voice of the revolutionary communist party,usa
Please note: this page is intended for quick printing of the entire issue. Some of the links may not work when clicked, and some images may be missing. Please go to the article's permalink if you require working links and images.
Black History Month
Editors' Note: This is the first in a series of excerpts from writings and talks by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which deal with the bitter reality—and the fundamental source—of the oppression of Black people throughout the history of the U.S., from the days of slavery down to the present time, and which point to the revolutionary road to ending this oppression, and all forms of oppression and exploitation. These excerpts have been selected for publication for Black History Month this year, but of course this has great relevance and importance not just during this month but in an ongoing way for the struggle of oppressed people, and the future of humanity as a whole, here and throughout the world. We urge our readers to not only dig into the excerpts which we will be running this month (and the specific works that are referred to in these excerpts) but to more fully engage the body of work of Bob Avakian. In particular we want to call attention to the DVD of the talk by Bob Avakian, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, which opens with a penetrating, powerful exposure of the crimes of this system against Black people throughout the history of the United States, and shows how all this—and the many other outrages and injustices that people suffer everyday in this society, and in all parts of the world—are rooted in the very nature of the capitalist-imperialist system and can only be abolished through a revolution whose ultimate aim is to sweep away capitalism-imperialism and bring into being a communist world, free of relations of master and slave, in any form. And the 7 Talks, given last year by Chairman Avakian, along with the Q&A and Closing Remarks that follow those Talks, speak in a rich diversity of ways to these and other fundamental questions, including why we're in the situation we're in today and how this relates to the historic challenge of emancipating all humanity from the chains of oppression and exploitation. (These 7 Talks and the Q&A and Closing Remarks are available online at bobavakian.net and revcom.us.)
This series begins with an excerpt from comments by Bob Avakian in response to a question that was part of the Question and Answer Session following the 7 Talks. (In a few places things have been added, in brackets within the text, for clarity.)
This is followed by an article by Bob Avakian which was originally published 10 years ago, on the occasion of Black History Month in 1997.
Question: In your talks one of the threads among many is about the oppression of Black people being a foundational part of the way this society formed, the economic base, and the whole way this country developed: the things you have written and talked about—slavery and democracy and the New Deal and the Great Society programs, the conscious policies and the southern politicians.
Your talk on Minstrelsy and how the NBA is an extension of that was very heavy. [Editors' note: The talk referred to here is titled "The NBA: Marketing the Minstrel Show and Serving the Big Gangsters." The audio file of the talk is available online at bobavakian.net or revcom.us.] I am trying to understand this more because it is so intertwined with the society. Related to this is the point about the struggle of Black people being an Achilles heel for the system. Can you comment further.
Bob Avakian: Well, you know, de Tocqueville [19th century French historian and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville], when he came to the U.S. and wrote his book based on his journeys in the U.S. a couple of centuries ago, talked about all the great attributes of democracy in this country, the "enterprise" of the people both in the general sense and in the particular sense of money-making—a lot of the sort of peculiar, but in his view largely positive, characteristics of people in this society. But one thing he said, speaking of the Achilles heel: there is one big fly in the ointment—the whole phenomenon of slavery which could yet be the undoing of this whole thing.
Things have changed a lot over the past two centuries in terms of the composition of the population, in terms of the composition of the proletariat, in terms of the character and "anatomy" of the proletariat—who's in it and where they are working and what their situation is, different strata and stratification within the proletariat, differentiation within the proletariat….The rolling on of the capitalist accumulation process and conscious policy leads to where a lot of Black people are forced out of these positions: the de-industrialization of the urban areas that is now such a marked phenomenon. There is a book by this guy Thomas Sugrue called The Origins of the Urban Crisis where he actually focuses on Detroit, which is a big industrial center where a lot of Black people worked in these big auto plants, like River Rouge and these other big plants. He talks about how the de-industrialization of the inner cities, especially for Black people, began as early as the late 1950s.
But then, you know, capitalism still has its needs internationally and within the U.S., so it brings in these waves of immigrants and exploits them and rewrites or blots out history and turns people against each other. It doesn't tell these immigrants, who see a lot of Black people who've been pushed out of these jobs and are hanging on the corner, "By the way, those people went through this whole process a couple of generations ago; now we've got them in a different position and we're bringing you in so we can exploit you because the dynamics have gone that kind of way and we've developed policy in relation to that." No, they don't tell them that.
Look, let's face it. There are certain things about Black people that a lot of employers don't like these days. There's a lot of defiance. Even though people are desperate economically there's also a certain defiance that's developed historically. It doesn't mean people don't want to work. Someone referred to how you go for a job and there are 500 people applying for the job and you have to try to sell yourself better than the other 499. Every time in a major city when they build a new hotel and announce jobs, thousands of people line up including a lot of Black people, so let's put this in its proper perspective. But there is a certain attitude among the [Black] youth a lot, having watched, for example, older generations going to work and doing all this stuff for "chump change," and getting nowhere with it, and then being flushed out of it…there is a certain "fuck that, I'm not doing that." That doesn't make them so pliant necessarily for capitalist exploitation. So that enters into the picture too. They've had a longer experience here. That doesn't mean they "don't want to work" but there is a certain attitude there, not taking a certain amount of shit. That's still there. Some of it's been beaten down temporarily, but there's still a lot of it there….
And let's face it, you go several generations where a majority of people in some inner city neighborhoods have never had a job, it has an effect. Not because they "didn't want to work" but because this is the workings of capitalism, working on them.
So all these things play into it too.
This is the complexity—we have to understand the complexity of even the proletariat today. That's why I always talk about mobilizing all positive factors. That defiance is a positive factor, even though it comes along with some things that are not so positive, some lack of discipline and other things—even people's conditions are so chaotic it's hard for them to get organized sometimes. These are the realities. The bourgeoisie imposes shit on people, then they attribute the effects of the conditions they have imposed on people—they say that's the result of inherent faults in the people….
So a lot of these questions are very tricky, we have to be very scientific about this. But it's a very complex thing where there are a lot of positive qualities mixed in with negative qualities and we have to learn how to mobilize and synthesize all the positive qualities and use those to overcome the negative ones that exist.
When you work regularly and you're caught up in this "work ethic" and you work hard all the time, even though you are viciously exploited, that has a conservatizing influence also. Everybody who's been in this, who's had any experience with that, knows and is familiar with that.
So you can just look at that negative aspect—or you can look at the positive aspect and try to figure out how to mobilize it toward our objectives.
With all that, with all this system has subjected Black people to, and yes, with the growth of a Black middle class more extensively and its [the system's] attempts to use sections of that Black middle class for not only conservative [purposes] but even to mobilize it even as a reactionary social base, especially through the instrument of religion and Christian Fascism, it does remain a fact that this system is fundamentally in conflict with the basic interests even of the Black middle class strata and certainly of the masses of proletarians and other impoverished and exploited and oppressed millions of Black people in the inner cities. It cannot do away with the oppression of these masses of people—and even of the middle strata.
You know it's still true what Malcolm X said 40 years ago: "What do they call a Black man with a PhD? A nigger." This is still America. That's why the phenomenon of "Driving While Black" doesn't just apply to people who are poor. In fact, in some ways, in the eyes of white supremacist police and enforcers of the system, having a better car, if you're in the middle class, is a provocation: "Look at that uppity nigger, driving that BMW in here." That's an invitation to be pulled over and minimally harassed.
This is built into this system and they do not have any answer to this other than to mislead people, to subject them to conditions of insult and oppression and to brutalize them as necessary to enforce all that. Even programs that have genocidal implications. When you're already imprisoning a huge section of Black people in the country, there's a logic and it's being formulated now in beginning ways consciously as policy that's being articulated; there's a logic that, "Why should we spend all this money housing all these people who are harmful to society in a prison?" Pat Robertson openly talked about the implications: "Let's get a different penal system and kill off a lot of these people. Let's publicly flog people who commit minor crimes"—this is literally what he said—"and let's kill the ones who put a 'stain' on society."
So there are genocidal implications to this too. They don't have an answer to this, they have a people [Black people], of tens of millions now—they don't have an answer, even for the middle class, that can get rid of all this oppression and all this daily insult. And that's part of a bigger mix, within the proletariat and more broadly in society, but it is an explosive contradiction for them [the ruling class]. That's why it keeps exploding, it's dry timber lying around—whenever a match hits it, it goes up. Or not whenever, but often.
Because there is accumulation of these daily outrages and insults, and finally—it's interesting—you take the 1992 rebellion. I've spoken to this before. Why did that break out the way it did? Not just because of a cumulative, day after day adding up of insult and injury but—here's an interesting thing to understand, an important thing to understand–-it's because expectations were raised and then smashed. There's nothing particularly unique about the Rodney King phenomenon, nothing at all—except it got caught on videotape. And then the masses of people, Black people and others, but particularly Black people, felt, "Now we're finally gonna see something happen here, because finally we caught these motherfuckers! Somebody was there with a videotape! This goes on all the time and they always excuse it or just deny that it happened—but here it is, and they can't deny it and can't excuse it."
I remember hearing stories about how the youth would go up to Westwood by the UCLA campus and go out in the street and taunt the police: "What are you gonna do now, motherfucker, we got you on tape now." [Laughter]
And then they had the trial and what happened? They said, "Well, who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? Yes, there's that beating on the tape, but don't you see how Rodney King is `controlling the situation?' All he has to do is lie there and they'll stop beating him." Of course, when he did lie there, they didn't stop beating him.
[Then] they went to Ronald Reagan land, Simi Valley, and got a jury out of a neighborhood that a lot of cops live in.
By the way, one of the reasons that OJ Simpson did get acquitted, whether he actually committed this crime or not, is because of the rebellion, just to show the interconnection of things. Because they didn't dare do in that trial what they did in the Rodney King trial and move it out of the inner city to a suburban area where they could get a more favorable jury. They ended up with a jury from the inner city. And here's what infuriated a lot of people, by the way, just as long as we're going at it. I know I'm not supposed to talk so long [laughter]—I'll try to be brief on this point and bring it to a conclusion. They got a jury that infuriated a lot of people by doing what jurors are supposed to do: They listened to the evidence and said, "Well, there's reasonable doubt here—clearly the prosecution has fabricated evidence and we have perjury on the part of some of its key witnesses, so there is reasonable doubt." What an outrage! But they wouldn't have had a jury that even did that—it's not, by the way, for good or for ill, that Black juries won't convict Black people of crimes, they do it all the time—but in this case they did what they were supposed to do, according to the legal procedures, and that became a big outrage.
But that would have never happened had it not been for the rebellion. They would have had the trial somewhere else. So sometimes the masses lose sight of even their own accomplishments. It's not that OJ Simpson is such a great guy or that I know he's innocent—or guilty for that matter. But it was a verdict that did correspond to what the verdict should have been, and it never would have happened had it not been for the rebellion.
But why did the rebellion happen? Because expectations were raised and then dashed and smashed. That became just too much. "Even when we've caught you motherfuckers on tape, you still gonna go ahead and do what you do. Well, fuck you."
This is after years of accumulation of outrage and insult… Not that we want to just tail behind all these things—even while we uphold them firmly. I meant everything I said in the statement I issued at the time about what a beautiful thing this [rebellion] was. But it's not what we need to get rid of the daily insults and outrages. We need a revolutionary movement.
And it's not that this movement could be or should be limited to Black people. But there will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression. There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about. Even while it's not limited to that and we can't think this is the same as the 1960s, even in terms of the position of Black people and what spontaneously that leads them to do, or just romanticize something like the [1992 Los Angeles] rebellion and think that's enough. We have to build a revolutionary movement and take it where it needs to go.
And when the time is right and we can bring a revolutionary people of millions onto the stage, we have to go for power–-state power—so we can change all these things and get rid of all this and move beyond all this: not just the oppression of Black people but that [as one of] the key things.
We have an answer for this that the bourgeoisie does not and cannot. And this has to be brought home to people—not just to Black people but to all oppressed and exploited people and to the broad people of all strata as a crucial part of our revolution.
First of all, we have to recognize the material reality of this. And then act on it. [Applause]
By Bob Avakian
(originally published in the Revolutionary Worker #896, March 2, 1997)
I want to talk about the utter bankruptcy of this system which has long since outlived any positive role, and how it does need to be brought to dust and swept from the face of earth as soon as possible. These days, one of the sharpest expressions of this in the U.S. is ways in which this system is even bringing back aspects of slavery. This is true both in a figurative and in a literal sense. In an overall way, this is increasingly being brought up by Black people. And among Black people, as well as more broadly, the slogan "We Are Human Beings—We Demand a Better World! We will Not Accept Slavery in Any Form!" strikes a deep chord with more and more of the masses. This reflects something very real—both the literal aspects of restoring slavery as well as the more figurative and general sense of enslavement—the overall intensification of various forms of exploitation and oppression. In this connection, let's look at what has been raised by some prisoners in letters to the RW. Fairly broadly there is the phenomenon where prisoners, because of the circumstances they're in, have the opportunity—and they seize on the opportunity—to do a lot of reading. They study philosophy, politics and history, and so on. And in these letters from some prisoners something very interesting and significant was pointed to: in the Constitutional Amendments passed after the Civil War which formally abolished legal slavery, an exception was made. In those amendments it was stipulated that there cannot be any enforced, involuntary servitude, i.e. slavery, except in conditions of imprisonment. And these prisoners were making the point that this has been in the Constitution all along, and that today this is very acute—the rights that the Constitution is supposed to provide for people in society at large, do not apply to prisoners—there's no recognition of those rights for inmates. This applies not only to all kinds of everyday things in life but it also applies to labor: prisoners can be made to work in all kinds of conditions that masses outside, at least theoretically, are not supposed to be made to work in.
