Latin America Leads in Opposing US Torture and Surveillance

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, December 16,  2014

“Words Will Not be Sufficient”

In October of 2013, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced outrage over the giant global surveillance program conducted by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). How could Merkel not have cried foul? Among US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s many revelations about US spying, it was learned in October that the NSA had listened on her personal cell phone – a mind-boggling breach of faith between leading Western allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) and US-led “global war on [of] terror” (GWO/OT).  Other European and other leaders had also been placed under NSA surveillance, Snowden revealed.

Merkel said that Germany’s relations with the US had been “severely shaken” and called US spying on her and other European leaders “completely unacceptable…Spying among friends is never acceptable.” The German Chancellor said that “Trust needs to be rebuilt,” adding that “words will not be sufficient.  True change is necessary.” Other European officials “think the same,” Merkel added.  France’s Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault called the reports of US spying “shocking” and “worrying.”

The extent to which European elites really cared about snooping by their US “friends” at the NSA can certainly be exaggerated. The issue has faded in European politics and has elicited little real change in European electronic security policy. A German prosecutor has recently claimed that there is no basis for the charge that Merkel’s phone was tapped. In the summer of 2013, just two days after the German magazine Der Spiegel reported (on the basis of documents made available by Snowden) that the NSA “not only conducted online surveillance of European citizens, but also appears to have specifically targeted buildings housing European Union institutions,” five Western European nations (Austria, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) assisted the US in its openly expressed desire to capture Snowden. On July 1, 2013, Washington suspected that Snowden might be on board a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales home from energy talks in Russia.  Under US pressure, Morales’ plane was forced to land in Vienna, Austria. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain had (at Washington’s command) withdrawn permission for the plane to pass through their airspace. Morales’ flight was “kidnapped by imperialism” (in the words of his Vice President) because he had said in a Moscow television interview that Bolivia would look favorably upon an asylum request from Snowden. Morales left Vienna only after spending 12 hours at the airport and after Austrian national police verified that Snowden was not on board. The forced landing, detention, and searching of President Morales’ plane was a remarkable and arrogant violation of international law committed at the instigation of the US Empire. In was act reflecting what Argentina’s president Cristina de Fernandez Kirchner called “the vestiges of colonialism,”

Still, Merkel and other leading European politicians had no choice but to respond with some measure of public indignation over the US/NSA spying disclosures of October 2013.

“Sigh of Relief…Few Ripples Across the Pond”

Those European leaders have expressed considerably less indignation in response to the recently released US Senate Intelligence Committee’s (USSIC’s) summary of its still classified 6,700- page report on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) by the US government – most specifically by the CIA – on behalf of the US GWO/OT waged in the wake of the 9/11/2001 al Qaeda jetliner attacks. A recent Time magazine report is titled “CIA Torture Report Creates Few Ripples Across the Pond.” According to Time correspondent Simon Shuster:

“Europe wasn’t exactly silent. But considering the scale of the abuses that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee revealed on Tuesday in its report on CIA torture, one might have expected a bit more outrage from the leaders of the Old World. Instead, the most common reaction was to praise the report as a sign of American transparency and accountability—two of the values meant to bind the West together—while many European statesmen have so far avoided saying anything at all…That includes the leaders of France and Germany, who made no public reaction in the 24 hours that followed the report’s release…if the White House was expecting the Senate report to freeze relations across the Atlantic, it can probably breathe a sigh of relief.”

The Imperial Logic of European Silence on Torture

This too is unsurprising.  As the Open Society demonstrated in an exhaustive February 2013 study titled Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret and Extraordinary Rendition, “Germany participated in the interrogation of at least one extraordinarily rendered individual. It also had knowledge of the abduction of a German national who was held in secret CIA detention. Further, Germany permitted use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with the CIA extraordinary rendition program.”

Eighteen other European nations (including Belgium, England, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and even social-democratic Sweden and Denmark) also participated in the global CIA torture network. The roles they played ranged from letting CIA rendition flights use their airspace and airports to letting the CIA snatch captives up on their national territory and to actually (as in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania) hosting secret CIA prisons (torture sites).

“The muted reaction from European leaders,” Shuster learned, “is perhaps best explained by the dilemma this issue presents. If one of them praises the report’s transparency, they could be perceived as downplaying the gravity of the crimes committed in the execution of the war on terror. If one of them condemns those crimes, they will almost certainly face questions about their own country’s complicity, if not also its direct involvement, in torture and illegal detention.”

Another factor behind Europe’s mild response to the USSIC report is the US-led “new Cold War” confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.  This Western-driven conflict has “urged the West to band together against what they perceive as a common threat to their security.” An imperial “expert on Central and Eastern Europe” (an academic flak at the German Marshall Fund) told Shuster that “the key ingredient to any successful Russia policy is Western unity.” As Merkel “pursues an ever-tougher line against Moscow,” the “expert” adds, “she needs to rally the Europeans, and she needs to make sure the coordination with the Americans remains intact.”

The Latin American Exception

It wasn’t just Europe that collaborated with CIA extraordinary rendition and torture.  Fifty four nations spread across five of the world’s six inhabited continents participated in the US global torture network.

The one such continent where not a single nation played along with the CIA campaign of secret and extraordinary rendition? South America.  No country there or anywhere else in Latin America (including Mexico and the Central American states of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) allowed the US post-9/11 terror network to use even its airspace or airports. The only facility fully enlisted in the US GWO/OT in Latin America is a US colonial hangover: the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (“Gitmo”) – a US prison and torture complex in the US Navy base on the Southeastern tip of Cuba.

Not that Uncle Sam didn’t try to recruit its southern neighbors to his 21st century torture and kidnapping campaign. In November of 2002, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew more than 5000 miles to Santiago, Chile.  There he told a meeting of chiefly Latin American Western Hemispheric defense ministers that they needed to participate in the “integration” of “various specialized capabilities into larger regional capabilities.” Rumsfeld told them that “events around the world before and after September 11th suggest …advantages” for Latin American nations who collaborated with Washington and each other in the “war on terror.” Rumsfeld offered US money, technology, training, and other assistance to Latin American militaries and governments who agreed to work with Washington in constructing a planetary system of kidnapping, torture, and murder,

Rumsfeld was likely unaware that September 11th was already a black day in Latin American history because it was on 9/11/1973 that the US-backed Chilean military undertook a CIA-backed coup that killed Chile’s democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and led to the political state murder, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Chilean workers, activists, and intellectuals. Beginning in 1975, the fascist Chilean coup regime, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, joined with its fellow right wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil in the implementation of Operation Condor, an “anti-communist” campaign of state terror, torture, disappearance, and political repression. Operation Condor that killed at least 60,000 people in the 1970s and 1980s, receiving leading military aid and technical assistance from the US, principally through the CIA. It was all perpetrated in the name of “democratic capitalism” and the so-called free market.

Rumsfeld and the Bush administration did not succeed in their efforts to resurrect a kind of Operation Condor for the post-9/11 era – one in which radical Islam replaced Soviet and Cuban “communism” (cover terms for the actual threats of Latin America populism, social democracy, and national independence) as the official enemy. As the Latin American historian Greg Grandin explained last year, “History was not on Rumsfeld’s side. His trip to Santiago coincided with Argentina’s epic financial meltdown, among the worst in recorded history.  It signaled a broader collapse of the economic model – think of it as Reaganism on steroids – that Washington had been promoting in Latin America since the late Cold War years.  Soon, a new generation of leftists would be in power across much of the continent, committed to the idea of national sovereignty and limiting Washington’s influence in the region in a way that their predecessors hadn’t been.”

“Empire’s Workshop”

Latin America’s refusal to sign up with the US GWO/OT was more than just collateral fallout from economic meltdown.  As was certainly understood by left Latin American leaders Hugo Chavez (elected president of Venezuela in 1998), Lula da Silva (elected to Brazil’s presidency in October of 2002), Néstor Kirchner (elected to Argentina’s presidency in early 2003), Evo Morales (elected to Bolivia’s presidency in late 2005), and Rafael Correa (elected to Ecuador’s presidency in late 2006), the regressive neoliberal (arch-capitalist) “free market” economic model had been imposed on Latin America by Washington largely through the iron fist of state violence funded, equipped, trained, and overseen by US military and intelligence. “Enhanced “interrogation” was a critical weapon in that US-sponsored repression. The terrible torture methods recounted in last week’s Senate report were all too well known to Latin Americans during the last century.  Deep in the USSIC’s 500-page summary of that report there is reference to KUBARK, code name for a July1963 CIA interrogation manual. As the committee notes, the manual contained the “principal coercive techniques of interrogation: arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis and induced regression.” Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and through the 1980s, Washington and Latin America’s many US-sponsored right wing dictatorships turned the region into “a counterinsurgent laboratory” (Grandin) – one where US-trained and US-equipped gendarmes regularly conducted many of the “coercive interrogation” techniques used by the US and its GWO/OT allies during the present century. United States military and intelligence personnel applied the same basic horrific techniques in Southeast Asia during the US Indochinese wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The CIA updated KUBARK when US-sponsored Latin American military regimes faced popular resistance and armed insurgency during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, the USSIC reports,  “a CIA officer incorporated significant portions of the KUBARK manual into the Human Resource Exploitation (HRE) Training Manual, which the same officer used to provide interrogation training in Latin America in the early 1980s.”  Beyond application in training death squads and armed forces who killed hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, and activists in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the new manual was “used to provide interrogation training to” a party whose name is redacted in the committee’s report.  The deleted entity is clearly the Contras, a terrorist force created by the CIA to overthrow the popular Left Sandinista government in Managua.

Not surprisingly, there are some direct personnel connections between the US terror campaign in 20th century Latin America and this century’s US-led GWO/OT.  The USSIC reports that “a CIA officer [who] was involved in the HRE training and conducted interrogations” that may have gone overboard (even by US standards) became “in the fall of 2002…the CIA’s chief of interrogations in the CIA’s Renditions Group, the officer in charge of CIA interrogations.” According to a recent Newsweek report:

“Other veterans of the Latin American counterinsurgency wars were key players in the questionable post-9/11 interrogation practices exposed by the Senate committee, although they went unmentioned in its report because they were not CIA officers…Retired Army Colonel James Steele, along with another retired army colonel, James H. Coffman, helped the Iraqi government set up police commando units and ‘worked…in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of U.S. funding,’ the London-based Guardian newspaper and the BBC reported in a joint project in 2013…Steele had been commander of the U.S. military advisory group in El Salvador during its 1980s civil war, a struggle remembered chiefly for the ‘death squads’ the regime used against nuns and priests allied with the poor. Steele had previously been decorated for his service in South Vietnam as a U.S. Army reconnaissance patrol leader” (emphasis added).

Given Latin American governments’ deep collaboration with US military and intelligence force’s torture practices during the last century, it might seem ironic that South and Latin America alone among the world’s great continents and regions can boast that none of its national governments agreed to participate in the global torture network created by the US after 9/11.  The irony disappears, however, when one realizes that the region living under the hemispheric thumb of the United States since the 19th century has in this century rejected both the imperial economic model and the intimately related state terrorism – both the “soft” rule of the (in fact brutal) “free market” and the iron fist of hard state power – imposed by its bad neighbor and bully to the North.  As the longstanding early “workshop” (Grandin) of the US state-capitalist Empire, Latin America quite logically stands in the vanguard when it comes to rejecting US torture and murder techniques and programs.

