Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Criminal Justice, Education, Poverty, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: august wilson, chris hedges, education, incarceration, poverty, prison, prisoners, Race, racism, roger hollander, solitary confinement, theatre, torture
Posted on Dec 15, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
|AP/Ted S. Warren
|Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003.
By Chris Hedges
I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.
Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Racism, Torture.
Tags: american gulag, american prisons, banality of evil, barry sussman, bureau of prisons, charles samuels, Criminal Justice, eichmann, godwin's law, hanna arendt, non-violent offenders, prison industrial complex, prisons, roger hollander, torture
Roger’s note: Going back to my days protesting racism and the Vietnam War I have unapologetically used the word “fascist” or “neo-fascist” to describe aspects of the actions of the United States government. I am well aware of what the author of this article refers to as Godwin’s Law, that we dare not compare Americans to Nazis in polite company. I often try to think what it would have been like to have been an “ordinary” German citizen in the 1930s and 1940s. I imagine that one woke up in the morning, ate breakfast, sent the kids off to school, and then headed to whatever job she/he worked at. The sun came up in the morning and the moon at night. People ate, drank, partied, and, yes, they would also have discussed politics. Their discussions would have had a lot in common with how many Americans see themselves, that is, as victims. The reparations imposed by the Allies after WWI had created economic hardships that all Germans felt. That was their primary reality. Germans who were educated and who should have known better, would obviously been aware of the officially sanctioned antisemitism and other excesses of the Hitler regime. Some few would have protested and paid a price, other would have rationalized. How is this different, I ask, from American reaction the atrocities in my lifetime that have occurred as a direct or indirect result of U.S. government activity, including but not limited to Vietnam, Agent Orange, Latin American death squads, endemic racist, sexist and homophobic urban policing, the Bush/Cheney torture and rendition regime, the hundreds of thousands if not millions killed in the declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the men, women and children destroyed by American drone missiles?
This article focuses on the prison industrial complex, but I note that it fails to include a discussion of the privatization of a large segment of the prison industry, using prisoners as slave labor, and the various forms of torture including years to decades of solitary confinement.
Since this article if focused on criminal justice, it identifies only one of thousands of Eichmanns who spend your American tax dollars on destroying human life.
OpEdNews Op Eds 11/21/2013 at 19:44:02
By Barry Sussman (about the author)
Godwin’s Law is an assertion, widely credited to Mike Godwin of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, basically holding that a discussion essentially ends when a Nazi or Hitler analogy is raised and signals that the party making such a comparison has lost the argument. It is widely cited, particularly in the blogosphere, whenever the inevitable comparisons are made between current U.S. repressive/invasive procedures and those employed by an earlier repressive regime that according to Godwin, must remain nameless when discussing despicable state tactics.
Image by google images
Godwin’s Law, credited to Mike Godwin, has diminished the discussion of parallels between current U.S. policy and Nazi Germany
Various players have different motives for promulgating Godwin’s Law. There are the victims of Nazi oppression who seek to ensure a unique place in history for themselves, and in order to do so must see that any other villainous regime is perceived to be relegated to a level no greater than penultimate evil. Then there are the regimes themselves which have a vested interest in quelling any embarrassing or unwanted comparisons. Regardless of the motivation, there seems to be little doubt that absurdities like Godwin’s Law do little to advance meaningful analysis and more likely stifle necessary and legitimate discourse.
An honest examination of the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. demands a total defenestration of Godwin’s Law and anything else interfering with the ability to compare the U.S. “justice” system with those of other similarly malevolent regimes. Those who seek to defend the status quo in the U.S. will reflexively cite the fact that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others have killed more of their people, etc., but while true, this misses the real point and inherent maliciousness of the current situation in the U.S.
Image by google images
Adolph Hitler is uniquely evil and exempt from comparison according to Godwin’s Law
Much of the damage done by the U.S. justice system is allowed to occur with little or no oversight as a result of the U.S.’s self-proclaimed role as the world’s moral arbiter. Indeed, much in the way in which Richard Nixon claimed that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” it is now similarly asserted that if the U.S. does it, it must be permissible. Even the most egregious violations can be explained away by attributing their necessity to something as vague as “terrorism.” Godwin’s Law prevents the interjection of the historical fact that similar claims were made by another regime that relied upon comparable and similarly vague justifications.
Image by google images
Adolph Eichmann was executed for crimes arising out of overseeing a network of prisons for the Third Reich
And so in the spirit of breaking free from the artificial constraints of Godwin, it can be straightforwardly reported that America has its own equivalent of Adolph Eichmann in the person of Charles E. Samuels, Jr., director of the federal Bureau of Prisons. There are obvious parallels between the governmental tasks performed by Eichmann and Samuels. Like Eichmann, he is responsible for the management of prisoner logistics, heading a nationwide network of gulags where enemies of the regime are dispatched for an ever-expanding variety of infractions, both real and imagined.