Now, something important to recognize with all the talk about crime is that the bourgeoisie and those who follow in its wake always like to start "in the middle of the story." They always want to start in mid-air. They always want to talk about the symptoms and effects of what their system is causing—"look at the masses into all this shit," "look at them doing all this crime," "look at them doing all this shit in the streets," "look how they're killing each other," "look at how they're having babies when they are still just kids themselves," and all this kind of stuff. The bourgeoisie doesn't want to look at the whole picture. They don't want people seeing the whole picture—they don't want to start at the beginning, at the foundation, with the cause instead of just the effects and symptoms.
What we have to do is look at the whole picture—look at it with dialectical and historical materialism—get down to the real problem, and the real solution.
Who Really Owes Whom?
I was watching a tape of a talk show—one of these tabloid talk shows, where some fool was talking about the masses, including the masses of Black people and immigrants, how they are lazy and on welfare and all this garbage you hear all the time. I was watching this tape with someone else around and I turned to them and said: "You know, this shit just makes me sick."
First of all, millions and millions of Black people in the U.S. work their asses off every day in all kinds of shit jobs as well as in more middle class positions, but especially in all kinds of jobs that the people who are talking this shit would never take in a million years. But, besides that—if you want to get right down on the ground with it, if not a single Black person ever worked a single minute for the rest of their entire lives, they've already long since paid their dues, with slavery and sharecropping and factory work and all kinds of back-breaking, low-paying jobs. So I don't want to hear anymore of this talk about how they don't want to work.
If you want to talk about who owes whom—if you keep in mind everything the capitalists (as well as the slaveowners) have accumulated through all the labor Black people have carried out in this country and the privileges that have been passed out to people on that basis—there wouldn't even be a U.S. imperialism as there is today if it weren't for the exploitation of Black people under this system. Not that the exploitation of Black people is the whole of it—there has been a lot of other people exploited, both in the U.S. and internationally, by this ruling class. But there wouldn't be a U.S. imperialism in the way there is today if it weren't for the exploitation of Black people under slavery and then after slavery in the sharecropping system and in the plants and other workplaces in a kind of caste-like oppression in the cities. So I don't want to hear this shit anymore: Black people don't have to work another single day for you bloodsuckers! Let's put it that way. You already way owe them, so let's just get that clear.
Jails and Chains
The bourgeois politicians, pundits, commentators, and all the rest always like to start in the middle of the story, but if we step back and look at it more sweepingly, we can see what's happening. They always want to talk "convicts" or whatever—they aren't working hard enough, they have too many rights to pump iron or get cable TV, and blah, blah, blah. Now the majority of people in jail are Black and Latino—they come from among the very peoples that the ruling class has most viciously exploited. Specifically in the case of the African-American people, the bourgeoisie has exploited them over generations and centuries. And now, because of the workings of the system itself, rather than exploiting and oppressing them in the ways it has, the ruling class is working out a new vicious scheme.
This is not just a paranoid notion, this is a real and conscious policy by the ruling class—it is very deliberate and it is being carried out very systematically. It is a policy that says: "We don't have any way to profitably exploit many of these people in the formal economy any longer. So what we are going to do is to criminalize a whole section of them, particularly the youth in the ghettos. We're going to give them 'criminal jackets' and we're going to get them caught up in the 'criminal justice system.' We're going to bust them for these little petty things and give them a criminal record. And, since we know they will have very few options—we have already declared that many of them have no future—we are going to catch them in some crime again and we're going to send them to prison. Then, when we get them in prison, we can exploit them in ways we couldn't exploit them outside in the formal economy." Now, perhaps, for awhile, there was a certain "spontaneity" to how the bourgeoisie took this up, but this has been developed into a more conscious and systematic policy.
If we look at the whole picture, this is a matter of literally picking people up from one situation where they can't be profitably exploited in the formal economy and putting them into another situation where they can not only be profitably exploited, but they are almost literally being exploited in outright slavery in certain significant aspects.
What, after all, is this thing with the revival of chain gangs if not a conscious symbol of slavery? You can't put Black people in chains and not call to mind slavery in this country! Who can see Black people in chains in Alabama, or Mississippi, or wherever, and not instantly and logically think of slavery? And, beyond the mere symbolism here—which is outrageous enough—there are real, material aspects of actual slavery in the way prison labor is exploited, whether or not it is in the form of chain gangs.
And the objective of the ruling class in all this is not just economic—it is also ideological and political. It is an all-around and intense effort to dehumanize the masses of people in the inner cities in particular—to degrade them, socially and ideologically as well as economically—and to make them appear less than human, to paint them as objects of fear, contempt, and hatred, for other sections of people, whose discontent is growing in the context of increased economic hardship and anxiety and social instability and upheaval of various kinds. It is a systematic attempt to politically surround and suppress the masses in these inner cities—to segregate and "cordon" and contain them—subjecting them to police terror and police-state conditions and directing the inevitable explosion of their anger towards each other.
Flags of Oppression
I made a point in an article awhile back about communist stand-up comedians—this is included in the book Reflections, Sketches and Provocations —that once the ruling class brought in Reagan as president, and everything that went along with him, it was hard to do a parody of the ruling class anymore. In everything they say and do these people, in effect, parody themselves. It's hard to figure out a creative way to do satire of them because they're like a walking satire of themselves. They just continually get more and more outrageous—it is hard to keep up with them. That was true then and it's becoming increasingly true. Slavery is another sharp example of this.
When I wrote the morality essays* about a year or so ago, I said that you won't find representatives of the ruling class openly defending slavery (except maybe people like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson if you get them in the right circumstances). But then up jumps this cracker in Alabama—not just any old cracker but a member of the state senate who was also a candidate for Congress in the Republican Party primaries—and the Republican Party is one of the two main bourgeois political parties. Now there is this debate about the Confederate flag—whether they should keep it at the state capitol buildings, or something like that—and this guy not only argues that they got to keep it, but in the course of making this argument he comes out and openly defends slavery!
Now just look at the bourgeoisie in the U.S. They have this bourgeois revolution in the 18th century which they can't even complete in one stroke: they get rid of England, but they can't get rid of slavery. Then, almost 100 years later, with the Civil War, they more or less complete their bourgeois revolution by getting rid of slavery. But they can't even celebrate the Civil War.
A few years ago this movie Glory was made about a Black regiment in the Civil War—and overall it is a very good movie. But the bourgeoisie can't even glory in the Civil War. How do they present it? It's a tragedy —it's a terrible thing. Wrong! That's the one really good thing that the bourgeoisie ever did in this country—it was far more liberating than their War of Independence against England—but they can't even feel good about it, especially now.
So here they are, just a few years before the year 2000, going back on themselves. They can't even put forward the one thing they did that was really very liberating. There was that song in the Civil War, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was a rallying cry for the northern Union cause—"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…" It was wrapped up in religious garb, but on the side of the North that really was a glorious struggle. It was objectively glorious, because it was fought over the question of slavery and it resulted in the abolition of slavery. And to a large degree the motivation of those who fought in it was glorious, because many were consciously fighting and sacrificing to abolish slavery, notwithstanding the hesitations and vacillations of Lincoln and other leaders of the Union.
From the standpoint of the proletariat, and with our method of dialectical and historical materialism, we can definitely uphold that war as glorious. Whereas the bourgeoisie, proceeding from its class interests and with its class outlook, doesn't see it that way. They see it as something they had to go through to keep their country together and to come out with the bourgeois class, as opposed to the slaveowning class, firmly in control and to further unleash the development of the bourgeois mode of production. But that's as far as they can go in saying anything good about it.
And even now they can't even get rid of the Confederate flag! The American flag isn't even bad enough for them, they can't get rid of the Confederate flag. "This isn't a symbol of slavery, it's a symbol of southern culture"—that's what those who uphold the Confederate flag say (at least most of them, and at least when they are in public). Well, what is southern culture an expression of? What was that southern culture and way of life—what was it based on? Slavery! The exploitation of Black people on the southern plantations, and the many and vicious forms of social inequality and political oppression that accompanied this exploitation, not only during slavery but for generations after slavery was ended—this is the foundation of the whole "southern way of life." That is what the Confederate flag is a symbol of, and there's no getting away from that fact.
Slavery and Reality
And just to give a little more historical perspective about this country—about the nature and outlook of the bourgeoisie—when I was a kid in school (which isn't that long ago!), this same line that slavery wasn't that vicious and was even good for the slaves themselves could be found in the textbooks that we were given. Then, through the whole tremendous struggle and social upheaval of the '60s (and into the '70s), many of the textbooks were changed. The most obvious outrageous lies—like how slavery was some sort of real genteel system that was actually good for the slaves—got written out of most textbooks.
But now here comes this Alabama State Senator and Congressional Candidate dredging up all this old reactionary lie, saying that slavery was a gentle and genteel system where the children of the slaves and the children of the slaveowners played together and took care of each other—if a slave got sick they were taken care of by the master, it was really a very compassionate system! Now this on the one hand is ludicrous, but really is not funny at all—it is deadly serious. It is not just a case of some "lone nut" or a "solitary cracker," because where did this guy get the nerve to come out openly and say this shit?
The fact is that powerful forces within the ruling class are encouraging this and the ruling class as a whole sees the necessity to create the kind of political and ideological atmosphere where talk like this can be promoted.
You would think that we shouldn't have to go through this yet again—to demonstrate what the slave system was really all about and the almost unbelievable horror it represented for the slaves. But we do have to show this yet again, so we will. We are going to have to do more exposure of this once again.
Upon hearing about this whole thing with this Alabama state senator, I wrote up some comments which were printed in the RW. I have this book by Charles Dickens, American Notes, based on his travels in the United States in the 1840s. In this book Dickens does some very good and very effective exposure. He has a chapter called "Slavery," and in the beginning of this chapter Dickens directly denounces, in very compelling terms, the horrendous and horrific character of slavery in the U.S. But then his approach is that it will be even more compelling to let the slaveowners themselves reveal the horrors of the slave system, the atrocities widely and systematically committed. So what he does is to include pages and pages and pages of descriptions, taken right from the southern newspapers of that time, where slaveowners have put in notices asking for help in tracking down and capturing runaway slaves.
There is description after description of slaves who have a bullet in their neck, runaway slaves with their manacles, neck irons, leg irons, and contraptions over their heads that sound a bell when they walk, slaves with limbs that have been broken and twisted, and on and on and on. Dickens's point is very well taken: you want to know what the slave system is like, look at this right from the slavemasters themselves.
And as I said, we shouldn't have to do exposure like this all over again, at the approach of the 21st century; but we do, so we will. We have to bring this out once again in very searing terms, to bring out from many angles what the slave system was all about, and what it had to do with the whole development of the bourgeois mode of production in this country and the world. And what its "legacy" is—what the forms of exploitation and oppression are today on which this system rests—the exploitation and oppression of the masses of Black people and of the proletariat and the masses as a whole.
See also: Part II ("How This System Has Betrayed Black People: Crucial Turning Points"), originally published in Revolutionary Worker #894, and "Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story," Revolutionary Worker #895.
* The morality essays are "Preaching from a Pulpit
of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's Virtues, Or We
Need Morality, But NOT Traditional Morality" and "Putting
and End to 'Sin' Or We Need Morality, But NOT Traditional Morality
(Part 2)." These essays have been published together as a book, Preaching
From a Pulpit of Bones, We Need Morality But Not Traditional Morality,
Insight Press, 1999.
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
This important call from scientists is available online at defendscience.org
An urgent call by scientists to:
IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY SCIENCE, AS SCIENCE, IS UNDER ATTACK AS NEVER BEFORE.
The signs of this are everywhere. The attacks are coming at an accelerating pace, and include frequent interventions by powerful forces, in and out of the Bush Administration, who seem all too willing to deny scientific truths, disrupt scientific investigations, block scientific progress, undermine scientific education, and sacrifice the very integrity of the scientific process itself--all in the pursuit of implementing their particular political agenda. And today this dominant political agenda is profoundly allied and intertwined with an extremist (and extremely anti-science) ideological agenda put forward by powerful fundamentalist religious forces commonly known as the Religious Right. These fundamentalists now have extensive influence and representatives in major institutions of the U.S. government, including Congress and the White House. This itself goes a long way towards explaining why science itself is under such unprecedented attack.
