Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

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Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

This Must HALT!

A Challenge. . .

"The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy, but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism.

"What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism."

Bob Avakian
Chairman of the

Waiting for 2008: Unconscionable

A word here on the notion that people should put our energies into choosing a candidate who can contend for the Presidency in ‘08.

What kind of society waits two years to put an end to torture, to the rape of foreign lands, to the slaughter of children and to the fueling of a civilization-destroying civil war?

What kind of people exchange the lives and futures of millions for political capital in an election two years away over who can best oversee their "New Rome"?

Especially after the results of this last election and the subsequent escalation of the war, it is self-delusion bordering on criminal complicity to wait for 2008 to repudiate the Bush regime, bring its program to a halt and reverse the fascist direction of this society. By then it could easily be too late.

This must HALT
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"If you fall into the orientation of trying to make the Democrats be what they are not, and never will be, you will end up becoming more like what the Democrats actually are ."

Bob Avakian
Chairman of the

It's a nightmare you can't just wake from...

Last November tens of millions went to the polls and did what they've been told their whole lives to do to change what their government is doing: they voted.

They voted in an attempt to end an immoral war on Iraq that has sent hundreds of thousands to early graves. They voted out of disgust with a President who believes he is above the law and a Congress that has gone along with his shredding of habeas corpus, his dragnet wiretapping, and his legalization and widespread use of torture. They voted out of fear for the world if Bush is not stopped before crusading into yet another country, his lies and brutality sanctified by a fascist Christian fundamentalism.

But what they got was just the opposite.

Over mass graves, inhuman degradation, and unrelenting horrors, Bush promised more of the same. He announced a major escalation of the war.

More troops and more carnage in the streets of Baghdad and in western Iraq. More war crimes and more torture as Bush lifts the "restrictions" he claims have tied the hands of U.S. forces. More gasoline on the flames of religious slaughter in Iraq and beyond as millions more get trapped between the intolerable choices of the U.S. juggernaut of war or the Islamic fundamentalist movement that’s fueled by it. More and wider war as Bush openly threatens Iran and Syria, moves ships into the Gulf region, and provocatively assaults Iranian diplomats within Iraq. More power to sustain the killing—an expanded Army—to support a long-term escalation of these wars without end.

This is, quite simply, unacceptable. This president must be stopped! His crimes must be halted! He and his criminal regime must be driven from power!

Anything less—any idea of waiting for two years until the next election, while the carnage and crimes continue and get devastatingly worse—is unconscionable.

The Paralysis of the Democrats

Many still hope the Democratic congress will step up. And in fact many Democrats are expressing serious reservations and even opposition to Bush’s escalation. But let’s look at what they’re actually saying and promising.

Hillary Clinton revealed something the other day when she said that she has a “responsibility gene” that prevents her from cutting off funding for the war, or even proposing a withdrawal of the troops. In fact, the whole Democratic Party has this same “gene.” The question is, responsible to whom and what?

Responsible to the Iraqis? Dick Durbin, in his official Democratic response to Bush's announcement of an escalation, put it this way: "We have given the Iraqis so much... it is time for the Iraqis to stand and defend their own nation." As if Iraq somehow invited the U.S. to come in and destroy their infrastructure, provoke a sectarian civil war, and steal the lives of hundreds of thousands! As if this were a gracious and magnanimous favor for which the Iraqis are being ungrateful and somehow making greedy demands for more of!

Responsible to the millions who voted for them, in the hopes that they would stand up to Bush? Ted Kennedy admitted in advance that by the time a vote comes on his bill to cut the funds for escalation, "The troops will already be there. And then we'll be asked, are we going to deny body armor to the young men and women over there?" And Nancy Pelosi has backed him up: "Democrats will never cut off funding for our troops when they are in harm's way."

This is even after Bush has publicly sworn that he won't listen to or be stopped by Congress! Asked on 60 Minutes whether he thought being commander-in-chief gave him "the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants," Bush snarled, "Yeah... they could try to stop me from doing it. But I made my decision, and we're going forward."

So to whom and what are these big politicians responsible? When they talk about “redeploying American troops” in the region around Iraq to protect “our interests”—whose interests are being protected? Where is the major Democratic politician who has come out and called this war what it is—an illegal and immoral war that was launched to protect imperial interests in the Middle East? Who would show how those interests are NOT those of the people in Iraq, or the Middle East more broadly, or the majority of people within the U.S.?

