Putting Radical Life in Schools

26/01/15 0 COMMENTS

Truthout, January 25, 2015

Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Foundations of Education, 6th Edition (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014)

“School reform” has a very bad reputation among left thinkers and activists for some very good reasons in the neoliberal era. Captive to corporate-backed school privatization activists, contemporary “school reform” sets public schools, teachers, and teacher unions up to fail by blaming them for low student standardized test scores that are all-too unmentionably the product of students’ low socioeconomic status and related racial and ethnic oppression. Its obsession with test scores assaults imagination and critical thinking, narrowing curriculum and classroom experience around the lifeless task of filling in the correct bubbles beneath droves of authoritarian multiple-“choice” questions crafted in distant, sociopathic corporate cubicles. Students become passive recipients of strictly limited information deposited into their brains by teachers who “are prevented from taking risks and designing their own lessons as the pressure to produce high test scores produces highly scripted and regimented” pedagogy, wherein “worksheets become a substitute for critical teaching and rote memorization takes the place of in-depth thinking” (Henry Giroux). Pupils are rendered incapable of morally and politically challenging – and envisaging alternatives to – the terrible conditions they face under contemporary state capitalism and related oppression structures outside and inside schools.

Much if not most of what passes for school reform is really about public school destruction, corporate takeover, slashing teachers’ salaries and benefits, and undermining students and citizens’ ability to question a system that has been concentrating ever more wealth and power into elite hands for more than a generation. It is deeply (and by no means just coincidentally) consistent with the late comedian George Carlin’s 2005 rant about what “the big wealthy business interests that control everything…don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking.” As Carlin elaborated:

“They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people…who are smart enough to, figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.”

But what if “school reform” meant the empowerment of radically democratic educators who sought the opposite what Carlin’s business owners want – and more? What if those teachers were dedicated to helping future citizens and workers become sufficiently smart, inspired, confident, courageous, loving and solidaristic, not only to understand what the capitalist owners and their coordinators are doing to society and life itself, but also to resist those elites and to create an egalitarian, democratic, sustainable, peaceful, and truly human world turned upside down? Such teachers wouldn’t think that schools could bring about such a revolutionary transformation on their own. They would, however, understand “how,” in the leading left educational and social critic Peter McLaren’s words, “schools are implicated in social reproduction…how schools perpetuate or reproduce the social relationships and attitudes needed to sustain the existing dominant economic and class relations of the larger society.” Determined to interrupt and overturn that deadly reproduction, they would grasp the “partial autonomy of the school culture” and the necessity of occupying that space as “a vehicle for political activism and creating a praxis of social equality, economic justice, and gender equality” (Life in Schools, 150).

That is the goal behind McLaren’s classic text Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Foundations of Education, recently updated for the Obama era in a sixth edition. “We are living,” McLaren writes near the end of Life in Schools:

“…in what Antonio Gramsci called a war of position – a struggle to unify diverse social movements in our collective efforts to resist global capitalism – in order to wage what he called a war of maneuver (a concerted effort to challenge and transform the state, to create an alternative matrix for society other than value). Part of our war of position is taking place in our schools. Schools form part of Gramsci’s integral state as a government-coercive apparatus and an apparatus of political and cultural hegemony that continually needs to be renewed in order to secure the assent of the dominant group’s agenda.” (Life in Schools, 245-46).

Life in Schools is (among other things) a sprawling, many-sided, and brilliant manual of theory, history, and practice for teachers, teachers-in-training, and current and future education professors ready to enlist in that “war of position.” The stakes, McLaren reminds us (like his colleague and ally Giroux [1]), are not small:

“Today, amidst the most powerful conglomeration of cultural, political, and economic power aver assembled in history…we have seen our humanity swept away like a child’s sigh in a tornado…The marble pillars of democracy have crashed around our heads, leaving us ensepulchered in a graveyard of empty dreams… The omnicidal regimes of our Anthropocene Era have brutalized our planet to the point of bringing ecosystems and the energies of evolution and speciation to the point of devastation and Homo Sapiens to the brink of extinction….Time is running out quickly. We are being chased to by the hounds of both heaven and hell ‘with all deliberate speed’ and we are being continually outflanked.” (xxi, 259, 261)

Building on stories from his early years as what he considers a rather naïve liberal teacher in an inner-city Toronto school, McLaren takes his readers on a long and loving trip from his years in the classroom (Life in Schools contains a previously published journal [titled Cries From the Corridor] in which McLaren recorded his teaching experience prior to his engagement with radical theory) through the theory of revolutionary critical pedagogy; the roles that mainstream schools and educational doctrine play in subjugating working class and minority students; the structures and ideologies of contemporary oppression and inequality (class, race, gender, ethnicity, and empire); and methods for teachers to instill students with confidence, hope and capacity for resistance and solidarity.

Like the leading critical education theorists Henry Giroux and Paulo Friere, McLaren argues that educators have a duty to – in Friere’s words – “engage in politics when we educate.” The dominant methods and paradigms of North American education are richly political and ideological beneath their (false) claims of value-free objectivity and balance. Whereas those methods and paradigms covertly advance the predatory capitalist (neoliberal) project beneath the pretense of impartial neutrality (so that “being educated today constitutes a form of historically conditioned estrangement and alienation” [280]), critical pedagogy openly advances a liberating and participatory democratic socialism beyond both state capitalism and authoritarian socialism.

McLaren does not pretend that schools alone can rescue and re-energize democracy and justice in the United States. Still, he argues that schools can and must become zones of popular de-indoctrination, democratic re-imagination, and resistance to capital, whose giant transnational corporations are “taking hacksaws to the web of planetary ecosystems” and to “the covenant that once defined (however tenuously) the social commons.” The task is essential in an era of escalating empire, inequality, and authoritarianism, when millions are forced into long-term “structural unemployment,” prison, poverty, hopelessness and depression. The “rich are getting drunk on the tears of the poor” (233) while an “antiwar” US president kills Muslim civilians and even assassinates US citizens with arrogant impunity, and the Superpower shamelessly liquidates long-cherished civil liberties.

While Life in Schools seems directed primarily at academic departments of education, it deserves an audience far beyond the ivory tower. It is loaded with deeply informed radical perspectives that should interest progressive thinkers and activists in all spheres of life under contemporary capitalism. Especially relevant in light of recent events is McLaren’s critique of academic theories that “‘race,’ not class is the major form of oppression in society.” A dedicated anti-racist and anti-sexist, McLaren nonetheless reminds us that:

“Class exploitation…[is] the material armature material basis or material conditions of possibility for other forms of oppression within capitalist society… class exploitation is not simply one form of oppression among others; rather, it constitutes the ground on which other ‘isms’ of oppression are sustained within capitalist societies. When we claim that class antagonism….is [just] one in a series of social antagonisms – race, class, gender, and so on – we often forget the fact that class sustains the conditions that produce and reproduce the other antagonisms,…[whose] material basis can be traced to the means and relations of production within capitalist society – to the social division of labor that occurs when workers sell their labor power for a wage to the capitalist (Life in Schools, 217-18) ….Class as a social relation sets the conditions of possibility for many other social antagonisms, such as racism and sexism, thought it cannot be reduced to them” (125).

McLaren also offers trenchant insights on the reactionary role of the Obama administration. As portrayed (accurately by my estimation) in Life in Schools, the current US president is an abject “war criminal”(6-7, 274), a deadly enemy of civil liberties (232), a toady to Wall Street (6-7), a stealth agent of neoliberal so-called post-racial white supremacy (193-94), and a stalwart instrument of the corporate-neoliberal educational agenda, with its deadly testing obsession (16).

Equally instructive are McLaren’s reflections on how much of what passes for resistance today is actually an expression of capitalist hegemony, and on the central role of corporate-manufactured hopelessness in the ruling class’s intensifying destruction of justice, democracy, and life itself. “We have accommodated ourselves to the [contemporary state-capitalist and imperial] Deep State, and have routinized and ritualized our responses to it,” McLaren’s writes (xxi). The major barrier to the radical and democratic changes required, McLaren feels, has to do with hope and confidence: “The biggest prohibitive obstacle to organizing the Left is [a lack of] confidence that an alternative to capitalism can be made viable.”

As McLaren acknowledges, it’s not easy to answer the question of how to develop a widespread faith in socialism’s viability. “But,” he adds, “it’s not easy to live in the world as presently fashioned, either, so we’d best get to work on finding some solutions” (257). Wise words.

1. Giroux’s latest book begins with the observation that “America is descending into madness. The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem. The mainstream media spin stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible – stories that celebrate power and demonize victims…under the glossy veneer of entertainment…A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near-sociopathic lack of interest in – or compassion and responsibility for – others. Anti-public intellectuals …urge us to spend more, indulge more, and make a virtue out of personal gain, while producing a depoliticized culture of consumerism. Undermining life-affirming social solidarities and any viable notion of the public good, politicians trade in forms of idiocy and superstition that seem to mesmerize the undereducated and render the thoughtful cynical and disengaged. Militarized police forces armed with the latest weapons tested in Afghanistan and Iraq play out their fantasies on the home front…[while] defense contractors…market military-grade surveillance tools and weapons to a full range of clients, from gated communities to privately owned for-profit prisons.” Henry Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine (San Francisco: City Lights, 2014), 9-10.

Absence of Outrage

26/01/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, January 26, 2015. Nobody who is familiar with the case of Milton Hall – shot to death by 8 police officers on July 1, 2012 in Saginaw, Michigan – should be surprised that the US Justice Department will not be bringing any charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Last October, amidst protests over the Ferguson killing, the Michigan ACLU released footage obtained from the Hall family’s lawyers and used it as part of its testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States. You can view the video here (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Iigvm5iPkU)

In the video, you see the mentally disturbed Hall, 49, a local Civil Rights activist, surrounded by eight police officers, each with guns drawn and aimed at him. A police dog barks, growls and lunges toward Hall, who responds by bringing out a small penknife. When he turns towards the dog, the police open fire, getting off 46 shots in just a few seconds. Hall was hit 14 times. As he lay on the ground, “his blood running down the street like water” (in the words of his mother Jewell Hall), an officer rolled him over, placed a foot boot on Hall’s back, and handcuffed the dying man.

Right after the shooting you can hear response from eyewitnesses. “That was bullshit” – a Black women screams. “Man, why’d they shoot him so many times?” a Black man asks. “I don’t know,” another Black man answers.  “That was straight up bull.”

The notion that Hall posed some kind of serious threat to eight police officers and a police dog – an imminent danger that required lethal force to be exercised on the scale of 46 shots – is so absurd as to be sickening.

Last February, the US Department announced that it had failed to find “sufficient evidence of willful misconduct” to prosecute the cops who executed Hall in a Saginaw parking lot in the summer of 2012.

How any seriously justice-oriented Justice Department could give a free pass to such an egregious police murder is a fascinating question. But one thing seems clear: if the clear-cut execution of Milton Hall by eight cops, caught on video, doesn’t elicit federal charges, then neither will the killing of Michael Brown under less obviously murderous circumstances.  Don’t expect any positive federal “justice” action either on John Crawford (a 22 year old Black man unjustly executed on video by police in an Ohio Walmart last August) or on Tamir Rice (a 12 year old Black boy executed on video by Cleveland police last November) or on Eric Garner (a 44 year old Black man fatally choked on video by New York City police last July) or on many if any of the more than 300 cases of Black Americans killed by police and security guards each year in the US.

