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Black History Month
Editors' Note: This is the second 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.)
(originally published in the Revolutionary Worker #894, February 16, 1997)
This system has decisively and fundamentally failed—betrayed—Black people at crucial turning points in its history. And in particular we can identify two crucial turning points after slavery was defeated in the Civil War. In the period after the Civil War, during the very short-lived experience of Reconstruction—this was a period that lasted really for only about ten years, more or less from 1867 to 1877—the federal army, the Union army, remained in the South after the war as the enforcers of very real and significant reforms that were carried out, both in the economic base and in the political superstructure.
Today you see the Spike Lee films, and they have a reference to "forty acres and a mule"—this was the promise of land (and the basic means to work the land) that was made to Black people during the Civil War. Land ownership was at that time crucial for Black people to have as some kind of economic "anchor" and basis for them to resist being forced back into conditions of virtual if not literal slavery, of serf-like oppression, on the southern plantations. Along with "forty acres and a mule," other economic and political rights were promised to Black people. And in fact during the brief period of Reconstruction, while the full promise of these rights was never realized, there were significant changes and improvements in the lives of Black people in the South. The right to vote and to hold office, and some of the other Constitutional rights that are supposed to apply to the citizens of the U.S., were partly, if not fully, realized by former slaves during Reconstruction. And in fact some Black people were elected to high office, though never the highest office of governor, in a number of southern states.
This was very sharply contradictory. The armed force of the state, as embodied in the federal army, was never consistently applied to guarantee these rights, and in fact it was often used to suppress popular struggles aimed at realizing these rights. But there was a kind of a bourgeois-democratic upsurge in the South during this period, and it not only involved the masses of Black people but also many poor white people and even some middle class white people in the South. During these ten years of Reconstruction, with all the sharp contradictions involved, there was a real upsurge and sort of flowering of bourgeois-democratic reforms. This was not the proletarian revolution, but at that time it was very significant.
In 1877, all this was reversed and betrayed. The bourgeoisie had gotten what it needed out of this situation: it had consolidated its hold over the country as a whole; it had consolidated its dominant position economically and politically within the South as well as the North and West.
Many of the old plantation owners were now beginning to move back in and take control of their own plantations, now involving exploitation in basically a feudal (or semi-feudal) form, and millions of Black people in particular were forced into sharecropping and similar relations of exploitation and were reduced to a serf-like condition, which was enforced by a whole system of legal and extra-legal terror. At the same time, banking and other capital from the North had bought into much of the southern economy and was intermingled with the plantation system, as well as other facets of the southern economy, on many different levels. So this whole bourgeois-democratic upsurge that marked Reconstruction was beginning to be a serious threat to the bourgeoisie, as well as to the southern planters. The northern-based capitalists had less and less interest in protecting, or even tolerating, this upsurge. They certainly didn't want to see it continue to grow and perhaps get out of their control more fully.
So in 1877 something very dramatic happened. The federal army was withdrawn from the South and the masses of Black people were stripped of even the partial economic and political gains they had made and were subjugated in the most brutal ways and once again chained to the plantations, only now essentially in peonage instead of outright slavery. And the federal troops that were withdrawn from the South were immediately used in two ways: one, to crush major strikes of what at that time was essentially a white labor movement; and two, to carry further the genocide against the Indians and to finish the job of driving those who survived into these concentration camps of poverty called "reservations" and force them to stay there. Here, once again, we see a very dramatic example of how the ruling class divided and conquered different groups of people it oppressed. And one of the sharpest examples, and real tragedies, of this is how some Black people became Buffalo soldiers fighting the Indians at the very time that Reconstruction was being betrayed.
But the larger point I am emphasizing is that here was a situation involving a major turning point in U.S. history where the question was posed very decisively: Can Black people and will Black people actually be "absorbed," or integrated, or assimilated into this society on a basis of equality? Will not only slavery, but the after-effects of slavery, be systematically addressed, attacked and uprooted…or not? And the answer came thunderously through—NO!—this will not be done. And there was a material reason for that: it could not be done by the bourgeoisie without tearing to shreds their whole system.
Instead they re-chained Black people—not in literal chains, but in economic chains of debt and other forms of economic exploitation and chains of both legal and extra-legal oppression and terror. So this was one major turning point where the system fundamentally failed and betrayed Black people. And everyone, not only Black people, but proletarians of all nationalities and the masses of people broadly, should understand this very clearly—with a dialectical and historical materialist stand, method and viewpoint.
Sharecroppers' Blues and Affirmative Action
The other crucial turning point in which the system once again failed and betrayed Black people was in the period after World War 2, with the upsurge of the Civil Rights Movement. Here was a situation where changes in the world economy and world "geopolitics," as well as changes within the U.S. economy, brought about a very dramatic and rapid upheaval in the situation of millions of Black people.
Everybody knows about the mass migrations of Black people from the southern plantations, particularly during and especially after World War 2. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Black people moved from southern plantations to the urban areas, particularly of the North but also in the South. And as we pointed out in Cold Truth Liberating Truth, the very system which first held Black people in literal enslavement, and then held them in serf-like exploitation in sharecropping and other forms—the same ruling class for whom this was profitable because of the particularities of the bourgeois mode of production in the U.S.—this same system and ruling class turned around after World War 2 and drove them off the land, with no consideration for all the labor that they'd put into this land, and everything they'd produced out of it.