If you open your ears and listen, you will hear that all the debate being allowed is over how to defend and extend the military strength, global reach, and interests of the U.S. system. How best to maneuver the U.S. ship of state through the tumultuous waters of global upheaval and reconfiguration in the wake of the Cold War and the massive migrations of people, factories, and capital caused by the turbo-paced capitalist globalization. How best to hammer people in this society into an even more repressive morality and legal system. And how to do it all while intensifying U.S. political domination and global exploitation and the terrible toll in needless human suffering that goes with it.

At the same time, there ARE real differences at the top. This war is going badly. Talk of a possible constitutional crisis echoes even into the halls of Congress. But as long as this remains a struggle over how best to defend and expand empire in a debate conducted by the empire’s politicians in the empire’s chamber, these differences will never go anywhere good. Without a massive upheaval from below, based on the interests and demands of the overwhelming majority of people here and around the world, the paralysis of the Democrats will continue to enable Bush to commit his crimes.

Needed: More--and More Determined--Protest and Resistance

The whole situation and direction and options "up for debate" are intolerable!

The paralyzed Democrats at the top have made clear that they, on their own, will not stop this. This whole situation can only be changed for the better by millions standing up, protesting and resisting this whole course.

But, yes, we need a different kind of protest. Not protest pleading with those who rule over us to "do the right thing," followed by a return to the routine . . . but protests that make clear to all that until these crimes are halted we will not rest. Protest that challenges those in society sitting on the sidelines to join in. Protest that aims at nothing less than actually stopping this juggernaut, and that does not flinch at the upheaval that could entail. When has any major change for the better come without upheaval and struggle??

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has spoken of the kind of spirit we need:

“It’s not merely a matter of letting the people in power know that we don’t like what they’re doing. It is saying that this course they’re on is one that will bring disaster to people all over the world, and we not only don’t support this but are going to act—to build massive political mobilization—to stop it. In this people can draw lessons, and draw inspiration, from those parents of U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq, and who have come out in opposition to that war—and some of whom have come out in opposition to the whole disastrous direction of things, joining in with World Can’t Wait. These people have changed their whole lives. They’re not just saying, ‘I’ll put a bumper sticker on my car to show I’m opposed.’ Bumper stickers with progressive sentiments, statements in opposition to the war and other crimes of this regime—that is good—but these ‘bumper sticker people’ should be challenged: what are you gonna do about it.” [Bob Avakian, “On the Importance of World Can’t Wait...” Revolution, 62]

Without this spirit, there will be no good change. With it, a world of possibility can open up.

A Call to the Students and Youth

During the ’60s, the youth and students demanded and debated over the truth, and they fought for it. These youth, Black and white and all nationalities, dared to say “this system of racial segregation and oppression, this war in Vietnam, these institutions based on suppressing women...these are outrageous and they are immoral, and they can no longer be tolerated...for another minute.”

These youth put their bodies on the line for those beliefs. They broke free of the calculus of imperial interests and shell-game elections and they went to the people and took to the streets. And in doing so, they changed the face of a society.

This generation faces an even sharper challenge. It can no longer rest content with detesting Bush, while retreating into the cop-out of worldly wise cynicism. Calculations about school grades and career plans no longer apply for Iraqis whose streets have become killing fields. . . and they can no longer apply for those of us living in the society that has unleashed these horrors. The education needed above all in times like these is one that teaches and inspires debate over how to stand up for a whole different world . . . not how to find a future operating within the nightmare descending over this one.

Think about it. The Bush regime has encountered big troubles in butchering their way toward what Condoleezza Rice calls "a new Middle East." Even as the regime responds to these troubles by further throwing down the gauntlet, it confronts a political situation in this country of massive disaffection. The world is waiting for you—asking for you and wondering when you will finally rise to the mission that is on you to stop this--and galvanize the whole of society when you do.

There needs to be ferment and protest and political struggle taking over the campuses, where those of you who see what is going on challenge your friends, your teachers, your families and all of society with an uncompromising stand.

And everyone else throughout society, especially those who lived through the liberating struggles of the sixties and those who have a platform to speak from, need to share the responsibility to inspire and compel the youth of today at the same time as they raise their own voices once again to the whole of society saying: There's no one else to rely on. We are the ones, in our millions, who must bring this to a halt!