This brings me to another and intimately related issue: where is the outrage outside the Black community over such atrocious police killings – some captured on video and available to anyone with Internet access – of Black people in the US?

For better or worse, I periodically put up links to essays and videos reflecting my political and intellectual concerns on Facebook.  Typically, one of my intermittent postings garners a handful of comments. On some occasions, they elicit a large number of remarks, some quite heated. I have posted the Milton Hall execution video on the “social network” twice in the last month. Each time it has not elicited a single solitary comment. The same thing happened when I recently posted my latest essay on the racist police killing of the Black man Johh Deng in Iowa City five years ago.

Along with ZNet’s Mike Albert, I can’t help but note the contrast between (A) the giant public outpouring that occurred in France and across Europe in response to the remarkable and atypical murder of some satirical, Muhammad-mocking white cartoonists by fanatical Islamist terrorists in Paris and (B) the relatively minor public protest outside the Black community itself over the regular and by now practically routine murder of Black people by police officers across the United States.  No offense to Charlie Hebdo and the rest of France’s recent martyrs, but what about Milton Hall, John Deng, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Terrence Shaun, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray (16 years old), Ezell Ford, Shareese Francis, Reynaldo Cuervas, Victor White III, Chavis Carter, Tamon Robinson Raymond Allen, Shantel Davis, Manuel Loggins, Jr., Rekia Boyd, Kendree McDade, Kiwane Carrington (15 years old), Reginald Doucet, Ramarley Graham, Kenneth Chamberlain, Alonzo Ashley, Kenneth Harding, Kajieme Powell, Shereese Francis [1] and…(the list runs into the hundreds by the year and into the thousands over the decade)?

True, not all of those 300-plus killings each year are such clear and graphic examples of racist police lethality as the Hall, Crawford, and Garner killings.  Still, the disparity in public concern and outrage is chilling. As Albert reflects:

“In the U.S. there have…been recent incredibly heinous murders of innocent civilians and though such horrors are ubiquitous in U.S. history, the most recent racist policing has garnered far more notice than usual, due to public reactions. These U.S. murders were inexorable outcomes of ubiquitous profiling and intimidation policies perpetrated by trained agents of the institutional order of the U.S. and then exonerated in U.S. courts.”

“This mixture provoked an incredibly passionate reply in the streets and even in some corners of popular culture, but overwhelmingly from the assaulted community…overwhelmingly from the Black community and, beyond that, from very progressive activists – and not from the population at-large…In France, in contrast, what appears to have been a tiny group of maniacs – though quite well trained – assaulted and killed various journalists and associated media employees. As commentators all noted, this was a virtually unique event in French history. The outpouring of anger and support in Paris (and around the world) has been enormous and has appeared to span French society. The displays are in many instances angrily and even violently directed at a minority and impoverished community as are discussions of and likely implementations of new repressive freedom-curtailing policies, though the demonstrations rhetorically claim no desire other than to defend free speech and show solidarity with the slain victims. The scale of the events spurred by the assault on Charlie Hebdo appears to be much larger, proportionately, than were the U.S. reactions to Ferguson…”[2]

Why this unsettling contrast, reflecting remarkable public indifference of most of the US white populace to the regular heinous police murder of Black Americans? “I hope if there is further study,” Albert writes, “it will reveal that the part of the population that has been quiet and even complacent about police violence and judicial complicity is simply ignorant of the scale of the injustices rained upon the Black community…due to media machinations.”  My sense is that a serious examination would reveal that the media’s role would also be shown to be worse than merely encouraging ignorance of racial oppression.  From law and order television dramas to the nightly news, the local newspapers’ crime beat, and Hollywood films, United States corporate media mostly paints a vicious, fear-based, dehumanizing, demonizing, and victim-blaming image of the nation’s Black communities.  The nation’s still highly segregated and ghettoized Black population centers are portrayed as nightmare zones of rampant criminality, immorality, and violence: dangerous spaces of savage depravity[3]. Meanwhile, white Americans’ stunning ignorance about Blacks’ circumstance and experience is fed by persistent harsh racial segregation in the US (itself a leading factor in the highly disproportionate poverty and joblessness of Black America), leaving the terrible media images and narratives as the main source for white perceptions of Black life.

Domestically, urban Black and Latino victims of the contemporary US police and mass incarceration state and are the “homeland” versions of the media’s “unworthy victims” abroad: those killed and maimed by US and US-allied military forces, whose deaths come with a stunning “absence of concern” and even a “collective autism” on the part of most US citizens.  As John Tirman notes in his powerful and distressing book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), “The human costs [of US military interventions abroad] simply are not discussed in any sustained or probing way [in the US]; even the scattered attempts to account for [foreign civilian] dead is a highly charged endeavor.  More disturbing still is the appearance of a ‘blame the victim’ mentality: that to the extent the American public reacts at all, it sees the civilian deaths, injuries, disease, and displacement as…something the war-zone population has brought upon itself” (p.13).

A similar and related dynamic holds for the Mike Browns and Trayvon Martins and Milton Halls and John Crawfords and Rakia Boyds and Tamir Rices of America, eliciting a sense among many whites that the US ghetto-zone population – the main targets in the “homeland’s” so-called War on Drugs – has brought repeated lethal police interventions and other terrible things upon itself.

1. Please see Rich Juzwiak and Aleksander Chan, “Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014,” Gawker, December 8, 2014.
2. Michael Albert, “America vs. the World, as Usual,” TeleSur English (January 20, 2015), http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/America-Versus-the-World-As-Usual-20150120-0037.html
3. See Stephen Macek’s remarkable study Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

An Historical Row Over “Selma”

21/01/15 0 COMMENTS

In the wake of the recent release of the powerful movie “Selma,” an intra-Democratic debate of sorts has emerged over the history of a key triumph of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago –Voting Rights Act, which granted previously disenfranchised Black Americans the right to vote in the southern US states that had formerly enlisted on the side of the Confederacy in defense of black chattel slavery prior to and during the US Civil War. On one side you have the film’s portrayal of US President Lyndon Johnson as opposed to the great protests and marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and his Civil Rights colleagues in Selma, Alabama to force passage of the act. “Selma” depicts Johnson as only reluctantly behind the legislation and as using the FBI to influence and discredit King by sending King’s wife Coretta an audio tape containing purported evidence of the civil rights leader’s marital infidelities after King defied Johnson’s request to slow the movement down.

On the other side,  former Johnson administration aide Joseph Califano, Jr., published a Washington Post editorial in which he recalled and argued that “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him….Contrary to the portrait painted by ‘Selma,’ Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for ‘Selma.’”

To support his claim, Califano posted a recording and transcript of a telephone discussion that took place between Johnson and King on January 15, 1965, months before the historic events in Selma that sparked Johnson to publicly endorse and call for a federal voting rights act. King had called Johnson to politely press his request for Johnson to consider appointing a “Negro” to his cabinet. After discussing a number of suitable possible candidates for such a symbolic appointment (including the conservative chief of the National Urban League, Whiney Young) with King, Johnson said this to King: “There’s not going to be anything though, Dr., as effective as all of them [southern Blacks] voting…That,” Johnson continued, “[wi]ll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring, because the fellow [the president and other politicians – that is] will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.” Later in the conversation, Johnson recommended that King and his fellow activists help move federal voting rights legislation forward by picking one of the “worst spots” in the South to stage protests demonstrating the need for such legislation: “if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where–well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow–drive a tractor, he’ll say, ‘… that’s not right.’”

“Selma’s” director, Ava DuVernay, responded to Califano’s criticism by going on Twitter to call the notion of the Selma campaign as Johnson’s idea “jaw dropping and offensive” to the “black citizens who made it so.”

The DuVernay-Califano row revisits a dispute about 1960s Civil Rights legislation that emerged between the Barack Obama (presaging the DuVernay position) camp and the Hillary Clinton  (presaging the Califano position) team during the Democratic presidential primary campaign of 2008.

Who’s right in this historical clash? On the narrow matter of who came up with the Selma protest notion, it’s DuVernay. Califano is technically incorrect to say that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Civil Rights activists had targeted Selma for protest around voting and other civil rights as early as December of 1962. King spoke in Selma in support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s effort to register Black voters over the opposition of an especially reactionary and racist country sheriff (James G. Clark) at the courthouse in Dallas County, Alabama in October of 1963. In April of the same year, King’s SCLC had “considered supporting protests in Selma” but backed off because too many of its resources were already committed to its historic anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama.

Johnson certainly should not be credited with giving King and the SCLC the idea of picking an especially reactionary and racist locale in which to spark confrontations that would elicit public support for Black rights via media coverage. That idea was of course already the Civil Rights Movement’s modus operandi, well exhibited in Birmingham and elsewhere.

More broadly, however, Califano seems correct. There were disagreements between King and Johnson on timing regarding the Selma actions and Johnson was less than enthusiastic about introducing a voting rights bill soon after the recently passed Civil Rights Act, but Johnson was an ally in the battle for voting rights legislation. He had directed his Attorney General Nicholas Katznebach to begin drafting such a bill in mid-December of 1964. Katzenbach was already secretly negotiating with Congressmen over the legislation when the Selma marches started up.

The leading Civil Rights historian David Garrow shares Califano’s general view that Johnson and King were partners, not adversaries, on the voting rights bill. “Selma was not Johnson’s idea, but he was happy that King was out there mounting a voting rights campaign,” Garrow told the New York Times. At the same time, “Selma” sins badly when it suggests that Johnson had anything to do with sending the defamatory FBI tape to Coretta Scott King. The tape existed and was heard by Mrs. King in January 1965. But, Garrow notes, it had been recorded and sent to the SCLC’s headquarters in in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, with no direct ties to either Selma or Johnson.

Overall, I’d have to give the historical accuracy nod to Califano, though it was fairly absurd for him to claim that “Selma was Johnson’s idea.”

That said, there some other glaring inaccuracies that have not made it way into the narrow mainstream media-politics debate over “Selma'” faithfulness to historical facts.  As the veteran Black Left commentator Glen Ford notes:

“the film is a crude insult to SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee workers who, along with a small minority of Black preachers like Dr. Martin Luther King, comprised the infrastructure of  of the civil rights movement in the Deep South. These hundreds of heroic young people, who had been organizing communities in Mississippi and Georgia and, yes, Lowndes County, Alabama for years, and who invited Dr. King to come to Selma, are personified in the film by one confused sounding, infantile behaving youth who we are supposed to believe is James Forman, the SNCC executive secretary who was, in real life, a Korean War veteran and former teacher and ground-breaking organizer about the same age as Dr. King. In the film, the James Forman character comes across as petty-minded, while Dr. King is made to seem like the only adult in town.”

Ford also takes “Selma” to task for deleting Black Power advocate Stokely Charmichael’s critical role in the Selma story and the fact that it was the Kennedy administration that authorized the FBI surveillance of King’s professional and private life. Last but not least, Ford note the film’s false depiction of King as “yearning  for an end to mass protests, so that Black people could achieve real political power – quite clearly meaning the election of more Black people to office. As if that’s what the mass movement was all about, in King’s mind. We know that’s not true, because Dr. King said the opposite in countless sermons, speeches, books and essays; that he was seeking social transformation, a new system of living. Three years after Selma, King died, still seeking to revive the mass movement.”