Leading on Surveillance and Whistleblower Protection

It isn’t only on the torture/interrogation/rendition (kidnapping) issue that Latin America far surpasses Europe in standing up to the US GWO/OT.  Uncle Sam’s southern neighbors also lead on fighting NSA surveillance (which has also of course targeted Latin American citizens and heads of state) and on protecting whistleblowers who expose US crimes.  Morales expressed Bolivia’s willingness to host and protect Snowden – likely a sincere statement. Another South American state, Brazil, currently hosts and protects Glenn Greenwald, the US civil-libertarian journalist to whom Snowden turned with his documents and revelations.  Another left-led Latin American state, Ecuador, provides a sanctuary for the Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London.  Assange is under siege by the United States, England, and even social-democratic Sweden because of his role in the publication of US military and diplomatic documents leaked by US Army private Chelsea Manning. As John Pilger has recently observed, “For two years, an exaggerated, costly police presence around the Ecuadorean embassy in London has served no purpose other than to flaunt the power of the state. Their quarry is an Australian charged with no crime, a refugee from gross injustice whose only security is the room given him by a brave South American country. His true crime is to have initiated a wave of truth-telling in an era of lies, cynicism and war.”

Winning the World Cup of Opposing Torture and Surveillance

Germany and Europe can feel proud of their recent World Cup supremacy over their South American football rivals (Europe has taken four of the last five World Cups), but when it comes to the more serious matter of resisting the mass-murderous Big Brother US Empire and its terrible practices, the Old World nations east of the Atlantic lag far behind Latin America.

“Overwhelming Warmth and Compassion”

After writing the paragraphs above, I happened by chance upon a remarkable and heartwarming news segment on the reception received by six former Guantanamo prisoners – four Syrians, a Palestinian, and a Tunisian – in Montevideo, Uruguay. Although they were cleared for release in 2009, the US refused to release them until Uruguay’s Left president Jose Mujica offered to take them in as a humanitarian gesture.  As one of the released detainees’ lawyers told the PBS “Newshour” last week:

“I have never, in my many years of doing this work, seen a reception like this. It has been overwhelming in its warmth and its compassion. When my client, who has been on a hunger strike for most the past two years, was going around the hospital ward to have tests, other patients in the hospital came out of their wards and leaned in and smiled and waved. I have been hugged by grandmothers in the supermarket simply because I am a lawyer who represents a Guantanamo prisoner. The warmth of the people of Uruguay has been overwhelming. We’re so grateful and so pleased.”

The ex-detainee Abedlhadi Omar Faraj sent out a letter through his New York lawyer on thanking Uruguay for its gracious welcome. “Were it not for Uruguay,” the letter read, “I would still be in the black hole in Cuba today. It’s difficult for me to express how grateful I am for the immense trust that you, the Uruguayan people, placed in me and the other prisoners when you opened the doors of your country to us…”

Michal Bone, a lawyer for another former “Gitmo” detainee told the Guardian that “They got hugs from Uruguayan officials, friendly waves and thumbs up from the other patients at the hospital, the Uruguayan reception team even brought bathing suits for them. Bone noted that while on the flight Cuba on a US military plane, the former prisoners wore handcuffs, shackles, blindfolds and ear-defenders,“the Uruguayans refused to let them walk off the plane in shackles; they insisted that they be allowed to take their first step on Uruguayan soil as free men.”

As free men – imagine that.  The six former detainees’ trip from the bottom reaches of the fascistic, racist, and totalitarian Hell that is the US GWO/OT to peaceful and social-democratic Uruguay was a flight from savagery to civilization – from the clutches of a sadistic Empire of torture to a region that is finding democracy and justice as it emerges from the vicious control of its northern overlords.

“Interrogation Cum Torture”

Jose Mujica is a former left-wing militant who spent nearly fifteen years in prison during the period when Uruguay was under US-sponsored and CIA-assisted military rule. A veteran of the Tupamaro revolutionary organization, he knows a thing or two about US-directed “enhanced interrogation” – torture, that is.  “As a prisoner of the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in a [US-backed] coup in June 1973, “Encyclopedia Britannica reports, “Mujica was tortured and spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, including two years at the bottom of a well.” The venerable Left dissident and chronicler of US global criminality and arrogance William Blum provides some deeper historical context:

“The 1960s [in Uruguay] was the era of the Tupamaros, perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful, most sophisticated, least violent, Robin Hood-like urban guerillas the word has ever seen.  They were too good to be allowed to survive.  A team of American experts arrived, to supply the police with all the arms, vehicles, communications gear etc. they needed; to train them in assassination and explosives techniques, to teach methods of interrogation cum torture, to set up an intelligence service cum death squad. It was all out war against the Tupamaros and any suspected sympathizers….”

“In 1998, Eladio Moll, a retired Uruguayan Navy rear admiral and former intelligence chief, testifying before a commission of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, stated that during Uruguay’s ‘dirty war’ 91972-1983), orders came from the United States concerning captive Tupamaros.  ‘The guidance that was sent from the U.S.,’ said Moll, ‘was that what had to be done the captured guerillas was to get information, and that afterwards they didn’t deserve to live.’” (Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower [Common Courage, 2005], 182).

Over the many decades of its unmatched global power, Washington has decided that millions of citizens across the planet don’t really deserve freedom, comfort, and even life itself.  As the first global region to feel the imperial presence and fury of the United States and to see US power embedded in its own social and political life – as the (US of) American Empire’s “workshop” – Latin America logically leads the world in rejecting US power both “soft” and hard – both the “Washington consensus” neoliberal economic model and the Washington war of terror and surveillance – in the deadly “neoliberal” era.  And that, silly as it may sound, is no small part of why I rooted for Brazil and Argentina against Germany in the 2014 World Cup last summer.

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (October 2014).

Promise and Danger in a New Civil Rights Movement

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS
First published on TeleSur English, December 12, 2014.
There has been promise but also danger in every sociopolitical movement I’ve seen in the United States over the last thirty plus years.

The new movement that has grown up in response to relentless police killings of mostly young Black Americans — and the exoneration of killer cops — is no exception.

The hopeful and promising aspects of this movement are significant. In a society where reflexive obedience to unjust power often seems chillingly close to the norm, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have shown that there are lines authorities cannot cross without facing disruption from below. As protestors from coast to coast have proclaimed, U.S. police departments’ racially targeted “shoot to kill” habit must come to an end. Now.  So must the over-the-top militarization of the domestic U.S. police, a problem demonstrated for the world with St. Louis County’s exaggerated military-style response to protests in Ferguson last August. And so must the endemic racial profiling and discriminatory surveillance, stop, frisk, and arrest patterns that create daily procedural context for violent police contact with Black Americans and for the wildly disproportionate hyper-incarceration and felony marking of Black men.

Along the way, something must be done about the extreme reluctance of local prosecutors and grand juries to indict police officers for using excessive and deadly violence against Black and other citizens. (Like so much else in the U.S. legal system, such verdicts mock the notion that the U.S. is a nation of equal justice in which citizens must always respect “the rule of law.”)

All of this and more is on the national political and media table thanks to the mass protests that have emerged in Ferguson and across the nation in response to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent exoneration of their killers.

It has been gratifying to see young Black people and others in Ferguson and elsewhere defy U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for calm and purely peaceful protest. Obama’s imperial corporatist, and “race-neutral” presidency has brought few tangible gains for majority lower-and working-class Black America even as it has helped feed white illusions that racism no longer poses any serious barrier to Black equality and advancement in the U.S. The president has been incredibly reluctant to address the problem of persistent abysmal racial oppression in the U.S. He has in the White House continued his longstanding nasty and neoliberal habit of blaming poor and working class Black Americans for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the steep U.S. socioeconomic pyramid.

What they Police

What might there be to worry about in this new movement? There are two things to watch out for, I think. The first concern is that the movement not end up being one for a kinder and gentler policing of American racial apartheid and inequality. The corrupt Civil Rights misleader, Obama shill, and corporate media personality Al Sharpton early on defined the essential matter at stake in Ferguson as “how we gonna police in the United States.” The issue is not minor. How cops do their jobs is a serious matter in an age of ever more 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 man) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilante on average once every 28 hours.

Still, just as important (though largely missing from the national coverage and commentary) is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the US. 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 Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites — as usual. 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 notoriously 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 a four decades long campaign of 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 former prisoners, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Race and Place

Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The New York City metropolitan area (home to the late Eric Garner) has a residential “dissimilarity index” (DI) of 84.3, meaning that more than four-fifths of the region’s more than 2 million Black Americans would have to move into another and more racially diverse census tract in order to be spread evenly with whites across geographic space. The St. Louis area (home to the late Michael Brown) has a DI of 78.

Such extreme segregation is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the unwillingness of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s savage racial disparities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. 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 concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That racialized 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.”

At the same time, persistent racial apartheid helps fuel white America’s savage ignorance about real Black experience — an ignorance fed also by racially biased media, political, and intellectual culture. As the radical black philosopher Charles W. Mills noted eleven years ago, “the framework of debate [over Blacks’ subordinate position in the US] is not neutral: it is biased by dominant white cognitive patterns of structured ignorance, an overt or hidden white normativity so that at the basic factual level, many claims of people of color will just seem absurd, radically incongruent with the sanitized picture white people have of U.S. history.” It doesn’t help, Mills observed, that “the physical segregation of white and nonwhite populations” creates “a segregation of experience” that reinforces “radically divergent pictures of the world. Typically white and typically black realities — in terms of everyday experience with government bureaucracies, the police, and the job market, housing, and so forth — are simply not the same.”

What the U.S. police police is persistent steep racial apartheid and related harsh racial inequality, invisibility, and ignorance reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration.  The cause of justice requires much more than merely softening or otherwise improving how separate and unequal are enforced by local gendarmes.

“The Real Issue to be Faced”

A second thing to be on guard for is the capture of the movement-in-formation by bourgeois and identity-based activists and politicos for whom the struggle is entirely and solely about race (narrowly understood) and has nothing to do with broader and related issues of class power, military empire, and capitalist eco-cide. To let that happen would be a great misfortune. What the police and broader criminal justice system serve and protect, of course, is not just or only racism. The police state also functions to defend and advance broader and related structures of class inequality, capitalist (corporate, financial and “1%”) rule, and global empire. These interrelated oppression systems lay very much at the historical taproot of contemporary societal racism and depend to no small extent on racial disparity and division for their terrible and ever more environmentally catastrophic persistence.

Before the Obama administration sent in 51 FBI agents to help suppress protests in Ferguson and St. Louis County two weeks ago, its Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided federal coordination for the police force dismantlement of the Occupy encampments that sprung up across the U.S. in the fall of 2011. When tens of thousands gathered to protest the global militarism of the U.S. and its NATO allies in Chicago in May of 2012, they were met by a giant, dystopian concentration of local, county, state, federal, and corporate gendarmes equipped with an astonishing array of repressive techniques and technologies. The DHS helped coordinate the remarkable display of hard suppressive power.

“The black revolution,” the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote near the end of his life, “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society … and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” King left little doubt that the transformation required meant going beyond capitalism. Like the leading Black American Marxists W.E.B. DuBois, CLR James, and Oliver Cox, King saw white U.S. racism as a function of the profits system and class rule to no small degree. The popular struggle required today cannot stop at white or male or national privilege; it must proceed on to a confrontation with capital and class privilege.