Discussion, Debate and Unity

There is a debate that has been ruled out of order, and that needs to be pried back open; it is a debate over how the world has gotten to this place, what must be done to change it, and what revolution has to do with all that. This kind of debate is not only urgently needed in its own right, it is key in fueling and inspiring forward a movement powerful and determined enough to halt the horrific trajectory of today.

Critical to that whole discussion is Bob Avakian’s revolutionary vision of a truly liberating society. This issue of our paper features an article that gives a basic sense of how Bob Avakian has re-envisioned the communist project, and of his method and approach to understanding reality and how to change it. If you are seriously concerned about the future—and who cannot be? — then you need to engage what he’s saying. And we strongly encourage you to go to and listen to the talk “Why We’re in the Situation We’re in Today. . . And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly Rotten System and the Need for Revolution.”

Today tens of millions are agonizing over what can be done. We must take to them the discussion of the big questions of history and morality and change that are joined in this moment, and we must at the same time move together to rouse them from the sidelines and onto the playing field of history. We put it to you: wrangle with this newspaper and then put it in the hands of others. And as you do, check out and get with and help build groups like World Can't Wait—Drive Out the Bush Regime and others that are daring to lead millions to stop and drive out this regime.

After four years of a gruesome war, let us not say we have learned to live with this carnage or with the unbearable acts of torture being committed even as we march. Let us tell ourselves that a "symbolic" protest is no more conscionable than a "symbolic" vote against this murderous escalation. Unless we resist and go forward to mobilize millions of others in mass, independent historical action, then we will bear the responsibility for the perpetuation of the very crimes thousands have come to Washington, D.C. to oppose.

The stakes for humanity cannot be overstated. The future is riding on how we live in these next months. We must make this the year the regime is driven out.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Three Alternative Worlds

by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA

Bob Avakian is the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. And he is more than that: he’s an innovative and critical thinker who has taken Marxism to a new place; he’s a provocative commentator on everything from basketball to religion, doo-wop music to science; and he’s a pit-bull fighter against oppression who’s kept both his solemn sense of purpose and his irrepressible sense of humor.

We invite you to meet this revolutionary leader through the following excerpt from his collection of essays, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy.

And we urge you to go to or to hear an important recent series of talks which explore communist theory and apply it to a breathtaking range of questions, including political questions which are urgently and sharply posed in today’s situation.

* * * * *

As the world exists today and as people seek to change it, and particularly in terms of the socialist transformation of society, as I see it there are basically three alternatives that are possible. One is the world as it is. Enough said about that. [Laughter].

The second one is in a certain sense, almost literally and mechanically, turning the world upside down. In other words, people who are now exploited will no longer be exploited in the same way, people who now rule this society will be prevented from ruling or influencing society in a significant way. The basic economic structure of society will change, some of the social relations will change, and some of the forms of political rule will change, and some of the forms of culture and ideology will change, but fundamentally the masses of people will not be increasingly and in one leap after another drawn into the process of really transforming society. This is really a vision of a revisionist society. If you think back to the days of the Soviet Union, when it had become a revisionist society, capitalist and imperialist in essence, but still socialist in name, when they would be chided for their alleged or real violations of people’s rights, they would often answer "Who are you in the West to be talking about the violation of human rights—look at all the people in your society who are unemployed, what more basic human right is there than to have a job?"

Well, did they have a point? Yes, up to a point. But fundamentally what they were putting forward, the vision of society that they were projecting, was a social welfare kind of society in which fundamentally the role of the masses of people is no different than it is under the classical form of capitalism. The answer about the rights of the people cannot be reduced to the right to have a job and earn an income, as basic as that is. There is the question of are we really going to transform society so that in every respect, not only economically but socially, politically, ideologically, and culturally, it really is superior to capitalist society. A society that not only meets the needs of the masses of people, but really is characterized increasingly by the conscious expression and initiative of the masses of people.

This is a more fundamental transformation than simply a kind of social welfare, socialist in name but really capitalist in essence society, where the role of the masses of people is still largely reduced to being producers of wealth, but not people who thrash out all the larger questions of affairs of state, the direction of society, culture, philosophy, science, the arts, and so on. The revisionist model is a narrow, economist view of socialism. It reduces the people, in their activity, to simply the economic sphere of society, and in a limited way at that—simply their social welfare with regard to the economy. It doesn’t even think about transforming the world outlook of the people as they in turn change the world around them.