It is commonplace under the current Administration for the government to deny funding, censor scientific reports, or in other ways undermine scientific research which might turn up facts which they don't want to hear; to manipulate, distort, or outright suppress scientific findings they find objectionable; to attempt to reshape government scientific panels to obtain policy recommendations on issues ranging from health to the environment, based less on actual scientific findings than on the requirements of the Administration's agenda.
The situation is so serious that more than 6,000 scientists have already signed the "Restoring Scientific Integrity" statement of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which denounces the Bush Administration for "abuse of science"; and Scientific American published an editorial under the title: "Bush-League Lysenkoism: The White House Seeks to Bend Science To Its Will."
* Particular Christian fundamentalist "moral codes" are increasingly imposing restrictions on what kinds of questions can be investigated by scientists and what kinds of answers scientists can come up with. HIV-prevention studies have come under attack for even attempting to study prevalent sexual practices. Funds have been cut and researchers have faced intimidation and harassment from fundamentalists inside and outside of government who insist that scientific study of HIV/AIDS begin and end with the demand for "abstinence-only" programs - regardless of the human and social cost. Research into human sexuality in general has been suppressed and faulty studies and outright disinformation about the effectiveness of condoms and other birth control methods have been promoted and disseminated by the Administration. The Department of Health and Human Services is known to have deleted from its web site scientific health information which conflicted with the Administration's "abstinence-only" approach to sex education…THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
* Entire new fields of scientific inquiry, like stem-cell research, with potential for path-breaking medical breakthroughs, are denied federal funds because of fundamentalist religious objections…THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
* Scientists whose findings conflict with corporate interests or policies of the Bush Administration face threats of retaliation or denial of funding. There have been "gag orders" forbidding government scientists from talking publicly about important scientific questions and, at times, even mentioning terms like "global warming." In studies by government scientists on global warming and its potentially devastating consequences for the planet and humanity, titles of reports have been changed and whole sections deleted by high political officials. There are repeated efforts by government officials to over-rule scientists on such things as which plant and animal species to include on the "Endangered Species" list, which natural habitats are in critical need of preservation, how to set air and water quality standards, and so on…THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
* In a practice many have denounced as "Scientific McCarthyism," scientists who are candidates for scientific advisory boards and panels have been asked how they voted or whether they support particular policies of the Administration, and some have been denied appointments because of their political views…THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
* Official government-run bookstores at the Grand Canyon have carried books promoting as fact the literalist Biblical notion that the Grand Canyon was formed only a few thousand years ago by "Noah's Flood," in direct contradiction to the overwhelming geological evidence and scientific consensus that the Grand Canyon contains rocks that are billions of years old and that the Canyon itself was carved out by a river, over a very long period of time, millions of years ago…THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
And that is not all: Here we are in the 21st century, and the head of the government himself, George W. Bush, refuses to acknowledge that evolution is a scientific fact! THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.
The President claims: "On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth," and then sits smugly by while Creationists carry out an assault against evolution in classrooms, museums, libraries, government bookstores, and even IMAX movies and science theaters.
No, Mr. President, the verdict is NOT out on evolution. EVOLUTION IS A FACT--IT IS ONE OF THE MOST WELL-ESTABLISHED AND WELL-DOCUMENTED FACTS IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE. TO DENY AND ATTACK EVOLUTION IS TO DENY AND ATTACK ONE OF THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL FACTS ABOUT ALL OF NATURE AND REALITY AND ONE OF THE MOST CRUCIAL FOUNDATION STONES OF ALL OF MODERN SCIENCE.
Evolution is not a matter of "controversy" in the scientific community: It is recognized as a fact by the overwhelming majority of scientists in the U.S. and throughout the world. Evolution is just as well-established as the fact that the earth goes around the sun--a scientifically-demonstrated truth which, several centuries ago and for some time, was also opposed and even viciously suppressed because of a religious inquisition, resulting in great harm to science and to humanity. We cannot, and will not, allow the same kind of thing to happen with the scientific fact of evolution.
Therefore, we, the undersigned scientists and members of the scientific community, are issuing this urgent call to everyone in society to take up the challenge to DEFEND SCIENCE.
To be clear: Many who continue to hold religious beliefs can and should rally to this call to DEFEND SCIENCE. This is not about science trying to destroy religion. It is about defending science from a specific right-wing political agenda which, coupled with a fundamentalist, Biblical-literalist religious ideology, is setting out to implement a program that will fundamentally pervert and undermine science and the scientific process itself.
Individual scientists may be atheists or agnostics, or may hold various religious beliefs; and their politics range over the full spectrum of political views. But one thing the overwhelming majority of scientists have in common is their understanding that, when conducting scientific investigation and applying the scientific method, it is essential to use as a starting point previously accumulated scientific knowledge--the storehouse of well-established scientific evidence about reality which has previously been arrived at through concrete and systematic scientific observation and experiment and has been subjected to rigorous scientific review and testing. This is what we scientists stand on as our foundation when we set out to further investigate reality and make new discoveries. This is how science has been done and how it has advanced for hundreds of years now, and this has allowed science to benefit humanity in countless ways.
Genuine science never proceeds from, or uses as its starting point, any set of subjective "beliefs," "opinions" or "faith-based edicts" handed down by religious or secular authorities and proclaimed to be beyond human questioning, testing and investigation. To bring into the scientific process assumptions, religious or otherwise, which were not arrived at by scientific methods, and which by definition cannot be tested by scientific methods, would destroy science as science.
In conclusion: We must refuse to accept a situation where scientific inquiry is blocked or its findings ruled out of order unless they conform to the goals of the government, to corporate interests and to the ideology of religious fundamentalists; where dogma enforced by governmental and religious authority takes the place of science; where the scientific approach of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena is suppressed. We must insist on an atmosphere where scientists are allowed to seek the truth, even when the truth conflicts with the views and policies of those in power, and where the scientific spirit is fostered, where science education and the popularization of the scientific method are valued, where people are encouraged to pursue an understanding of how and why things are the way they are; where all that has been learned by humanity so far, all that has repeatedly been tested and found to be true, serves as the starting point for further investigation of reality.
IT IS UP TO US. IT IS TIME TO TAKE A CLEAR AND DECISIVE STAND IN DEFENSE OF SCIENCE. THIS IS OF CRUCIAL AND URGENT IMPORTANCE NOT ONLY FOR SCIENTISTS BUT FOR PEOPLE THROUGHOUT SOCIETY, FOR HUMANITY AS A WHOLE AND FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Scientists and Members of the Scientific Community:
Sign and Circulate This Statement. Help Raise Funds to Have it Printed in Newspapers Across the Country, and Internationally. Get This Statement Adopted by Scientific, Educational and Other Associations and Institutions. Urge Others to Become Involved.
Members of the General Public: Reprint and Circulate This Statement, Help Spread the Word, Contribute Your Ideas About How to Wage This Crucial Battle & Join With People in the Scientific Community and Others to Wage This Battle.
Partial list of signatories to the Defend Science statement:
Gerardus 't Hooft, Professor Theoretical Physics, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, Nobel Prize Physics 1999
Marc Davis, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley, member National Academy of Sciences
Paul Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University
Donald A. Glaser, PhD., Nobel Laureate in Physics, Prof. of Physics & of Neurobiology, UC Berkeley
Roger Guillemin, MD,PhD, Nobel laureate in Medicine & Physiology 1977, Member National Academy of Sciences
Michael G. Hadfield, Professor of Zoology, University of Hawaii
Carl Heiles, Astronomy Department, UC Berkeley
John G. Hildebrand, Regents Professor of Neurobiology, University of Arizona
Gerald T. Keusch M.D., Assoc. Dean for Global Health, Boston University Medical Center
Prof. James L. Kinsey, Department of Chemistry, Rice University, Member, National Academy of Sciences (1991)
Prof. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate Physics 2000
Harold Kroto, Professor of Chemistry, Florida State University, Nobel Laureate (1996)
Paul C. Lauterbur, Professor of Chemistry & of Medical Information Sciences, Univ. of Illinois, Nobel Laureate (2003)
Prof. Jean-Marie Lehn, Strasbourg, France, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1987
Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley
Christopher F. McKee, Physics & Astronomy Depts, UC Berkeley, member National Academy of Sciences
Douglas Osheroff, Professor of Physics, Stanford University, Nobel Laureate 1996
Kevin Padian, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley
Stephen R. Palumbi, Professor of Biological Sciences, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University
David Politzer, Caltech, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2004
Theodore A. Postol, Prof. of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, MIT
Donald Prothero, Prof. Caltech and Occidental College
Irwin Rose, Prof. Physiology & Biophysics UC Irvine, Nobel laureate in Chemistry (2004)
Edwin E. Salpeter, Prof. Emeritus, Physical Sciences, Cornell University, member National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society (UK)
Randy Schekman, Prof of Molecular & Cell Biology, director campus stem cell center, UC Berkeley, member NAS
Andrew Sessler, Former President of the American Physical Society, member of the National Academy of Sciences
Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University
Ardea Skybreak, author of Science of Evolution
E. Donnall Thomas, Nobel laureate, 1990, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Wm J. Welch, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley
Dr. Charles Yanofsky, Prof. emeritus, Dept. of Biological Sciences Stanford Univ. National Medal of Science recipient, member of National Academy of Sciences
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
by Larry Everest
The Bush regime is “surging”—escalating—in Iraq. And it’s launched an even more ominous escalation toward Iran that may lead to military attacks—or all-out war. There are increasing reports in both the bourgeois and the alternative press that war preparations are underway and that the U.S. and/or Israel could attack Iran within the next several months. This follows last year’s revelations by journalist Seymour Hersh that the Bush administration was engaged in military planning for war on Iran, possibly including bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapons.
In the past several weeks, following Bush’s January 10 escalation speech (see “Bush's New Plan: More Troops, More Death, More—and Wider—War,”) and amplified in his January 23 State of the Union address, the U.S. has both increased its combat forces in Iraq and rapidly ramped up its military preparations, political and economic pressure, and propaganda offensive against Iran.
* The U.S. dispatched a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf, equaling the number in the Gulf during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Anti-missile Patriot missile batteries are also being deployed in the region to protect U.S. allies against possible Iranian retaliatory strikes.
* The U.S. has shaken up its military command and for the first time put an Admiral, William J. Fallon in charge of Centcom. Centcom commands all U.S. forces in the Europe-Middle East region. Coming at a time when the U.S. is fighting two ground wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—this move is widely understood as signaling a naval and air assault on Iran.
* The U.S. imperialists tightened the economic vice on Iran by pressuring international banks and financial institutions to stop lending it money. Using its ally, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has pushed down the price of oil from $77 to $50 a barrel, significantly cutting into the oil revenues Iran’s government and economy depend on.
* The Bush regime has launched a full-court propaganda offensive against Iran reminiscent of the deluge of lies which preceded the Iraq war. The U.S. and Israel continue to claim that Iran is actively pursuing and close to building nuclear weapons. The Bush crew has produced no proof to back up this claim, and most weapons experts insist it will be at least a decade before Iran could build a nuclear weapon—if it is indeed pursuing them. Britain’s Observer (1/28) reports that “Iran's efforts to produce highly enriched uranium, the material used to make nuclear bombs [and fuel nuclear reactors], are in chaos and the country is still years from mastering the required technology.”
In his State of the Union address, Bush stated: “It has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who…take direction from the regime in Iran. The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat.” This brings Iran back into the sights of Bush’s ideological “holy war.”
In his January 10 speech, Bush claimed, “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops,” and since then one official after another has repeated this charge—although none has provided a shred of evidence. Even bourgeois media outlets ( L.A. Times , 1/23) report: “Scant evidence found of Iran-Iraq arms link.” The charge is exercise of naked lying and contorted logic: “some 99 percent of all attacks on U.S. troops occur in Sunni Arab areas and are carried out by Baathist or Sunni fundamentalist (Salafi) guerrilla groups,” Professor Juan Cole points out. “If Iran is providing materiel to anyone, it is to U.S. [Shi’ite] allies.”
* Hours before Bush’s January 10 speech, the U.S. staged a provocative raid and arrested a number of Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. It turns out they were officials invited by the Iraqi government, yet some are still being held.
* Bush also issued shoot-to-kill orders against Iranians “trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq.” There are thousands of Iranians in Iraq at any given time—religious pilgrims, businessmen, diplomats, people with relatives in Iraq—and the rationale of shooting Iranians for stopping the U.S. “from achieving our goal” is so broad it could make any of them a target—and serve as a tripwire or pretext for an attack on Iran.
Deeper Difficulties, Growing Necessity
Overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a U.S. strategic objective since Bush labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002. It’s considered a key component of the Bush post-9/11 global strategy of radically reshaping the world, beginning in the Middle East-Central Asian region, in order to solidify the U.S.’s position as the world’s sole imperialist superpower, an unchallenged and unchallengeable empire. In particular, regime change in Iran is viewed as crucial to striking a decisive blow against anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism, which has emerged as the main obstacle to U.S. designs.
This is why Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy refers to Iran 16 times and states: “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.”