In any event. Dr. King’s words deserve revisiting as activists work to make sure that the new Civil Rights movement sparked by the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner killings — and by the exonerations of their killers — doesn’t get co-opted into a struggle for little more than a kinder and gentler policing of contemporary race and class injustice.

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History(Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Campus Town Amnesia

17/12/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, December 4, 2014, Last October I attended a small rally held outside Iowa City’s City Hall in solidarity with Michael Brown and those protesting his killing last August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Two of the rally’s organizers told the gathering that an unjust police killing of a Black person “could happen here in Iowa City.”

Could happen here? Hello? How soon terrible tragedies and crimes can be obliterated from local memory! Nearly five and a half years ago, an off-duty white Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputy named Terry Stotler happened upon a scuffle that started when an angry white 63-year-old University of Iowa electrician named John Bohnenkamp stomped out of a tavern to assault a badly inebriated and homeless 26-year-old Black man named John Deng in a parking lot just south of downtown Iowa City.  Bohnenkamp was furious because Deng had dropped some bottles he had been picking out of a dumpster. “Pick those goddamned bottles up,” Bohnenkamp commanded (while his wife beseeched him to leave Deng alone). The electrician was further infuriated when Deng defended himself with a very small pocket knife.

The altercation ended when Stotler killed Deng, who could barely stand, with a single shot from the deputy’s .40 caliber Glock pistol to the upper torso (the standard police “shoot-to-kill” target area).  The fatal blast was entirely unnecessary and unjustified.  It occurred at the urging of Bohnenkamp, who repeatedly defied the deputy’s order to step away. The electrician was never arrested or charged, but state law required an investigation of the shooting.

Deng’s blood collected in a pool on the sidewalk in front of a business called City Electric, just a few blocks south of the downtown “Ped Mall,” where a large crowd soaked up beer and a cool summer breeze while the young homeless man drew his final breaths. And here is a cold and basic fact that any honest local resident would know to be true: if Deng had been a drunken white college student caught up in a violent altercation (a common occurrence on weekends in Iowa City), deadly force would never been have been considered, much less deployed, by city or county police.

The rally organizers last October can be forgiven, perhaps, for knowing nothing about John Deng.  After a brief flurry of protest, the Deng shooting largely disappeared from liberal Iowa City’s collective consciousness.  Any chance that it might reemerge as an issue was nixed in late September of 2009.  That’s when Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness made publicly available the Iowa Attorney General office’s investigation. As is generally the case with police shooting inquiries (e.g. the St. Louis Grand Jury report on the Brown killing this November), the report was a whitewash.  Focused largely on the task of discrediting the purportedly outlandish claims of two eyewitnesses, it skillfully evaded the incident’s richly racialized nature.

The speed and completeness of the Deng killing’s descent down the local Orwellian memory hole might seem ironic, surprising, and/or disappointing. Hadn’t liberal Iowa City’s Democrats recently and strongly supported Barack Obama twice (in the presidential Caucus of January 2008 and the presidential general election eleven months later) in his campaign to become the nation’s first technically Black president? Hadn’t the bright blue campus town’s many liberals felt that they’d struck a blow against racism by leading the nation in the effort to put a Black family in the White House?

I was neither surprised nor disappointed.  As I had determined from hundreds of voter contacts with liberal Iowa City Obama fans during the long Iowa presidential Caucus campaign of 2007 and early 2008, few of the future president’s many enthusiastic local backers seemed particularly interested in confronting racism deeply understood – as a pervasive societal and institutional force beneath and beyond the skin color of candidates and policymakers. Most of the many white Iowa City liberals I spoke to combined personal pride in their support for a (certain kind of) Black presidential candidate with remarkable indifference to the fact that Iowa possessed the nation’s worst racial disparity for incarceration and to the plight of the growing lower-class Black population living under conditions of segregated poverty and police harassment on the city’s Southeast Side.  If anything, the carefully white-pleasing, “post-racial,” and “Black but not like Jesse” Obama seemed to offer local white Democrats a convenient way to congratulate themselves for supposedly transcending racism in the realm of presidential politics while turning a blind eye to persistent lived institutional and societal racism within and beyond their own community. [1]

I was reminded again of the Deng killing when the hopelessly pro-police St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch[2] gave his long and smug justification for not indicting Officer Darren Wilson, the killer of Michael Brown, last week.  Very much like the Iowa Attorney General’s report exonerating deputy Stotler five years ago, McCulloch’s presentation was unduly preoccupied with discrediting the most condemnatory and (perhaps) questionable eyewitness accounts, ignoring numerous other and important facts suggesting the unwarranted and racially biased use of deadly force.

Did the local Ferguson-solidarity organizers last October really not know about the Deng killing?  According to one venerable local anti-racist activist and commentator I spoke with, those organizers have agreed not to mention it because they do not wish to offend Johnson County Attorney Lyness and the local Democratic Party establishment, which wants the shooting to remain locked in the closet of forgotten history.  I have no idea if the commentator is right about the organizers but I have no doubt that he’s correct about the local establishment. The criminally unnecessary police killing of John Deng just doesn’t jibe with the deceptive racially progressive self-imagery of liberal Iowa City, the “post-racial” President’s favorite little campus town.  Neither does Iowa’s nationally worst racial incarceration disparity nor does the segregated and concentrated poverty, marginalization and racial profiling experienced by Black folks living on the edges of the bright blue campus town.  The less said about these uncomfortable sorts of things the better as far as local elites are concerned.  The university and surrounding community are expanding, with lots of money to be made by big developers, bankers, lawyers, and building trades, after all, so who needs to rock the boat and kill the vibe by bringing up unseemly stuff like that?

There’s some good local race news to report from Iowa City, however.  Most of the many young folks who demonstrated in Iowa City against the killing of Michael Brown and against the exoneration of his killer (and also against the killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his murderer in 2012) may not know about John Deng. But many of them seem to have learned a good lesson from the Age of Obama: it’s not about who’s sitting in the White House and the suites, it’s about who’s occupying and marching in the streets – including the streets of Iowa City, where I marched last November 25th with more than 200 mostly young adults to protest the non-indictment of Michael Brown’s killer.  The current wave of anti-racist protestors have received some refreshing inoculation against the virus of identity- and candidate-centered politics. They are newly positioned to battle racism and related evils beneath and beyond major party electoral extravaganzas, with a much deeper understanding of the forces at play and the stakes involved.  That is a development much to be encouraged in Iowa, where – thanks to the blessing/curse of the “first in the nation” major party presidential Caucuses[3] – the quadrennial citizen-marginalizing presidential election spectacle takes on a special frenzied force one year before it hits the rest of the nation.

Iowa City writer and activist Paul Street is the author of many books, including Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). 

1. For a more in-depth account of my frankly disturbing interactions with “liberal” Iowa City Obama fans in 2007 and 2008, see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 134-135. 172-173.

2. In a forthcoming essay titled “No True Justice,” I go into some depth on how and why the Grand Jury exoneration orchestrated by McCulloch was sheer travesty.

3.  The only other state the comes close when it comes to big money-major media presidential candidate carpet-bombing for many months in advance of the actual presidential election year is of course New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the nation presidential primary.

No True Justice in St. Louis County

07/12/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on TeleSur English, December 5, 2014. Note from author (December 6, 10 AM, CST): This essay was written before news came out of the decision of a Staten Island Grand Jury not to indict the white New York City Police officer who killed the Black man Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold last July 17th.  The Staten Island verdict was more surprising to many than the St. Louis County verdict because there exists in the Garner-NYPD case a graphic video of the killing - a video that has gone viral on television and the Internet. Still, Grand Juries and prosecutors in the US almost always side with the police in these kinds of cases, which are terribly common: a Black person is killed by a(an almost always white) white police officer, security guard (as in the Trayvon Martin case), or self-appointed  vigilante (though almost always a police officer) in the US on average once every 28 hours. 

“A Nation Built on the Rule of Law”

In press conference remarks given after St. Louis County prosecutor Frank McCulloch announced last week that white police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing the 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, U.S. President Barack Obama called for calm. “First and foremost,” Obama said, “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.”

It was an interesting, deeply conservative comment. The United States (US) was built among other things on Black chattel slavery, which was thoroughly legal in the United States until the Civil War – and then significantly restored in all but name for many years. Formal racial segregation carried the full force of the law in the U.S. South through the middle 1960s, as did racial apartheid in South Africa through the early 1990s. The Holocaust was technically “legal” in Nazi Germany.

Money Talks….

How about “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 rift in U.S. “criminal justice,” bringing to light “the fun-house-mirror worlds of the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor.” On one hand, there’s the elite financial looters on Wall Street. All they did was destroy jobs, households, and lives on a massive scale by crashing the national and global economy through selfish, technically criminal (fraudulent) arrogance and deception.  They’ve gone almost completely scot-free in the nation’s money-drenched legal and political rackets.

On the other hand, there’s the millions of poor folks who lack even a hint of “the 1 Percent’s” legal and political resources. 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 without means are punished with abandon, spending years and often lives behind bars for victimless crimes.

It’s all very consistent with an old working class slogan: “money talks, bullshit walks.” Respect for “the rule of law” is a very thin moral basis on which to preach obedience.

Early Provocations

How did “the rule of law” distinguish itself in Mike Brown’s killing and “the decision [that] was the grand jury’s to make”?  Police, prosecutors, and other authorities made a travesty of the case from the start and through the grand jury’s “no true bill” (no indictment) ruling last week.  Brown’s body was left lying in the road for four hours – a highly provocative action. The medical examination was botched.  The Ferguson 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 the cops still refused to release Wilson’s name and race. Protesters in Ferguson then faced over-the-top military-style and multi-jurisdictional police-state repression that captured headlines around the world, evoking criticism even from mainstream U.S. politicians and media.

Robert McCulloch: “An Unabashed Defender of the Police” 

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch should have removed himself from the Darren Wilson case.  His prior misconduct in a Grand Jury whitewash of the killing of two unarmed Black men (Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley) by two white police officers in 2000 should have disqualified him from presiding over the Wilson case. As the New York Daily News reported the day after McCulloch coldly and smugly announced the “no true bill” judgment, the prosecutor had long, close, and 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.”

“Twenty-five days shy of his 13th birthday, McCulloch’s father was shot and killed in a gun battle with a kidnapper in 1964. If it weren’t for a cruel twist of fate, McCulloch would have likely followed in the family tradition. Besides his father, his brother, nephew and cousin all served on the St. Louis police force. But in his senior year of high school, McCulloch lost his right leg to cancer. No longer able to become a cop, he made it his mission to land a job as a prosecutor.”

“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.’”

“‘Mr. 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.” (emphasis added)

No wonder 70,000 Missouri residents signed a petition calling for McCulloch’s recusal from the investigation of the Mike Brown shooting.

“I [Don’t] Want You to Get Confused”

Fears that McCulloch and his office would prove biased on behalf of Officer Wilson were born out.  Legal experts were taken aback by his handling of the Wilson case. Instead of presenting the jury with only evidence supporting the state’s case, the typical prosecutorial practice, McCulloch permitted Wilson to defend himself and offered witness testimony that conflicted with the case for indictment.  Prosecutors who are serious about securing an indictment do not give Grand Juries “all the evidence,” legally required only for a trial, not an indictment.  In the  Wilson case, however, McCulloch broke with standard practice, strongly suggesting a lack of interest on his part in going to trial.