Now today you hear all this shit attacking affirmative action—"Well, it's not fair, my child went and took an SAT and got a high score but then they lost out in getting admitted to the college of their choice, because some Black person with a lower SAT score got admitted, blah, blah, blah." When I hear this kind of ignorant railing and whining I am reminded of something I saw on a videotape of the PBS series "The Promised Land," which focused on the migration of Black people from Mississippi to Chicago and their experiences in both the North and the South.
This series told the story in general historical terms—examining the social phenomenon I'm talking about, the mass migration of Black people to the North after World War 2. It focused on people who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago—this mass migration also led people to Detroit, to Cleveland, and so on. But it also portrayed this history in personal terms. Several people were interviewed and recounted stories that showed how and why they left the South and what they encountered in the North. And the story one Black man told really struck me, particularly in light of all this nonsense being whipped up against affirmative action.
This man talked about the way the sharecropping system worked. Not only was there the "normal" and ongoing exploitation of the sharecroppers, but they were swindled on top of that. Under the sharecropping system, the land would be owned by The Man, and he would advance you the seed and the other things you need to plant and harvest for that year. Everything was basically owned by him, including the land the sharecropper lived on and farmed—and at the end of the year there'd be an accounting. You would turn over the harvest to him, and then you'd get back a certain amount. In this case it was sort of modified sharecropping, where you wouldn't get your payment "in kind," that is, in the very things you had grown and produced, but you'd get it back in the form of money. That's the way the sharecropping system worked in the southern U.S. at the time, and from this you can see why you just couldn't get up and leave if you were dissatisfied and felt exploited and cheated—you were in debt from the beginning to the end of the year. You were always in debt.
So, not only was there this ongoing exploitation that was built into, institutionalized and legitimized in the sharecropping system as such, but there was also outright swindling. After all, the same Man who owned everything, also kept the books—and he also owned the store when you had to buy everything and so on. And he was always cheating the sharecroppers, on top of exploiting them viciously in the first place.
Now one year later, the father of the man telling this story, after having worked all year, went in on the day of accounting and asked for his money for the year. And the plantation Man cheated him. He inflated the cost of everything—all the farm supplies and the food and clothes for the family he had forced the family to buy from him. And then he said, "Here's what you're owed now." It was a ridiculously miserable little sum. The Black sharecropper had been swindled on top of exploited. But, that wasn't all. The Man then told him, "Yes, this is how much you're owed, but I can't pay you this year, because I'm using it to send my son to college." Now if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, I don't know what it is! And the sharecropper who had been cheated, on top of swindled, on top of exploited, said, "You mean to tell me I worked all this time trying to feed my children and put shoes on their feet, and now you tell me I can't even do that because you're going to send your son to college with the money that I'm supposed to have earned out of doing all this."
So, I don't want to hear any more of this shit about affirmative action being an unfair advantage for the oppressed.
Betrayal in the Promised Land
But getting back to the period of the Civil Rights upsurge, beginning in the mid-'50s and on into the '60s. Once more there is a crucial turning point. We had slavery and we had Reconstruction and that was betrayed. Then there was the whole serf-like, sharecropping plantation system that followed after slavery, with the KKK and all the rest of that terror. But in the '50s and '60s something new was coming on the agenda—the question of real equality and equal rights for everybody, and abolishing this segregation and Jim Crow and all this discrimination.
That's the demand that was being raised at that time—that's the question that was "up" at that time. And what happened? Well, certain formal aspects of Jim Crow laws and outright legal segregation, certain overt "apartheid" principles that denied Black people even formal equality under the law, where the word of a Black person was not equal to that of a white person in legal proceedings, and so on—these things were abolished.
But the question only has to be asked, in order to answer itself: Was anything approximating full equality realized by Black people—did the system open up and make this a reality?
NO! Despite all the tremendous and heroic struggle and sacrifice by masses of Black people (and others who supported them) in this period, the answer was still NO!
Once more the system that for centuries had chained them to the southern plantations, now kicked them off the land because of the changes in southern farming and the U.S. economy overall, together with changes in world economics and geopolitics.
For this system, this massive Black farm labor was no longer necessary, as such, but had become superfluous. So millions of Black people went into the cities, where they were segregated and super-exploited in the lowest sections of the proletariat.
Another dimension of this situation was brought out very powerfully in a speech by Carl Dix, where he talks about his own experience working in a steel mill in the Baltimore area. When he got hired on there, he was immediately shunted right into the shit job in the foundry where all the Black workers were concentrated. And he was talking to this older Black worker—here's another story that shines some light on this affirmative action question and so-called "reverse discrimination!"—and this older Black worker told Carl about how he'd been there 25 years and was still stuck in this same miserable department, with the hardest work and the lowest wages and the least security, even though he had his 25 years seniority. And he further went on to tell Carl about how he had trained all these white people that came in, who then on the basis of the training he gave them were promoted and got these higher paying and more skilled jobs; yet he never got out of that lousy department. Now, if that ain't affirmative action for white supremacy, what is it?! So, I don't want to hear, once again, any more of this reactionary assault on affirmative action, because we're the longest way from having equality, to say nothing of unfair advantage for the oppressed, whatever that would mean.
The fact is, as Cold Truth Liberating Truth puts it, discrimination is not working "in reverse"; it is working in the same direction, the same ways it has always worked throughout the history of the U.S.: to promote and enforce white supremacy and male supremacy.