I will argue in a forthcoming online essay that King would be less than impressed by the relevance of the movie “Selma” and especially of the debate that has emerged in its wake.   The really untold and hidden story about King is his democratic socialism,  a commitment to “the radical reconstruction of society itself” that led him see the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as remarkably limited, partial, bourgeois, and easily, even “cheaply” won victories that paled before the bigger task of radical transformation while they dangerously encouraged “white America” (King’s phrase) to falsely believe that all the necessary racial corrections had been made.

The forthcoming essay will be posted here when it appears.

Some Sources:

“Johnson Conversation With Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15, 1965,” recording and transcript at http://millercenter.org/presidentialrecordings/lbj-wh6501.04-6736

Joseph Califano, “The Movie ‘Selma’ Has a Glaring Flaw,” Washington Post, December 26, 2014.

Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2000)

Glen Ford, “Black History According to Oprah,” Black Agenda Report (January 21, 2015), http://www.blackagendareport.com/node/14624

Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996)

David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986),

Martin Luther King Jr.  A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991), edited by James N. Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967)

Jennifer Schuessler, “Depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in ‘Selma” Raises Hackles,” New York Times, December 31, 2014

Paul Street, “‘Until We Get a New Social Order’: Reflections on the Early Radicalism of Martin Luther King Jr.,” ZNet Magazine (January 16, 2007), available online at http://chicago.indymedia.org/archive/newswire/display/75822/index.php

Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007

 

 

The Chicago Blackhawks and the American Empire

17/01/15 0 COMMENTS

I am not one of those bookish and arrogant leftists or liberals who self-righteously denounces mass spectator sports as inherently authoritarian and proto-fascistic.  I’m in the David Zirin camp, you might say – a relatively sports-friendly leftist (with the exception of US football) who sees nothing necessarily terrible about the barroom conversation turning from the Left critique of US imperialism to how the Chicago Bulls might contend for an NBA title this season or to who belongs in the baseball Hall of Fame.  I will even admit to holding a certain nationalistic pride over the US invention of baseball, the most perfect and beautiful sport known to human civilization.

Still, there are numerous aspects of contemporary US mass spectator sports that I can’t abide.  Examples include the now ubiquitous playing and singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch at minor and major league baseball games (this violates my belief in the separation of baseball and state); the preposterous plethora of commercials that can make the last three minutes of play in a close NCAA tournament basketball game take twenty minutes to complete; the entire travesty that is contemporary mass-concussive (brain-mashing) US football (which actually is a pro-fascistic spectacle unfit for a remotely civilized society); and, of special significance for this essay, the persistence of American Indian team names and logos in professional and collegiate athletics.  As I will suggest below, this last problem is a topic that takes us back to US military imperialism.

“Like the New York Niggers”
The worst team name by far in professional US sports is the NFL’s Washington Redskins, which is just openly racist; the black comedian Chris Rock once said it was “like naming a team ‘the New York Niggers.’”

Next come baseball’s Cleveland Indians, whose home uniform and cap include a picture of a maniacally grinning and red-skinned “Indian Chief” with a strangely shaped head and a feather sticking up from the back of his skull.

These two franchises – neither of which is particularly successful – top the Professional Sports Indian Team Name and Logo Hall of Shame, hands down.  They have caught no small well-deserved flak for their names and logos from Indian rights activists over the years.

“Delivering My County of Those Merciless Savages”
A quiet third place goes, it pains me to say, to my longstanding NHL hockey team the Chicago Blackhawks, a recently successful franchise (winner of two Stanley Cup championships over the last five years) that is named after an early 19th century Sauk warrior from northern Illinois named Black Hawk. For reasons indicated later in this essay, this professional sports club has largely escaped critical scrutiny for its Native American appellation and imagery.

If you go to a Blackhawks game at the United Center in Chicago (as I do once every two or so years), you will find yourself surrounded by at least 15,000 mostly white middle class people wearing the team’s bright red jersey with the following logo purporting to represent the onetime Sauk Indian warrior Black Hawk covering their bellies:

hawk-head-201--wallpaper-white-200
What do the masses of the very predominantly white Blackhawks enthusiasts who proudly don the jersey (also ubiquitous at Blackhawks away games) know – or care to know – about the history of the individual represented in the logo?   Nothing, or next to it.  Just ask one.

One indication of this historical ignorance is the fans’ habitual reference to the individual depicted in the logo as “Chief Blackhawk.” Neither word in that designation is technically accurate. The Native American who is rather badly depicted in the logo was not a chief. Black Hawk, called Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak by his people, a band of the Algonquin-speaking Sauk Indians, was born in 1767 in the village of Saukenuk in the northwestern section of what later became the state of Illinois. He grew up to become a famous and influential Sauk warrior, but never a “chief.”

In 1829, Black Hawk’s band returned home from a winter hunt to find white American imperial settlers living in their Saukenuk lodges. “Indian unrest” ensued. Two years later, US forces summarily ordered the expulsion of the Sauk from the richly fertile forests and plains of western Illinois. The US General Land Office put the Sauks’ property (including Black Hawk’s lodge) up for sale. The Sauk were told to move west of the Mississippi River. Over the winter of 1831-1832, white settlers moved into Saukenuk. The following spring, the 65-year old Black Hawk returned with 300 warriors and their families from the winter hunt to reclaim their home village, which they saw as the “center of the world.” U.S. General Edmund P. Gaines arrived with a large force of U.S. soldiers and Illinois militiamen. At first, Black Hawk led his large band of warriors, women, and children in retreat, to the west side of the Mississippi. On April 5, 1832, however, he brought them back, mistakenly convinced that other Indian forces and the British to the north would support him in a struggle with the white invaders. A 15-week conflict ensued, concluding with the near annihilation of Black Hawk’s band as it attempted to escape.

The “Black Hawk War” was incredibly one-sided. The Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people, including hundreds of woman and children. Just 70 soldiers and settlers were killed. The conflict culminated in the so-called Battle of Bad Axe, on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, near the present-day community of Victory in southwest Wisconsin. Better described as a massacre than a “battle,” this American military triumph involved U.S. General Henry Atkinson killing every Indian who tried to run for cover or to flee across the Mississippi River. On August 1, 1832, Black Hawk’s band reached the Mississippi at its confluence with the Bad Axe River. What followed was an atrocity, committed despite the Indians’ repeated attempts at surrender:

“While the Sauk refugees were preparing rafts and canoes, the armed [U.S.] steamboat Warrior arrived, whereupon Black Hawk tried to negotiate with its troops under a flag of truce. The Americans opened fire, killing twenty-three warriors.”

“As we neared them,” one US officer who “served” in the U.S. assault recalled, “they raised a white flag and endeavored to decoy us, but we were a little too old for them.”

Hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women and children were shot, clubbed, and bayoneted to death at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers on August 2nd. US soldiers scalped most of the dead. They cut long strips of flesh from dead and wounded Indians for use as razor strops. The slaughter was supported by cannon and rifle fire from the aptly named US military ship Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives.

The United States suffered 5 dead and 19 wounded in the “Battle of Bad Axe.”

In a popular account of the “battle” published two years later, US Major John Allen Wakefield offered some interesting reflections. “It was a horrid sight,” Wakefield wrote, “to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country…It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth to ache” But, Wakefield wrote, “I must confess, that it filled my heart with gratitude and joy, to think that I had been instrumental, with many others, in delivering my country of those merciless savages, and restoring those [invading white] people again to their peaceful homes and firesides.”

Such sentiments were common among American army and militia members, who reveled in the mass murder of indigenous people. As a government agent told the Sauk Indians: “Our Great Father …will forbear no longer. He has tried to reclaim [Native Americans] and they grow worse. He is resolved to sweep them from the face of the earth. … If they cannot be made good they must be killed.” By Wakefield’s account, the US troops at Bad Axe “shrank not from their duty. They all joined in the work of death for death it was. We were by this time fast getting rid of those demons in human shape… the Ruler of the Universe, He who takes vengeance on the guilty, did not design those guilty wretches to escape His vengeance…”

The top “demon in human shape” – “chief” Black Hawk – escaped death and lived six years beyond the “war” (slaughter) that bore his name.  He was sent to a US reservation in Iowa after US President Andrew Jackson (himself a famous and prolific Indian-killer) had Black Hawk paraded as a celebrity freak and war booty – as an exotic and sub-human savage and as proof of the United States’ military’s alleged great prowess in defeating such barbarian brutes – before gawking crowds in eastern US cities. [1]

None of this history, I am sad to say, holds the slightest bit of interest for any but a minuscule percentage of the Chicago Blackhawks’ fervent and highly Caucasian fan base.

False and Ironic Obeisance
According to the Chicago Blackhawks’ public relations office, their teams’ name and logo is a tribute to the bravery and fighting spirit of the great Sauk warrior – a spirit its players seek to epitomize on NHL ice rinks. Similar claims are made by other teams with Indian names and logos. The Redskins, the Indians, the Braves and all the rest say the same thing: their Indian names and logos honor the Native Americans who courageously and skillfully defended their own ill-fated lands and ways of life.

Interestingly enough, the US military says the same thing about the considerable amount of military hardware – helicopters especially – and military operations it has given Native American names. The military helicopters include the Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and the Black Hawk Attack chopper. There is also the Tomahawk, a low-altitude US cruise missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle.  The operation that killed Osama bin Laden was given the title Geronimo.

The Chicago Blackhawks are the only sports Indian team name in the country that has a direct connection to the military’s use of Indian names.  The team’s name was selected in 1926 by its founding owner Frederic McLaughlin, who decided on the label because he had commanded a machine gun battalion in the US Army’s “86th Blackhawk Division” during World War 1.[1A]

(For what it’s worth, I’ve never attended a Chicago Blackhawks game where the team did not trot a military “hero” [veteran] or two out on the ice in connection with the signing of the US national anthem [the Blackhawks’ feature the loudest and most overwrought version of that hideous song in contemporary US sports] before each game.)

It is better, I suppose, to claim to celebrate and uphold liquidated Native Americans of the past than it is to engage in the liquidation of Native Americans in the present.  But, as the former New Republic editor Franklin Foer noted eight years ago, “there’s a sizeable flaw” in the reasoning behind the claim that Indian team names and logos pay respectful homage to the skill and courage of past Indian people and fighters.  As Foer argued:

“Americans can only pay this kind of obeisance because they have slaughtered the Indians.  Nobody is around to object to turning them into cartoon images…The cartoon images of mascots freeze the Indians in time, portraying them as they lived in the nineteenth century at the time of the west’s conquest, wearing leather suits and feather headdresses.  It becomes impossible to imagine the remaining Indians ever transcending their primitivism, ever leaving their reservations and assimilating into society.  The same sort of cartoon image has afflicted the European Jews [in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust]. No matter how hard they try, they’re stuck as outsiders and ‘others’ in the continental mind [consistent with]…an old aphorism…’a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews.’”[2]

There are flaws in Foer’s own logic. It seems misplaced to describe nineteenth century North American indigenous people with the phrase “primitivism” when those people related to each other and to the Earth in egalitarian and sustainable ways that put contemporary capitalism’s savagely unequal social relations and related eco-cidal environmental practices to shame.  While the European Jewish Holocaust has been strongly acknowledged and honored both within and beyond Europe, the American Indian Holocaust[3] continues to face denial and disinterest in the US.  Jewish Europeans enjoy significance socioeconomic security and privilege on the whole while Native Americans are mired at the bottom of the United States’ steep economic pyramid. Many Indian reservations more than just rival the nation’s worst-off Black ghettoes for social and economic misery.