And you cannot have a new society and a new world with the same outlook that people are indoctrinated and inculcated with in this society. You cannot have a real revolutionary transformation of society and abolition of unequal social as well as economic relations and political relations if people still approach the world in the way in which they’re conditioned and limited and constrained to approach it now. How can the masses of people really take up the task of consciously changing the world if their outlook and their approach to the world remains what it is under this system? It’s impossible, and this situation will simply reproduce the great inequalities in every sphere of society that I’ve been talking about.

The third alternative is a real radical rupture. Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto that the communist revolution represents a radical rupture with traditional property relations and with traditional ideas. And the one is not possible without the other. They are mutually reinforcing, one way or the other.

If you have a society in which the fundamental role of women is to be breeders of children, how can you have a society in which there is equality between men and women? You cannot. And if you don’t attack and uproot the traditions, the morals, and so on, that reinforce that role, how can you transform the relations between men and women and abolish the deep-seated inequalities that are bound up with the whole division of society into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited? You cannot.

So the third alternative is a real radical rupture in every sphere, a radically different synthesis, to put it that way. Or to put it another way, it’s a society and a world that the great majority of people would actually want to live in. One in which not only do they not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or if they get sick whether they’re going to be told that they can’t have health care because they can’t pay for it, as important as that is; but one in which they are actually taking up, wrangling with, and increasingly making their own province all the different spheres of society.

Achieving that kind of a society, and that kind of a world, is a very profound challenge. It’s much more profound than simply changing a few forms of ownership of the economy and making sure that, on that basis, people’s social welfare is taken care of, but you still have people who are taking care of that for the masses of people; and all the spheres of science, the arts, philosophy, and all the rest are basically the province of a few. And the political decision-making process remains the province of a few.

To really leap beyond that is a tremendous and world-historic struggle that we’ve been embarked on since the Russian revolution (not counting the very short-lived and limited experience of the Paris Commune)—and in which we reached the high point with the Chinese revolution and in particular the Cultural Revolution—but from which we’ve been thrown back temporarily.

So we need to make a further leap on the basis of summing up very deeply all that experience. There are some very real and vexing problems that we have to confront and advance through in order to draw from the best of the past, but go further and do even better in the future.

Now I want to say a few things in this context about totalitarianism. Just as an aside here, I find it very interesting that you can read innumerable books delving deeply into the psyche of Stalin or Lenin or Mao—"What went on in the deranged minds of these people [laughter] that led them to think they could remake the world in their maddened image [laughter] and led them, in the name of some greater moral good, to bring great catastrophe on the humanity that they were affecting?" I don’t know how many books I’ve seen like that. I have never yet seen—maybe there are some, but I have never seen—a study of the deranged psyche of Thomas Jefferson [laughter] or George Washington: "How is it that a person could come to believe in their own mind [laughter] that they were benefiting not only humanity in general, but other human beings whom they owned? [laughter] What depth of psychological derangement must be involved in that? [laughter]. What is more totalitarian than actually owning other human beings?"

Or what about the study of the depths of the depraved minds of Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan [laughter], who murdered millions of people, including vast numbers of children? "What must have gone wrong, somewhere in their childhood or somewhere else in their lives? [laughter] What demented ideas must they somehow have internalized that led them to believe that in the name of the shining city on the hill, or whatever [laughter], they had the right and the obligation to slaughter thousands and millions of innocent people?"

I have never seen those studies. Certainly I haven’t read about them in the New York Times Book Review section. [Laughter]

Still, there are some real questions that are raised about totalitarianism by the ideologues and the "intellectual camp followers" of the imperialists that do need to be taken on. In particular, they make the charge that in a society which they call totalitarian, but which is in reality the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is first of all an official ideology that everyone has to profess belief in, in order to get along in that society. And there is an official politics that everyone has to be involved in, in order to get along in that society and not get in trouble. Well, what about this?