Image by google images
Charles Samuels currently serves as the head of America’s vast network of federal gulags
Samuels, installed by President Barack Obama, is the first person of color to hold the post. This fact was widely celebrated by a fawning press following his installation but given that minorities are the largest victims of the prison-industrial complex in the U.S., placing a black man in the position was recognized by more seasoned observers as a cynical ploy to sugar-coat the face of systematically repressive mass incarceration.
Image by google images
Despite promises of “hope and change,” the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons have only grown more repressive under the Obama regime
Samuels’ relatively unimpressive biography suggests he is merely another government functionary seeking sustenance at the public trough. There is nothing in his background which would indicate an extraordinary or unusual level of malice. In his mind he is most likely serving at his post in an unthinking and uncaring manner that is little different from the way in which millions of other government workers perform their assigned tasks. It is entirely possible that he fails to recognize the holocaust he has been entrusted to oversee and perpetuate, instead perceiving it to be nothing more than an element of a necessary state function.
Fifty years ago renowned sociologist Hanna Arendt penned her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s work was revolutionary in its contention that evil in individuals mainly occurs as a result of thoughtlessness. Arendt wrote it was the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions, even if it results in unspeakable crimes.
Image by google images
Famed sociologist Hanna Arendt identified the banal nature of evil found in the likes of Eichmann and Samuels
It was the capture of Eichmann, widely considered at the time to be evil personified, and the reactions observed at his ensuing trial that caused Arendt to formulate her theory. She recognized that the evil being attributed to Eichmann was misplaced. Arendt viewed him as a mere cog in the wheel of an inherently evil system, performing his duties as would ordinarily be expected of any dutiful bureaucrat.
Performing horrific tasks in an organized and systematic way relies upon “normalization.” This is the process whereby such abominable and heinous acts become routine and are ultimately accepted as part of the process through which things are done. The process requires a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable. The direct brutalization of people is performed by one set of individuals while others keep unrelated mechanisms of government functioning. Giving cover to the enterprise are supposed intellectuals and other pseudo experts who work through various media outlets to rationalize for the general public what would otherwise be unimaginable.
The media has certainly aided Samuels in efforts to make his endeavors palatable. Press accounts disseminated soon after his appointment credited “an interest in public service” as being what led him to take his first job as a federal prison guard. Samuels reportedly hails from a family of public servants, with a father who worked for the U.S. Postal Service and a mother who was employed by the Social Security Administration. Various media outlets reporting on Samuels’ appointment treated his position with the federal Bureau of Prisons as simply another civic minded endeavor. One article even went so far as to try and humanize his efforts by citing Samuels’ enjoyment of “chess, video games and reading books on a variety of topics.”
Image by google images
Samuels rules over the largest network of prisons ever assembled
When he’s not reading or playing chess, Samuels oversees the largest network of prisons and prisoners that the world has ever seen. It is largely a retributive network in which nearly three quarters of those imprisoned are non-violent offenders with no history of violence. Mandatory sentencing, rampant federal prosecutorial misconduct and an absurd and patently illegitimate 99% conviction rate in U.S. federal courts guaranty a steady stream of prisoners for the facilities overseen by Samuels.
Many of the victims dispatched to Samuels’ custody find themselves imprisoned as a result of gross abuse of governmental power. People are targeted for prosecution for a variety of reasons, many of which bear no rational relationship to the commission of an offense. The system in which Samuels plays a key role tends to select targets for prosecution and then, after expending limitless resources, finds a suitable “crime” with which they can be charged. It operates much in the spirit of Lavrentiy Beria, head of Joseph Stalin’s secret police in the Soviet Union, who is alleged to have said, “Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”
Image by google images
The tactics of Lavrentiy Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, have been embraced by the U.S. Department of Justice
The federal Bureau of Prisons, as overseen by Samuels, is viewed by many detractors as nothing more than another example of state sponsored terrorism. The bureau exists to inflict harm upon its victims and exact retribution from perceived enemies of the regime. Even the pretense of rehabilitation has long been abandoned. Recent press reports claim that there are thousands of people, convicted of non-violent offenses, who have been sentenced to die in prison. The mission of the bureau is to rigidly exact as much time as possible from each and every prisoner. Samuels has taken the task to heart, routinely denying various motions for the compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners and instructing that good time calculations be made in a fashion that cheats every federal prisoner out of seven days of freedom for each year served. Ever the loyal soldier, he holds that every discretionary situation must be resolved in accordance with the goal of ensuring that federal prisons are kept full, well above capacity.