Now, looking at this in broad historical terms. Here were these major turning points—after the Civil War and then again after World War 2, with Reconstruction and then with the Civil Rights Movement—where the question was sharply, directly, and decisively posed: will the system give everybody equal rights? And the system answered NO! It was not simply a matter that the ruling class would not do this, but more profoundly it was the fact that they could not. They could not because it would have torn up their whole system, it would have undermined their whole economic base and their whole superstructure to do this.
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
Bald-faced Lies and Bogus Pretexts
On February 14, President George Bush claimed that elements within the Iranian government are supplying sophisticated explosive devices that are used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. With this as a pretext, he then leveled a new military threat against the government of Iran—declaring that whoever is "moving these devices into Iraq, we will deal with them.”
This situation is dangerous and intensifying. The U.S. high command has already put a second aircraft carrier and naval battle group into the Persian Gulf, capable of launching air strikes against Iran. The U.S. has tightened the economic vise on Iran by pressuring international financial institutions to stop lending it money. U.S. forces have been seizing and interrogating Iranians in Iraq.
And now, at the February 14 press conference, Bush threatened to "deal with” the Iranian government—putting out the lie that this is about "protecting U.S. troops.”
These threats and preparations could erupt suddenly into an open military attack on Iran. A major attack by the U.S. (or Israel) on Iran would have terrible consequences for the people of the world for a long time. Such an attack, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, would be a horror for the people of this region, and would intensify a disastrous polarization—where two reactionary forces—U.S. imperialism on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism on the other—both oppose and mutually reinforce each other.
The threats by the Bush administration aimed at Iran, parallels what the U.S. did four years ago as they prepared to invade Iraq. Back then, the Bush regime claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, that were likely to be used against the U.S. or its allies. Bush and his officials claimed that they didn’t want war and were pursuing diplomacy—all while they were preparing the forces and pretexts for launching that war. In fact, key figures within the Bush regime had been planning this war for years.
Now they are using similar methods as they ratchet up war threats against Iran. "It is absolutely parallel,” says Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist. "They’re using the same dance steps—demonize the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux ["all over again”].” (quoted by Craig Unger, in "From the Wonderful folks Who Brought You Iraq,” Vanity Fair, March 2007)
Deliberately Distorting Reality
Step back and look at the larger picture:
The Bush regime has illegally and illegitimately invaded and occupied Iraq—continuing to wreck the country and kill huge numbers of people. Now Bush is claiming that because another country is allegedly interfering with that occupation, the U.S. has the right to threaten and attack that second country.
Bush claims his threats against Iran are just "the commander in chief’s decision to do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm’s way.” Yet the whole reason any of this is happening is due to the illegal and immoral US invasion in the first place.
This is like a rapist who, while raping and brutalizing a woman decides her sister is somehow "interfering” with him and then claiming that he now has the right to brutalize the sister…in his own ‘‘self-defense’’!
On February 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made a long list of charges against Iraq and told the United Nations: "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources.” The world now knows that Powell and the whole Bush regime were lying.
Almost exactly four years later, Bush now claims”with certainty” that elements in the Iranian government are behind U.S. casualties in Iraq. And he says that any skepticism over his claims is "preposterous.”
But what is truly preposterous is that this man—whose regime lied to the world in order to justify the unprovoked bombardment, invasion, occupation and systematic destruction of Iraq—is trying to do it again, this time with accusations aimed at Iran!
Remember the lies about the "weapons of mass destruction” — and all that led to? People can’t be fooled again! And we cannot remain silent and complicit in the face of Bush’s lies that are aimed at justifying an attack against Iran.
Let’s look at some basic facts: The overwhelming majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq are caused by roadside bombs (IEDs) set off by Sunni militias, not by the Shi’ite forces allegedly being supported by Iran. So the U.S. is deliberately distorting reality. They are making a big deal out of a small part of the picture—because such selective logic furthers their plans to prepare a military attack on Iran.
Bush admitted on February 14 that he had no evidence that anyone at the "top echelons” of the Iranian government had approved arms transfers to Iraq. But then he insisted this did not matter. "What we do know,” Bush said, "is that the Quds Force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. We also know that the Quds Force is part of the Iranian government.” (Quds Force is reportedly part of Iran’s "Revolutionary Guards,” which are separate from the regular military and report directly to Iran’s religious leaders.)
"What matters,” Bush added, "is that we’re responding.”
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV later explained, in Baghdad, that the "evidence” about the Quds Force involvement in Iraq came from prisoners, including Iranian citizens, who had been seized and interrogated by the U.S. in Iraq over the past 60 days.
After the revelations about Abu Ghraib prison and other U.S. torture around the world, why should anyone believe supposed "evidence” provided by U.S. interrogators?
Behind U.S. Claims about an Iranian Nuclear Threat
The U.S. claims it cannot accept an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. And it charges that a nuclear Iran might attack Israel—declaring that Iran’s President Ahmadinejad believes in "wiping Israel off the face of the earth.”
Again, there is deliberate distortion by the U.S. to serve its own aims.
First, who actually has nukes and is openly threatening another country with them? Only the United States. While U.S. leaders rant about the danger of "madmen with nukes,” it is George Bush who has ominously announced that "no options are off the table” with Iran.
Who has actually used nuclear weapons? Only the U.S. ruling class, which dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing nearly 200,000 people. And the U.S. rulers have never renounced those attacks.