Imagine the Chicago Fredericks
Still, Foer is right to note how the team names and logos function to portray Native Americans as unchanging and backwards inferiors who are justly excluded from mainstream society and its benefits. Equally germane is his observation that the tribes the US military crushed in the 19th century are no longer around to object to the appropriation of their onetime images as fighting mascots for contemporary sports teams. Imagine if the Chicago Blackhawks’ wanted to change their name to, say, “The Pancho Villas,” replacing “chief” Black Hawk’s picture with a portrait of the Mexican revolutionary – or to the “The Fredericks,” with a fierce-looking profile of the great 19th century escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass on the front of the team’s jersey.  My examples are absurd, of course, but the point is that neither move would ever be remotely considered because – among other things – the Blackhawks’ management would rightly anticipate protest from living Latina/o and Black communities within and beyond Chicago.

“Confusing Violation with a Fair Fight”
In the Sauks’ case as with other Native American tribes wiped out by US troops, of course, their white-skinned and blue-coated killers had little respectful to say about “the savages” they lustily butchered. The killers didn’t praise the Indians as commendable opponents.  They thanked God for helping them enjoy the one-sided slaughter of the “red-skinned” “demons in human shape,” including defenseless indigenous children and their mothers.

This suggests something deeper and darker than mere insensitivity in the honor that US sports teams and the US military claim to give to massacred Indians by naming sports teams and military tools and operations after Native American victims. The notion of the vanquished indigenous as fearsome and worthy adversaries serves to delete the real history of one-sided racist and imperial genocide – a savagely unequal conquest – that lay behind the “winning of the [US] west.”  It helps contemporary white Americans think that the North American continent was obtained in an evenhanded contest, not through massively superior murderous force and bloody criminality. At the same time, it has long boosted the nation’s sense of military power by selling the myth that rugged white US soldiers prevailed over truly threatening and potent “homeland” enemies. As Simon Waxman, editor of the Boston Review, noted in a brilliant reflection last Summer:

“Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves: because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality — the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated and impossibly outgunned.”

“The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.”

“It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority…. Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ” [4]

The “Chicago Bad Axes”?  
Keeping Waxman’s reflection and Chomsky’s analogy in mind, consider another name change and logo the Blackhawks would never consider: “The Chicago Bad Axes,” with a picture of a manically grinning and bearded white US soldier scalping a bloody, murdered Sauk child.  Never mind the painful historical accuracy of the image and name.

Why the Blackhawks Get a Pass  
The Blackhawks’ offensive name and logo has received relatively little criticism compared to the more fully provocative names and logos of the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, along with (to mentions some collegiate examples), the Florida State Seminoles, The North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the Illinois Fighting Illini.  Part of the explanation is thatt hockey is not as big a deal as either football (which tragically passed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport by far years ago) or baseball in the US. It runs well behind basketball as well.

Another  part of why the Blackhawks seem to get a pass is that, as CBS Chicago sports commentator Tim Baffoe noted during the team’s 2013 championship run, “the Hawks don’t use a caricature or slur that other teams have come under fire for. In fact, there is almost zero Native American ‘stuff’ used by the organization other than just their very famous logo.”

Like the Indian head on the Washington Redskins’ helmet, Black Hawk’s head and face is not distorted: it’s just a sort of “badass” (Baffoe’s term) profile of a fierce looking nineteen century Native American warrior.

The Blackhawks have nothing like the mass Tomahawk chop and chant that have long been central parts of the fan experience at the home games of the Seminoles and the Braves (the second team also used to feature a mock Indian called “Chief Noc a homa” who would come out of a “teepee” to dance whenever the Braves hit a home run).

That’s all to the Chicago Blackhawks’ credit, I suppose, but none of it really softens the deeper offense inherent in the use of Indian names and logos.

New Logo
One of the curious things about the Blackhawks’ version of the problem is that – unlike the Redskins, the Indians, the Braves, the Fighting Sioux, and the Illini – they don’t have to change their name to correct the situation.  All they need do is change their logo to the beautiful predatory bird that Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak was nicknamed after – something like this, perhaps:

Black_Hawk_Logo
As anyone who has watched a fair bit of ice hockey knows, this logo is a perfect image for the sport, suggesting a swiftly skating forward swooping down on a loose puck to shoot past an enemy goalie.

Chicago has the Bears, the Cubs (baby bears), and the Bulls (a tribute to the animals that used to be slaughtered en masse in the city’s once great meatpacking and slaughtering plants – Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle”) along with the White Sox (the “pale hose”) and the Fire (the city’s soccer team, named after Chicago’s famous 1871 conflagration).  Why not become the city’s fourth professional sports team to take its name from the animal kingdom?

Hockey Yes, Empire No
The related problem of Indian slurs (names and logos) in the US military is a much tougher matter. For better or worse, city- and school-specific hockey, basketball, soccer, baseball, and (I reluctantly imagine) football teams will likely continue in the United States after we make our overdue transition to democratic and participatory socialism – after the popular revolution,. Not so the weapons of global conquest and the US “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and more than half of US federal discretionary spending. They must be dismantled. Here re-branding and apologies for offense will not suffice. The resources devoted to the manufacture and maintenance of Black Hawk Attack Helicopters, Tomahawk Missiles, and numerous other deadly and highly expensive tools of US-American Empire must be redirected to addressing a vast ocean of unmet human needs abroad and in the “homeland,” where 16.4 million children, 22 percent of all US minors – including 36 percent of Native American children – live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (this while the US top 1% possesses more wealth than the bottom 90% of the population).  A good place to start meeting those needs is in the nation’s forgotten Native American reservations, where the legacy of past US ethnic cleansing and asymmetric conquest is evident in deep poverty and despair that is shamefully mocked by the “proud” Indian names and logos deployed by US sports teams and the military at home and abroad.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

Selected Endnotes
1. For background and sources on the Sauk and the “Black Hawk War,” see  Kerry Trask, Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America (Holt, 2007); Ian Barnes, The Historical Atlas of Native Americans (New York: Chartwell, 2009), 267;  Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harperperennial, 2003), 130-131;  Wakefield’s History of the Black Hawk War (Jacksonville, IL: Calvin Goudy Press, 1834), full text available at http://archive.org/stream/wakefieldshistor00wakerich/wakefieldshistor00wakerich_djvu.txt
1A.  Between 1926 and 1985, the Chicago NHL franchise was known as the “Black Hawks,” a direct use of the Black Hawk’s nickname.  Since 1986, it’s been one word: “Blackhawks.”
2.  Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 83.
3. See Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001).
4.  Simon Waxman. “The U.S. Military’s Ongoing Slur of Native Americans,” Washington Post, June 26, 2014.

Charlie I am NOT

14/01/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English/ZNet, January 14, 2015

Selective Sympathy and Scale
The murder of seventeen French civilians including five cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris was a horrific crime. It must, of course, be condemned. At the same time, there are far bigger crimes than last week’s Paris killings, which elicited giant demonstrations of support and sympathy within and beyond the city.

Where were the record-setting crowds of millions to protest murder in France, across Europe and around the world in May of 2009? That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed one hundred and forty civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just twenty two were males 18 years or older. The province’s governor told the Afghan Parliament that “the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…. Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.” [1]

Where were the millions in the streets of Paris and across Europe in April and November of 2004, when Fallujah, Iraq was the site of colossal atrocities, war crimes including the indiscriminate murder of civilians and the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals – the practical leveling of an entire city by the U.S. Marines?

Where were those millions at any point during the US occupation of Iraq, which killed more than 1 million Iraqis and maimed and displaced millions more?  How about when reports were first released of the savage torture of thousands of mostly Muslim detainees conducted by the CIA and US military intelligence? Where were they when Israel undertook horrific, openly mass murderous assaults on Palestinian civilians in the open-air apartheid prison that is the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and again last summer? The high tech military power and US client Israel – a nation that developed nuclear weapons with the assistance of France during the 1950s – killed 490 Palestinian children last July and August.  According to one report:

“[Israeli] Missiles have struck several sites in Gaza, including a park inside a refugee camp and an outpatient building of the strip’s largest hospital, disrupting a relative lull at the start of the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday. Eight people, including seven children, died following missile fire on a park inside the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City, medics said. The children were playing on a swing when the strike hit the park, Ayman Sahabani, the head of the emergency room at Shifa hospital, told reporters. Munzer al-Derby, 35, who witnessed the strike, told Al Jazeera: ‘The kids were playing on the wheel… A rocket fell and cut them apart…I know some of them. They were from Al-Helou family who left their homes in Shujayea (east Gaza city, where massive [Israeli] artillery fire destroyed neighborhoods). They came here and rented an apartment last week.’” [2]

Let’s hope that marches as big as those responding to the Charlie Hebdo killings take place in Paris, France, and across Europe and the world when the United Nations Climate Change Conference takes place in Paris next November.  The stakes behind the movement to stem anthropogenic global warming? Nothing less than prospects for a decent future and even species survival.

Making Fun of Others’ Religion
With massive crowds showing sympathy for Charlie Hebdo’s martyred atheist satirists and others murdered by religious fundamentalists, I was tempted (as an occasionally satirical and always non-religious writer) to join in the chant, “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).  But for me this would be disingenuous.  While I find last week’s murders contemptible (it is telling that I feel compelled to repeat that), I am NOT Charlie for at least four reasons.

I am NOT Charlie, first, because Charlie Hebdo openly, proudly and repeatedly mocked Islam and it goes against my grain to make fun of another person’s or peoples’ religion.  Religion is a very personally felt emotional and spiritual matter for millions, even billions of people. That I happen to be an atheist does not give me the right to ridicule and lampoon the religious beliefs and symbols to which others adhere.
According to a Marxist history professor of mine many years ago, Karl Marx’s daughter Jenny once bragged to Karl about how she had made fun of a British worker for his silly religious superstitions. Expecting approval from her father, she received instead a stern lecture on her inappropriate behavior from the Old Mole, who argued that religion would not be abandoned by the working class until the vicious and alienating conditions of class exploitation that made religious sentiments seem necessary to the proletariat had been abolished.

I’ve never tried to verify that story but I’ve always agreed with Marx’s sentiments as related in the tale. It is insensitive and politically foolish to deride and shame others’ religious beliefs and icons.

Piling On
It is especially offensive to do so when and where people whose religion you are scoffing at are marginalized, powerless, and under attack. I am not Charlie, secondly, because I agree with anti-racist commentator Tim Wise that the proper targets of satirical scorn are the privileged and powerful, not the weak and poor.  As Wise wrote after the Paris killings:

“In France, satire aimed at Muslims, who are the targets of organized attempts to restrict their rights and even their presence in the country, is not brave; it’s piling on. Likewise, for Jews to satirize Palestinians in Israel would be asshole behavior, while satirizing the nation’s Jewish religious leaders who have such outsized influence on state politics would be the very definition of legitimate satire. In the U.S., where Christians hold the bulk of political and economic power, satirizing the religious right is quite different from satirizing Muslims who are being targeted in regular hate crimes and who are facing communities trying to block them from having mosques in which to worship…..In short, power dynamics really do make a difference. To satirize people who are the targets of institutionalized violence (whether for religious or racial or cultural or linguistic or sexual or gendered reasons) is not brave. It’s sort of shitty, in fact.” [3]

French Two-Facedness
I am not Charlie, thirdly, because France and the atheists at Charlie Hebdo have exhibited quite a double standard when it comes to mocking religion.  As Tariq Ali notes:

“Charlie Hebdo…[which] sees itself as having a mission to defend republican secular values against all religions… has occasionally attacked Catholicism, but it’s hardly ever taken on Judaism (though Israel’s numerous assaults on Palestinians have offered many opportunities) and has concentrated its mockery on Islam. French secularism today seems to encompass anything as long as it’s not Islamic. Denunciations of Islam have been relentless in France….Defending its right to publish, regardless of consequences, is one thing, but sacralising a satirical paper that regularly targets those who are victims of a rampant Islamophobia is almost as foolish as justifying the acts of terror against it. Each feeds on the other….