To make matters worse, one of McCulloch’s Assistant Prosecutors gave the grand jurors a copy of an outdated and invalidated Missouri lawstating that police officers had the right to shoot any suspect fleeing arrest. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Courtthree decades ago. Still, the Grand Jury listened to evidence with the obsolete 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) deception. The Assistant Prosecutor, Kathi Alizadeh, made a badly muddled attempt to correct her “mistake.” On November 21, 2014, a mere three days before the “no true bill” verdict, she inarticulately 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 know don’t necessarily rely on that because there is a portion of that that doesn’t comply with the law.”

Alizadeh handed the jurors 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.” Say what?

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

Seeking clarity, a Grand Jury member asked Alizadeh a simple and basic question: “The Supreme Court, federal court, overrides Missouri statutes?” The Assistant Prosecutor could (and should) have answered accurately with one word: “yes.”  Instead, she opted for further confusion by saying this: “As far as you need to know, just don’t worry about that“(!) Another Assistant Prosecutor present, Ms. Whirley, chimed in supportively, saying “We don’t want to get into a law class.”  The disingenuous and arrogant assumption behind these strange replies to the juror’s simple and essential question was that it would have unduly taxed the jurors’ minds to tell them that the unconstitutional Missouri law Alizadeh had passed out to them more than two months ago 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.

Such prosecutorial misconduct – remarkably rife in the U.S. – makes a travesty out of “the rule of law.”

Exception to the Grand Jury Rule

But it’s hardly clear that the outcome would have been any different without Alizadeh’s “mistake.”  As Ben Casselman notes on the blog FiveThirtyEight, “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 the Grand Juries they convene.  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.” That is the most likely explanation in this case, with the pro-police bias fueled more intensely than usual by McCulloch’s background.

Good (US of) Americans are supposed to be horrified at images of rioting and looting by the Ferguson protestors who rejected Obama’s call for calm.  But is it really surprising that the president’s plea for respect for “the rule of law” would fall would fall on deaf ears when the U.S. criminal justice process in is so badly tilted in favor of money and the power- and privilege-serving authority of the nation’s ever more militarized police? Riots reflect the lack of recourse and opportunity under the prevailing order and a sense – all too accurate – that the game is rigged on behalf of the rich and powerful. Ferguson is hardly the first or last example.

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

When Words Don’t Mean Anything Anymore: Reflections on the Life and Rhetoric of Barack Obama

06/12/14 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, December 2014. Nothing mocks disingenuous, power-serving politicians more than their own past words. President Barack Obama is a remarkable case in point.

street-econmyOn the presidential campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, for example, Barack Obama ran on a promise to oversee “the most transparent administration in history,” specifically vowing to shield whistleblowers, whom he praised as “noble” and “courageous.” The Obama administration has waged what many civil libertarians and journalists across the political spectrum have called an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, prosecuting more government leakers under the draconian 1917 Espionage Act than all previous U.S. presidents combined.

As a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008, Obama promised “real immigration reform” with a clear “path to citizenship” for millions of undocumented Latinas and Latinos living in the U.S. He denounced the George W. Bush administration’s policy of mass deportations. As president, Obama has deported undocumented immigrants at a record rate—more than 2 million people to date. Further cementing his legacy as what some immigrant rights activists call “The Deporter in Chief,” Obama has recently and not for the first time delayed his promise to provide deportation relief for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The only real difference with Bush has been a matter of style. In the final years of his administration, Bush undertook a harsh immigration crackdown replete with provocative military-style raids on U.S. factories and farms. As Obama prefers a stealthier, more behind-the-scenes approach, one that avoids high-profile armed-force assaults but yields a higher rate of family-shattering arrest and expulsion—this while he claims to favor “humane” reform and to be advancing a safe way for “dreamers” (“illegal” immigrants who came to the U.S. as children) to avoid expulsion.

The Green Deception

street-ecologyIn 2007 and 2008, presidential candidate Obama repeatedly posed as an environmentalist who was deeply concerned about anthropogenic climate change and determined to reduce carbon emissions. As president, Obama approved the significantly increased extraction and burning of U.S. fossil fuels through hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling, and other ecocidal practices, praising the hydrocarbon frenzy in the name of so-called national energy independence. He also acted to undermine efforts at binding global carbon emission limits at international climate summits beginning in Copenhagen in the winter of 2009.

At an AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in 2003, Illinois state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Obama declared his allegiance to single-payer, Canadian style, government-funded health insurance (basically Medicare for All). “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program,” Obama said. “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody…. A single-payer health care plan…that’s what I’d like to see.”

Once elected president, Obama made it his highest domestic policy priority to pass a corporate version of not-so “universal” health insurance “reform.” He excluded single-payer advocates from the national health care reform discussion orchestrated by the White House. His so-called Affordable Health Care Act left the nation’s leading insurance and drug companies in parasitic and massively profitable control of the nation’s absurdly expensive health care system.

What Occupy Made Obama Do

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has posed as a friend of ordinary working people and an opponent of the harsh socio-economic disparity. He has inveighed against corruption in the nation’s leading financial institutions. He has called the growth of inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” calling it a “fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.” President Obama, however, has been a good friend of the top 1 percent, which has enjoyed 95 percent of the nation’s income gains during his presidency. His Administration has expanded the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords and refused to nationalize or break up the nation’s “too-big-to fail” financial behemoths. It pushed through a corporatist health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, it has cut an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds, slashed wages, and rewarded capital flight.

It supported a Detroit bankruptcy process that raids municipal workers’ wages and pensions. Consistent with its staffing of key positions by top corporate and financial operatives, it has advanced neoliberal “free trade” agreements (including the current secret negotiations for the richly corporatist and authoritarian Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP, deal). It has pressed forward with the corporate schools privatization agenda, advocated deficit reduction and austerity over and against job creation and social programs, making repeated offers and attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits (in the name of a “grand deficit-slashing bargain” and “entitlement reform”); and refused to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise) or to act even minimally on behalf of Obama’s campaign promise to champion the re-legalization of union organization (to advance the rapidly abandoned Employee Free Choice Act). In these, and many other ways, Obama has been a shining monument to the reach and power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the [nation’s] unelected dictatorship of money.”

Leftists and others who have dared to criticize Obama’s business-friendly actions have been mocked by the Administration as “purists” who “do not live in the real world,” who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and who fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.” When the Occupy Movement arose across the country to denounce the extreme over-concentration of U.S. wealth and power in New Gilded Age America, Obama responded by stealing some of Occupy’s language while his Administration engaged in a coordinated federal campaign to dismantle the movement’s many urban encampments. A curious twist on the hope of many naïve liberals and progressives that a “progressive” Obama was just waiting for popular pressure to “make me do it” (New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt’s advice to labor activists in the early 1930s)—the “it” signifying the passage of social-democratic policy. Occupy “made” the president sign off on stealth police state measures to repress a populist rebellion whose rhetoric he found useful in his fake-populist re-election campaign (against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney), consistent with the once leftist Christopher Hitchens’s description of the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

Heart of Darkness

street-conrad covLast September, Obama tried to justify his launching of a new U.S. war in Iraq and Syria by telling the United Nations that the cruelty of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” It was an interesting choice of words. Heart of Darkness is the title of Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-20th century novel about a “civilized” white ivory trader’s trek down the Congo River into “barbarian” Central Africa. It’s a novel that many critics and readers have found to be fundamentally racist. That’s how young Barack Obama found Conrad’s novel when he was an undergraduate at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Look at the following passage in Obama’s autobiographical 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, from a section in which the future US president remembered hanging out with some of fellow Black students:

“the whole first year [at Occidental College] seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks…Except with Regina, the way she made me feel like I didn’t have to lie. Even that first time we me, the day she walked into the coffee shop and found Marcus giving me grief about my choice of reading material. Marcus had waved her over to our table, rising slightly to pull out a chair.”

“ ‘ Sister Regina,’ Marcus said, ‘You know Barack, don’t you? I’m trying to tell Brother Barack about this racist tract he’s reading.’ He held up a copy of Heart of Darkness, evidence for the court. I reached over to snatch it out of his hands.”

“ ‘Man, stop waving that thing around.’”

“ ‘See there,’ Marcus said, ‘Makes you embarrassed, don’t it – just being seen with a book like this. I’m telling you, man, this stuff will poison your mind.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Damn, I’m late for class.’ He leaned over and pecked Regina on the cheek. ‘Talk to this brother. I think he can still be saved.’”

‘Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. ‘Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.’”

“I tossed the book into my backpack. ‘Actually, he’s right,’ I said. ‘It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa is the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

“Regina blew on her coffee. ‘So why are you reading it?’”

“ ‘Because it’s assigned.’ I paused, not sure if I should go on. ‘And because – ’”

“ ‘Because…’”

“ ‘And because the book teaches me things,’ I said. ‘About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate” (emphasis added).

“ ‘And that’s important to you.’”

“My life depends on it, I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell Regina that. I just smiled and said, ‘That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.’ ”

“No Just God”: Speaking of Demons, Fear, Hate and Things Unsaid….

Obama’s rhetoric on behalf of renewed U.S. War in the Middle East this last summer and fall suggests that he remains interested in the exploitation of demons and fear and the selective presentation of facts—things unsaid in connection with a nationally narcissistic and Euro-American view of the world to encourage the majority white U.S. populace to hate officially Evil non-white Others. Besides tarring ISIS with Conrad’s Eurocentric brush, the president proclaimed last August that “No just God would stand for what [ISIS militants]…do every single day.” ISIS, he said, represented “the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.”

  • What about S. client Israel’s recurrent slaughter (with U.S. weapons and ordnance) of hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza, one of its regular exercises in “mowing the lawn?”
  • What about when (as has regularly occurred under Obama) the U.S. bombs a houseful and/or wedding party full of civilians in pursuit of one presidentially targeted “terrorist,” killing dozens in pursuit of a single official enemy?
  • How about the public beheadings that are routinely carried out for even petty crimes by Saudi Arabia, Washington’s “partner” in its re-escalated war on/of terror? How about the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to U.S.-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s?
  • How about the open S. aerial murder (described by former participants as like “shooting fish in a barrel”) of many thousands of surrendered Iraq troops on the “Highway of Death” in February 1991?
  • How about the killing and maiming of more than a million Iraqis in the course of the monumentally criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia beginning in March 2003?
  • What of U.S. assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004—attacks that (among other horrific things) targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left “a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn), plaguing the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects?
  • Or Obama’s bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk in May 2009? Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by S. explosives were children.
  • The Obama administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge S. responsibility. And the Pentagon’s revealing computer designation of ordinary Iraqis certain to be killed in the 2003 invasion as “bug- splat?”

Does any of that and more in the way of murderous and racist U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality make one look into “the heart of darkness?” What “just God” supports that sort of “civilized behavior?” Who will cure the “illness” of racial and imperial demonization and fear-mongering that fuels such dreadful wrongdoing, ghastly transgressions that provide essential context for the rise of the merciless Islamic State (in much the same way that a massive U.S. bombing campaign created the rise of the vicious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the early 1970s)?

“What do you think of Western civilization?” a journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi. “I think it would be a good idea,” the great Indian independence leader replied.

It is unthinkable, of course, that Obama or anyone else in the U.S. political and media establishment would subject U.S. foreign policy to anything like the same moral scrutiny he aims at ISIS. “We lead the world,” candidate Obama explained seven years ago, “in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good…. America is the last, best hope of Earth….. America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom.”

Obama elaborated in his first Inaugural Address. “Our security,” the president said, “emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”—a fascinating commentary on Fallujah, Hiroshima, the U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia, the “Highway of Death” and more.