The urgency of taking action against Iran has been heightened by the ways in which the U.S. war has backfired. The invasion of Iraq was designed—in part—to pave the way for weakening, and perhaps toppling, Iran’s government. Instead, it removed one of Iran’s main enemies in Saddam Hussein (after another of Iran’s adversaries, Afghanistan’s Taliban, was also driven from power by the U.S.). The U.S. has been forced to rely on Iraq’s pro-Iranian Shia parties to try to rule and stabilize the country. Overall, the U.S.’s gathering debacle in Iraq has weakened U.S. influence, fueled the spread of Islamist trends, and bolstered Iran’s regional influence. If Iran ever gained nuclear weapons the regional equation would shift further in its favor, whether it used them or not.
Over the summer of 2006, all this became more pronounced (especially after Israel’s war on Lebanon which failed to dislodge or weaken Hezbollah). U.S. officials reportedly decided, according to the Washington Post (1/26), that “a more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran's regional influence grew and U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be failing.” The U.S. began trying to forge an anti-Iran alliance with Israel and reactionary Sunni Arab states aimed at rolling back Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region, and taking aggressive action against Iran itself.
The need here to “escape forward” through the growing contradictions the U.S. is facing is also driven by the U.S.’s need to stay on the offensive, and maintain the momentum of its overall global agenda and the power of the Bush cabal, or risk having the whole high-stakes gamble unravel or derail—including possibly by growing divisions in the ruling class itself and/or growing resistance by the people.
Bush and other officials claim “we are not planning for war with Iran,” and that their military buildup is only aimed at giving them diplomatic leverage. But, as we saw with the invasion of Iraq, claiming to want peace and going through the motions of diplomacy are also needed to try and blame the other side for starting the battle. So they’re an essential part of imperialist war preparations.
The Paralysis of the Democrats and the Urgency of Mass Resistance
In the face of this rapid and threatening escalation, the Democrats approved Bush’s new war cabinet, while proposing a nonbinding resolution criticizing Bush’s troop surge (not the war as a whole). After a compromise with Republican Senator John Warner, the resolution now specifically opposes cutting off war funding, which is one of the few ways Congress could stop Bush. (And Bush will soon be asking for another $100 billion for the Iraq war, on top of the $380 billion Congress has previously approved.) Some Democrats have also introduced, again, nonbinding resolutions against war on Iran. Others demand only that they be consulted. “We do not want to see precipitous actions that have not been thought through, have not been discussed, have not been authorized,” said Senator Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, leading Democratic Presidential candidates are amplifying the drumbeat of war against Iran. Hillary Clinton recently told a pro-Israel audience that Iran must not be allowed to have nukes and “no option can be taken off the table.” And listen to the “anti (Iraq) war” candidate John Edwards speaking to a similar audience: “At the top of these threats is Iran…To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table. Let me reiterate — all options.”
(There is speculation that Bush may encourage Israel to attack Iran first to further undercut any Democratic opposition and to sell the war as the “defense” of a crucial ally.)
These aren’t the actions of a party with no “spine.” They’re the actions of an imperialist party just as concerned about maintaining U.S. global power and domestic political stability as Bush is, even as they worry that Bush is driving the whole system off a precipice. These interests defended by the Democrats are imperialist interests; they are not the interests of the vast majority of people in this country, let alone around the world, who have no stake in the U.S. war against Iraq and now its threatened invasion of Iran—but who do have a stake in fighting for a more equitable and just world.
All this speaks to the urgent need for a force of mass resistance to emerge, now, not beholden to the politics of global domination and empire, capable of resolutely opposing America’s ongoing—and escalating—criminal wars of aggression.
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
On Saturday, January 27, people from up and down the East Coast, the Midwest, and elsewhere converged on Washington, DC to demand an immediate end to the Iraq war. Many also demanded the impeachment of Bush. Crowd estimates ranged from tens of thousands (in the mainstream media) to hundreds of thousands. Thousands also protested in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and there were rallies in cities and towns across the country. These protests took place at a critical time—just weeks after Bush announced an escalation of the war, and while Congress (now led by the Democrats) debates nonbinding resolutions criticizing Bush’s troop increase, yet refuses to cut war funds, discuss impeachment, or stop an attack on Iran. This chasm between the rulers’ actions and the people's interests shows, again, why nothing good will come from relying on the Democrats – a ruling class party representing the imperialist system’s interests. As the World Can't Wait (worldcantwait.org) says in their report on the Jan. 27 protest: “The question now is where will Saturday’s outpouring go? Will the hundreds of thousands who came out be organized to go out and challenge the rest of society and build the kind of resistance needed to end this war and drive out this criminal regime? Or will they be corralled back into asking Congress to make gradual changes towards some kind of phased withdrawal? As the carnage in Iraq heightens, and the threat of a war on Iran looms dangerously on the horizon, it is incumbent on all of us to move heaven and earth to stop this disastrous direction. Anything else at this crucial moment would be unconscionable.”
Revolution #77, January 28, 2007
Revolution recently spoke with William Bell, the father of Sean Bell, who was killed by NYPD cops on the night of November 25 in a hail of 50 bullets, shortly after Sean and two friends left a club in Jamaica, Queens on the eve of his wedding. This interview took place at the site of the 50-day vigil that the Bell family and friends and supporters started on January 1, across the street from a police precinct in Jamaica, demanding justice for Sean Bell—50 days, one day for each of the shots fired that horrible night.
The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.
Revolution: It’s been about two months now since the police killed Sean. What have you been thinking during this time about what happened that night, and why it happened?
William Bell: Sometimes I’m afraid to think. I’ll be honest with you, I’m really afraid to think about what’s really going on, because half the time I can’t sleep anyway. I walk the streets at night, 3 or 4 in the morning, trying to figure out what went wrong, maybe what did I do wrong. Could I have done something different? But the kid wasn’t bad, he wasn’t in trouble every day. Was there something I didn’t know about Sean that I should have known? For these two months so many things have been going through my head that it hurts. I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on. Nobody is willing to tell the truth about it. How can I make this whole thing not even be there? It’s just a heart-breaking thing, it just kills you, it takes you apart. And then people ask you how do you feel. I don’t know how I really feel. How should a person feel when a part of your soul is gone? I do have all kinds of questions, questions that I can’t answer but I hope someone else can. I have a lot of questions including about myself. Did I feed him right? Did I clean him right? What did I do wrong? Why couldn’t I help him? That’s one of the questions that eat you up. You see your baby crying and you can’t help him.
Revolution: I hear you, but I feel like you’re being way too hard on yourself. You know, this system has criminalized an entire generation of youth, and cops have been shooting them down, like they did Sean, for years and years all around this country. And it’s like what you and Valerie, Sean’s mom, have been quoted as saying in the mass media, that this was murder, pure and simple.
William Bell: Right. And the way it was done, and how the cops and others are trying to put it aside, like Sean and the others getting killed are nobodies. But they’re human beings. I don’t care if they’re white kids or purple kids. They’re still human beings. How can you destroy a life and say it was his fault? They’re trying to blame Sean for getting killed. How you going to blame the person who’s dead for getting killed?
Revolution: How are they trying to blame Sean?
William Bell: Because one of the cops at the club that night said he heard Sean’s friend say to go get his gun. That’s blaming Sean. Then the cops say that when Sean and his friends had gotten into the car after leaving the club they saw someone reaching for a gun. It could have been a seat belt they were reaching for. Did they take time to look? They could have been trying to unbutton their seat belts to get out of the car. But they weren’t given that chance, were they? Then they say he was drinking. At a bachelor party! You tell me one person living today who goes to a bachelor party and doesn’t have a drink. Just all kinds of excuses for how he killed himself. They didn’t do it, he did it. But he didn’t kill himself. He didn’t jump out of no building. He didn’t hang himself. He was murdered, shot down, 50 shots. Like I say, I don’t crucify everybody, including not all cops. I have a lot of policemen in my family, and Sean grew up with a lot of them, playing baseball together. Now why would he have a thing for them? He had no drugs on him, no guns. They dug up half a whole avenue trying to find a gun, which doesn’t exist. And then they go after some other people in the building where he used to go by and visit people, but the crime didn’t happen there. The crime happened at that corner near the club.
Everything they say is what he did, not what they did. What did he do that was so wrong? He was at a bachelor party, he was happy. Any young Black male would have loved to be in that situation that day. He’s getting married, he has two beautiful kids. Now my two babies are going to grow up without their father, who loved them dearly. How’s that problem going to be solved? How can you justify that? Are they going to play up something he did when he was 14 or 13? Does that justify killing him now? He did something when he was 13, like normal kids do? We all have our little problems here and there. Some people can get out of it because they’re the right people. But we’re not rich people, we don’t have any influence. But the whole thing is that he didn’t deserve to die like that.
Revolution: It’s like the police today are modern-day slave-catchers. They’re here in a community like Jamaica, Queens, to keep Black people…
William Bell: …in line.
Revolution: In line, right.
William Bell: Right, they’re the enforcers.
Revolution: So, you know, even if you have cops in your family and you know them and you sit down and break bread with them, still if they’re cops they’re expected to do certain things in certain situations, like they did with Sean.
William Bell: Right, and maybe that’s why a lot of them get out, because they don’t like this system.
Revolution: You know cops who have done that?
William Bell: Right, because they don’t like the system. Black cops, even white cops, white cops also. A lot of people have feelings, they’re humans. They see things that aren’t right, so, hey, are you going to continue to do the same things? No, I don’t think so, if you have any kind of feelings.
But if you don’t care, and just look around and say, now I’ve got power to do what I want, I can abuse anybody I want. Is that right? A kid walks down the street with their hoods. I wear a hood. So what are you going to do to me now? Are you going to go through my pockets and make me look like an idiot in the streets, put me down on the sidewalk and tell me to set there with my hands behind my back, without any cause whatsoever? So if a kid knows he right he’s going to say something, and that, most of the time, will get him in trouble. Because he knows he didn’t do nothing. I didn’t do nothing, he’ll say to the cops, so what’s your problem? Now the cops are going to get rough with him, are going to throw him around, humiliate him, make him look like an idiot. You see, I’ve got the power, not you. You don’t question what I want to do. I can do whatever I want with you.
You know, my son was a very respectful young man—unless, like anybody, if you’re going to say something stupid to him of course he’s going to respond, anybody would. But if he was just walking along minding his business, like he was that night of his bachelor party, why did he have to be followed? Why that night did he have to be circled by all those cops? Do they know why they surrounded him? Do they really know? That comes back to all these questions I have. Why? Do they have a real good reason to do what they did? I want them to tell me “he kicked me in my butt,” or he did this or that. Then you whup his butt, if you can, go at it man-to-man, but you don’t kill him. Just because you’re a cop and carry a gun, you think everything you do is right, ‘cause some of these kids speak back to you.
What happened to freedom of speech? That’s gone too? Now they put you in the shed and lock the doors. You talk when I let you out, if I let you out.
But they can’t keep us in that cage forever. Some time and at some place on this earth, things gotta change. Not only here but all around the world. It’s just getting out of hand, and people all around the world have to stick together. This separation has to stop. I don’t care about this color, this person, this attitude. No. After a while, this stuff going on is going to affect everybody. You think it can’t happen to you? Oh yes it can. Think about it, yes it can. And when it does, you’re going to want people like me to support you, and I’ll be there for you, because I don’t want to see it happen to another kid, no matter who they are. I lost mine, and he can’t come back. And my heart is still there, but they took part of that away. All I can do is help other kids, help anybody else that’s willing to listen and willing to want help.
So that’s the key. We have to get together and we have to stay together. Beyond that, what you and me talk about don’t mean nothing, you know what I’m saying. And somehow and some way we have to stop knocking our kids, like for wearing their pants way low, and give them a little praise and sit down and listen to them, that’s what we have to do more of. And I think that will help to make the change, regardless of the color of their skin. Because if parents sit down and say you shouldn’t be prejudiced because that person is a human being just like you. And it all comes down to the big question of how are we going to win? That’s the really big question, right? If somebody can tell us this, hey, I’ll go to work on it. If they can tell me how we’re going to win, I’d support them all the way. We need to stop this, not being disrespectful to no one, but we’ve got to get this stopped, because it’s hurting too many people over and over again, and why? You could be the most god-loving person on this earth and that’s not going to stop them from doing what they’re planning to do to you. . .
And I also wanted to take the opportunity to thank all the New Yorkers who have helped. Al Sharpton, because he helped to get it all started around Sean. The bishops, the reverends, our lawyers, and people like you from the newspaper, who take the time to come out and talk. And it’s not just New Yorkers because, hey, I’ve gotten calls from people around the world, which is good. I think maybe for a lot of others they’re afraid that if they try to show support now…it’s like what happened back in the ‘60s when white people showed support for Black people—they would kill them. Mississippi Burning—a perfect example. They killed those white kids and burned their car. Put them under the rug, like they were nothing, no one.
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.
“Art is a permanent accusation”
Fernando Botero is one of the world’s most well-known living painters and sculptors. On January 29, the exhibition “Botero: Abu Ghraib” opened at the University of California at Berkeley. Forty-three works, part of a collection of over 80 paintings depicting the torture in Abu Ghraib, are on display at the Doe Library until March 25. The exhibition is sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.