Under French law, free speech and public assembly can be suspended to prevent violence and civil unrest. The law has been invoked to prevent public appearances by a well-known anti-Semitic comedian and (quite tellingly) to prohibit pro-Palestinian demonstrations.  It has never been used to ban marches and demonstrations by the nation’s many right-wing Islamaphobes or Israel supporters. [4]

A Predictable Tragedy that Makes a Bad Situation Worse
I am not Charlie, fourthly, because the terrible Paris killings and their consequences were thoroughly predictable. The magazine had every reason to expect a bloody assault resulting from its determination – of which it made no secret – to continue provoking believing Muslims by mocking the prophet.  There was nothing surprising about the murders. The consequences include a ratcheting up of the deadly conflict between the “liberal secular” West and the Muslim world.

The Western “Free Press”
Many who chanted “I am Charlie” in the wake of the Paris killings did so while holding pens in their hands, meant to symbolize their commitment to a free press.  It would be a mistake, however, to see the fear of inciting Islamist assault as anything remotely like the major threat to such a press in the West.  The much bigger and more relevant dangers come from corporate ownership and the related power of a dominant neoliberal state-capitalist and imperial ideology that prevents “mainstream” reporters, commentators, and editors from offering any serious challenge to reigning Western power structures and the policies (including the endless and self-reinforcing Global War of/on Terror [GWOOT]) that reflect and advance those structures. Thanks to those forces, the “free press” has become something of a joke in the United States, where, media operatives “who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion…skirt[ing] around the most important parts of a story… [They] avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance.” (Michael Parenti) [6]

“Collective Autism” on the Deaths of Muslim Others
One way that a US and Western reporter or commentator proves their “balanced” safety to those who wield power is by respecting the great doctrinal distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.”[5] Under US-led Western rules, people killed and maimed by official enemies of the US and Europe and their allies in the world-imperial geopolitical order are worthy victims. They deserve empathy, mourning, and serious efforts to identify their killers and to redress, even avenge, their deaths and injuries.  The vastly greater number of people the US, the West, and their clients and allies kill and maim abroad (the US-to-Iraqi death ratio during Washington’s criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq was 1 to 200) receive no such acknowledgement and concern. They are unworthy victims in US and Western political and media culture.

The “casualty aversion” that tends to repeatedly undermine US public support for Washington’s global wars is always mainly about the deaths of U.S. military personnel.  It has little to do with the much bigger swath of humanity the US kills abroad (more than two million people in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and probably as many as 2 million in Iraq from 1990 through 2011).  The West’s shocking “absence of concern,…absence of sympathy” and “collective autism” regarding civilian suffering in the Muslim world is shaped by a dominant US political and media discourse that refuses to seriously discuss “the deaths of others” at US hands and makes “even the scattered attempts to account for the [foreign] dead [i.e., Iraq Body Count]… [into] a highly charged endeavor” (John Tirman) [7]

This massive Western moral indifference regarding the deaths of others is no small part of why terrible events like the Charlie Hebdo killings come to seem inevitable. As Western media could only barely mention in passing, the Paris killers were “radicalized” among other things by the incredible atrocities committed by the US forces in Washington’s (brazenly racist, criminal, and petro-imperial) invasion and occupation of Iraq. The savage moral coldness of the US and West towards Muslim lives means that the US and the West will probably continue to commit yet more crimes against the Muslim world, fueling yet more Muslim rage and more Western war-of/-on terror response: mutually ensured escalation.  It all feeds the profits of the great US and Western corporate military-security-and surveillance-industrial complex, deeply invested in the waging of a permanent GWOOT.

And so the vicious circle persists and deepens, unless and until more and more US citizens and Europeans begin to say also “Je Suis Bola Boluk,” “Je Suis Fallujah,” “Je Suis Abu Ghraib,” “Je Suis Guantanamo,” and  “Je Suis Gaza.”

I strongly recommend the responsible self-suspension of arrogant secular and/or Judeo-christian Prophet-mocking until the deadly Western and petro-imperial occupation of, and assault on the Middle East and Muslim world is thoroughly dismantled– and until Arabs and Muslim people (believers and non-believers) are accorded full civil and social rights in Europe, Israel, and the US.

Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa City, Iowa.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)
Selected Endnotes
1. New York Times, May 6, 2009.  The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident (one among many mass U.S. aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001) was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about loss of innocent life, but the Administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11 (New York Daily News, April 28, 2009;  Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009).

2. “Children Killed in Gaza Playground Shelling,” Al Jazeera, July 29, 2014

3. Tim Wise, “Not Just a Joke: Reflections on Free Speech, Violence and Mislabeled Heroism,” TimWise.org, January 8, 2015.

4. Tariq Ali, “Maximum Horror,” Counterpunch , January 9-11, 2015.

5.  Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), Chapter 2: “Worthy and Unworthy Victims.”

6.  Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2007), 7.

7. John Tirman, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12-13.  Tirman is Principal Research Scientist and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Climate Change and “Everything Else,” Including Capitalism

13/01/15 0 COMMENTS

In an important Occupy-inspired essay published on Tomdispatch.com in May of 2012, the leading US Left intellectual Noam Chomsky argued that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change “isn’t going to be averted” soon, then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”

Chomsky was writing for leftists and progressives, a group for whom “everything else” includes standard portside targets like poverty, imperialism, racism, inequality, plutocracy, neoliberalism, sexism, police-statism, nationalism, government surveillance, mass incarceration, corporate thought control, militarism, and, last but not least, capitalism.

Chomsky had a point. All bets are off on the prospects for a decent and livable future are unless homosapiens wakes up quickly and acts on a giant scale to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources – a technically viable project. The “usual” struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed, and controlled and by and for whom are going take on a frightful feel when it becomes apparent that the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it is riddled with runaway disease and decay? Who hopes to inherit a dying Earth from the bourgeoisie?

Still, Chomsky’s comment should be taken with a grain of salt. If and when we move into full environmental catastrophe, basic questions of social justice and democracy are still going to matter a great deal to those left trying to live through and mitigate the misery.

At the same time and more importantly, Chomsky’s comment should not be taken to mean that (contrary to his own analysis) we should separate the climate problem from “everything else” and place it above all the other concerns that have long preoccupied progressives – that “green” should trump “red” and “black” in our priorities and understanding..

Where, after all, does the current environmental crisis come from and what is preventing us from acting to avert catastrophe? The answer to both questions is the Left’s longstanding number one bệte noire: the good old growth-, accumulation- and exploitation-addicted profits system, Yes, capitalism, with its competitive and atomized dispersion of economic decision-making, inherently antithetical to public planning for the common good. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin recently explained on the left Web site Jacobin, “It is not just that…capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about).”

“A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about how and why the soulless and chaotic bourgeois mode of socioeconomic management (furthered and not tempered by the modern corporation) is wired to destroy life on Earth[1], but that will do for a useful summary at present.

The brilliant Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein deserves credit for putting the focus on capitalism as the main culprit in her latest and best book: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “The really inconvenient truth,” Klein argues – correctly in my opinion – “is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” Climate change, Klein notes, “isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.  A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.”

Klein rightly presses left and other ecological activists to abandon their “fetish for structurelessness” and work to develop the kind serious mass movement that could function as a vehicle for the broad social and political change required to save livable ecology. That is very good advice.  So is her call for environmentalists to tone down their emphasis on fear (“act now or we’re done for!”) and to articulate a vision of where we want to end up after we flee ecocidal capitalism. As Klein reminds us, “we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the fear is only paralyzing.”

Klein is correct also to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to the climate question: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas. A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive social change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society.

Note how this turns Chomsky’s 2012 comment on its head.  In This Changes Everything, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.”  Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else we talk about.”

The new climate action movement must not, Klein wisely counsels, be framed in terms of the stern demand that people “make do with less.”  The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades.  It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation.

Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and ecocidal rule of capital.

But what does Klein mean, exactly, when she says “capitalism?”  Here, as in her previous book c, she grants the system freedom to modify itself away from “free market fundamentalism” in a fashion that might seem acceptable to squishy progressives and cautious liberals. Listen to the following passage from This Changes Everything:

“What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.  We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (This Changes Everything, p.18, emphasis added).

The third sentence in this passage is consistent with Klein’s radical statement about “the really inconvenient truth” (that the problem is capitalism).  Not so the second sentence, which attaches the moderating description “deregulated” to overall system supposedly in the docket. The problem recurs across This Changes Everything. As Gindin rightly notes:

“Klein… leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape a definitive condemnation. There is already great confusion and division among social activists over what ‘anti-capitalism’ means. For many if not most, it is not the capitalist system that is at issue but particular sub-categories of villains: big business, banks, foreign companies, multinationals….Klein is contradictory on this score. She seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying ‘the kind of capitalism we now have,’ ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, ‘deregulated’ capitalism, ‘unfettered’ capitalism, ‘predatory’ capitalism, ‘extractive’ capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system” (emphasis added).

This is not a new difficulty in Klein’s writing. Her previous blockbuster The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) was directed primarily at neoliberalism, at (Milton) “Friedmanite capitalism” and at so-called disaster capitalism, not at capitalism itself, It exhibited no small nostalgia for the Keyensian “regulated” and “welfare” capitalism that reigned across much of the rich world in the post-World War II “Golden Age” – a capitalism that (among its many terrible consequences) pushed the world into environmental crisis by the last quarter of the last century. As Marxist commentator Doug Henwood noted in a critical review of The Shock Doctrine, “Using words like ‘Friedmanite’ and ‘neoliberalism’ is a way to avoid talking about capitalism in any systemic fashion.”

Failure to deal with capitalism in a systemic and radical fashion combined with “Golden Age” nostalgia is of course a common malady among the many liberal and progressive authors whose books about and against economic and related political inequality make it onto bestseller lists and receive accolades from purportedly left outlets like The Nation. The difference between (a) these authors and Klein’s Shock Doctrine and (b) Klein’s latest book on the other hand is that (a) make no claim to be opposed to capitalism as a system but (b) does make that claim. That difference and the overall excellence of This Changes Everything combine with the undeniable existential urgency of her topic (anthropogenic climate change is, as the radical philosopher John Sonbonmatsu once told me, “the number one issue of our or any time”) to make This Changes Everything a notable advance over The Shock Doctrine. While Klein retains the habit of attaching qualifying adjectives to the sociopathic system (capitalism) that is operating as wired to destroy life on earth and while neither “socialism” nor “eco-socialism” receive a single index entry in This Changes Everything, she knows very well that (at the risk of sounding fear-based) its 21st century peoples’ eco-socialism or the death of prospects for a decent future.