Fundamentally, this is a distortion of what has gone on in socialist societies: why these revolutions were necessary in the first place and what they were seeking to accomplish and to overcome, and how they were going about doing that. The reality is that, for the great masses of people in capitalist (and certainly in feudal) society, they are barred from really being involved in any significant way in official politics and the politics that actually affect the affairs of state and the direction of society. And they are indoctrinated with an outlook and methodology and ideology that prevents them—discourages them and actively obstructs them—from really understanding the world as it is and changing it consciously. And that is what socialist revolutions seek to change, as well as bringing about fundamental changes in the economy and the social relations.

But what about this question of official ideology that everyone has to profess? Well, I think we have more to sum up about that from the history of socialist society and the dictatorship of the proletariat so far.

With regard to the question of the party, I think two things are definitely true. One, you need a vanguard party to lead this revolution and to lead the new state. Two, that party has to have an ideology that unifies it, an ideology that correctly reflects and enables people to consciously change reality, which is communist ideology.

But, more broadly, should everyone in society have to profess this ideology in order to get along? No. Those who are won over to this ideology should proclaim it and struggle for it. Those who are not convinced of it should say so. Those who disagree with it should say that. And there should be struggle. Something has to lead—the correct ideology that really enables people to get at the truth, and to do something with it in their interests, has to lead; but that doesn’t mean everyone should have to profess it, in my opinion. And this is just my opinion. But it’s worth digging into this a bit, it’s worth exploring and wrangling with the question.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Revolution Interview

“He was murdered, shot down, 50 shots”

William Bell on the NYPD killing of his son, Sean Bell

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.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Strike at Smithfield: Workers Under a Changing Sky

Part 2: The Struggle Erupts

by Mike Ely and Linda Flores

Hanging out at the Robeson County Fairgrounds
At the Robeson County Fairgrounds, North Carolina, Dec. 2006
photo: Mike Ely, Revolution

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.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

“Who's to Blame for the Situation the Masses Are In?”:

Students Debate  Different Answers by Bill Cosby and Bob Avakian

From a reader

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.

Send us your comments.

Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Pentagon Attacks  Lawyers Defending Guantanamo Prisoners

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.

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Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Memorial for Billy “Jazz” Ellis

On January 6, 2007 our friend and comrade Billy "Jazz" Ellis died. Jazz faced extremely challenging health problems for many years: he was 72 when he suffered the massive stroke that ended his full, purposeful life - a life dedicated to bringing about a communist world.

Raised in Jim Crow Texas, Jazz moved to San Francisco as a teenager and lived in the projects with his mother. He became politically active while working for Muni as a bus driver. He was politically awakened in the 1960s and was drawn toward revolutionary politics. He was a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Mao, revolutionary China and especially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution where ordinary people "stormed the heavens" taking up politics, science and art were crucial inspirations which shaped Jazz’s whole life. Jazz was a firm follower of Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1979 to join others politically defending Bob Avakian from attack by the government. More recently Jazz made it his mission to introduce youth to Bob Avakian and his writings when they came into Revolution Books.

A few months ago on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Hunters Point Rebellion he wrote an article recalling the uprising, saying “by rebelling, people were standing up against the whole way they were being treated and the hypocrisy of American society, which talked about civil rights but wasn’t giving us anything. Our rage was uncontainable.”

Jazz’s enthusiastic search for liberation and a whole new world was uncontainable.

On February 11 there will be a memorial to celebrate his life with the music he loved, reminiscences from family and friends, and good food. And we will show excerpts of the film Jazz narrated with his beautiful resonant voice: Mao, the Greatest Revolutionary of Our Time.

The memorial will be held at the Humanist Hall, 390 27th Street in Oakland at 6 p.m. For more information and/or to participate in this memorial contact Revolution Books by email or call 510/848-1196. Remembrances can be sent to

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Revolution #64, October 8, 2006

On the 40th anniversary of the Hunters Point Uprising

A Call to the Community to Fight to Drive Out the Bush Regime

by Billy “Jazz” Ellis, Supporter of Revolution newspaper, retired MUNI driver, and former resident of Doublerock

Editor’s Note: This correspondence was read and distributed at a demonstration on the 40th anniversary of the San Francisco Hunters Point rebellion, and appeared in The Bay View newspaper.