Stunning images of great power, the Botero paintings must be experienced. They are worth traveling to see. The prisoners’ huge bodies dominate the large yet claustrophobic canvases. They endure pain that is palpable to the viewer with a visceralness beyond the famous photographs, and this is horrifically compounded by a sick humiliating degradation of their culture and their very persons--yet these men convey a strength and a dignity that stays with you. While the torturers are rarely present in the works, several images chillingly portray the snarling, clawing, biting bloody attack dogs, capturing the mentality and ethos of those who unleashed them. The question is posed: what kind of society, what kind of country would visit such crimes against humanity? Spend some time in front of these huge canvases, or take time with the book or the images on line. Ask yourself, what am I doing to allow this to continue?
This exhibition is the first time these works have been shown in a public institution in the United States. They were shown for one month last fall at Botero’s New York City dealer, Marlborough Gallery, but despite the fact that they’ve been offered to many museums across the United States over the past six months, not a single U.S. public institution had agreed to show these works until now.
The paintings have been shown in major museums in Italy, Greece, and Germany and have received enthusiastic reviews from critics, who have compared these paintings and drawings to works by Goya, Picasso, Siqueiros and Leon Golub.
When the Center for Latin American Studies at Berkeley heard that the paintings were being denied a public viewing in the U.S., they immediately sought to bring the works to Berkeley. The exhibition opened just two months and a day after the Center contacted Botero, an extremely short period of time to organize a major art exhibition.
“We are the first but we don’t intend to be the last institution in the U.S. to display these pictures,” said Harley Shaiken, a Berkeley professor and chair of the Center for Latin American Studies. Already, as a result of the Berkeley exhibition, the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, DC has announced they will show the entire Abu Ghraib series later this year.
At the exhibition opening, over 500 people attended a conversation held between Botero and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Haas. Long lines began forming hours before the opening and more than 1,000 had to be turned away.
For many people with just a passing familiarity with the work of Botero, the hellish conditions at Abu Ghraib might seem to be an unlikely choice of subject matter. Botero is best known for his colorful doughboy-like figures–cherubic children, pampered pets, and musicians from his native Colombia.
Early in his career, commenting on criticism that his subjects appeared fat, Botero replied, “They look rather slim to me. My subject matter is sometimes satirical, but these ‘puffed-up’ personalities are being puffed to give them sensuality.… In art, as long as you have ideas and think, you are bound to deform nature. Art is deformation. There are no works of art that are truly realistic.”
Botero’s works can be deceptively simple and often combine humor, sensuality and innocence with biting social commentary. Over the years, he has created works that directly comment on the social and political conditions in Latin America. A 1971 work, Official Portrait of the Military Junta, was a satire of military regimes that presided over U.S. domination in Latin America. The bloated dictator and his obsequious followers (including a Catholic bishop) stand at stiff attention in full uniform, while flies buzzing around their heads give the sense of a regime “polished on the outside, but rotten at the core,” as one critic wrote. In the late 1990s, Botero produced a series of paintings that depict the horror of the drug cartel wars in Colombia.
Still, the Abu Ghraib series is a significant departure for Botero--he calls it “a parenthesis” in his career. Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post, “[Botero’s] Abu Ghraib series feels more like a catalogue of dark memories, a compendium of outrages captured in a long-established people's vernacular, as a hedge against obfuscation and oblivion. These illustrations form a kind of history book, not one written by the victors but one sketched and colored by the meek of the earth, hidden away until the tables are turned and the truth can come out.”
Botero does not intend to sell any of the Abu Ghraib paintings. He says, “It is immoral to try and make money out of the suffering of the people.” He hopes to donate the series to an American museum that will put them in its permanent collection.
Revolution interviewed Fernando Botero at the January 29 opening of “Botero: Abu Ghraib.”
Revolution: How did you come to do this series of pictures on the torture at Abu Ghraib?
Fernando Botero: The whole world was shocked with the revelations in the American press of the American torture of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison. I read this in the New Yorker in a famous article by Seymour Hersh. I was surprised, hurt, and angry, like everybody. The more I read, the more I was motivated and angry, upset. A few months later I was in a plane going back to Paris and reading again of this tragedy. I took paper and pencil and started doing some drawings. Then, when I got to my studio in Paris, I kept drawing and painting. It became like an obsession for 14 months. I was only working on this, thinking about this. And then, suddenly, I felt empty, like I didn’t have anything to say anymore. And I felt peaceful. For some reason I was at peace with myself. But for months I felt this desire to say something. Because I thought this was an enormous violation of human rights and the United States has been a model of compassion and a model of human rights and then they are doing something like this violation. It was the biggest damage ever to this country’s image. This morning I was talking to a journalist from Argentina and she was telling me that only 6% of the people in Argentina approve now of America and it was 70% three or four years ago. And this is happening all over the world. I’m surprised that more artists haven’t done something on this because it’s a big issue that cannot go away. It has to be remembered. I did like a testimony of this. Of course I know I’m not going to change anything; art doesn’t have that power. But at least I gave testimony of what happened. I could not stay silent. The power of art is to make you remember something and I hope that will happen with my work.
Revolution: What is the relationship between these paintings and the famous photographs of the torture at Abu Ghraib?
Fernando Botero: For me the photographs were very important to see the atmosphere where all this drama was going on. I saw the photographs, especially the dramatic lighting, because most of this torture was taking place in the night. I was inspired by the text. I tried to visualize what was going on. Painting has this ability to make visible what is invisible. There is no sense to copy a photo. I wanted to recreate the atmosphere in the prison with scenes that were not scenes in the photos, to make some idea of the feeling, so that I could communicate some idea of the horrors that were going on. A photo is a click. Of course it can be a tremendous document. But in painting there is this concentration of emotion through time, leaving out everything that doesn’t concern the subject, and this makes the images in painting have special meaning. In this case there is the photos and the text, but it was impossible in these to have the view of an artist. I don’t think it is the function of art to just recreate the images. Art has the capacity to make us remember a situation for a long time. When the newspapers stop talking, and the people stop talking the art is there. So many things that happened in history are known because of art. The paintings of Goya and [Picasso’s] Guernica, these things might be forgotten if not for their images. I hope that these paintings will serve as a testimony through time.
Revolution: How did spending so much time focusing on these images of torture and suffering affect you personally?
Fernando Botero: Of course it's more pleasant to do pleasant subject matters. All of my life, by conviction, I did subjects that were rather pleasant. Art history has been mostly of pleasant subjects. To take a small example you don’t see many sad impressionist paintings, and there were thousands of paintings. If you think of Botticelli or any of the great masters, they were mostly doing pleasant subject matter because the function of art was to give pleasure, to elevate man, and that was what they were doing. There is a beautiful definition of art given by Poussin, one of the greatest artists of the 17th century. He said painting is an expression in forms and colors on a flat surface to give pleasure. That was the idea of art at that time. They were doing things to give pleasure. Then, of course, there are painters who give pleasure through dramatic things. In dramatic art there is two elements, the aesthetics and the subject matter. One of the greatest artists of the past, Grünewald, a painter of 16th-century Germany, painted the most horrible scenes of the crucifixion. There could never be something more terrible. And you can have the pleasure of seeing the tremendous aesthetic beauty of these and in time you feel the pain.
In my case, I was, of course, having the pleasure of painting. The act of painting is something very pleasant. But the moment I started the first sketch, I felt angry. But when I started working, it is such a sensual thing to paint that you have pleasure, you cannot deny this. But from the first moment you have this angry feeling, you are upset, that this is not right; this is not possible.
This is a testimony. This is not anti-American, because then the New York Times is anti-American. If you present facts then it doesn’t mean that you are anti-American. These paintings are anti-inhumanity. You cannot stay silent when something like this goes on, and let only the politicians and the newspapers take care of it. The artist is also a human being and is concerned and reads the paper and has feelings. And our thing is to express ourselves. An artist expresses himself to communicate. If you hide this, then art doesn’t exist. Art exists in the minds of people. Otherwise the art is nothing, it’s just a piece of canvas. What it gives to the spectator, what stays in their mind, is what’s important. That’s why art has to be seen. In this case I want these paintings to give a moment of reflection and to stay in the mind of people. Because that’s the function of art, I believe.
Revolution #77, January 28, 2007
“Who's to Blame for the Situation the Masses Are In?”:
Take the 7 Talks to the Campuses and Classrooms
We call on our readers to take out Bob Avakian’s talk “Conservatism, Christian Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Paternalism…Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton…Not All ‘Right’ but All Wrong!” as well as others of the 7 Talks to high school and college campuses and classrooms. Unite with teachers or student clubs to play sections from the talks in classes and meetings. Set up tables on or around the campuses with boom boxes playing the talks—and engage people in conversation. Get campus radio stations to play clips from the talks. Put up stickers and posters of the 7 Talks all over and get the 7 Talks postcards into professors’ mail boxes (PDF files and printing instructions online ). February is Black History Month--so this is a good opportunity and opening to bring to the campuses the "Conservatism, Christian Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Paternalism..." talk, as well the "Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy" talk. All this should be a vital part of sparking debate and discussion around big questions up in the world and stimulating ferment that has to start happening on a different level and in a different way on the campuses. And send correspondence to Revolution on your experiences!
Some of us were invited to lead a discussion at an alternative high school for youth, most of them proletarians who have had trouble of one kind or another at other schools. The discussion was centered around the current debate in society over whether or not the masses are to blame for the situation they find themselves in or is it this system, contrasting what Bill Cosby has to say with what Bob Avakian says about this.
In preparation for this discussion the teachers had their students read a speech by Bill Cosby the day before Bill Cosby was speaking in the city. Then the two teachers and about 30 of their students went to hear Cosby speak, and several of us supporters of Bob Avakian went with them. The plan the next day was for the classes to listen to the 20 minute section on Cosby in Bob Avakian’s Talk “Conservatism, Christian Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Paternalism…Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton…Not All ‘Right’ but All Wrong!” and then have discussion. I had the sense that some of the students had listened to the talk before as well.
One young woman commented that she listened to it several times trying to understand what Bob Avakian was saying. She said many of the words he used she didn’t understand. I want to point something out before going any further. While she had trouble with some of the terminology the Chairman uses, she went back and listened to him several times and while there were things in it she still didn’t understand, in a beginning way through digging into and trying to understand what it was the Chairman was saying, she was able to pick up on his method and approach.
I thought it would be good to get into the content of what both Bob Avakian and Bill Cosby were saying but mainly focusing on how they arrived at these two opposing views on the masses. We played the Bill Cosby section of Avakian’s talk in four of the five classes we attended and led a shorter discussion in the fifth class. All total 40 or so different students heard the talk.
There were two lines among the youth over this question of who’s to blame when we got there that morning and there were two lines when we left that evening—but along the way they had engaged each other in a very serious and sometimes humorous manner. One thing that I learned from these youth was while they differed over who was to blame for the situation they found themselves in, they all felt that the situation was bad and needed to change. Many of the youth had already formed their opinion about Bill Cosby before hearing Bob Avakian’s talk. They didn’t like the Cosby speech so for the most part the majority of the youth agreed with Bob Avakian about that. But after hearing Bob Avakian’s talk they began talking about their life experiences. They were both trying to understand what he was saying, and using it to talk about how it related to their lives.
I’m not going to re-hash everything people said. But I do want to highlight some of what people were saying in order to give you a sense of how people were struggling over both what it was Cosby and Avakian were saying, and how it was these two people came to two such different views of the masses. We were trying to help them see that to get to the truth you have to have a scientific approach.
Most of the students who took Cosby’s line felt that people make the wrong choices in life and that’s why they’re in the situation they’re in. One young woman didn’t get Bob Avakian’s irony around two-parent families—he does a whole thing about how in sharecropping they had two-parent traditional families and lynching and poverty and all the rest. But she tried use that point to make her point on why you need two parents in the home and how this would make things better. Many of the youth there came from single-parent families or were single parents themselves and told heart-wrenching stories of how they were affected by this system. One young man said that his father was locked up when he was two and that his mother was working and trying to raise six kids. He got tired of wearing PF Fliers to school so he took up slinging. Another young man talked about how he is active in his kids’ life and how there is a real economic pull for people to get off into selling drugs. He hasn’t done it but sees how people can get caught up. Another young man talked about going out into the suburbs and looking for a job and being harassed by the police.
In another class students were debating over whether the parents were responsible for their kids and what they do. One young woman was saying she lets her parents know everything—another young woman yelled out “you’re lying.” The first woman told how her mother didn’t like her boyfriend and made her quit. The other woman said “Parent trap, have to think for yourself, can’t let them run your life. You have to think for yourself. My mom brings me to school everyday, but if I decide not to walk through the door how it is her fault?”