Maybe leaving “wiggle room” for the system to change itself in a positive way is part of the price of admission that big money publishing firms, speaker committees, progressive-liberal magazines (e.g. The Nation) and media agents require for celebrity status (I am familiar with one best-selling US non-fiction author who decided for that very reason not to publish a book-length argument for socialism he’d privately written). There are other risks. It’s not for nothing that Dr. Martin Luther King told his assistants to turn off their tape recorders when he riffed on the virtues of democratic socialism and argued that the changes he and they sought (primarily the end of poverty) could not be attained under capitalism. Maybe the price is worth paying to reach a public pulpit to move the world forward on the core civilizational issue that is anthropogenic – well, capital-o-genic – global warming. Or maybe not.

Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1 % Democracy

Endnote

1. See John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?” Truthout, January 15, 2014; Paul Street, “Why I am an Eco-socialist,” Open University of the Left, December 14, 2013

No True Justice

07/01/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, January 2015. Throughout its coverage of the dramas sparked by the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City—and by the Grand Jury non-indictments of their killers—U.S. corporate media has framed the racial issue at stake as about how police carry out their tasks, how they police. The issue is not minor. How cops do their jobs is a serious matter in an age of militarized, high-tech policing. How those jobs are performed in and around Black communities is a particularly grave question during a time when a Black American (usually a young male) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante, on average, once every 28 hours.

Still just as important, but mostly missing from the media coverage and commentary, is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the U.S. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of Black U.S. households.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty”—at less than half the poverty measure—compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three Black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a deadly barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.” It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The St. Louis region (home to Ferguson) is just the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the U.S. and has a residential “segregation indice” of 72.3, meaning that nearly three-fourths of the region’s Blacks would have to move to be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices. It is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”

By over-concentrating poor and working class Black people in a small number of geographical places, U.S. de facto apartheid reinforces Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.” The police are policing a persistent racial apartheid and related racial inequality both reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration and criminal marking in the neoliberal era. None of this has changed to any significant degree because a small number of Black Americans have moved into visible high places.

“The Rule of Law”

Speaking of technically Black faces in high places, President Obama did not shed much light on the deeper problems beneath the Ferguson turmoil during his remarks while violence flared after St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s announcement that the Grand Jury he convened had (as widely predicted) exonerated Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson. “First and foremost,” Obama said on the evening of November 24, 2014, “we are a nation built on the rule of law. And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” Dare we mention the United States’ clear origins in genocidal conquest and in Black chattel slavery, which was thoroughly legal in the United States until the Civil War—and then significantly restored in all but name after Reconstruction in the South?

As for the rule of law today, the former Constitutional Law professor Obama might want to have a look at Matt Taibbi’s latest book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Taibbi exposes the great class-race division in real world U.S. law, revealing “the fun-house- mirror worlds of the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor.” On one hand, we have the elite financial looters who crashed the national and global economy through criminal arrogance and deception.  They destroyed jobs and households on a mass scale and went almost completely unpunished.

On the other hand, Taibbi journeys into “the front lines of the immigrant dragnet; into the newly punitive welfare system which treats its beneficiaries as thieves; and deep inside the stop-and-frisk world, where standing in front of your own home has become an arrestable offense.” Here people are punished with abandon, spending years and often lives behind bars for victimless crimes. They lack the legal resources and official legitimacy that “the 1%” possesses on a giant scale.

How did the rule of law distinguish itself in the specific case of Michael Brown’s killing by Darren Wilson? Police, prosecutors, and other authorities made a travesty of the case from the beginning and through the grand jury’s “no true bill” (no indictment) ruling on Wilson’s behalf. Brown’s body was left lying in the road for four hours. The medical examination was botched. The police insolently released a video of Brown engaged in petty theft prior to his killing, a clear attempt to influence public opinion in their favor—this even as they still refused to release Wilson’s name and race. Protesters in Ferguson after Brown’s killing were met with over-the-top military-style police-state repression that captured headlines around the world, even evoking criticism from mainstream U.S. politicians and media.

Clearly, McCulloch should have removed himself from the Darren Wilson case. His prior involvement and misconduct in an egregious grand jury whitewash of the killing of two unarmed Black men by 2 white police officers in 2000 should have disqualified him from presiding over the Wilson grand jury. As the New York Daily News reported the day after McCulloch announced the “no true bill” judgment, the prosecutor had long and close, familial ties to the police and a problematic history on race and police shootings. By reporter Rich Shapiro’s account:  “Bob McCulloch grew up the son of a cop, in a family full of cops, dreaming that someday he would become a cop himself. ‘I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,’ McCulloch once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”

“He’s been the St. Louis County prosecutor since 1991 and his deep ties with police have rankled area residents for years. Long before he drew scrutiny in the Michael Brown investigation, McCulloch had come under fire for his handling of other police shootings.”

“‘Whether truly justified or not, there’s a perception that he just never will prosecute a police officer,’ said Steven Ryals, a veteran civil rights attorney who lived in Ferguson for 45 years. McCulloch’s reputation as an unabashed defender of the police took root in 2001, 10 years after the Democrat took office. That year, a pair of undercover cops shot and killed two men inside a car in a Jack in the Box parking lot in a hail of 21 bullets. A federal probe, while ruling the shootings were justified, found that the men were unarmed and their car had not moved forward when the officers opened fire. McCulloch declined to prosecute the cops. He further inflamed tensions by referring to the suspects Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley as bums.”

“‘McCulloch has run the office of the prosecuting attorney with an iron glove and has made it quite clear that men in blue will be protected at all costs,’ Randall Cahill, who represented the victims, told the Daily News” (November 25, 2014). No wonder 70,000 Missouri residents signed a petition calling for McCulloch’s recusal after the shooting.

“We Don’t Want to Get Into a Law Class”

Fears that McCulloch would prove biased on the police side were born out by the Grand Jury’s proceedings. Legal experts were taken aback by his handling of the Wilson case. Instead of presenting the grand jury with only the evidence supporting the state’s case—the typical prosecutorial practice—he allowed Officer Wilson to defend himself and offered witness testimony that conflicted with any case for indictment.

To make matters worse, one of McCulloch’s Assistant Prosecutors gave the jurors a copy of an outdated Missouri law stating that police officers had the right to shoot any suspect fleeing arrest. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court three decades ago. Still, the Grand Jury listened to evidence with the outdated and unconstitutional statute in their minds for more than two months. Just one week before the jury was to rule, a local news outlet discovered the error or more likely the deception. The Assistant Prosecutor, Kathi Alizadeh, made a muddled and belated attempt to correct her “mistake.” On November 21, 2014, three days before the “no true bill” ruling, she instructed the Grand Jury as follows:  “Previously in the very beginning of this process I printed out a statute for you that was, the statute in Missouri for the use of force to affect an arrest. So if you all want to get those out. What we have discovered and we have been going along with this, doing our research, is that the statute in the state of Missouri does not comply with the case law. This doesn’t sound probably unfamiliar with you that the law is codified in the written form in the books and they’re called statutes, but courts interpret those statutes. And so the statute for the use of force to affect an arrest in the state of Missouri does not comply with Missouri supreme, I’m sorry, United States Supreme Court cases. So the statue I gave you, if you want to fold that in half just so that you don’t necessarily rely on that because there is a portion of that that doesn’t comply with the law.”

Alizadeh handed them a new document explaining the current and constitutional law regarding police officers’ use of deadly force. She said this document “does correctly state what the law is on when an officer can use force and when he can use deadly force in affecting an arrest, okay. I don’t want you to get confused and don’t rely on that copy or that print-out of the statute that I’ve given you a long time ago. It is not entirely incorrect or inaccurate, but there is something in it that’s not correct, ignore it totally.”

Seeking clarity, a Grand Jury member asked Alizadeh a simple and basic question: “The Supreme Court, federal court, overrides Missouri statutes?” The Assistant Prosecutor should and could have answered accurately with one word: “yes.” Instead, she opted for continuing to feed juror confusion by saying this: “As far as you need to know, just don’t worry about that.” Another Assistant Prosecutor present, Sheila Whirley, chimed in supportively, saying that “We don’t want to get into a law class.” The disingenuous and arrogant assumption in these replies to the juror’s simple and essential question was that it would have unduly taxed the jurors’ minds to tell them that the Missouri law Alizadeh passed out more than two months prior had been ruled unconstitutional by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court and that these federal court ruling overrode state laws (Lawrence O’Donnell, “Shocking Mistake in Darren Wilson Grand Jury,” MSNBC, November 26, 2014, “Exception to the Grand Jury Rule”).

It’s far from clear that the outcome would have been any different without the “mistake” or deception regarding Missouri law, however. As Ben Casselman noted on the highly esteemed FiveThirtyEight blog, “Grand juries nearly always decide to indict. Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.” Cases involving police shootings are a great exception to the rule that prosecutors generally get indictments from Grand Juries they convene (the State Island Grand Jury that exonerated Eric Garner’s chokehold killer on December 3rd proved no exception to the exception). Casselman suggests that prosecutorial bias may be a reason: “Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously” (FiveThirtyEight, November 24, 2014). That would appear to be the most likely explanation in the case of Darren Wilson, with the bias in question fueled more intensely than usual by McCulloch’s family background.

“Understand,” Obama said during his comments on the Grand Jury’s verdict, “our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.” The president forgot to mention that members of the corporate and financial elite routinely escape accountability and that the police are as involved in protecting private privilege and state power as much as “maintaining public safety.” Cops are often deployed against citizens who try to serve and protect public safety by challenging the power of the privileged few to do things like ruin livable ecology, bust unions, and crash national and global economies.

“There’s never an excuse for violence,” Obama told protestors on the night Darren Wilson was legally freed from charges for killing Mike Brown. If the President believes his comment, why does he order bombings and missile, drone, and Special Forces attacks and other deadly military actions across the world on a regular basis? Why did he secretly extend the U.S. war in Afghanistan and why has he launched a new US war in Iraq and Syria?

“Enormous Progress in Race Relations”

“We need,” Obama added, “to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation…there are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.” True enough. But the only challenges and problems Obama mentioned were the “deep distrust [that] exists between law enforcement and communities of color” and how “the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.… Some of this,” Obama added, “is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”

There’s that key distinction again—the one between how they police (in a way that breeds mistrust and protest) and what they police: societal and institutional racism.  Obama said he wanted to see change in the former (where he failed, however, to acknowledge that the problem is about active and ongoing racial discrimination, not just “the legacy of racial discrimination”). He had nothing to say about the latter, though he claimed (as usual on the rare occasions when he explicitly discusses racial matters) that, “We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I’ve witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.”

Have we really made such “enormous progress”? And if one answers no, does that really mean that one denies the country’s capacity for change? For this writer, at least, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” The second “no” is also a yes, however. No, the data do not support the claim of enormous racial progress. Yes, the nation can move forward toward racial equality on the basis of an honest appreciation of social and historical reality regarding the limits of racial progress. Indeed, it only on that basis that serious and transformative change can occur.

Bring it Down

Whites were supposed to recoil in horror at a video clip that U.S. corporate “mainstream” media distributed in which Louis Head, Mike Brown’s stepfather, reacted to the announcement of the Grand Jury’s non-indictment by saying loudly and angrily “Burn this motherfucker down, Burn this bitch down!” I am not horrified. Watching the video, one sees Head being human, nothing less and nothing more. Furthermore, he had a point. The American system of savage race and class inequality and abject plutocracy and ecocide needs to be taken down. Let’s take it down. It won’t always be pretty. For what it’s worth, the 1% and its hydrocarbon-addicted profits system are burning this whole planet down, right now. The sooner we shed calls for “order” and respecting authority (including the so-called “rule of law”) in pursuit of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the real issue to be faced—the radical reconstruction of society itself”—the better humanity’s chances for a decent, just, and democratic future are going to be.