While Arendt’s ideas on the nature of evil were generally rejected when first proposed, the success of subsequent U.S. efforts at wholesale systematic implementation of sanitized decimation through mass incarceration suggests she was years ahead of her time. A man like Samuels, despite the realities of his job description, is widely accepted as being no more villainous than any other high ranking bureaucrat. Much like his predecessor Eichmann asserted, Samuels is widely viewed as one who is doing nothing more than following orders and unquestioningly administering the will of the regime.
Eichmann’s reliance on the Nuremberg Defense in which he sought to deflect guilt by claiming he was “only following orders” was predictably unsuccessful. Despite its past failed applications, it seems inevitable that if Samuels’ day of reckoning comes where he is called to account for the crimes that occurred on his watch, he would invoke a similar defense.
Even Eichmann’s trial speech appears to have applicability to the potential jeopardy faced by Samuels.
“I cannot recognize the verdict of guilty. . . . It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. . . . Once again I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office . . . At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate.”
History has demonstrated that this is a losing argument. Samuels, and others whose warped sense of duty impairs their ability to discern right from wrong, run the risk of being called to account. The tipping point is growing near as there are almost daily calls to reform the federal sentencing scheme. The bureau headed by Samuels will predictably defy such calls as bureaucracies tend to resist efforts to diminish their size and scope. Samuels’ unfettered fealty to the regime prevents him from seeing that the administration he heads is one which feeds on bodies. It can only grow by creating correspondingly greater death and misery. America, which leads all nations in number and percentage of people under lock and key, has its Eichmann.
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.
Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Latin America.
Tags: D’Abuisson, death squads, fort benning, Hugo Banzar Suarez, human rightss, john laforge, Latin America, Manual Noreiga, military dictatorships, otto perez molina, Rios Mont, roger hollander, soa, soa watch, torture, whinsec
The US Army School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia is a notorious training operation for Latin American officers and soldiers. It’s associated with some of the worst dictatorships and human rights violators in the hemisphere. For over 20 years, the grassroots School of Americas Watch (SOA Watch) has grown into one of the most dynamic, multi-generational, cross-continental movements against militarism in the Americas.
This weekend, November 22-24, will see thousands gather for a massive rally at Ft. Benning in the ongoing campaign to shut down the school. Vans from colleges and universities will make the trek with students who’ve studied the grim history of U.S.-sponsored military coups and U.S.-friendly dictators, many of whom got their inspiration and training at the SOA (now renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC).
Among the more infamous SOA graduates are Gen. Jose Rios Montt, who was convicted May 10th of committing genocide between March 1982 and August 1983 during his Guatemalan military dictatorship; death squad leader Otto Perez Molina who under Rios Montt directed massacres of Maya people, and who recently maneuvered Guatemala’s high court to reverse Rios Montt’s conviction; Gen. Manual Noreiga of Panama, who moved from dictatorship via SOA to the BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons that is) on drug charges; Roberto D’Abuisson, leader of El Salvador’s death squads in the 1980s; and Gen. Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia who seized power in 1971 and who jailed, disappeared and assassinated suspected political opponents for eight years. SOA graduates led military coups in Venezuela in 2002 and the 2009 coup in Honduras.
For more background, “Somos Una America” — a new documentary that focuses on the campaign against the Pentagon mindset that promotes U.S. domination and ‘military solutions’ in the Western Hemisphere — is available online for free (visit: soaw.org/somos).
This past April, the SOA Watch campaign won a long-sought court victory over the U.S. government’s refusal to release the names of the trainers at the SOA/WHINSEC. Federal Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton in Calif. ruled that the Pentagon has no grounds for refusing to release these names. President Obama has OKed the Justice Department’s appeal of this ruling, protecting the Pentagon’s effort to keep the information secret. As SOA Watch points out, this is because instructors there have coached “torturers, death squads and military dictators throughout the Americas.” The president’s decision to appeal puts the lie to his claim that his administration would be the most transparent in history. And you thought after his persecution of whistle blowers Julian Assange, Pfc. Manning and Edward Snowden that Obama could not get more cynical.
Teaching Torture the World Over
The SOA burst into the news in 1996, when the Pentagon released copies of its torture training manuals. The Sept. 21, 1996 Washington Post, in “U.S. Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture; Manuals Used 1982-91, Pentagon Reveals” by Dana Priest, notes that the manuals promote the use of “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum.” By 1996, 60,000 military and police officers had been through SOA training.