Second, there is no real evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. David Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently said, "This is like prewar Iraq all over again. You have an Iranian nuclear threat that is being spun up, using bad information that’s cherry-picked and a report that trashes the inspectors.”
Third, the liars heading the U.S. government don’t actually believe it is likely that Iran would bomb Israel. Even if the Iranian regime were to develop one or two primitive weapons, they know that Israel has hundreds of nukes ready to rain down on Iran, not to mention the thousands deployed by the U.S.
Anti-semitism is real in the world and it is ugly. But in this case, it is a false issue. What’s going down here is not about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad being anti-semitic and denying the Holocaust. A ‘‘moderate’’ Iran armed with nukes (even one that accepted Israel’s right to exist and acknowledged the Holocaust) would still be unacceptable to the U.S. or Israel. This is because the real issue at stake here for the U.S. imperialists is that a nuclear Iran would threaten the ability of the U.S. to enforce its domination over the Middle East, and affect its ability to exercise such domination over much of the world. The U.S. first labeled Iran a member of the "axis of evil” when Iran’s leader was Khatami, who was a "moderate.”
A nuclear Iran would, for example, undermine Israel’s function as the enforcer of U.S. imperialist domination over the Middle East—since much of Israel’s ability to threaten and act with impunity against other states in the region rests on the reality that it is the only country in that region with a major nuclear force. The U.S. imperialists are so worried that a nuclear Iran would upset its future ability to dominate this strategic region that they are willing to consider, threaten and prepare war (including nuclear strikes) in order to prevent this.
The two sides involved in this dangerous and escalating confrontation are both reactionary forces that stand against the interests of the people. On one side, the U.S. is a brutal imperialist power waging a crusade-like offensive to establish itself as an unchallenged and unchallengeable overlord over the whole planet. It needs to be overthrown through a revolutionary struggle of the masses. Israel, the U.S.’s attack dog in the Middle East, is an illegal settler-colonial state built on stolen land that needs to be replaced with a multinational revolutionary state in Palestine where there is no discrimination and oppression against any peoples.
And Iran, ruled by a brutal theocratic state dominated by Islamic mullahs, is a reactionary state that should be cast off by the people and replaced by one going in a revolutionary direction.
But let’s be clear: It is the U.S. imperialists who are so aggressively and provocatively pressing the situation toward a clash. If we sit back and let this attack go down, we will be contributing to a horror that will harm people for decades to come and will have failed in our responsibility to people all over the planet. This is a crucial and urgent moment: the masses of people must mobilize in their millions to politically prevent the Bush regime from launching a war on Iran.
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
“Who will forgive us if we choose to close our eyes and wait until it’s all over? Please, do not continue to rely on elected representatives who don’t care about you. This strike is not about 'who will listen to us?' It’s about actively fashioning the world in which we want to live.”
Statement from a student,
February 15, 2007 in the Daily Nexus,
University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) student newspaper
On February 15, students on over 20 campuses across the country held student strikes and actions to protest the U.S. war in Iraq. This date was chosen to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the largest anti-war protests in U.S. history, at the start of the Iraq War.
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, students rallied and marched down a major highway to the airport, where they had a two-hour stand-off with police. The call for a student strike against the war originated at UCSB in the context of a struggle against the university’s participation in developing weapons for the U.S. military. It was endorsed by many professors, along with the student government and the entire Women's Studies department. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky gave their support. And, nationwide, World Can't Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime! took up the call from the students and helped to organize other campus strikes and actions.
At Lowell High, the oldest and largest public high school in San Francisco, 700 students walked out. And students from Berkeley High School and Fremont High in Oakland went to UC Berkeley where 300 students rallied. Sonoma State University held a three-day campout against the war, which culminated with a rally of 300. At Occidental College in Southern California, near Los Angeles, 400 students attended a teach-in. At University of California Davis, 300 students marched.
At Columbia College in Chicago, 200-300 students participated in an all-day rally. At Columbia University in New York, the crowd of 400 students who rallied included students from Barnard College, New York University, and the City College of New York, as well as students from Beacon High School and Eleanor Roosevelt High School. And students held marches through the campus at Emerson College and Suffolk University in Boston. Detailed reports from schools across the country can be found at worldcantwait.net.
In the weeks leading up to February 15, students wrote calls to strike, expressing outrage at the escalation of the war, torture, repression, and threat of attack on Iran. The call at Columbia College in Chicago states, "As the Bush administration is gearing up for an attack of Iran, waiting two more years for this to stop is unconscionable. We will no longer go on with business as usual as if this is not happening." At Occidental College the students' demands included an end to torture, reversing the Patriot Act, and “no attack on Iran.”
A lot of struggle and debate occurred nationwide around these strikes. Building up to the day, the Columbia University campus was abuzz with talk about the war and whether to strike and there were articles on the strike almost every day for two weeks in the Columbia Spectator, the main student newspaper. At UCSB, the Daily Nexus ran several editorials from students making compelling arguments about the situation in the world and the impact the strike could have. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the three-day campout at Sonoma State included a workshop attended by 30-50 students which one organizer said was "to talk about what kind of a world we want to live in."