In the televised address in which he informed the subject U.S. citizenry of his decision (made without any consultation of the populace) to attack Iraq and Syria last September, Obama gave voice to standard “American exceptionalist” doctrine. “America,” the president intoned, “our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden.  But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.  From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.  These are values that have guided our nation since its founding.”

Millions across the Middle East and the world can be forgiven for taking such words with more than a grain of salt. A world littered by U.S. crimes like the My Lai massacre (a relatively small transgression compared to the broader U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” [Noam Chomsky’s term at the time] between 1962 and 1975). The “Battles of Fallujah” and the bombing of Bola Boluk is understandably unimpressed with the extent to which U.S. global policies reflect “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” It’s for nothing that the U.S. consistently ranks in global opinion surveys as the leading threat to peace and security on the planet. “The Battles We Need to Fight”

Listening to Obama’s announcement of renewed U.S. war in the Middle East last September, I was moved to find then state senator Obama’s half-eloquent speech against then U.S. President George W. Bush’s clear plans to illegally invade Iraq in fall 2002. Here’s a key passage from that oration: “I am opposed to the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income—to distract us from corporate scandals…I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man…. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him…. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States…. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida…”

“You want a fight, President Bush?… Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, suppressing dissent and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

“Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair. The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable.”

Here we are 12 years later in the ever more openly plutocratic U.S., where the top hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42 percent of U.S. residents while 16 million U.S. children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One in seven U.S. citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of militantly bipartisan abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

These savage disparities are heavily racialized. U.S. racial inequality is so steep in the Age of Obama that the median wealth of white U.S. households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black U.S. households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites. 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 notoriously 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 a four- decades-long campaign of 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.

And who does President want to “pick a fight” with? Against whom and what does he wish to “battle?” The vicious and amoral “1%”—the scandal-ridden corporate and financial elite that profits from massive inequality, corruption, and endless war at home and abroad while advancing ecological destruction around the world? The big energy corporations that exploit Middle Eastern oil resources and the poison the climate? Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other despotic Middle Eastern states that supply those corporations, host U.S. military bases, and receive giant U.S. military backing? Poverty, despair, and savage, highly racialized economic inequality at home and abroad? Greed? Wall Street corruption? The distraction of the “homeland” populace away from domestic inequalities by diversionary dog-wagging wars abroad? With persistent underlying societal and institutional “homeland” racism?

street-forpoljpgNo. Obama, instead, has launched a fight with a (yes) brutal Middle Eastern enemy that (as Obama said of Saddam Hussein in 2002) “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States”—a fight that that (to continue with Obama’s words 12 years ago) will “only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm[s]” of the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s many other offshoots. It’s a fight that will only reinforce inequality and repression at home, a regular outcome and bidden purpose behind imperial adventures. Washington’s “partners” in Obama’s war on ISIS include “the Saudis and the Egyptians,” who (more verbiage from Obama’s “antiwar” past) “oppress…their own people, and suppress… dissent, and tolerat[e]…corruption and inequality…so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”  Under Obama as under Bush and previous presidents,  Washington’s Sunni “partners” remain important to U.S. planners primarily because of the access they have given to U.S. and multinational oil corporations seeking to exploit and control the Persian Gulf region’s remarkable stock of fossil fuels—the very material whose capitalist over-extraction and burning are pushing the planet past the tipping points of livability.

Obama’s UN Address last September took place in the immediate aftermath of a giant, indeed historic, New York City march for action to stem catastrophic climate change. During his war speech, the president absurdly claimed that the U.S. leads the world in pressing for such action—a curious boast for the planet’s all-time top carbon emitter and the headquarters of corporate Big Carbon’s climate change denial industry.

Last December, Obama advanced some interesting reflections before some friends atop the U.S. business elite at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries.” Obama told a gathering of top business executives, “the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans…we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines.… People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter)…. I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.”

As Danny Klatch commented at Socialist Worker, “It was a touching ruling class moment…a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president…. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties—that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”

Fight racism? Obama has said less about race and racism than any Democratic U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt. He has continued his longstanding practice of lecturing Black Americans on their own personal and moral responsibility to take advantage of the “endless blessings” bestowed on what he has called “this magical place” (the U.S.).

Taking in the grand Orwellian absurdity of it all, I am reminded of a passage from young Obama’s Dreams From My Father, where Obama recalls the warning he got from an “old black poet” named Frank (in fact, the former U.S. Communist Party member Frank Marshall Davis) as he prepared to leave Honolulu and begin college in California: “What had Frank called college? An advanced degree in compromise. I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet, a few days before I left Hawaii…he had asked me what it was I expected to get out of college. I told him I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of these young cats out here. All you know is college is that college is the next things you’re supposed to do. And all the people who are old enough to know better, who fought all those years for your right to go to college—they’re just so happy to see you there that they won’t tell you the truth. The real price of admission.’”

“And what’s that?”

“ ‘Leaving your race at the door. Leaving your people behind…. Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore…. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race….’.”

A Prophetic Warning

street-davis

Frank Davis’s warning seems more than a little prophetic three decades later. Obama’s ascendancy to the White House depended fundamentally on his “post-racial” campaign and presidency’s calculated determination to leave “race at the door”—a phenomenon that has been amply documented. Equally evident in the empirical record is candidate and president Obama’s formal allegiance—either sincere or disingenuous (my strong guess is the latter)—to “equal opportunity and the American way and all that…” Given the ultimate “corner office” (the Oval Office) by the white ruling class, he has been hailed as a credit if not to his race then certainly to purported remarkable racial progress—as “proof” that racism no longer poses serious obstacles to Black advancement and equality in the supposedly color-blind U.S.

For the purposes of this essay, however, the key phrase in Frank’s warning is “to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore.” Such manipulation has always been at the heart of the Obama phenomenon and presidency. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s long been at the heart of the reigning U.S. major party political culture where very little ever seems to change.

Z

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Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1 percent v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

How They Police vs. What They Police: Reflections on Ferguson, Race, and “the Rule of Law”

06/12/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, November 27, 2014.

How

Throughout its coverage of the drama sparked by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, US corporate media has framed the basic racial issue at stake as 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 ever more 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 man) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilante on average once every 28 hours. Just in the last week, white police officers killed a 28 year old Black man (Akai Gurley) in Brooklyn and a 12 year old Black boy (Tamir Rice, shot twice in the chest from close range) in Cleveland.  Numerous other police shootings of Black men and youth have occurred since the Brown killing last August 9th.  The terrible beat goes on.

What

Still, just as important but missing from the national media coverage and commentary is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the US. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. 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 notoriously 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 a four decades long campaign of 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, black market crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Contemporary US policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The St. Louis region is just the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the US. It 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. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. 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 concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places. US de facto apartheid reinforce 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.”

What the US police police is persistent steep racial apartheid and related harsh racial inequality both reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration and felony marking in the neoliberal era.  None of this has changed to any significant degree because a small number of Black Americans have moved into highly visible high places. The cause of justice requires much more than merely improving how separate and unequal is enforced by local gendarmes.

Obama Speaks

“The Rule of Law”

Speaking of technically Black faces in high places, US President Barack Obama did not shed much light on the deeper problems beneath the Ferguson turmoil during the remarks he gave while violence flared after a grand jury exonerated Brown’s killer two nights ago. First and foremost,” Obama said, “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 of course thoroughly legal in the United States until the Civil War (and then significantly reconstructed in all but name in the South)?  The “rule of law” would seem to be a fairly thin moral basis for preaching calm.  The Holocaust was technically legal in Nazi Germany.

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 US 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 selfish and 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.

“A Tough Job”

“Understand,” Obama said, “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 the slightest measure of accountability. And dare we mention that the police are as involved in protecting private privilege and state power as much as “maintaining public safety”? Cops are often deployed against many of “us” when we seek to protect and advance public safety by challenging the destructive power of the privileged few to do things like ruin livable ecology, bust unions, and crash national and global economies.

No Excuse for Violence

“There’s never an excuse for violence,” Obama told protestors in Ferguson and elsewhere.  It’s hard to know what to make of that statement: has Obama become a pacifist?  If he 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 US war in Afghanistan and why has he launched a new war in Iraq and Syria?

“Enormous Progress in Race Relations”

“We need,” Obama said, “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 [just “feels as if”?!]… 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: systemic racial oppression).  Obama said he wants to see change in the former (where he fails, 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 a harsh but 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.

Postscript: Bring it Down

Whites are supposed to recoil in horror at a video clip that US corporate “mainstream” media has distributed in which Louis Head, Mike Brown’s stepfather reacts to the announcement of the Grand Jury’s non-indictment by saying loudly and angrily “Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down!”  I am not horrified at all.  If anything, I’m encouraged. Watching the video, I see Head being straight up human, nothing less and nothing more. Furthermore, I think he’s got a point. The system of savage race and class inequality and abject plutocracy and eco-cide 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.

Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, where he recently marched with 200 others in solidarity with Mike Brown and other victims of US racist police violence. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Reprint from Summer 2009: “In Cold Blood”: White Deputy’s Killing of Homeless Black Man Sparks Mild Protest in Obama-Mad Iowa City

03/12/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on Black Agenda Report, August 11, 2009

Paul Street, Iowa City, IA.  

Good Times for Happy and Affluent White Folks

The current recession does not weigh very heavily on Iowa City in Johnson County, Iowa. Iowa City was recently named a “top small metropolitan area” in three career-related areas by Forbes Magazine. It was No. 5 in “Best Places to Begin a Career,” No. 5 for “Best Places for Business and Careers,” and No, 13 for “Top College Towns for Jobs.”

Consistent with these rankings, Iowa City has the second lowest official small city unemployment rate in the nation – 3.7 percent, behind Bismarck, North Dakota. According to DaLayne Williamson, Business Services Director of the Iowa City Area Development Group, “it’s important to be aware that Iowa City is continuing to receive these accolades even in the economic times we’re in.” During the last fiscal year, its main economic anchor, the University of Iowa, received a record-setting $430 million in grants and other external funding, including $216 million from U.S. Department of Public Health and Human Services for the university’s gigantic Colleges of Medicine and Public Health.

Local citizens, most of them employed by the university, including its giant medical complex, flock in the thousands to the community’s twice-a-week farmers’ market and the city’s annual spring Jazz Fest. They support a profitable, ever-more pricey local natural foods co-operative along with an inordinate number of gourmet coffee shops, small bookstores, health clubs, and massage therapy and yoga enterprises. Young families and smiling toddlers and infants are widely evident in and around the downtown and its shining commercial bar- and restaurant-lined “Ped Mall” on weekends and early summer evenings.

The very predominantly Caucasian town (86% white, 6% Asian, 4% black, and 3% “Hispanic”) is dotted and ringed with delightful, leafy residential sections containing tasteful oak-filled homes. In the Iowa City coffee houses in May, you can often hear professors and students discussing upcoming trips to Europe. Volvos, Saabs, Audis, and upper-end Hondas and Toyotas fill the downtown coop’s parking lots.

