassion for this stranger in a Lexus. Perhaps I see in his haste a sad reflection of my own frenetic, crazy lifestyle. Then I see the greasy food wrapper left on the road. I don’t understand why I find fast food wrappers so repulsive. I seem to find them more unpleasant than the junk food itself. Especially when I see them thrown onto the road like that, then squished or whipped about by cars driving by. Flying from here to there.

I am suddenly disgusted. The inexplicable compassion for the Lexus driver has faded as quickly as it came. Oh, who am I kidding? I hope he crashes into a street light, without injurying anyone. Just to wreck that piece of shit Lexus.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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