Cosby places the blame for the conditions poor Black people are in, in part, on the non-traditional names some people give their children. One young woman commented that she was told that she would never amount to anything because of her name. She was told this by a teacher at another public school. People began to take this up. Another young woman pointed out this was wrong. “And I like what he [Avakian] was saying about the names. He is saying that people are trying to help their children stand out and that is true.” One student said, “This guy is right. Bill Cosby makes it looks like it can be fixed easily. But it’s more complicated than that. You got to go where it started.” She went on to say, “Like he’s saying in the tape, things weren’t any better for Black folk when there were two-parent families. They were still being discriminated against and catching hell.”
In the course of the two days we were there, there was a lot of this back-and-forth between the students, many of them relating their own experience to what the Chairman was saying about who is to blame. While most could see it was the system, they had trouble understanding why Bill Cosby couldn’t understand or simply ignored this. I’m going to trip a little here because I’m trying to deepen my own understanding in the course of taking out these Talks. Here’s the thing: these youth basically united with a correct line but most didn’t understand how Bob Avakian got there. When they talked about how Cosby came to his conclusion over who is to blame, they say it was because “he doesn’t know what it’s like to be poor” and “ain’t nothing he can tell me.” “What is he doing in the hood?”
But that’s not the problem, mainly. You have to apply science to get to the bottom of things. Throughout this I was stressing that what Avakian was saying is that Cosby is totally wrong in his explanation of the cause of the oppression of Black people. And that by blaming Black people he is reinforcing those conditions they are responding to and that if you only look at what they are responding to you won’t be able to get at the heart of the matter and move things in the direction they need to go. Now without getting into attacking the masses I think it would have been good to get into these “isms” like nationalism, or empiricism (just taking what’s right in front of you and thinking you can figure everything out from that), relativism (“you got your reality, I got mine”) and positivism (a method that would lead you to think that living in the hood is enough to get to the bottom of things and solve all the problems we’re up against) with the youth and where that thinking will lead. The seven Talks is full of examples of the Chairman taking this on. We need people to engage both what the Chairman is bringing forth and how he’s getting there. Now some of this was done but not in the sense of this represents dialectical materialism and that represents some other ideology. It was more from the standpoint of how people were talking about it. I think there was the basis to get into things on a deeper and higher plane than they were. I’m going to stop here and try to develop my thinking some on this.
After one class two youth stayed around to talk more about what we had been talking about and the views their classmates held. At lunchtime one guy came up to ask if we had any more copies of Bob Avakian’s tape because he wanted to play it for his buddies on the way home.
There were a lot of other questions as well during the classes and in the breaks—why the U.S. is over there in Iraq, why the U.S. went to war. One guy started one of the classes out by wanting to know if we were coming to talk about driving out Bush—if not, we should go. A young woman who had listened to the Talk five times was saying the war was wrong, that “this war isn’t like World War 2 where we were right to go into it.” I am thinking now that next time we need to talk about what World War 2 was really all about as well since it was not a “good war” at all as far as what the United States was doing. Some thought the war in Iraq was correct and some thought it wasn’t. We tried to apply the method of posing questions: “If there were no WMD, why did they go over there?” People had different perspectives. We wanted people to understand if you didn’t apply the right method to looking at things, then your solutions wouldn’t be right.
All these questions were on their minds. One of the teachers commented that her class normally doesn’t engage the work in the class this way—those students who come to class and sleep and don’t participate were joining in, and she was very excited about that. She wants to continue using the Talks and Revolution newspaper in the classes. The teachers got a bunch of old copies of Revolution and they are going to assign the kids to do different things with the paper—take a subject like the woman question, abortion, and other questions, and using the paper and other materials do a visual presentation to the class.
The teachers also would like to continue having us come to do discussions of the Talks as well as articles from Revolution. They had some differences with the Talk. While both of them think Cosby is wrong in a general sense, there is some unity with him as it relates to families. One was trying to wrestle with this from the standpoint of some of the problems she confronts on a daily basis. In one of the classroom discussions with the students, she said, “I think it all goes back to the family. Somebody—it may be an aunt, a grandparent, a teacher—someone has to support them in their formative years. It’s much harder for us to do what we do here if the kid has been abused, mistreated, etc. My question is what can we do about it? Avakian makes the point that he doesn’t like Bill Cosby talking about how the family is dysfunctional. But that is an issue we have to deal with.” She said that she knew all about how the historical oppression of Black people had affected the Black family, “but what are we going to do about it now.” I answered this by saying I’m going to be straight up. It’s going to take revolution to change these conditions. They are the result of this system and it’s rotten to the core. And right now it’s very important that people dig into what Bob Avakian is saying here and in the other talks.
During the class discussion, I didn’t really have an answer to what the teacher said about how people will change their thinking, but I’ve thought about it a lot since, and went back and listened to the Talk again. There Bob Avakian talks about what it is going to take to transform people—he knows that people couldn’t lead society with all these ways of thinking. There is a need for people to change how they think. But to do that they have to understand the cause of those circumstances and why they are in the situation they are in, and on that basis of that understanding they can change reality, and only in the course of doing this people can change themselves as they change reality. What I want to do next is go back to the class and ask the teacher to put that question out there again, and have the students take what they understand and talk about how society should be changed, and what it will take to transform how people think and act so that we can have the kind of society people need to live in. It will be important for the students to listen to the rest of this talk by Bob Avakian where he gets into what we can do about the situation we’re in.
All in all it was a really good two days. These were young adults wrangling over the present, the future, and their role in it. This is one example of the way these Talks are having a profound impact on people. At least 30 copies of the Talk were handed out to people who wanted to take it home and listen to it again or share it with other people.
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
As we go to press, the military court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada is set to begin on Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. Watada is the first commissioned military officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq. He has publicly denounced the Bush regime's war as “illegal and immoral.”
Support for Watada has been growing and broadening. Statements in support of Lt. Watada have been made by Harry Belafonte, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, Susan Sarandon, Willie Nelson, Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and others (available online at thankyoult.org). In December Rolling Stone magazine described him as one of 2006’s “greatest mavericks.” On January 25 he was interviewed on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.
In early January, members of Iraq Vets Against the War held an encampment in support of Watada outside Fort Lewis, where they engaged GIs and their families and received a positive response. Rallies are planned at the entrance to the Army base on Feb. 5 and supporters are planning to attend the court martial.
On Jan. 20-21, 500 people attended a “Citizens' Hearing on the Legality of U.S. Actions in Iraq” in Tacoma, focusing on the Watada case. According to the organizers, “The Citizens' Hearing was convened to present evidence that Lt. Ehren Watada would have presented in his February 5 court martial on the question that the military ruled barred from entry on Jan. 16--the question of the Iraq War's legality. Lt. Watada has repeatedly asserted that because the Iraq War is illegal, it is his duty to refuse orders to deploy.” Well-known academics, activists, former government officials, Gulf War vets, and international law experts testified, including Ann Wright, Daniel Ellsberg, Marjorie Cohn, Denis Halliday, and Prof. Richard Falk. Iraq war vets Darrell Anderson and Chanan Suarez-Diaz testified about what they had personally seen in Iraq, including the killing of innocent civilians, the destruction of grave sites, and mass round-ups. What emerged was a powerful picture of the Iraq war and occupation as a giant war crime.
On Jan. 16, military judge Lt. Col John Head ruled that Watada could not argue that his refusal to be deployed to Iraq was based on the illegal nature of the war under international and U.S. law—because, Head declared, the issue of the illegality of the war is a “political question”! This is the same military that has charged, and is prosecuting, Watada for political speech--for talks and interviews in which he exposed Bush's lying justifications for the Iraq war and suggested that soldiers could refuse to fight in an illegal war (see “Lt. Watada and the Contemptible U.S. Military,” Revolution #53, at revcom.us).
Head denied another defense motion--that Watada be allowed to argue his case based on the Nuremberg defense (that soldiers have a duty to disobey illegal orders that would force them to participate in war crimes). Head also refused to dismiss the “conduct unbecoming an officer” charges against Watada (which target political speech), saying that free speech rights of military personnel are limited.
Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz, said in response to the judge's rulings, “We’ve been stripped of every defense. This is a disciplinary system, not a justice system. Otherwise, we would have been entitled to defend ourselves.”
The week before the start of the court martial, the military dropped two of the four “conduct unbecoming an officer” charges against Watada. This was after broad condemnation and opposition to the military prosecutors' subpoena of two reporters. Independent journalist Sarah Olson and Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer Gregg Kakesako had conducted interviews with Watada, and the military sought to make them testify to confirm what Watada said. Refusal to testify when subpoenaed by a military court can be punished by 6 months in jail. Olson publicly stated her opposition to testifying, writing in the Editor and Publisher , “It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government…. it is stunningly ironic that the Army seeks my testimony--the testimony of a journalist--in a case against free speech itself. What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech?”
In December the military had also subpoenaed three anti-war activists who have organized events where Watada spoke. One of these activists, Phan Nguyen of Olympia Movement for Peace and Justice, said that the military prosecutor “basically demanded that I name the names of any key organizers that had anything to do with the public support campaign created to support Lt. Watada…. They are clearly on a political fishing expedition. Unless we fight back, this could have a chilling effect on anti-war organizing at a time when we have to step up to end the war.”
After statements by the Society of Professional Journalists, the PEN American Center, and Military Reporters and Editors; an editorial in the LA Times; and other protest against the subpoenas, especially from journalists and free press advocates, on Jan. 29 the military backed off and dropped the subpoenas of the journalists. On Jan. 31 the military also felt they had to withdraw the remaining subpoenas of the anti-war activists.
The dropping of the subpoenas and two of the charges is an important victory against the military attempts to punish Ehren and to intimidate and coerce his supporters. At the same time, the Army remains determined to press ahead with the court martial and to suppress the example he has set of resisting illegal and immoral orders. Ehren Watada continues to face two charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and one charge of "missing troop movement.” Conviction on these charges could mean four years in military prison.
Revolution #77, January 28, 2007
Interview with Michael Ratner, Center for Constitutional Rights
On Jan 12, Charles Stimson, the senior Pentagon official in charge of military detainees who are accused of terrorism, attacked the attorneys at many top law firms who are representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay pro bono, for free. Stimson called on these firms’ corporate clients to ask the firms “to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.” The following is an interview with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is headquartered in New York.
The Revolution Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in Revolution.
Revolution: What was your reaction to Stimson’s remarks?
Michael Ratner: Clearly, it was an attempt to undermine the right of counsel for people at Guantánamo and any other U.S. prisoners anywhere in the world. And it’s a particularly outrageous attack because it went after law firms who get the picture, who really understand that what’s going on at Guantánamo is really about fundamental rights, and that’s why I think all these big firms were willing to provide representation in the first place. The other two noteworthy points that Stimson made was, one, he actually read a list of 14 law firms, major law firms in this country, major corporate law firms, involved in the pro bono litigation. And the closest thing that comes to mind is McCarthy, when McCarthy read a list of federal employees who he claimed to be communists. So it’s a McCarthyite tactic that really shows, in my view, some of the legacy of where some of these people in the Bush administration hark back to and would like to see in this world.
So that was one really remarkable thing, which is what I think caused some of the outcry about it. And the second, of course, was trying to undercut the legal representation by saying to the corporate clients of these firms, why don’t you guys stop using these law firms because they’re representing supposed terrorists. And yet another thing is that it wasn’t an off-the-cuff statement. This information about these firms and some of their attorneys representing for detainees in Guantánamo has been in the public domain forever. But Stimson and the others set it up with a Freedom of Information Act request. They then released publicly the 14 law firms they got from their FOIA request. It was a concerted attack—the next day there was an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. So it was part and parcel of trying to undercut representation as a fundamental right. And of course it fits within what the Bush administration has been trying to do since the beginning. At the very first, they said that Guantánamo detainees had no right to attorneys, no right to file a writ of habeas corpus, no right to even consult an attorney—nothing. The administration lost on those, although they’re still fighting them. So, they lost on the merits, but then what do they do? They start attacking the legal representation. This is particularly nasty. On the other hand, I think the positive part here was the reaction of the big law firms under attack, which was really strong. The reactions were uniformly one of outrage and not pulling back, and saying we’re going to assert ourselves, that this is an outrage and is really about denying people fundamental rights.
Revolution: First you’ve got Monica Crowley, who’s this notorious conservative and has upheld the Bush regime’s actions at Guantánamo, filing a FOIA request for the names of the law firms representing the detainees, even though this information in fact is public! Then Stimson takes this FOIA request in order to suggest that the attorneys were trying to keep their representation secret. And then he asks who is paying these attorneys, when he knows full well that they’re doing this work pro bono.
Ratner: Right. They did try to make it seem like it came as a FOIA result, etc., when, as you say, anybody could have gone to court, to the Guantánamo cases, and there you have the list of every single attorney. It’s not secret at all, these law firms haven’t tried to keep it a secret. In fact, they are quite proud of it. In fact, some of these firms have told me the best single recruiting they have for getting new attorneys is that they represent Guantánamo detainees, because people consider it an honor to work on these cases. These are considered to be fundamental cases about what the U.S. judicial system’s rights are going to look like, and people feel very strongly about that. And these firms have put in a fortune—they’ve spent a lot of money on each case, millions of dollars spent, and they’re not getting a penny back.