Stand By Your Man

Many of those cars still carry bumper stickers displaying admiration for Barack Obama. Iowa City is a very blue, that is Democratic, town, and its many middle class “liberals” and “progressives” are proud of the support they gave to the nation’s first black president during the election last November and in the pivotal Iowa Caucus of January 3, 2008. Along with his novelty, his Ivy League academic credentials (a big plus for Obama in campus towns), and his deceptive image as an “antiwar” candidate, Obama’s technical blackness was a major asset working on his behalf among many Iowa City caucus-goers in 2007 and 2008. A large number of those Caucasian caucusers (I talked to hundreds of them in the months leading up to the historic presidential Caucus) were eager to demonstrate their readiness to vote for a (very certain and qualified kind of) black presidential candidate – a topic to which I’ll return below.

Iowa City’s Obama passion continues intact even as the new president betrays yet one more aspect of his deeply duplicitous progressive campaign imagery after another. Obama and Obama-Biden bumper stickers remain ubiquitous here even in the wake of the openly centrist corporate-military president’s escalation of imperial violence in South Asia, his essential continuation of George W. Bush’s arch-authoritarian counter-terrorism campaign (replete with targeted assassination, military commissions, renditions, the denial of habeas corpus to dubiously designated “enemy combatants,” and the electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens), his stepped-up transfer of taxpayer wealth to (“too big [and powerful] to fail”) Wall Street financial perpetrators (heavily represented in Obama’s top economic positions), his refusal to fight for meaningful labor law reform (the now-dead Employee Free Choice Act, on which he campaigned strongly in Iowa), and his advance of a corporate-friendly “health reform” that fails to honor progressive majority opinion in support of evicting the wildly unpopular and parasitic insurance companies from health care. With some small exceptions in the areas of civil liberties and gay rights, Obama’s conservative corporate-imperial policy moves (widely predicted on the authentic Left) have elicited no audible protest from the upscale, heavily AcaDemocratic comrades of the so-called “People’s Republic of Johnson County.”

A “Transient,” a “Resident,” and a Deputy and His Glock

Given the purportedly “progressive” and non- and even anti-racist mindset of “liberal” Iowa City, it is curious to observe the pronounced indifference with which the town’s populace has responded to strong indications that a white 45 year-old Johnson County Deputy named Terry Stotler gunned down a homeless 26 year-old Sudanese black man named John Bior Deng without just cause outside an Iowa City tavern on the evening of Friday, July 24, 2009.

According to the official Iowa City Police Department (ICPD) story and the obedient Iowa City Press Citizen (Gannet News Service) account, Deng was killed by a plain clothes Johnson County “peace officer” responding by chance to a “transient’s” knife-wielding attack on an older “Iowa City resident.” The “transient” (Deng) was holding a knife and yelling threats at the “resident” (later identified as a white 63-year-old University of Iowa janitor named John Bohnenkamp). Stotler unsheathed his .40 caliber Glock pistol. When Deng (whose English comprehension was quite low) “disregarded” Stotler’s command and lunged toward Bohnenkamp “in a threatening manner,” the ICPD/Press-Citizen account ran, the deputy fired.

Stotler delivered a fatal single shot to the left side of Deng’s chest. The young homeless man’s blood collected in a pool on the sidewalk in front of a business called City Electric, just a few blocks south of the Ped Mall, where a large crowd soaked up beer and the cool summer breeze while John Bior Deng drew his final breath.

I Saw a Cop Shoot a Guy in Cold Blood”

This official story might have stood without challenge but for the remarkable and dramatically differing testimony of two white telecommunications workers. Brock Brones, 22, and Mike Tibbetts, 40, both Iowa City residents, saw the incident unfold up-close sitting in a car stopped in an alley (directly east of City Electric) where they had a full view of the events and turned off their car radio so they could hear what was occurring.

Here are 10 relevant short paragraphs from a story based on their testimony on the front page of the Sunday, July 26th edition of The Gazette, an eastern Iowa newspaper based in Cedar Rapids:

“‘There was no knife, there was no lunging,’ Tibbetts said. ‘I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.’Brones, 22, and Tibbetts, 40, who both work for a telecommunications company in Iowa City, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to Old Capitol Brew Works to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.”

“A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso.”

”The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man — whose side was covered in blood [that would be John Bohnenkamp] — was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.”

”The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.”

” ‘I don’t give a f—,’ the homeless man responded. The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down.”

”Again, the homeless man said he didn’t care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Brones and Tibbetts said.”

”The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.”

”In fact, Brones said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.”

“It wasn’t aggressive,” Brones said. “He was just drunk.”

“… ‘He could hardly stand,’ Brones said of the homeless man.”[1]

(After (curiously enough) doing a criminal background check on Brones and Tibbetts, Gazette reporter Adam Belz found that the latter witness has two minor drug convictions and two DUIs (called OWIs in Iowa) on his record. But Tibbetts rightly noted that his record “has absolutely nothing to do with” what he observed on the evening of Friday, July 24th, “I could be Hitler, at this point,” Tibbetts told Belz, “and it doesn’t change what I just saw.”

Why did Tibbetts and Brones go to the Gazette, not the police, with their account? Long-time local residents I spoke with attribute this to reasonable fear of police retaliation. As one white Iowa City woman with harrowing stories of the treatment her mixed-race children have received from the ICPD explained to me, “they went to the paper first to cover their ass in case the cops go after them.”

Pick Those Goddamned Bottles Up”

Another eyewitness (still anonymous as of this writing) reports that “resident” Bohnenkamp’s role was less than innocent. This informant notes that Bohnenkamp began yelling at Deng from more than a block away upon leaving the Hawkeye Hideaway tavern, directly across from the City Electric parking lot in which Deng was shot. The custodian was upset because Deng had dropped some bottles he was collecting to cash in at a local grocery store (a frequent activity of Iowa City’s significant homeless population.). Bohnenkamp (emboldened by drink?) instigated the altercation by angrily approaching Deng, loudly commanding the “transient” to “pick those goddamned bottles up.” It seems possible that Deng was defending himself against Bohnenkamp before being blown away by Stotler, with Bohnenkamp telling the officer to shoot.

A local middle-aged African-American woman told me that a number of black Iowa City residents who rode in a passing city bus [2] also report a version of the Deng-Stotler-Bohnenkamp incident that is at odds with the official story. They are unwilling to testify, the woman says, “because they have [criminal] records.” I take this to mean that they do not wish to deepen their already unpleasant contact with the criminal justice system (especially in a way that would displease authorities) and also perhaps that they do not wish to be potentially identified in the media (as the white Tibbetts was) as people with past convictions. Thanks to the objectively racist “war on drugs,” a third of adult black U.S. men currently possess felony records. Given the fact that felony possession is a major barrier to employment, many people with criminal histories are compelled to lie on job applications as they seek to attain basic income by renting out their labor power. Having one’s record mentioned in public (or to one’s employer by a police officer) can mean the loss of employment. In this and other ways, racially disparate mass felony-marking is a powerful, all-too-hidden form of civic disenfranchisement.

Little Turnout for Deng (2009), Huge Turnout for Obama (2008)

Four evenings after the Gazette story quoted above, forty or so concerned Iowa City residents convened the first meeting of a group calling itself Citizens for Social Justice (CSJ). The gathering took place in the city’s pleasant downtown public library. The group seeks a proper burial for Deng and full public disclosure on the facts surrounding his killing and the investigation that is conducted. It hopes to exert public pressure to increase the likelihood of a thorough and honest inquiry by the state attorney general’s office.

The CSJ meeting’s time and place was announced in advance at the end of an eloquent Press-Citizen column (titled “Citizens for Social Justice”) by Dr. Vershawn Young, a University of Iowa professor of African-American Studies and Rhetoric. The meeting, very disproportionately black, was sparsely attended by Iowa City’s white liberals, who turned out in record-making tens of thousands for Barack Obama on a cold evening in early January of 2008. Two minutes before the meeting began, I personally saw two prominent white Iowa City Obama campaign activists saunter past the library without so much as a glance at the people gathering to attend.

In his column, Young noted that he had predicted last May (in a conversation with the Citizen-Press’s opinion editor) “that a black man would be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances. I also said,” Young related, “that the citizens of Iowa City would probably be insufficiently enraged….I was right about the first prediction,” the professor added, “I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction” (Vershawn Young, “Citizens for Social Justice,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 29, 2009, read at http://www.press-citizen.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2009907290302 [5]).

Three Disconnects in White Middle Class Liberalism-Obamaism

I also hope the professor is wrong on the second point, but I expect his prediction of “insufficient enragement” to be born out. White middle-class Iowa City “liberals” might be proud of how their readiness to vote for Obama proved transcendence of crude, old-fashioned racial bigotry. But here as elsewhere, white Obamaists’ “progressivism” has been consistently complicated by three basic and interrelated disconnects or contradictions:

  1. Between (a) their stated reasons for embracing Obama (that doing so represented meaningful statements against militarism and racism and for social reform and justice) and (b) Obama’s actual record (readily available to those willing to do some basic due-diligence research [3]) of being deeply conciliatory toward existing domestic and imperial power structures, including institutional racism.
  2. Between (a) their stated reasons for supporting the president and (b) their sharply evident lack of interest in existing local rank-and-file organizations engaged in day-to-day struggles for peace and justice. During my nearly three years in Iowa City, I’ve repeatedly been struck by the sharp contrast between the town’s “progressive” reputation and identity and its apparent acceptance of the dominant U.S. definition of corporate-crafted elections as the only politics that matter. Iowa City residents turned out in the many thousands to hear the legendary left intellectual and anti-imperial social critic Noam Chomsky speak in the city’s downtown in April of 2006. The town’s progressives would do well to heed Chomsky’s words on the eve of the 2004 presidential election:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. …”

“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. …”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not every four years.… In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (Chomsky, “The Disconnect in American Democracy,” October 27, 2004, reproduced in Chomsky, Interventions [San Francisco: City Lights, 2007, 97-100).

It is characteristic of the local population’s tendency to be overly mesmerized by “electoral extravaganzas” that Iowa City is loaded with middle-class white “progressives” who were eager to vote for a black man but who know and do nothing about the fact that their state ranks number one in terms of racially disparate incarceration rates – this in a nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate and more than 2 million prisoners, nearly half of them black (though blacks are just 12 percent of overall U.S. population).

 

  1. Between (a) many local white Obama fans’ proud willingness to demonstrate supposed non- or even anti-racism by voting for a black presidential and (b) their indifference, insensitivity, and even hostility toward the plight of the rising number of poor black American residents who live under segregated and impoverished conditions in the increasingly feared and loathed “Broadway” neighborhood out on Iowa City’s southeast side. More than a few of my “progressive” white neighbors with “Obama-Biden” stickers on their home windows and cars are prone to describing that growing black population as criminals, “welfare-shoppers,” a “drain on local resources,” and “those people” who “don’t know how to behave” and are “ruining Iowa City.” In a popular and false local narrative, “all” of Iowa City’s expanding lower-class black-American population “comes from Chicago” and most especially from that city’s torn-down public housing projects. A significantly police-instigated incident in the Broadway neighborhood last May was widely portrayed among Iowa City whites (“progressive” and not) as some sort of anarchic black “riot.” Obama fans I know rolled their eyes as they declaimed the hideous underclass stirrings underway “out there” last May.

Of course, many affluent white “liberals’” willingness to support Obama has always been predicated on him being a certain kind of black “but not like Jesse” candidate and president – one who is not too outwardly black-American (culturally speaking) and who does not challenge white America’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge the persistent toxic and powerful role that entrenched societal racism and institutionally encoded white privilege play (in intimate linkage to related underlying structures of capitalist domination) in American life.