In many cases there was support from faculty. At the University of Chicago, Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the History of Religion, canceled his classes in support of the strike and encouraged others to do the same. Faculty at Columbia College in Chicago brought their classes to the rally. At UC Santa Barbara, the Women’s Studies Department was closed for the day. At Columbia University, professors spoke at the rally, including a Women's Studies professor who exposed the lie that women have been liberated by the U.S. going into Afghanistan and Iraq. A professor of literature from the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures said in his speech that every professor who did not cancel their classes for this should be challenged.
For many campuses this was the largest show of political resistance in years. A member of the World Can't Wait student chapter at San Francisco State said, "Students felt empowered. It's like we actually have a voice." A Columbia University student who attended the rally said, "I think student activism can play a critical role in the anti-war movement. We can't just wait for 2008 and a new president to end this unjust occupation."
As the immoral and criminal war escalates in Iraq and as Bush threatens to attack Iran, the seriousness of the challenge and the consequences for the people of the world are highly intensified and these student strikes were a powerful challenge on campuses across the country, showing the potential for even more determined protest and resistance.
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
There’s an interesting story told in the currently running history of the Supreme Court on PBS about the history of Civil Rights legislation and litigation that rings with relevance to all those concerned with the war in Iraq and the fate of humanity today. This strikes me especially after having spent two weeks on the road with Liam Madden and Anastasia Gomes speaking to college students and other young people about the challenge before this generation to stop the war now and drive out the Bush regime.
The PBS series includes a span from the betrayal of Reconstruction, consolidated with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, to the ruling that “separate but equal” had no basis in the Constitution in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954.
Against a backdrop of inhuman segregation, lynchings, and night-riding terror of the KKK, the Southern Democrats filibustered civil rights legislation from the 1920s through the 1950s and the President would not intervene. The NAACP turned to the courts, but when Earl Warren was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1952 no one expected him to usher in a period of great civil rights “activism.” Warren had, after all, been appointed by Eisenhower and had been involved with the internment of the Japanese.
But larger forces were at work. The country and the world were going through dramatic underlying economic changes and profound political changes in the wake of World War II. As the U.S. spread its influence around the world under the banner of being the “leader of the free world,” the grotesque inhumanities suffered by Black people within its own borders became an international embarrassment. This was a large part of what compelled the Supreme Court to rule in Brown v. Board that segregation, “separate but equal,” violated the 14th Amendment.
Still a whole year went by before the court ruled on how to enforce this change. And even then, school districts in places like Prince Edward County closed for over a decade rather than desegregate. By 1964—ten years later!!—only one in a thousand Black school children went to integrated schools.
The complete standstill imposed on civil rights by official politics was only changed when students from across the country sprung into independent political activity. They stopped petitioning Congress and the courts and instead began the Freedom Rides. In the spring of 1960 they defied segregation and opened up a decade of courageous struggle and upheaval that everyone was compelled to take a stand on. Their righteous sacrifice and moral stand rocked the politics of the nation and stirred people to their very souls.
Today many stand on a comparable ground and are looking off a precipice at the specter of an escalation of the war on Iraq and the widening of this war into Iran. The people’s political will has crashed directly up against a President who has openly stated his intentions to create his own facts of wider war on the ground and against a Congress that won’t even pass a symbolic resolution to oppose the war, much less end it.
It is stunning how quickly the lessons of history have been buried and how many of this generation are stuck and confined once again by waiting for official politics, waiting for someone in Congress, waiting for the next elections, and relying on the deathly slow workings of a political process that refuses to yield to their wishes.
At almost every stop on this speaking tour, even after soliciting enthusiastic nods about how fast and how far this regime has taken the world in a horrific direction and the need for a movement from below to stop the war and drive the regime from power, the students’ questions almost always start in the same place. “Who do you think we should vote for in '08?” “How do we weigh which candidate to support when we can’t find candidates that are both pro-choice and anti-war?” “Which symbolic anti-escalation resolution being debated in Congress do you think would be best?”
Like the impasse on Civil Rights imposed from above, today’s impasse on the war must be upended through massive political resistance, protest, selfless struggle and upheaval. The future depends once again on people refusing to wait and to act only within the killing confines set by the ruling class political parties—but this is woefully little understood!!
And we don’t have two years or even a few months to wait to reverse this dangerous dynamic—the time to act is now.
This week Howard Zinn wrote an article that blistered the “nattering” about unity and bipartisanship coming from the Democrats and called for a bold action to immediately reverse the present course. He wrote:
"The time is right, then, for a national campaign calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Representative John Conyers… is now head of the House Judiciary Committee and in a position to fight for such a resolution. He has apparently been silenced by his Democratic colleagues who throw out as nuggets of wisdom the usual political palaver about ‘realism’ (while ignoring the realities staring them in the face) and politics being ‘the art of the possible’ (while setting limits on what is possible)."
Impeachment can be “put back on the table!” The war can be ended! Torture, spying, and theocracy can be rejected, repudiated and reversed! But this will only happen if there is diverse and determined mass action by the people determined to bring this about—regardless of what seems “viable” right now within the halls of power. And only if there is a flowering of a whole different vibe, a whole different ethos, a whole different sense of what is worth living and struggling and sacrificing for. In an era of legalized torture and widening war, maintaining our morality and human dignity depends on refusing to hide behind the hopes that those in the halls of power are going to fix things and instead confronting our responsibility to take history into our own hands and refuse to go along.