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Paul Street is a writer living in Iowa City where he marched with 200 others in solidarity with Mike Brown and other victims of U.S. racist police violence.

Beneath the Headlines

06/01/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, January 3, 2014

The government isn’t listening to your phone calls, except when it is

Often it’s the “oh by the way” stories or sources buried at the end of a news article or report or in the endnotes or hyperlinks of an essay or book that knock you out – and help you realize that things are even worse than you thought.

A Quiet Change

Take the New Years’ Eve broadcast of the “Public” Broadcasting System’s Newshour. Near the end of her brief opening summary of the day’s news, the Newshour’s monotonous newsreader Gwen Ifill briefly reported that the United States Commerce Department had “quietly begun allowing US oil companies “to export crude [oil, that is] for the first time in nearly 40 years.”

As Ifill might have added, US oil companies now have an oil surplus for export because of the environmentally disastrous practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  Also unreported in the Newshour summary: the Obama administration’s move – a volley against OPEC in the war to control global oil and gas markets – could well signal an imminent full end to the export ban, which has existed since the OPEC-induced oil shock of the 1970s.  This is something that the powerful US oil and gas lobby has been pushing very hard for in recent years.

As “P”BS might have further elaborated but did not, environmental groups last year warned that easing of the ban on crude oil exports would lead to the release of billions of tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, significantly escalating the ongoing catastrophe that is anthropogenic global warming. The increased profits garnered from exporting crude oil will incentivize corporations to drill more in the US, leading to significantly increased contamination of the US environment and to more carbon emissions when that oil is burned.

The rollback and repeal of the ban is a recipe for ecological calamity. No small matter, but hardly the stuff of headline news at “P”BS, where the “P” often seems to stand for “Petroleum” given the “public” network’s heavy sponsorship by leading oil corporations – and where chilling reports about what amounts to full-on capitalist ecocide are commonly mentioned in the most nonchalant, secondary, and “oh, by the way, in other news” kind of way.

“….If We Hear Anything”

Here’s another example. It came when I clicked on one of the forty-nine hyperlinks in a recent excellent TeleSur English essay – a hyperlink embedded in the following phrase: “Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters.”  Being a native Chicagoan and a cell phone user who has been involved in more than a few protests in that city, I naturally followed the link, which took me to a report in the progressive Chicago-based magazine In These Times.  Courtesy of local activists and the online activist group Anonymous, the report contains a smoking gun.  It has a transcript of a police radio conversation between a Chicago police officer who was patrolling a Ferguson-related Black Friday Boycott demonstration and the city police department’s “fusion center” last November. The “fusion center” is an intelligence and surveillance facility (technically named the Crime Prevention and Information Center) that collaborates and coordinates between the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other agencies. The conversation, captured live by an activist monitoring a city police radio band, went as follows:

Officer: “Yeah, one of the girls, she’s kind of an organizer here, she’s been on her phone a lot. You guys picking up any information, uh, where they’re going, possibly?”

Crime Prevention and Information Center: “Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

Note how routine the conversation sounds and reads.  In the Chicago Police Department, it is no big thing, internally speaking, for the police to listen in on the phone conversations of activists engaged in supposedly constitutionally protected (First Amendment) free speech rights of public assembly and protest. The eavesdropping is an egregious violation of US citizens’ purported constitutional protection (Fourth Amendment) against warrantless and “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

I recommend the In These Times report (investigative journalism at its best) and a recent short report in the Christian Science Monitor’s online feature “Passcode” (covering cyber-security and electronic privacy issues)  for more details on: the specific technology – the StingRay (also known as an “ISMI catcher”) – that  allows police to (among other things) listen to track private cell phones (without the knowledge of cell phone companies); how the technology works; the military manufacturer (the Harris Corporation) that sells the technology to US metropolitan police departments; activists’ longstanding suspicion that such technologies have been deployed by local police; the struggle of activists and the ACLU to obtain public information about the eavesdropping; the manufacturer’s efforts to protect itself against legal liability for abuse of civil liberties; and the number of police departments who have purchased the snooping technologies with DHS grants handed out in the name of fighting Islamist terrorism after 9/11/2001.

An Old Problem: From Imperial to Homeland Policing

Here’s how the StingRay/ISMI catcher works: it imitates a cellphone tower, inducing wireless devices in the area to link to it. From there, it accesses various forms of data on a phone, from location to phone and text logs. “In combination with other devices and software,” In These Times reports, StingRays “allow real-time listening to cell calls.”

It’s nothing new. “Until 2006,” Passcode reports, “stingrays were used mostly in the war on terrorism. That is when police departments began acquiring them with grants from the US Department of Homeland Security.”

Yet another post-9/11 example of a problem that US Founder and Bill of Rights champion James Madison warned about way back in 1799: “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”

According to Passcode, reporting data form the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the problem is nationwide: “The ACLU has identified 47 agencies in 19 states and the District of Columbia that own StingRays….In Tallahassee, Fla., the ACLU determined through public records requests that police deployed StingRays more than 250 times between 2007 and 2014. It said that the Los Angeles Police Department used StingRays at least 340 times in 2011. In Tacoma, Wash., the News Tribune reported that police there used them 179 times between 2009 and 2014. The Charlotte Observer recently reported that police officials there used StingRays more than 500 times in a five to seven year span.”

“The Government is Not Listening to Your Phone Calls”

This, one might think, should be a leading story on CNN, at the New York Times, and in other leading US “fourth estate” outlets including “P”BS: many metropolitan and state police departments in the self-declared global headquarters freedom and democracy possess and utilize the capacity to directly eavesdrop on activists’ and others’ private cell phone calls.  Remember US president Barack Obama’s repeated statements to the American people after the chilling Edward Snowden surveillance revelations of 2013? Again and again, while making no secret of the White House’s desire to capture and punish Snowden, Obama told “We the People” that “their” government is “not listening to your phone calls” (it was only collecting supposedly innocuous metadata on calls between US citizens and overseas “bad guys” suspected of terrorist plotting). If you were like me (and many others less informed than an ACLU cyber-security specialist), you responded to that assurance with a shrugging “yeah, right, sure” and let it go, lacking hard evidence to the contrary.  Well, here’s your evidence, as clear as day, consistent with many US activists’ longstanding assumption that their calls are monitored by authorities.

Yet more confirmation that we live in a Big Bother police state.

The government is not listening to your phone calls, except when it is.

The Chicago (and national) police eavesdropping story ought to be a headline item, at the top of the major newspaper, network and cable news cycle. Instead it’s a small item in a marginal left magazine and in a relatively unknown online feature of the Christian Science Monitor.

In any event, fellow US citizens and workers, beware of the StingRay when you try to organize against escalated exports of eco-cidal US crude oil to China and others destinations on our dying, overheated planet – or against any other number of evils (including ubiquitous police surveillance) that have come to seem close to banal in the Deep State Superpower’s “homeland.”

There is some good news, recently sent me by a cyber-savvy comrade in Madison, Wisconsin: a new cell phone app designed specifically for detecting StingRay cell phone trackers.  The app, called “SnoopSnitchers,” was developed by the German security researchers Alex Senier, Karsten Nohl, and Tobias Engel from SRLabs. You can read more about it here.

Stay as safe as you can fighting back in 2015.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Because We Let Them

04/01/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, January 4, 2015. Years ago I worked as a Research Director (I even had to wear a suit) for a fading corporate- and City Hall-captive urban non-profit social services and civil rights agency.  The organization’s wealthy and long-term CEO was notorious for drunkenness and other forms of dissipation (including frequent agency-funded trips to elite social gatherings like the Kentucky Derby and the Masters Golf Tournament) related to its decline.

One day in my office I asked a colleague at the organization why our chief executive behaved in the selfish and irresponsible ways he did.  My colleague responded with a question: “Dr. Street, why does a dog lick its balls?”

I confessed I didn’t know. The answer: “Because it can.”

My colleague’s point was that nobody with any power was telling our CEO he couldn’t get away with it.  He was being rewarded again and again, from year to year, with an outrageously high salary, an agency limousine, and positions on various corporate boards.

Thinking of that exchange the other day, I was reminded of something that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian, the American solider and statesman Edward Carrington from Paris in the late 1780s.  “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs,” Jefferson wrote, “you and I and Congress and Assemblies, Judges, Governor, shall all become wolves.”

Flash back to the 21st century and ask yourself: why does the United States’ astonishingly wealthy economic elite – so flush that the 400 richest Americans possess among themselves as much wealth as the bottom 150 million US residents – suck yet more and more money, net worth, and plutocratic power into its hands?  Ten years ago, the late brilliant iconoclastic US comedian and ranter George Carlin told audiences that “The real owners” of America “are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget about the politicians….You have owners,” Carlin continued:

“They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”

“But I’ll tell you what they don’t want.  They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking….They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.”

“You know what they want? Obedient workers  people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they’re coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.”

Why does “the 1%” – Carlin’s “owners” of America (and of Americans) – function as the socioeconomic and sociopolitical equivalent of a pack of endlessly hungry and avaricious wolves, consigning millions of its “fellow Americans” to poverty, joblessness, and insecurity and destroying livable ecology (and hence the prospects for a decent future) all because they “want more for themselves?”

If you want my attempt at a full answer to that question, you’ll have to buy or borrow my latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014).  I go into significant depth on the historical specifics and interrelated processes of US wealth concentration, corporate globalization, financialization, deindustrialization, state capitalism, and the various modes and mechanisms of ruling class domination (of politics, media, education and more) in the neoliberal era.

My short answer to the question: because they can.  They can for a lot of sometimes complex reasons (see my book’s fifth and longest chapter, titled “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power”) but above all perhaps because we let them and we let them because many of us – including many who occupy relatively safe and comfortable positions with considerable resources to help spark resistance – have for all intents and purposes given up on radical-democratic change. Again and again, I am struck by the pervasiveness, particularly among “educated” people (with college degrees and more), of the idea that there is no serious or viable popular resistance or alternative to the avaricious class rule of the wealthy few and their sociopathic capitalist system. The judgment comes down again and again in one form or another from academics and other professionals: the power of the wealthy wolves is just too deeply entrenched and the populace is too stupid and/or powerless to meaningfully rise up against the rich and powerful. The futility I have long heard expressed by professors, teachers, researchers, lawyers, journalists and other relatively privileged intellectual workers – many of them self-described “progressives” with no love for the rich and the profits system – is widespread.

Look again at the Carlin rant I quoted above.  Thousands of relatively well-off audience members roared their approval when he said “They own you….they’ve got you by the balls….… They want your fucking retirement money…And they’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.” Uproarious laughter filled concert halls as Carlin told people they were chattel whose “owners” won’t even leave them a pittance un which to retire.

Talk about surrender. The comedy tour in which Carlin made this statement was titled “Life is Worth Losing.”  And so it, perhaps, when you are a slave, which is what you are when you are “owned.”
I realize that Carlin’s tour took place a decade ago, in the wake of the openly plutocratic messianic militarist George W. Bush’s nauseating re-election. But the dark pessimistic surrender seems no less routine among liberal and other professionals in the Age of Obama – a period that has given us yet another great lesson on how nothing really changes all that much because a Democrat (even a purportedly charismatic and “progressive” first black president marketed as the near messianic agent of “change”) sits in the White House.