Race Wages

The two leading and most reliable sections of the Obama coalition during the Democratic primary season were black Americans and affluent, highly educated whites. Racial factors were critical in both cases. For many black voters, the huge majority of whom chose Obama over Edwards and Hillary Clinton (and who told pollters in large numbers that race was a major factor in their choice), it was a simple and understandable matter of racial pride and symbolic representation. Despite lingering reservations about the bourgeois Obama’s “blackness,” the prospect of electing the nation’s “first black president” naturally carried no small weight in the black community.

With affluent Democrats, the racial calculus was different and more complex. Two days before the heavily Caucasian Iowa caucus, one forthcoming progressive Iowa City Democrat in a heavily academic and 99 percent white precinct told me something I’d been picking up for some time. “Obama,” he reflected, “is a way for highly educated liberal and moderate whites around here to pat themselves on the back and say ‘hey, I’m not too prejudiced to vote for a black guy.’ Look, I hate nuclear power and the big corporations that Kucinich and even Edwards are always railing against. Those guys are much better on the issues than Hillary and Obama on the other issues, no doubt about it. But it’s not going to mean a hill of beans with these folks around here. This is a chance for them to say show they’re not racist and that they hate the war by going with Obama.” But it was all premised, he agreed, on Obama being a “good,” that is “middle class” and “not-too fiery black” – one who promised not to offend white sensibilities by confronting white privilege in any meaningful way. Like the racially accomodationist, white-soothing media mogul and mass Obama marketer Oprah Winfrey (who held huge campaign events with Obama in Iowa before that state’s critical Caucus), Obama could capitalize on many middle- and upper-middle-class whites’ formal, state-of-mind repudiation of ugly racial bigotry because he reassured them he would honor their reluctance to acknowledge and confront the continuing power of deeper, state-of-being societal and institutional racism in American life.

In Iowa City and other “progressive” campus communities, Obama was something of a Great White Hope.There as elsewhere across the disproportionately white college-town islands of Obama Nation, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker’s early 2008 observation that Obama “smoothly, strategically, and subtly mines the wells of white guilt” was relevant. So, sadly, was the black reactionary Shelby Steele’s observation that white Americans’ Obamalust was “all about gratitude. White people are just thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn’t rub their noses in racial guilt. White people just go crazy over people like that.” At the same time, Obama’s technical blackness has encouraged many voters to see him as more progressive than he actually is, partly because the black community as a whole tends strongly towards the leftward side of the issue and policy spectrum.

We should be careful, however, about over-generalizing about “white people” as a whole. Obama’s white support in the primaries was disproportionately affluent. Contrary to claims that his campaign transcended race, Obama was heavily plagued by racial bloc voting in the primary race. While he pulled down more than four in every five black votes in most states, he lost the white working- and lower-class and rural vote and he did particularly badly with white voters in the South, reflecting historical tendencies that are well known.

It would be comforting (from a progressive standpoint) to think that many white working class voters resisted Obama and preferred Hillary Clinton (and to some extent Edwards, who dropped out before Super Tuesday) and in some cases McCain because of “Wall Street Barry’s” excessive closeness to capital. I saw some of them of that dynamic working on the surprisingly populist Edwards’ behalf in union households in Iowa. But Hillary Clinton was just as economically conservative as Obama and just as close to the corporate and imperial elite.

The main thing explaining many white working- and lower-class voters’ greater reluctance to support Obama was that he was black. The notion of putting him in the White House worked against what W.E.B. DuBois once called the “psychological wage of racism” [4] once usefully summarized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the satisfaction of …thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” [5]. Such “satisfaction” is more commonly sought and “required” by whites in the lower reaches of the United States’ steep socioeconomic structure than it is by those in positions of relative wealth, power, and status.

But this does not mean that Iowa City’s liberal middle- and upper-middle-class whites were or are all that much “better” on race. There are racism- and classism-preserving white psychological “race wages” above as well as within and below the working class. For some Caucasians in more elite occupational and socioeconomic categories, there exists what might be called a “psychological wage of superficial non-racism” – the boosting of one’s sense of superiority over less well-off whites by exhibiting one’s rejection of uncouth, lower-class racial bigotry (by voting for a certain kind of safe, technically black politician, for example) while simultaneously resisting any substantive challenge to persistent racial advantages accruing to middle- and upper-class beneficiaries of white skin privilege. The Obama campaign was perfectly calibrated for that curious mixture of racial pseudo-benevolence and intra-Caucasian class arrogance.

For this and other reasons, including their tendency to accept the dominant restriction of relevant politics to “winning” narrow-spectrum, corporate-crafted, candidate-centered “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas,” I frankly don’t expect the white and liberal citizens of Iowa City to get terribly energized about the cold-blooded gunning down of an impoverished homeless black man in the heart of their affluent and “progressive” campus town. I’d love to be proven wrong and am actively engaged in trying to disprove, or at least qualify, my own thesis.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com [6]) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).

NOTES

  1. Adam Belz, “Deputy Shot Man ‘In Cold Blood’: Witness,” The Gazette, July 26, 2009, 1A, read online at http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/-deputy-shot-man-cold-blood-witness-officer-put-/2009/07/26/4291806.htm
  2. City bus schedules and maps verify that one bus connecting Iowa City’s downtown with the town’s growing black community (the “Lakeside” in-bound) was possibly present (passing or stopped at an intersection close to the killing site) within sight of the incident at the time it happened.
  3. See, for example, Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2008); Paul Street “Obama’s First Hundred Days: A Critical Assessment From the Left,” ZNet (May 1, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21315 ; Paul Street, “Honduras, Washington, and Liberal-Left Grasping at Straws,” ZNet July 7, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21909 .
  4. For instructive historical reflections on DuBois, race, and white working class consciousness, see David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991).
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct,” pp. 259-267 in Martin Luther King, Jr.., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. By James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991). Quotation from p. 264.

Forces, Relations, and 21st Century Eco-socialism

02/12/14 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, November 23, 2014. “The hand-mill,” a young Karl Marx once wrote, “gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”  The sentence has often been cited to show that Marx was a “technological determinist.”  One can certainly see why.

In reality, for what it’s worth, Marx was no technological or “productive force” determinist. Across his career he argued that class and “social relations of production” critically shaped what productive forces were used and how and for whose benefit they were employed in different historical eras. Marx was well aware that there where hand mills long before there were feudal lords and that capitalist social relations (characterized above all by the widespread exploitation of wage labor) predated, and provided social context for the advent of the steam mill. He knew that the steam mill would never have taken widespread root under feudalism, which relied on landed peasant labor. And Marx expected to live to see a socialist revolution, one that brought the social ownership of steam mills and other productive forces developed under capitalism.

Clearly, he did not see productive forces and technologies as determining social class relations. He leaned more in the opposite direction.

With the little slice of intellectual history as background, let me advance what might sound like a technologically determinist proposition regarding present day forces of energy extraction and production: humanity has perhaps 20 years, maybe less, to move off fossil fuels and onto renewable sources or it will ruin all prospects for a decent future.

This is not merely the judgment of apocalyptic cranks and “catastrophist” worry warts. It is the consensus finding of a vast scientific literature on the environmental cataclysm that is certain to take hold in coming decades and centuries if Homo sapiens does not get off fossil fuels. For many years now, the preponderant majority of earth and climate scientists have been telling us that the planet we all share is being made progressively uninhabitable for human and other sentient beings (and living things) by global capitalism’s relentlessly wasteful, growth-addicted burning of fossil fuels. According to the latest and last report from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), grave consequences will follow if nothing is done to slow the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) that is already well underway thanks to the mass extraction and burning of hydrocarbons. The report cites food shortages, refugee crises, flooding, mass extinction of plants and animals and dangerously high temperatures as the effects of global warming at its current pace. The panel also warns that dying forests, melting of ice worldwide, rising sea levels and devastating heat would come if emissions continued on their current pace.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary Earth science are clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year, “we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions. No longer is there a non-radical option.” It is by now widely understood that preventing AGW from reaching its full calamitous potential means keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) underground.

Particularly worrisome is the strong possibility that AGW will quite soon pass an irrevocable tipping point past which human efforts to manage and cap planetary heating become irrelevant.  A report earlier this year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world’s largest scientific society) warns that “pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds could trigger abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden climate brake and steering failure where the problem and its consequences are no longer something we can control.”

Depressing as such reports and warnings might seem, there’s also some very good news, technically speaking. Two US academicians– Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi – have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than those promoted by Big Carbon. Jacobson and Delucchi show that homo sapiens could have 100% of the world’s energy supplied for all purposes by wind, water, and solar (WWS) energy by 2030 if it produces (among other things) millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan includes fully feasible transformations in transportation and heating and cooling as well as power generation.  “The numbers are large,” Jacobson and Delucchi write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II,” Jacobson and Delucchi noted in Scientific American five years ago, “the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

The great transition required for a decent future – the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy – is technically achievable. We can do it. “It’s absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil,” Jacobson told New York Times environmental reporter Elisabeth Ronsenthal last year. “You could power America with renewables from a technical and economic standpoint.”

So what’s the hang up? “The biggest obstacles,” Jacobson observes, “are social and political — what you need is the will to do it.” Any good “Marxist” should appreciate the dilemma: the technical know-how and technological capacity exists for a deep and broad, eco-friendly transformation in how we extract, produce, and use energy. What’s blocking this great transformation is a matter – and no small matter – of social and political and indeed (though it is unlikely Jacobson would say so) class relations.

There’s a big difference with the hand-mill and steam-mill eras, however. This time the contradiction between productive forces and sociopolitical relations is a matter of life and death for the species and other living things.

Neither Jacobson nor Rosenthal identified the precise “social and political obstacles” to the necessary conversion to wind, water, and solar. They may have felt that such elaboration was unnecessary. Everyone who cares seriously about AGW knows that the big oil, gas, and coal corporations and their financial backers – the vast Carbon industrial complex – have invested heavily in elections (campaign finance), lobbying, and “public relations” (propaganda) to convince politicians, policymakers, and citizens that it is unnecessary, impractical, and economically disastrous to try to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. And, as every good climate justice activist knows, Big Carbon One-percenters have huge sunk capital committed to the existing eco-cidal hydrocarbon-addicted energy system – giant fixed capital investments that make the giant petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profits perspective) resistant to a clean energy conversion. According to the leading US climate activist Bill McKibben, “‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off.” That’s a lot of “asset inertia.”

Another significant social and political hurdle is the dominant “neoliberal” ideology that big corporations and financial institutions have underwritten and advanced for decades. This is the leading barrier that the progressive author and activist Naomi Klein emphasizes in her important new tome This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “What,” Klein writes, “is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? …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…are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

Despite its subtitle, there’s really not much on capitalism as such in Klein’s book. There’s little in This Changes Everything that explicitly challenges the (insane) “inner logic” of the profits system. When Klein says “capitalism vs. the climate,” she really seems to mean (a) “the climate” (livable ecology) versus (b) neoliberal ideology, market logic, and the disproportionate political and ideological power of Big Carbon.

Still, the notion that we have to move beyond capitalism to save life on Earth is implicit in the book’s conclusion. Klein writes there that “The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” (Klein, This Changes Everything, p.462) That alternative world view, I would assert, is 21st century participatory eco-socialism.