This week the students are taking giant steps towards this with a student strike against the war on February 15 at UC Santa Barbara, Columbia University, and other campuses across the country. World Can’t Wait and the Mission of a Generation tour is joining with this needed ferment as an important part of creating the kind of political situation where the war is ended and the Bush regime is driven from office. But whether this strike helps usher in a new period of struggle and resistance that grows and galvanizes society even in the face of the ridicule and contempt of those wedded to “official politics” or whether this tremendous step gets swallowed back up by the great vacuum of the 2008 elections is yet to be determined.
Any demand—whether ending the war, impeaching the president, or reversing the growing theocracy—can be taken up in a way that hands over the people’s initiative to the paralyzing influence of politicians who keep people’s sights lowered, their activities safely channeled into electing a Democrat in '08, and their anger and energies suffocated. But these demands can also be fought for in a way that assists people in breaking out of these deadly channels in favor of setting our own terms and remaking the political terrain through mass independent political action—the same way once done by the Civil Rights movement.
Those who recognize the stakes and implications of these two different paths have an important—and woefully underappreciated—political weapon in the Call for the World Can’t Wait movement to Drive Out the Bush Regime.
The political message of the World Can’t Wait Call stands out on the political terrain today for telling people the truth not only about the intolerable crimes and fascist trajectory this government has unleashed, but also that “politics as usual cannot meet the enormity of the challenge” and that only mass resistance by the people holds the potential to bring these crimes to a halt. Not only the diagnosis of the Bush crimes in the World Can’t Wait Call, but also the Call’s prescription must start setting terms much more broadly throughout society today. In the next period this Call should be seen by millions who sign and circulate it—and who, through doing so, build World Can’t Wait chapters of their own.
The Call speaks powerfully to the historic time we are living in and to the lessons of history, which “is full of examples where people who had right on their side fought against tremendous odds and were victorious. And it is also full of examples of people passively hoping to wait it out only to get swallowed up by a horror beyond what they ever imagined.”
This regime has no right on its side and is now widely hated by people here and around the world. We cannot, as Howard Zinn also warns, “put limits on what’s possible” and go along with and accept the crimes against humanity being committed in our name! It’s time for people to act like the future is in the balance. It’s time to act with the determination of people consciously taking the responsibility ourselves to bring all these horrors to a halt. Let us seize the moral high ground as we fulfill the challenge put to us by history and captured in the WCW Call: “We, in our millions, must and can take responsibility to change the course of history."
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
At 14, Rocky Harris knows the routine: You raise your hands high, you keep your mouth shut and you don't dare move a muscle.
Then the police officer's gloved hands go up and down each leg, around your waist, across your chest and back, then down your shoulders to your wrists.
When they don't find guns or drugs, Rocky said, they let you go. He said that he had been searched, fruitlessly, at least three times since last summer, and that he had friends who had been searched repeatedly.
"They tell you that you're selling drugs. But I don't do nothing wrong. I just play ball," he said, walking through the Red Hook East housing development in Brooklyn yesterday morning, headed to a community center for a game of basketball.
—The New York Times, 2/4/07
On Feb. 2, the New York Police Department released a report saying that cops stopped and frisked 508,540 people on New York streets in 2006. This is an average of 1,393 per day. More than half a million stop-and-frisks in 2006 alone! That's more than the population of Atlanta, and represents a 500% increase over 2002, the last full year for which a report with such statistics was written and made public.
A 2003 report on the NYPD by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights estimated that at that time, cops were officially reporting only one out of 30 stop-and-frisks. So the actual number of people being stopped are likely to be dramatically higher than even the more than 500,000 reported for 2006.
Following the cop slaying of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999 and the public outrage that ensued, the NYPD was court ordered to compile complete data each year on who they stop and frisk and why. But the NYPD has not complied since 2002, providing only a partial report for 2003 and none at all for 2004 and 2005.
The NYCLU has raised concern that "The NYPD is compiling a massive database of law-abiding New Yorkers, mostly Black and Latino, who have been stopped by the police."
Digging into these numbers makes your blood boil. Of those stopped and frisked last year, 55.2% were Black and 30% were Latino, which means more than 85% of the stops overall. And this has little to do with “making the streets safe from crime.” Less than 10% of those--usually involving a search for guns or drugs--resulted in anyone being arrested, or even getting a summons.
And look at some of the reasons given over and over again by the cops for why they stopped and frisked someone. "They fit the description of a suspect," or, "They were in a high-crime area." In the East New York section of Brooklyn, which has some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and its highest crime rate, the cops stopped, questioned or frisked someone last year about once every 24 minutes. And of those people stopped, 69% were Black and 24% were Latino.
This comes down to them saying it's a crime to be in the ghettoes and barrios of New York. That just walking down the street or hanging out in your neighborhood makes you a suspect and leads to you being accosted by the cops, made to show ID and turn out your pockets and not say a word or dare to move a muscle or you may get beaten or shot.
The 2006 report paints a picture of a police department patrolling Black and Latino neighborhoods like an occupying army. A police department that could encounter Sean Bell leaving his bachelor party and gun him down in a fusillade of 50 bullets. Or, just a week later, chase Timur Person, catch and subdue him, and then shoot and kill him while he lay helpless on the ground.
They talk about these stop-and-frisks as being nothing more than part of their successful anti-crime program. Bullshit! It's part of criminalizing whole sections of people. Beating down and intimidating whole sections of people they hate and fear. This is intolerable. It must be opposed.
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 stop this?