I still remember the day back in September 1966. I was 32 years old and working for MUNI. I had a split shift and was making my way to a store on Third Street before going back home to Doublerock where I lived. I met these cops, and one cop asked me where I was going. I said I was going to a store and then I was going home. He said, “You can’t go any further than this. Take your Black ass and get out of here.” Then the sergeant got called in. He saw my MUNI uniform and said I could go as long as I went straight home and didn’t join the crowd on Third Street. I said OK even though I planned on going down to see what was happening. As I turned around the first cop whacked me with his club in my back knocking me over onto my car. Then the sergeant said something like “let him go,” and I got in the car and took off.

Above and below: the streets of Hunters Point in San Francisco during the September 1966 rebellion. After the police shot 16-year-old Matthew Johnson in the back and killed him, people rose up against the police and the whole repressive situation. The mayor called in police sharpshooters, and National Guard troops with tanks and machine guns were sent into the neighborhood, but the people rebelled for three days.
Photos: Jean Anthony Dulac, courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

I went down where people were gathering and found out that the police had shot in the back and killed Matthew Johnson, a 16-year-old kid from the neighborhood. There were hundreds of mainly young people out there. People were very angry and yelling at the police, “Get the fuck out of here” and demanding that the police who shot the youth be charged with murder.

People were standing up and speaking the truth. The whole scene was very repressive at that time especially for the youth. Even going down and playing basketball in the projects you were risking being harassed—or worse—by the police. Just like today the system wasn’t offering much hope for the youth. By rebelling, people were standing up against the whole way they were being treated and the hypocrisy of American society, which talked about civil rights but wasn’t giving us anything. Our rage was uncontainable.

The Bay View wrote, “The mayor called in police sharpshooters to line up on Third Street, execution style and fired into the Bay View Opera House where terrified children had sought refuge.” They brought in the National Guard, sent tanks and armored vehicles with machine guns into the streets, but still people rebelled for several days. It was right to rebel and if people hadn’t fought back there probably wouldn’t be ANY Black people in San Francisco today. But still the rebellion didn’t hit at the core of power and today we still have the same oppressive system over us. Only a revolution can uproot this thoroughly rotten setup.

Hunters Point

Look at how the Black people were treated around Katrina. Like Kanye West said, “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People.” They left poor people to die in their houses and Black dead bodies floated down the water-filled streets. Families were split up and scattered over the country just like families were split up in slavery days. And a year later, people still haven’t gotten any help and it looks more and more like Black people are being ethnically cleansed out of New Orleans. But Kanye West didn’t go far enough. The fact is that racism and national oppression are built into the very foundations of the system.

Immigrants come over here and are having all their rights taken away. They make money for the bourgeoisie but can’t even send money back to their families. They’re forced to live six or seven to a room. Black people have been catching hell for a large part of our lives. Those of us on the bottom of this society have a deep sense of why the Bush regime needs to be stopped and this needs to be made visible. And when we take the streets in this way it inspires and challenges people from all walks of life.

We’ve been on the defensive too long, getting our asses beat. This Bush regime is literally killing us and our brothers and sisters around the world. We need to get on the offensive against the system, politically. And the sooner the better.

I’ve talked to many people out in the streets here, and, let’s be honest, while the attitude of most Black people is “Fuck Bush,” too much people are cursing at their TVs, or relying on saviors from the Democratic Party, and not taking this on in the streets.

This situation needs to be transformed. On October 5, in over 80 cities around the country tens of thousands of people will not be going to school or work and will be marching in the streets, determined to not stop until the Bush Regime is driven out. All sorts of folks from college and high school students, anti-war activists, immigrants, people from the suburbs, people from churches, and academia, and especially the youth will be out there. Bayview Hunters Point needs to be in the house.

Are there barriers to overcome? Yes. For myself, I’ve found it very helpful to listen to the seven new talks by Bob Avakian. These talks gave me a deeper sense of how we got in the situation we’re in today, and the possibility of a revolutionary communist future that we can fight for. They’ve given flight to my imagination of a whole new world. If you dream about that, too, get these talks (also available at

Another barrier to overcome is that a lot of us feel isolated and alone. Let’s get together, talk about how to organize many others to join us on that day. Doing this takes planning and organization. Let’s form committees to organize for contingents from the Hunters Point and other communities.

The future is unwritten, which one we get is up to us!

Drive Out the Bush the Bush Regime Cause the World Can’t Wait

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Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Take the 7 Talks to the Campuses and Classrooms

Avakian talks poster

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!


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Revolution #77, January 28, 2007

Wanted for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity - The Bush Regime (PDF)


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