Can the climate crisis be solved and a livable Earth saved under the competitive, chaotic, hierarchical, regressive, imperial, authoritarian, and growth- and accumulation-addicted capitalist system? The answer is almost certainly “no.”  At the same time, we have little choice but to push forward towards toward the great renewable energy transformation as best we can under current social and political conditions.  As Noam Chomsky observed four years ago, if we don’t act very soon to avert the unfolding environmental catastrophe, then little else that progressives and leftists talk about is going to matter very much. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it has been polluted beyond repair? Who wants to more equally share out a poisoned pie?

There is no reason to delay starting on the path towards environmental healing and climate justice where we are, living under capitalism. Perhaps other radicals and I are mistaken to doubt that ecological salvation can occur under the profits system. I would be happy to be proven wrong. At the same time, we should not discount the possibility that a revitalized socialism will emerge (as Klein seems to suggest) precisely out of the struggle to save a livable Earth.

In pursuit of that chance, left progressives would do well also to heed French ecological writer Herve Kempf’s warning half a decade ago: “the left will be reborn by uniting the causes of inequality and the environment – or, unfit, it will disappear in the general disorder that will sweep it and everything else away.”

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

Obedience is the True Pathology

28/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on ZNet, November 22, 2014. If you publicly dissent from and act against prevailing United States orthodoxies and the reigning US power structure, chances are good you will face personal and/or professional defamation and the charge of psychological unreliability and instability. It will be said that there’s something wrong and untrustworthy about you.  You will be demonized, dismissed, and demeaned as a marginal, inappropriate, and hyper-alienated oddball, a maladjusted eccentric no one should take seriously.

Kill the Messenger

Just ask the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.  He committed a great public service by releasing the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of Pentagon documents showing that the murderous US policies and practices in Vietnam had nothing to do with Washington’s officially stated noble goals behind the “Vietnam War.” US President Richard Nixon responded by having the FBI break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to release embarrassing information about Ellsberg’s personal life. The media took the bait, throwing a shadow of suspicion on the whistleblower’s sanity even as it published the documents he released.

Gary Webb

Consider also the smaller and more depressing story of Gary Webb, recently told in the movie Kill The Messenger. Webb was the San Jose Mercury News journalist who discovered and in 1996 reported CIA involvement in the selling of crack cocaine in Los Angeles to help finance the US-backed right-wing terrorists knows as the Contras in their bloody war on the popular-revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s. After initially reporting Webb’s findings, the nation’s leading media organizations (including the Washington Post and the New York Times) attacked Webb professionally. They questioned his journalistic integrity. The assault led to Webb’s shunning, demotion, resignation, and, in 2004, his suicide.

In 1998, an internal CIA report found that Webb’s carefully gathered findings were accurate. The Justice Department also conducted an internal investigation that vindicated Webb’s findings, long after anyone seemed to care. As Michael Parenti noted, “Webb’s real mistake was not that he wrote falsehoods, but that he ventured too far into the truth.” [1]

Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning

Then there’s the case of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.  Four years ago, the New York Times published what it designated as “The Iraq War Logs,” a massive collection of Pentagon documents detailing war crimes and other abuses committed by the US and its proxies during the arch-criminal US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obtained from the whistleblowing US Army Private Chelsea Manning, the documents were made available to the Times and other media outlets by Assange and WikiLeaks. It was not the first time that the Times and other leading papers had collaborated with Assange and gained from Manning’s disclosures.

At the very same time, however, the Times published with equal prominence a front-page report attacking Assange’s character and personality.  Penned by leading Times correspondent John Burns, this article portrayed Assange as grandiose, delusional, paranoid, and irrationally hateful of the US. [2]

The Times and other media outlets following its lead soon depicted Manning in an equally unfavorable light, attributing her whistleblowing to personality disorders, not to any genuine concern with state crimes. Reporters did not seem remotely impressed by the remarkable courage of Manning, who faced life in prison and torture and humiliation at the hands of her US military captors.

Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald

The pattern was repeated in the early summer of 2013, when the greatest US whistleblower to date, Edward Snowden, a former private security contractor, came out with his remarkable, massively documented revelations about the US National Security Agency’s far-reaching programs (“beyond Orwellian” according to the ACLU) for total global Internet surveillance and disruption – programs undertaken with the cooperation of the nation’s leading Internet, software, and telecommunications corporations. The US corporate mass media initially ate up the Snowden revelations in a competitive news feeding frenzy.  The Snowden leak, transmitted though the reporting of leading civil-libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, became the nation’s top media story for considerably longer than the usual news cycle.

Soon, however, the personal assassinations and discrediting began, as mass media operatives returned to their normative pattern: reflexive service to state power. From the Times on down (the usual pattern), Snowden was accused of “fame-seeking narcissism,” cynical arrogance, nihilistic individualism, treason, criminal deviance, and cowardice.  He was called a “loner” and a “loser.” Times columnist David Brooks (an obsequious boot-licker of the power elite) said that Snowden represented “the rise of people so individualistic…that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.”

Greenwald was attacked as an “unreasonable” and anti-American “activist” and “blogger” who was not a real “journalist” – this despite his many years of reporting and commentary at a leading British newspaper (The Guardian). Beyond serious charges of criminality, the assaults on Greenwald became laughably petty and personal, including “revelations” about past tax debt, alleged investment in a pornographic film company, and purported bad behavior as a tenant in an apartment building. [3]

Three Imperatives 

Why these attacks on whistleblowers’ and journalists’ professional and personal integrity and character?  It comes down to three basic power imperatives.  The first priority is to undermine the effectiveness of those who challenge the received doctrine on the supposed benevolence of US policy by depicting them as people with whom no regular and sane folks would want to be associated.

The second obligation is to deter others from challenging authority by demonstrating that one becomes a dissident only at the strong risk of being socially shamed and shunned: “you don’t want to go there; look what happened to that dissident.”

The third imperative is a matter of logical and doctrinal necessity. “For guardians of the status quo,” Greenwald notes in his recent book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State, “there is nothing genuinely or fundamentally wrong with the prevailing order and its dominant institutions, which are viewed as just.  Therefore, anyone claiming otherwise – especially someone sufficiently motivated by that belief to take radical action – must, by definition, be emotionally unstable and psychologically disabled… Radical dissent is evidence, even proof, of a severe personality disorder.” [4]

Submission as a Moral Choice

The problem is that, by any reasonable standard, “the prevailing order and its dominant institutions” are anything but just. Quite to the contrary, the United States’ ever more openly plutocratic and wantonly murderous so-called capitalist democracy seems dedicated not merely to the endless upward and antidemocratic concentration of wealth and power but also to an endless, self-fulfilling global war of/on terror, the marginalization of the “homeland” citizenry (particularly through infantilizing and atomizing corporate-owned media and electoral spectacles), the expansion of corporate and state surveillance to the point where the right to privacy becomes a distant memory, and the ruination of livable ecology (and thus of prospects for a decent future) through the relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels. [5] Justice and democracy are the last things one can reasonably expect from the reigning US order, which Peter McLaren rightly calls “the most powerful conglomeration of cultural, political, and economic oppression ever assembled in history.” [6]

Given the severe threats posed by US empire, inequality, and “capitalist democracy” at home and abroad, one could ask what kind of pathology lays behind the decision of most US citizens NOT to openly challenge and resist the status quo. Might there be something psychologically wrong with this mass obedience?  The question is beyond consideration for champions of the established order – that is, for the preponderant majority of the nation’s heavily indoctrinated and mind-disciplined media personnel and other “intellectuals.” [7] As Greenwald explains, the reigning conventional wisdom on the maladjustment of dissenters rests on “an essential deceit: that dissent from institutional authority involves a moral or ideological choice, while obedience does not.  With that false premise in place, society pays great attention to the motives of dissenters, but none to those who submit to our institutions.” In reality, however, “both observing and breaking the rules involve moral choices and both courses of action reveal something important about the individual involved.  Contrary to accepted premise – that radical dissent demonstrates a personality disorder – the opposite could be true: in the face of severe injustice a refusal to dissent is the sign of a character flaw or moral failure.” [8]

A Social Disease: The Logic of Individual Obedience

Obedience may arise from any number of motivations.  The possible driving forces include an irrational trust in authority, insufficient confidence in one’s own opinion or in one’s ability to develop an informed opinion, or a fear of repercussions likely to follow from questioning and challenging authority.  The last motive (fear) likely makes no small sense for many given the nasty treatment dissenters quite visibly receive from government and media powers. Jobs, homes, health/health coverage, family relationships and more are all stake once one is marked as a dissident.  The silencing power of this fear is heightened significantly by the pervasiveness of surveillance

Lack of confidence in one’s opinion or understanding on and of current events also makes a significant amount of sense in a political environment shaped by power-serving and power-reflecting corporate mass media.  That media is institutionally mandated to give a strictly stunted presentation and interpretation of current events in accord with the narrow confines of corporate and imperial neoliberal ideology.  It’s not merely that US “mainstream” media is beholden to corporate America for advertising dollars or to the imperial state for access to information.  That media is itself a deeply entrenched institutional component of the corporate structure and indeed of the imperial state.  Asking it to substantively engage the leading issues of our time from anything but a highly constricted, power-serving perspective is like asking the editors’ of General Motors’ company newspaper to publish hard-hitting exposes on the exploitation of labor in GM’s assembly plants or on GM environmental crimes.

Thanks to these and other harsh realities of class rule and institutional authority, the deadly pathology that is mass obedience to unjust power is a societal sickness imposed from the top down by those atop elite-controlled institutions – including above all the handful of corporate media conglomerates that together own “most of the nation’s newspapers, magazines, book publishing houses, movie studios, cable channels, record labels, broadcast networks and channels, and radio and television programming in the US.”[9]

“Humanity Will Reemerge”

Given all this and much more that could be said about why “free” US citizens submit to maddeningly unjust and deadly power, the remarkable thing is that large numbers of Americans do still recurrently form and join great demonstrations and movements of popular protest and resistance.  Citing Snowden as an example of “the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world,” Greenwald reminds us that “it is human beings collectively, not a small number of elites working in secret, who can decide what kind of world we live in.”[10] From confronting the nation and globe’s currently savage levels of economic disparity and (intimately related) plutocracy to resisting racist police violence (i.e., the remarkable Ferguson protest campaign) to challenging the deadly plagues of global militarism and climate change, masses of “ordinary” people can and will assemble and mobilize in extraordinary ways to create a just, peaceful, democratic, and sustainable world.  “Today….whe[n] we have seen our humanity swept away like a child’s sigh in a tornado,” McLaren writes, “we – as humans – will  reemerge.  We will reappear…in the smoldering haze of tear gas and demands for democracy…seek[ing] a world founded on dignity, economic equality, creativity, peace, cooperation, love, and justice for our fellow human beings and for the planet that sustains us.”[11] Along the way, we can and must reverse the prevalent establishment psychological messaging on radical dissent and mass obedience, enshrining the former as the healthy norm – the real sign of individual and social character.

Paul Street is a writer and author in the US. 

Notes

1. Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 20.

2. John Burns, “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety,” New York Times, October 23, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/world/24assange.html?hp&_r=0

3. Greg Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan, 2014), 210-225.

4. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 227.

5.  For my take on these and related problems, see Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

6.  Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy and the Founda tions of Education (Paradigm, 2015), xxi.

7. Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)

8. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 227-28.

9.  Parenti, Contrary Notions, 11.

10. Greenwald, No Place to Hide, 253.

11. McLaren, Life in Schools, xxi.

They Rule Book Talk Open University of the Left (OUL), November 15, 2014

21/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Paul Street’s book talk on his latest volume They Rule: The 1: v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014) can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/OpenUnivoftheLeft/

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