Revolution: There was a letter, which maybe you saw, from four legal organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild, to Bush, which reads, in part: “The threats by Mr. Stimson are not subtle. They imply that these pro bono lawyers are terrorists…These remarks are slanderous, and they violate the free association right of these lawyers and their firms… The administration must not only disavow these remarks, but Mr. Stimson should be publicly admonished and relieved of his duties for making these allegations and threats.”
What are your thoughts on that?
Ratner: Well, I thought that letter was very important. Those are very progressive legal organizations who wrote that letter, but the fact that it was actually picked up by Reuters and other media was quite interesting to me, because it demonstrates that, you know, that there’s a legitimacy out there both to criticism of the Bush administration, as well as that letter calling for the resignation of Stimson, which I think the New York Times also did today, or at least wrote a very harsh editorial, saying that this is not an apology at all. And I agree completely that this is an apology with a gun pointed to your head, basically. But I do think it’s important to understand that this is not an individual act of Stimson’s. This was set up so that, after what Stimson said on Jan. 12, you had on the 13th Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general, attacking the lawyers again—saying that the reason why people are still in Guantánamo is because their lawyers have delayed the government being able to have trials in these cases. So, Gonzales on the one hand distanced himself from the remarks of Stimson, but on the other hand, he attacks the lawyers. And then the next day he attacks federal judges as “activists” in giving rights to prisoners at Guantánamo. So you’re talking about a concerted effort—an effort not just by Stimson but probably something that was led from the top by people like Gonzales. And I think they never expected, to be honest, such strong oppositional reaction. I think they thought this was a U.S. population that still could be intimidated in the same way, as it were, that it was right after 9/11. And I think it’s an indication of the change in the way the people feel about the Bush administration—that essentially no one out there could really defend what the Bush administration had done in this Stimson case.
Revolution: The media were very quick to report that the administration was trying to distance itself from what Stimson said—that he didn’t speak for the administration. But in fact, nothing has really been done so far in regard to calling Stimson on the carpet for what he said, much less remove him from his position. And in fact his conduct is consistent with what the Bush regime has been doing all along, which is to defend their right to detain anyone they say is a terrorist, and to justify torture and other war crimes in the process.
Ratner: Yeah, I think that’s what’s crucial here. The crucial—I mean, obviously Stimson’s remarks are awful and terrible and all this, but in fact they reflect the administration and they reflect a practice since the beginning of this administration—that they don’t want attorneys representing anybody, and they still believe they have the right to detain people forever. And the real issue here is less, to me, what Stimson did say or didn’t say—the real issue is when are they going to give human beings at Guantánamo and other U.S. detention facilities their legal, constitutional and international law rights and stop treating them in a manner that reminds you of the Middle Ages. So, there is no issue to me that Stimson is just the tip of the iceberg, because underneath there is an entire detainee policy that is completely inhuman, immoral and illegal.
Revolution: It’s like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. And meanwhile, the whole thing shifts the debate and terms of discourse even further to the right.
Ratner: Right. They’re still fighting against having attorneys go to Guantánamo. You know, one of our CCR attorneys is having trouble getting to see a client right now. So, yes, they put out these people like Stimson, they gauge what the reaction is, and that’s what we’re talking about. But I do think that in this case, things may have backfired on them, and maybe what’s going on—it’s hard to say—is that as the Bush administration loses popularity, it may be the cabal that’s running it—Bush and others—are getting more desperate and think they can really electrify their base a little bit by these kinds of attacks on a variety of people, including these lawyers, because they’re losing their base. So, they’re getting more desperate, it seems to me, on some level.
Revolution: They are determined—this cabal, as you refer to them—to push through with this entire agenda. And it involves Iraq and Iran and their whole global ambitions, as well as this whole police-state environment they’re creating here.
Ratner: I think that’s right. They still obviously do believe in an unbridled presidential power. They believe they can do anything they want to who they think is a terrorist. But they’ve been forced to pull back on a few issues. But at the same time, they’re still asserting—look, even in the face of the incredible opposition—that they want to escalate the war in Iraq, and are making noises about Iran. So, you know, they’re certainly not to be trusted, and the question is, are they desperate enough that they’ll take measures that are so extreme that they become even more dangerous than they already are?
Revolution: Right. And in connection with that, it does seem that this whole Stimson incident underscores once again the need for people to be standing up, speaking out, protesting against the whole direction in which this society is being propelled—just as many lawyers and others spoke out against Stimson’s remarks.
Ratner: Yeah, I have no issue here. My view is that if you’re going to change this country around, it will be by protest, by hitting the streets—whether it’s around court cases, the policies of the administration, or the administration itself. That’s been only moderately successful so far—getting people out—and there’s a certain quiescence that I don’t care for. But it’s clear to me that every time we’re able to do something—whether it’s a demonstration around impeachment or around the war—that there’s an important impact. So people should keep writing, demonstrating, on campuses and elsewhere across the country. And obviously, the work we do here at CCR we consider crucial, but it actually doesn’t win unless we have the people behind us. And we’re only part of the movement that’s needed—to try to bring us back to some kind of fundamental rights in this country.
Revolution #77, January 28, 2007
A team of reporters and translators from Revolution recently traveled through North Carolina to talk with workers and activists involved in the November 16, 2006 wildcat strike at Smithfield Foods' Tar Heel plant. This is the second of a series of reports from that trip. The first part “No Longer Hidden, No Longer Hiding” appeared in Revolution #76.
“We came for the money,” Jose told us. And we heard those same words from all the immigrant workers who spoke with us on our trip to southeastern North Carolina.
The workers had come far north for the same wages that many Black workers consider intolerably low. Starting pay at Smithfield Foods’ massive hog-killing operation is $8 an hour. It is more in a day than Jose could make in a week in Guerrero, Mexico. One Black worker said to Revolution: “At these wages, we can barely live in a rundown house or trailer.”
Many immigrants are sending money home to family in Mexico and Guatemala, and dreaming of returning themselves, once they have saved “enough,” to build a house or buy a patch of land.
Under these conditions, thrown together by the workings of a global system of plunder, workers from different parts of the world have found themselves working side by side. And they often look at each other across a real divide created by their different experiences and different summations of how things came to be the way they are.
Thrown Together in North Carolina
While we were in the kitchen, Jose’s teenage nephew took us aside and quietly said, "I was born without a future. I could never have in Mexico what I have here. There's nothing there. That's why I'm here.
When he heard we were interviewing workers for Revolution newspaper, Julio sought us out. He is twenty-something and intense. Julio started in without waiting for us to ask a question: “Unfortunately I was born in a country that was full of poor people and run by thieves. We immigrated to a country we expected to be better. And found that it is just the same.”
What Julio had found after crossing the border was dangerous work on Smithfield’s midnight sanitizing crew. “We worked under intense conditions--with scalding hot steam under pressure, and chemicals like acid that are used for de-greasing. They are killing people.” In 2003, the outrages boiled over. Julio led a wildcat strike of 300 workers, and was fired for it.
Julio told us, "Black people want to raise their wages and receive a better treatment. The Latino people have the idea we are here just to work. And many think they are not going to be here forever. They think they are going to leave. This is an illusion. Everything they have is here. My idea is that we have to adapt to this place. To realize that we have to make it here and change it here. The problem will continue until the Latino people make our lives here and make the law respect this."
He leaned forward. His words came more quickly as he described feeling hunted. “It is modern slavery for me when people cannot walk the streets the way they want, cannot say what they want. We can see on TV in the documentaries what they did to Black people. So we see it is just the same now for us. That has to change. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Later, in the home of several Black workers, a group of us were watching the DVD of Bob Avakian’s speech Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About. There is a passage where he explains how life for Black men in the Jim Crow South was like living under a permanent death sentence that could be carried out, at any moment, for any reason or for no reason at all. For most immigrant workers here, every moment is lived under a permanent sentence of deportation. They leave the house each time, not knowing if they will return to see their kids. They avoid any authorities--the police, school officials, even clinics--not knowing which encounter might trigger arrest and disaster--for any reason, or for no reason at all.
Skinning the Ox Twice... And Complex Contradictions
For ten years, Smithfield Foods, like so many other corporations, has actively recruited Mexican and Central American workers to come to their U.S. plants. Meat slaughterhouses can’t simply be moved to distant countries, since many of their products need to be delivered fresh. So instead of moving their operations to low wage areas, the huge monopolies of the “food processing industry” simply moved millions of third world workers here to viciously exploit them.
Smithfield sent out the word that it would hire anyone who walked through the doors of its Tar Heel plant, and the vans arrived in North Carolina bringing workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
This exploitation of immigrant labor has become a critical element in the larger U.S. economy. This ability to exploit workers under third world conditions, within its own borders, is a competitive advantage U.S. imperialism has in relation to its rivals in Europe and Japan.
However, while the U.S. ruling class needs to maintain this section of the proletariat in extremely exploited conditions, there are major ways in which the presence of millions of immigrants, many of them living an “illegal” existence, undermines the “cohesiveness” of American culture, politics and thinking in a time when the government is sharply concerned with security and stability.
Meanwhile, the post “Cold War” era of rapidly restructuring capitalism has shaken and upset the lifestyle that many American workers had come to expect. And so the rulers of the U.S. have also felt it necessary to pander to and promote an ugly nativist, racist anti-immigrant atmosphere. Ruling class mouthpieces like Lou Dobbs blame immigrants for the “decline of the middle class.”
The ox is skinned twice--immigrant workers are first exploited viciously, and then blamed for the worsening conditions of native-born workers.
In North Carolina, the election season of 2006 saw a real mounting hysteria targeting immigrants. One congresswoman demanded that North Carolina get its own federal immigration court to accelerate the deportation of immigrants. Local state representatives proposed new laws forbidding undocumented immigrants from renting apartments, getting drivers licenses, or even picking up state lottery winnings. Nightly news seems intent on portraying immigrants as a major cause of crime.
All this presents a mix of contradictions that both creates tremendous pressure on immigrants, and at the same time provides some cracks through which their struggle has erupted.
This whole swirl of contradictions found expression at Smithfield--and also got expressed in complex and sometimes surprising ways among different institutions and different class forces.
May First 2006--Suddenly It Was Time
Emma worked as a hotel maid after arriving from Costa Rica decades ago. She is now director of the Eastern North Carolina Workers Center. Over plates of waffles and whipped cream, she told us how things started to boil in the rural heart of North Carolina’s hog belt.
In early 2006, national plans emerged for May Day marches to demand amnesty and legalization for undocumented workers. Emma and other organizers just assumed they would caravan to nearby Wilmington, an hour away on the Atlantic coast, with a couple dozen of their closest union supporters.
Something else happened.
Workers inside the Smithfield plant circulated their own flier announcing that Wilmington march. They forgot to include a time or a place to meet. Overnight, the Workers Center's phone started ringing off the hook--with workers wanting to know the details.
Emma finally set up an informational meeting at a fast food joint outside Lumberton. And on that day, the surrounding streets were jammed with cars. Over 500 workers showed up. An informational meeting had become a rally.
Overnight, excited workers were demanding to hold their own march right there in Lumberton. And all kinds of organized forces had to scramble to respond to this independent initiative of the workers. Just a couple weeks before May First 2006, the Catholic church, the union organizers and a local businessman who does taxes for immigrant workers all came together to plan that march--and shape it politically.
In the area surrounding the Smithfield plant, Catholic churches have been some of the few places where often-isolated Latino immigrants found each other. As in other places around the U.S., the Catholic Church in North Carolina threw its structure into the effort to organize May First marches for “immigration reform.” A local Spanish-speaking priest emerged as a major spokesperson for that community--even as he pronounced himself strictly “neutral” in the conflict between the workers and their employers.
On May first, marchers were asked to leave their Mexican flags at home, and wave the U.S. flag.
Reflecting the complexity of all the contradictions monopoly capitalists have around immigrant labor, Smithfield Foods, and at least two other firms, donated money to help pay for the march's costs.
The outpouring on May First was more powerful than anyone had expected. At least 30,000 workers stayed away from work across the area--shutting down many of the industrial farms, chicken processing plants and slaughterhouses in several counties. Smithfield's Tar Heel plant, which "never shuts down," simply announced it had emergency repair work and closed its doors.
Long columns of cars, packed with workers, rolled out of the distant trailer parks and into the Robeson County fairgrounds. Over 5,000 immigrant people formed up that day and marched into Lumberton itself--under banners that read “We are not criminals” and “We only want to work.”
The disciplined march ended before City Hall, where a notoriously anti-immigrant congressman has his offices. Local racists and klansmen did not even dare make an appearance.
Lumberton is a sleepy Southern county seat straddling the interstate, exactly halfway between New York City and Florida. It had never seen anything like this. The political ground shook. Something new had announced its presence.
The immigrant workers had felt compelled to come "out of the shadows"--they felt they had to act, to protest, to fight or else simply allow their lives here to be ground to dust. And now they looked around and took notice of their own boldness and numbers.