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 #67, October 29, 2006
THIS IS A DUMMY FILE. THIS IS PROBABLY BECAUSE THE ACTUAL FILE IS A PDF AND THERE WILL BE NO CONTENT IN THIS SPOT.
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
At the end of last year, we went on an investigative reporting trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. We were part of a human rights delegation investigating and documenting the repression in this southern Mexican state, and had the opportunity to meet and talk with many different kinds of people. The first two parts of our report were written while we were in Oaxaca. (“Part 1—The Prisoners of Tepic” in issue #75, and “Part 2—Days of Fear, Joy, and Determination” in issue #76, online at revcom.us.) Part 3 is about our encounters with one of the striking teachers and with indigenous campesinos who joined the struggle against the government.
A tin jar rattles on the stove. You can hear the sound of the rapid boil, as bubbles race to the surface. Jorge’s mother, Maricela, wears a long black braid with silver strands. Her traditional Oaxacan ruby and pearl earrings swing from side to side as she cuts a slice of chocolate from a large homemade bar. She drops the chocolate in the hot water and makes a thin layer of foam with her wood molinillo.
Jorge had invited us to his house for breakfast. He is a teacher who participated in the encampment at the zocalo, the town square, in Oaxaca City when the teachers went on strike in May of last year—as they do every year to demand improvements in the education system, school supplies and meal programs for the kids, and a pay increase. But this time the teachers’ strike was met with unprecedented repression. In the pre-dawn hours of June 14, over 2,000 police brutally attacked the encampment while most of the teachers, their families, and supporters were sleeping.
Many--including elderly people, pregnant women, and children--were injured as police dropped teargas from helicopters and charged with their batons. The teachers were dispersed from the zocalo. But they quickly regrouped and, joined by university students and local residents, they successfully fought their way back into the zocalo.
This sparked a wider struggle that has impacted Oaxacan society as a whole. For over 7 months, people from throughout Oaxaca have rallied around the call to drive out the governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO). URO is widely hated because of his violent repression against the struggles of the indigenous people and because he represents the continued domination in Oaxaca of the PRI, which had been the institutionalized ruling party in Mexico for over 70 years until 2000.
The sun fills the patio outside Jorge's house—the air is crisp and cool. It’s winter break and some of his relatives stop by to visit. They pull up chairs to talk once they find out that we’re there to learn more about the struggle of the people.
Jorge tells us that when he first started teaching he had to travel by foot for hours to reach the small village where he was assigned to teach. Most new teachers are sent to remote and rural areas deep in the countryside for their first assignments. The journey is hard and dangerous--some teachers have been mauled and killed by wild animals and others have simply disappeared, their bodies later found along the river.
Once in the villages, the teachers become first-hand witnesses to the destitute conditions people face in the countryside. Many of Jorge's students had to walk for up to 3 hours to attend school. Many didn't have as much as a notebook. After school, they have to help their parents or look after their siblings—there’s little time for play and even less time for homework. Seeing these conditions on a daily basis has had a profound impact on Jorge and many of the teachers we spoke to—in many ways this is what has continued to fuel their desire for change.
“The government doesn’t give anything on its own, even though that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Jorge says. “It’s not until we strike, it’s not until then that they authorize some breakfast programs for those places that are really marginalized. These are places where it’s like they don’t even exist, and in fact people don’t even have food to eat. We demand breakfasts, uniforms, school supplies, and shoes because there are little children who have to walk barefoot in the hills.”
Throughout the morning Jorge, his wife, his brothers and sisters angrily expose the brutality of the government, particularly the massive sweeps the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) conducted on November 25 at the zocalo. They also proudly recount stories of the struggle and the camaraderie of building and defending barricades that kept the police and government agents out of the neighborhoods. The conversation keeps on one track for a while, then breaks off into different streams of thoughts and ideas over a range of topics. The kitchen counter is small, but surrounding it are big discussions over where the struggle might be headed, what the installation of the new president Felipe Calderon will mean for Mexico, and the need for more fundamental change in society and the world.
During our trip we had a chance to go to the Mixteca region. The indigenous Mixtecan people—sometimes called the “cloud people” because many live high in the mountains—speak various languages and have distinct cultural traditions. The Mixteca is a large area in the western part of Oaxaca, with communities that extend to the states of Puebla and Guerrero.
Purple flowers grew wild along the winding black asphalt highway to the Mixteca. An old man herded sheep in the distance, and sandy-brown valleys and rocky red hills covered the landscape. It's not an easy journey to come down from the mountains, but hundreds of campesinos did to join the struggle in Oaxaca City last year. As we made our way deeper into the countryside, the spray-painted messages on ancient rocks added new dimensions to the story of the struggle of the people in Oaxaca: “¡Fuera URO por asesino y represor!” “¡Que viva la lucha de los pueblos de Oaxaca!” (“Drive Out URO, Assassin and Repressor!” “Long Live the Struggle of the People of Oaxaca!”)
At first some of the people we talked to in the Mixteca were a little quiet, unsure if they could trust us. There was little eye contact, but a lot of curiosity about us.
When we asked Manuel, 60 years old, where he is from, he pointed to the top of one of the mountains in the distance. He said that it’s not easy to make it down from the mountains, and it takes days for news to reach the people in the remote villages in the forests.
“I didn’t support the teachers at first. I asked ‘why,’ since they only want more money,” said Manuel. “When they first come to the pueblo, they sometimes treat us poorly—like we’re ignorant.”