Carlin might have added something to his tirade about how the masters want workers smart enough to run the machines and do the paper work but not smart enough to engage in critical thinking. The comedian could have noted that the rich also want critical thinkers who are pessimistic and defeated enough to give up on fighting concentrated wealth and power – people who are smart enough to understand the evil of the system but are also too depressed, distracted, divided, and/or demobilized to do anything about it, including engaging with the supposedly “obedient workers” and helping them struggle against the “owner” class.

“We live,” the British health researchers and equality advocates Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett noted five years ago, “in a pessimistic period.”  It is no small problem.  The mantra that “there is no alternative” to the arrogant and avaricious rule of the wealthy few is the seductive  mental slavery of our time, a reflexive cognitive and emotional habit of capitulation to the supposedly God-like power of what might be called Capital Privilege.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that guarantees “because they can” with “because we can’t.”

An urgent task is to expose this “futile fatalism” (Mike Albert’s phrase) as a weapon of the rich and as profoundly stupid. It is deeply foolish because we are not in fact slaves (we have far more freedom to organize and resist than we seem to appreciate); because history past and present is rife with examples of popular resistance, rebellion, and revolution; and (above all) because futile fatalism is itself a force that pushes the balance of power yet further in the favor of the masters. Perhaps we have only a 20 percent, or worse, a 1 percent chance of success, of creating a better and democratic and sustainable nation and world no longer occupied by the “unelected [and eco-cidal] dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.

“We are moving right now,” Mario Savio said in 1994, “in a direction which one could call creeping barbarism.  We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight, to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.”  It’s not about certainty of outcomes or prediction.  Democracy and the struggle for a decent society is not a financial derivative – a bet on the future.  It is an existential imperative.  We lose nothing by believing.  We lose everything by not believing – quite literally everything give current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing for the first time in human history the prospects of something like species destruction” (Noam Chomsky, reflecting four years ago on homo sapiens’ potential liquidation of its own species along with countless others through the global warming that results from excessive carbon emissions). As the radical philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted in early 2001, “Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – required concerted action in the very near future…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”  Mass concerted action against the owners is a duty, not a probability (slim or high).  The stakes could hardly be higher.  It’s not about the crystal ball.

Paul Street is a writer and activist in Iowa City, Iowa

Worthy and Unworthy Victims From Vietnam and Iraq to Ferguson and New York

31/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, December 30, 2014 One of the more chilling accomplishments of “mainstream” United States (US) media and politics culture is the way it paints the US “homeland” and its agents of imperial “force projection” as the real and worthy victims of global violence – not the vast swath of anonymous and unworthy victims that Uncle Sam has murdered and maimed across the planet.

Before sporting events across the US, millions are regularly expected to leap to honor US military veterans for “heroic sacrifice” on behalf of “freedom.”  Nothing is ever said about the many millions of people the US military and its proxies have slaughtered and mutilated around the world.

Vietnam All About US

Look at the so-called Vietnam War – a curious term for a one-sided imperial assault on a poor peasant nation and region by the greatest military power in history. It led to the premature deaths of 5 million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and the massive destruction of Southeast Asian ecosystems and infrastructure.  The US dead were a small portion of the Indochinese death toll.  The “Vietnam tragedy” included no military engagements on US soil.

These vast disparities of pain and damage do not remotely register in the dominant US political and media culture.  The official memory of “the Vietnam War” is about what a traumatic and tragic event it was for the United States.   The officially worthy victims are all United States-of Americans. According to a favorite right-wing myth, the victims included soldiers who were “spat upon” by ungrateful antiwar protestors upon return from Vietnam. The reigning narrative says nothing about what happened to the Indochinese, attacked in the most savage ways imaginable by the most fearsome global killing machine in history.

“In the Streets of Fallujah”

Similar moral blindness plagues the official US take on the US invasion of Iraq (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”). Listen to the following statement from the “antiwar” presidential candidate Barack Obama in a late 2006 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, offered in support of his false claim that most US citizens backed the invasion:  “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved.  They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”

Obama made a remarkable, spine-chilling selection of locales to illustrate US sacrifice. In April and November of 2004, Fallujah, Iraq was the site of colossal U.S. war atrocities, crimes including the indiscriminate murder of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city by the US Marines. By one account:

“The U.S. launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November of 2004… [using] devastating firepower from a distance which minimizes U.S. casualties. In April….military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted…insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly…[reflecting an] intention to kill civilians generally…. In November…aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties. US forces then went through the city, virtually destroying it. Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin’s Russian troops had razed it to the ground” (Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire New York, 2005, emphasis added).

The use by US forces of radioactive ordnance (depleted uranium) helped create an epidemic of infant mortality, birth defects, leukemia, and cancer in Fallujah.

The Iraq death count from the “Battles of Fallujah” ran well into the thousands.  By contrast, roughly 60 US military personnel perished. During the first “battle,” alone, a handful of US Marines “Scout Snipers” averaged 31 “kills” apiece.

“Trying to Put Iraq Back Together”

Less than two years after he hailed the US “heroes” who died “in the streets of Fallujah,” Obama told voters that “It’s time [for the US] to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting America back together.”  Yes, that’s what the US was doing during Washington’s monumentally criminal and brazenly imperial occupation pf Mesopotamia: “trying to put Iraq back together.”  Oh sacrifice!

Fallujah was just one episode in a broader incursion that killed at least 1 million Iraqi civilians and left Iraq “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt). “The American occupation,” distinguished journalist Nir Rosen noted in late 2007, “has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.”

“A Price Worth Paying”

The US habit of seeing itself as victim can become surreal. In 1996, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright told CBS News’ Leslie Stahl on national television that the death of half a million Iraqi children due to U.S.-imposed economic sanctions was a “price…worth paying.”  But what “price” did Albright and other US policymakers pay, exactly? Wearing the thorny crown of knowing they had liquidated 500,000 innocent children in pursuit of some perverted notion of the greater good? As Albright explained three years later, “the United States is good…We try to do our best everywhere,” policing a chaotic world that needs our superior vision and firm hand. Yes, it takes moral strength to snuff out the lives of a medium-sized city’s worth of juveniles in the advance of a better world!

Individual sociopaths are notorious for trying to make others, often including their own victims, feel sorry for them. Sociopathic institutional complexes like the US military Empire exhibit the same behavior on a grander and more deadly scale.

A Five Year Old v. Hulk Hogan

Oppressors’ weakness for seeing themselves as the real victims is evident in domestic “homeland” policing as well. Five weeks after he killed the 18-year old unarmed Black man Mike Brown with a flurry of bullets last August, the white Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson spoke to a St. Louis County Grand Jury on what happened after he rolled up on Brown behind the wheel of a well-equipped police cruiser. When he first tried to interdict Brown, Wilson said, he “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” – this despite the fact that Wilson was armed and six foot four inches tall, compared to Brown’s unarmed six foot-three. Brown struck Wilson as “like a demon,” a “bigger and stronger” attacker who might have killed him with a punch. Wilson was the real victim, traumatized by fear and later struck by “remorse” over the shooting.

“Open Season on Us”

Recently many in the New York Police Department union have claimed victimhood amidst mass protests over police killings of unarmed Black men (including the NYPD chokehold murder of Eric Garner) and after the hideous double murder of two NYPD officers – Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu – by a lone psychotic.  An e-mail widely circulated around the NYPD after the killings called for officers to avoid normal law enforcement actions “unless absolutely necessary …These are precautions,” the e-mail explained, “that were taken in the 1970s when police officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis. We have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ Police Department…We will act accordingly.”

“It’s f–king open season on us right now,” one of New York City’s finest told The New York Post.

But, as Ed Krayewski notes on Reason.com, “If the words ‘wartime’ and ‘open season’ are used after two cops are killed in more than 3 years, what word[s] should black people in New York City use? Eric Garner and Akai Gurley are not the only two killed by the NYPD this year, just the most prominent cases.”

By one estimate, a Black American is killed by a (usually) white police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante (almost always by a police officer) once every 28 hours.  By contrast, 40 cops lost their lives by gunfire and just 27 police officers were killed with criminal intent in all 2013 – a year that saw the smallest amount of police deaths in the US since World War II. (There was, if anyone cares, no campaign of regular ambushes and executions waged against the NYPD during the 1970s.)

As with the right-wing narrative about Vietnam veterans, the police and their supporters have included ungrateful “homeland” protestors among those who have victimized the virtuous gendarmes. The NYPD union, many police, and right-wing politicos like former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York Governor George Pataki have tied the killings of Ramos and Liu to the supposedly anti-police and pro-crime protests and the alleged anti-police and pro-crime liberalism of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Obama administration.

Seeking to pacify this anger on the “law and order” right, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor, used his speaking time at last Saturday’s Ramos and Liu funeral to say that he’d seen “people hurling insults” directly in the face of police officers during recent protests over the epidemic of police killing civilians and the repeated exoneration of killer cops “With the beating law enforcement has taken all over the country,” a retired NYPD officer, the funeral was “a way for everyone to show respect.”

The massive Ramos and Liu funeral was the greatest outpouring of support for the nation’s ever more militarized urban police forces since after the Boston metropolitan lockdown and manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhart and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in April of 2013.

A Rare Occurrence v. an Almost Daily Event

In his effort to mollify the police, de Blasio called for civil rights activists to “put aside protests, put aside all of the things we will talk about in due time.” It was a remarkable statement, richly emblematic of mainstream US media-politics culture’s double-standard distinction between worthy and unworthy victims in domestic police-state violence. “After all,” the Montreal writer Andrew Gavin Marshall notes, “hundreds of unarmed black Americans are murdered by police every year, and now, people have had enough, taking to the streets to protest. Yet, when two cops are killed, the mayor calls for the protests to end out of… ‘respect’ for the police. Clearly, murdered black Americans are not given the same type of respect…That should speak volumes.”

The Ramos and Liu killings have created a strong sense of vindication for those who tell us to respect the police because of the “dangerous jobs” they heroically took “to protect us.” In reality, as Marshall notes, policing doesn’t even crack the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the ten most dangerous jobs in the country. Garbage collectors, farmers, and fisherman experience greater occupational hazards.  According to the Washington Post last October, “policing has been getting safer for 20 years…You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.”

Last Saturday, a charity foundation executive went on CNN to announce that his charitable organization was raising $800,000 for the Liu and Ramos families.  Large contributions have gone to the murdered officers’ families from wealthy elites like Giuliani and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.  Nothing remotely close has been set up for the families of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner or for other survivors of the many hundreds of fatal police shootings that occur in the US each year.

As one Internet correspondent from Brooklyn told me: “Murder of cops by a psychopath is a rare occurrence; murder of a black man (usually a man) by a cop happens almost every day. There shouldn’t just be a fund for ‘Garner and Gurley,’ there should be a foundation for all the victims with an endowment!”

But, as police officers and agents of state power, Liu and Ramos are – like dead and injured US soldiers – officially worthy victims. Like the anonymous civilians killed by our “heroes” in Vietnam and Iraq, Black and poor civilians like Gardner and Gurley are not.  It’s as simple as that.

Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, October 2014).

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