Debate, Harassment and Major Federal Moves
Sharp debates raged among the Black and white people of this area. As the May First march passed the housing projects, Black people came out to line the streets and watch. Some stood with their arms crossed in open disapproval. Others openly shouted support, “Stay strong! Stay together!”
Wendy and Keith, white workers with ties to farmers in this area, told Revolution that there were quite a few white people who thought the Latino workers and the Smithfield plant had both brought changes to this area that weren't welcome.
And yet, at the same time, there were more positive sentiments expressed among both Black and white, that the immigrants had proven themselves to be decent people scrambling hard to survive, and that they were people who deserved a chance in life. And a number of Black people remarked that “Latinos stick together”--and suggested that this is something Black people should learn to do.
Several workers told Revolution that after May First the local sheriffs and state police acted like they had suddenly discovered the undocumented workers. Now many more immigrant workers were taken away in handcuffs from traffic stops for not having drivers licenses. Now there were state police prowling like wolves, every day, at key crossroads near the Tar Heel plant. And now there are rumors of workers being turned over to Immigration by those state police. One Latino told us he knew of a local sheriff who simply stopped and robbed a Mexican driver at a traffic stop--confident the immigrant couldn't report it.
Meanwhile, working behind the scenes, the federal government was preparing major moves and changes. Smithfield Foods was pressured to sign up with the Department of Homeland Security's "Employment Verification Pilot Program."
In an outrageous violation of the workers' rights, the company turned over the information on everyone working at their Smithfield plant to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And after Social Security checks, many hundreds of these workers--at least 600--had names and social security numbers that “didn't match." In October 2006, people were given two weeks to "clear things up"--and after those two weeks passed, Smithfield started firing people. The exact numbers they fired is not known--another company secret. But hundreds of workers knew they were next.
They simply weren’t going to have it.
"The Latinos have walked out!"
On November 16, 2006 hundreds of Latino workers walked out on first shift, shutting down the line, leaving the hogs swinging in the plant's frosty air. They gathered outside in a jubilant, chaotic scene that lasted for two days. A bullhorn was passed hand to hand, as people spoke their bitterness.
It is hard to describe those feelings of fear giving way to courage--stepping out of the shadows and finding a voice. And yet, the walkout also raised a central issue squarely: very few of the over 2,000 Black workers at the plant joined the walkout. They stayed on their jobs, often saying to themselves, “This is not our concern.” Some of the most backward even volunteered to stay and work a double shift.
Meanwhile, to the striking workers, the company that had seemed so intimidating and ruthless seemed suddenly powerless and confused. Workers wandered in and out of the plant as the company security stood by helplessly. Some workers came out to listen and then returned to work. Others slipped into the plant to urge more workers to walk out. Workers who arrived for each shift were asked to stay out, to join in. A series of homemade videos were posted on YouTube. And overall, 1,000 were out on strike at the height. And even on the second day, as the numbers dwindled, the company only managed to get one of their two production lines running.
Smithfield had been taken completely by surprise, and their higher-ups decided they couldn't allow a disruption of production so close to their crucial Christmas season. They agreed to rehire the fired workers. They agreed to meet with an elected strike committee to hear grievances--with the local Catholic priest participating as a “neutral” go-between.
Almost giddy at their sudden victory, the strikers celebrated and returned to work. This is a place where the company had responded to previous workers' actions with wholesale firings, and even the beating of organizers. It is a “company town” where the local sheriffs can be expected to show up and attack on command--and where the state authorities and media automatically throw their weight behind the capitalists. And so it was amazing, and unexpected, to have Smithfield simply fold to these demands after two days--when for over a decade they had refused to even hear any grievances of the workers.
Within days, at that promised meeting, Smithfield announced that workers now had only 60 more days to "clear up" any "no match" in their paperwork. They were firmly committed to pressing ahead with mass firings of the undocumented.
Meanwhile, the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, a national anti-immigrant organization, issued a public demand that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carry out a raid on Smithfield Tar Heel plant, “We want ICE and Smithfield Packing to remove all illegal aliens from their workforce immediately."
And now, in mid-January, Smithfield has had 60 days to prepare a replacement workforce and perhaps organize an ICE raid to remove immigrant workers at gunpoint. Smithfield may well be about to restart mass firings , under orders from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The conflict is far from resolved.
Revolution #78, February 11, 2007
From a Reader:
Revolution received the following letter from a reader:
I liked Joe Veale’s article in Revolution about the music, the politics and the irony of James Brown. [http://revcom.us/a/076/jamesbrown-en.html] I remember pretty vividly the experience of seeing JB in the same auditorium that Joe did. It wasn’t just about JB, but the whole experience, the people, the excitement, and also the “new day” that was being born in terms of people’s attitudes and sensibilities…something new was breaking out in society at that time. JB was also a product of the times. He came up in a time of great changes in this country, one being the great movement of Black people from countryside and farms to the cities of the U.S.
Into this changing reality came the turpentine man’s son, James Brown, born in a one-room shack in the pine woods of South Carolina. Growing up in Augusta, Georgia in a “neighborhood of ill-repute,” he sang and buck-danced for U.S. soldiers going off to WWII. He was jailed for breaking into cars as a teenager, then turned to prize-fighting, and finally to music as an attempt at a career. By the early 1960s he was the leader of one of the baddest bands on earth. Picture a “Night Train” chugging into a small Southern town under cover of darkness. Band members, clean to the bone, dressed as “sharp” as they could be, disembark and go off in the night into a dangerous, oppressively segregated world--but a world that was on the verge of being shaken to its foundations. Think about where exactly they were, in cities and towns and neighborhoods that contained--potentially--an extremely powerful force of the oppressed in society. And these people loved this James Brown and his band--he was one of them, he spoke their language. The band’s route took them along the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” to concentrations of Black people in the South and all over the U.S. If you listen you can hear the bass, and the rhythm, and JB…Miami, Florida…Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore; Philadelphia; New York City; “and don’t forget New Orleans, the home of the Blues”…and the list of cities expanded as time went on.
The music. In the days and weeks after his death many people around the world have been discussing what JB and his music meant to them, and the music’s broader impact and importance. A blogger wrote: “Few people realize how much JB changed the way we look at music…for example, he took the role of rhythm away from just the drums and bass and actually turned the band itself into one big punchy hard hitting drum set…he was bold in mixing Jazz, Blues, Gospel and African influences together…to sum it up, JB made modern music more rhythmic and driving…[he] came to influence everyone in almost every musical genre around the world.” Scott Verastro writes that James Brown “helped shape and define R&B and soul, in effect altering the course and rhythmic vocabulary of jazz and planting the seeds of funk…and rap…Brown’s songs evolved from concise, upbeat constructions with tight arrangements and impeccable instrumentation into loose, extended improvisational and polyrhythmic workouts…”
JB, in his autobiography, talking about the conception of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” says: “I was still called a soul singer but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums. I had found out how to make it happen.” Guthrie Ramsey Jr., in his book Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop writes, “Funk or the ‘in the pocket’ groove rivals in importance the conventions of bebop’s complex and perhaps more open-ended rhythmic approaches. Each imperative--the calculated freedom of modern-jazz rhythm sections and the spontaneity-within-the-pocket funk approach--represents one of the most influential musical designs to appear in twentieth-century American culture.”
JB’s vocal work at the time was really something new on the scene. It was razor sharp, forceful and cutting. If Ella’s voice could shatter a champagne glass, JB’s could cut steel. His vocalizing influenced many, but it seems to me that only instrumentalists have been able to approach or encompass what JB had developed vocally. Avant-garde saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, for example, developed similar high-powered, biting-edged (multi-tones within) tones, and I believe were much influenced by James Brown. A testament to JB’s singular vocal talent is the number of vocalists who have covered his tunes. Jason Chervakos wrote that “as a singer Brown treated pitch as a quaint notion for old-fashioned singers. Even at its sweetest his voice was a hoarse rasp which seemed to articulate at two pitches at once… And his performances glided microtonally, soaring through songs, darting in the direction of the melodies without ever willingly landing on the branch of any distinct pitch…hard, relentless, these were the adjectives that Brown carefully cultivated, constructing a sound that seemed to be holding back a barely contained fury.” And much more can be said of JB’s vocalizing, his development of “call and response,” his rhythmic ideas, his signature and amazingly varied scream repertoire. Again from Chervakos: “We should have known from the start that Brown’s gift to the world was going to be rhythmic. ‘Please, Please, Please,’ Brown’s first single from 1956, isn’t much of a song--a desperate almost inarticulate plea not to be abandoned over piano triplets playing a I-IV-V. But in the third verse St. James performs his first miracle--repeating the word ‘please’ nine times in a rhythmic alteration that proceeds from something speech-like to a voice articulating a backbeat. Then he turns around and repeats the trick in the next verse on the word ‘I.’ It was a harbinger of things to come--a universe of Africanized music in which rhythmic development through altered repetition would replace melodic, harmonic, and even lyrical variation as the primary element in moving a song from beginning to middle to end.”
It’s a good thing that 1960s images of JB and band in performance are starting to appear on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. For those that weren’t there, including internationally, there are some wonderful things to see and hear, like “Live in Olympia 1966” and quite a few others. As far as JB’s international appeal and influence, Jeremiah S. Pam notes that in the mid-1960s “a musical tidal wave swept across Africa: James Brown.” JB who “was already recognized as titan of rhythm and blues” became even more popular and in West Africa “soon began to undercut the audience for highlife.” JB’s musical influence was notably felt in his effect on the great Fela Kuti of Nigeria. JB’s influence is still greatly felt in Africa and about everywhere else (for some more obvious examples check out Ethiopian Soul, Nigerian Afrobeat, Brazilian Funk-rap). Again, there was a flood of world-wide well-wishes upon this death--and, more importantly, reflections on his music and his politics.
Looking back, reminiscing about James Brown and remembering those times, it seems that quite suddenly (around 1968/1969) the excitement of “Mr. Dynamite” dimmed to a significant degree. But there is, again in people’s thoughts remembering him, a trend for people to want to gloss over and downplay all the “selling out” that he started to do big-time at a certain point. Many want to forgive JB, but we have to take an honest look at this: JB’s musical contributions were towering, but his actions must be looked at for what they were. His image will always be tarnished because he turned his back on the masses of people at a crucial juncture. And that hurt. The Last Poets captured some of this in their poem entitled “James Brown” from one of their early record albums. The sound poem implied how much James Brown meant to the oppressed: The Poets angrily appealed to JB, something like: “…as he cries the river, drinks the river, cries the river, sweats the river…but…Jimmy don’t fall, please don’t fall. Jimmy don’t fall…please don’t fall…” echoing a sentiment among the people that something big was up, and that the people wanted and needed JB and others like him with them on this great undertaking…
James Brown lost much of his audience ideologically for a time when suddenly a revolutionary mood swept through society, affecting especially the oppressed: Black people, Latinos and others. People were looking for more and moving in a different direction. “When revolution has its day, people see things a different way.” This became reality. What was sorely needed then was a vanguard communist party with deep ties among the masses that could take this sentiment and lead the people to remake the world--a party down for and capable of leading to do this. If this could have happened, things today could look completely different.
James Brown shows up into the late 1960s were gripping and draining affairs, with high notes, passion and drama--and the music…something that mattered (check out especially his live albums during this time, including Live at the Apollo, Volumes 1 and2 , Live at the Garden , and others). Later it changed, and didn’t matter much, if at all. I remember a Black friend, older than I, around that time telling me that his generation had done everything right--they respected the teachers in school, they wanted to do right and thereby better themselves--they didn’t rock the boat. And this hope, this expectation of positive change was not met, and he continued by saying that the kids today (late 1960s) wouldn’t go along with that anymore. I remember seeing the Castlemont High School basketball team win the TOC in 1969. The Oakland Coliseum management would intentionally dim the lights during the national anthem so that the view of thousands and thousands of Black people (and others influenced by them) with their fists high in the air would not predominate. And we know what side of all this JB ended up on. As Joe Veale’s article pointed out, “James Brown divided into two…he had a strong negative side going on as well as the positive…Shortly after ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ this other side began to dominate. This led him into all kinds of stuff that was backward and frankly reactionary and damaging to the people…”
JB’s hometown, Augusta, GA, named a street after him in 1993, but it only named part of the street after him, the part that goes through the Black community. The business district of this “small southern town,” the home of the exclusive Masters golf tournament, couldn’t be tainted by the likes of someone like JB, even after all his groveling (years later city officials relented and named the rest of the street after him).
Jonathan Lethem recently reflected on the James Brown statue in Augusta for Rolling Stone magazine: “The statue’s back is to what was in 1993 renamed James Brown Boulevard, which cuts from Broad Street for a mile, deep into the neighborhood where James Brown was raised from age six, by his aunts, in a Twiggs Street house that was a den of what James Brown himself calls ‘gambling, moonshine liquor and prostitution.’ The neighborhood around Twiggs is still devastatingly sunk in poverty’s ruin. The shocking depths of deprivation from which James Brown excavated himself are still intact, frozen in time like a statue.”
Joe Veale is right: “It’s gonna take a brand new bag.”