Manuel told us that some of the teachers who come from the city look down on the campesino—and often resent having to work in such extremely impoverished conditions. At the same time, Manuel said that sometimes the teachers are given disproportionate influence in local affairs and land disputes, because they are literate and educated.
However, these social contradictions among these different strata of the people did not prevent the campesinos--who have first-hand experience of URO's repressive measures--from seeing the injustice committed against the teachers and uniting with the demand that URO be driven from office.
Manuel was outraged when he heard about the vicious repression against the teachers on June 14. He joined other campesinos in strategizing about supporting the teachers and others in Oaxaca City and connecting their own struggles with the larger movement “against the repression and for something more just.”
Manuel’s friend Sebastian said, “When the PFP came in is when we decided to go to Oaxaca. There were some teachers that had started to give in. We decided that we had to be there because we’re campesinos—because we live in the conditions we do and because of how we’ve been treated all our lives…us and our grandparents.”
Floricela, a young woman who lives in a small community in the heart of the Mixteca, talked about what she and others did after the June 14 police attack on the teachers: “We participated in blocking roads. We went into the communities to denounce the repression. There came a time when 16 [peasants] were arrested in a community and we were shot at, so we took over the government offices.”
This marked a turning point in the struggle as a whole. It was no longer a struggle of just the teachers and their supporters in the city. The campesinos from the countryside came down from the mountains—from the Mixteca and from all over Oaxaca.
Revolution #79, February 25, 2007
In an unexpected turn of events, the court-martial of First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned U.S. military officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, ended in a mistrial on Feb. 7. The judge, Lt. Col. John Head, granted the prosecution's motion for a mistrial, over the objections of Watada's defense team. The declaration of mistrial came after Head had ruled that a pre-trial “stipulation of fact” agreement between the prosecution and Watada’s defense team should be thrown out because, Head claimed, there were different understandings of what it meant.
The “stipulation” basically said that the facts in the case--that Watada had missed troop movement and had made the public statements against the war to explain his actions--were not in question. In exchange for this “stipulation of fact,” the prosecutors had agreed to drop two of the four charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” The prosecutors also agreed not to go forward with subpoenaing reporters and activists and forcing them to testify for the prosecution about public statements made by Watada. Going into the court-martial, Watada faced two remaining charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer,” which target political statements he made against the war, and one charge of “missing troop movement.”
Judge Head had tried to prevent the issue of Watada's reasons for refusing to be deployed to Iraq from coming up in the trial. He denied defense requests to bring up expert witnesses to testify about the war. He ruled that Watada could not argue that his actions were based on the Nuremberg defense: that soldiers have a duty to refuse to obey illegal orders and participate in wars of aggression. And Head refused to throw out the two remaining charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer” against Watada, ruling that the free speech rights of soldiers are limited.
The judge’s ruling to throw out the “stipulation of fact” came after the prosecution had rested its case and the defense was about to call Watada to the witness stand. Head repeatedly questioned Watada--over the objections of his lawyers—about whether the stipulation agreement amounted to an admission of guilt. But Watada insisted on the position that he had maintained from the start: that he refused to participate in the war because it was illegal and that he felt it was his duty to not contribute to war crimes. Head asked Watada if he believed he had a duty to make the troop movement. Watada answered, “No, I did not feel I had that duty. I was being ordered to do something that I feel was illegal. The government and you have made rulings to the contrary, but that does not negate my beliefs.”
Both the defense and prosecution objected to Head’s ruling to throw out the “stipulation.” But once made, the ruling meant the basis of evidence and facts in the case, including the prosecution’s completed case, was undermined. Head attempted to give the prosecution a chance to retry the case without the stipulation being in evidence. But the prosecution asked for a mistrial, and the judge agreed.
The fact that Head was trying to rule out any discussion of the war’s legality and Watada’s motivation, at the very same time that the prosecutors were trying Watada for his stated beliefs against the war, meant there were some deep contradictions within the case against Watada. Eli Sanders of Time magazine wrote that “barring arguments about the war’s legality created a disconnect that ultimately caused the military’s case against Watada to unravel.” Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz, said after the mistrial, “I think whenever a prosecutor tries to keep out the substance of why a person acted, when it relates directly to the charges that are there, it creates an untenable series of contradictions.”
Lt. Watada's case is one expression of the deepening opposition to the war, including within the U.S. military. As the court-martial opened at Ft. Lewis on February 5, 1,000 people rallied in support of Watada outside the base, including many vets and military families.
The Army has announced March 19 as the new trial date. Watada's attorney. Eric Seitz, said after the mistrial: “First I want you to understand that a mistrial in a case of this significance is a very rare occurrence. And when it happens, it has potentially very significant effect. In this case, it is my professional opinion that Lt. Watada cannot be tried again because of the effect of double jeopardy.
“As you all know, we did not consent to a mistrial. We did not ask for a mistrial. We did nothing to warrant a mistrial. The judge made all of his rulings himself or based upon motions by the government.
“Once jeopardy has attached—and it clearly did attach in this case, when the jury panel was sworn in and when the first witness testified—the protection against double jeopardy applies as a constitutional matter.
“And there may be arguments that could be made by the government to get around that, and we will probably have a lively discussion of it. But the first motion we file when they attempt to bring this case back will be a motion to dismiss with prejudice, based upon double jeopardy…” (Seitz's statement and other news about Ehren Watada's case can be found online at thankyoult.org.)