The torture manuals were distributed to thousands of military officers from eleven South and Central American countries, although the actions advocated in them violated U.S. Army law at the time. The Pentagon ordered the manuals destroyed, but only a few thousand were ever recovered. They have doubtlessly been reproduced and employed by militaries and counterinsurgency forces the world over. U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be direct beneficiaries, considering the torture regimes conducted at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq (2004) and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Afghanistan has become a torture regime too — first under U.S. forces and now by their Afghan trainees (See “U.S. Practiced Torture After 9/11, Nonpartisan Review Concludes,” NY Times, Apr. 16, 2013, and “Government Panel in Afghanistan Confirms Widespread Torture of Detainees,” Jan. 21, 2013).
Demands to abolish the SOA/WHINSEC now come from across the political spectrum. From the point of view of the victims, more than 300 human rights defenders have employed nonviolent direct action at the base, and as a result have collectively spent over 100 years in prison and served additional years probation. (Disclaimer: I did 6 months in the Duluth prison camp for trespassing at SOA back in 2006. My cellie R.J., who was doing eight years, put me straight when he announced, “I see him doing his exercises, his yoga. He’s just here for an oil change.”) From officialdom, the Latin American Military Training Review Act of 2013, H.R. 2989, would suspend operations at the school. It also mandates an investigation into SOA’s connection with abuses of human rights. It’s got 40 co-sponsors but needs more.
If you’re not heading down to the Georgia for the rally, at least push your Congressional Rep’s to join the shutdown effort.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Iraq and Afghanistan, Torture, War on Terror.
Tags: Canada, canada government, canada justice, child soldier, david climenhaga, dennis edney, Guantanamo, harper government, king's university college, military commissions, Omar Khadr, roger hollander, samuel morison, Stephen Harper, steven blaney, torture
Roger’s note: I have written and posted before about Omar Khadr, and it is important that he should not be forgotten. I refer you again to the documentary: “You Don’t Like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo,” which depicts the torturous interrogation this child was put through by Canadian spooks, and the torture he suffered at the hands of the Americans at the same time as he was wounded to the near point of death. This photo shows the condition he was in when the CIA interrogated him.
| November 19, 2013, http://www.rabble.ca
Is the continued imprisonment of Omar Khadr actually a question of principle for the Harper Government, or has it become such an embarrassment that our Conservative leaders in Ottawa have concluded he must be kept under wraps as long as possible for reasons of political expediency?
The hatred and hysteria with which the supporters of this government attack the former child soldier, who is now 27 and resides in a federal penitentiary here in Edmonton after pleading guilty to a variety of war crimes charges before a “military commission” run by the U.S. armed forces, suggests the latter.
Either way, though, the explanation hardly shows our federal government in a good light. And perhaps not the rest of us Canadians either, given the sorry tale of what happened to our fellow citizen when he was still a child, abandoned by his father in a war zone, pressed into service as a child soldier and put on trial after being grievously injured in a battle with American forces.
The question Canadians who believe in common decency and the rule of law need to ask themselves now, though, is what can we do about it?
Various legal challenges are in the works, as regular readers of the news columns surely know. Khadr’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, has launched an appeal of an Alberta court decision that denied his request to be transferred from the maximum-security Edmonton Institution to a provincial jail.
Khadr’s American attorney, Samuel Morison of the United States Department of Defense, has challenged his conviction for war crimes by a military commission inside the extra-territorial U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in occupied Cuban territory.
But the wheels of justice grind slowly, when they grind at all. And the Canadian government, which never lifted a finger to help this young man and which resisted his return to Canada until the embarrassed Americans put him on a plane and sent him home, has now adopted a strategy of doing anything it can to prevent his release.
“The government is going to run the clock out on Omar Khadr,” said Edney, who spoke a week ago today at a packed forum on the case at Edmonton’s King’s University College, a private university founded by the Christian Reformed Church that has taken up Khadr’s case with increasing vigour.
The Harper government, Edney explained, has the legal power to do the right thing, “but it can’t, because it’s put its reputation at stake” by supporting the prosecution of a 15-year-old boy in a judicial proceeding, that while not quite a kangaroo court, hardly lives up to the standards of Canadian justice.
Even that explanation may be a generous one, it is said here, because the passions aroused by Canada’s enthusiastic participation in the war in Afghanistan obviously made Khadr’s fate an effective wedge issue for the relentlessly cynical Harper Tories. Is it beyond the pale they would care more about their own electoral fate than justice for a young man caught in the meat-grinder of a war he didn’t choose?
Surely it is not that hard to imagine that the Harper Government risking even a constitutional crisis to prevent Khadr’s release before the next election if actually ordered to do so by a court.
Adherents of the Harper government’s line are bound to angrily assert that Khadr pleaded guilty to the charges. Indeed, Steven Blaney, the minister of Public Safety, said just that, telling the CBC: “Omar Khadr pleaded guilty to very serious crimes… The government of Canada will vigorously defend against any attempted court action to lessen his punishment for these crimes.”
But as Morison pointed out to the crowd at King’s last week, “If he had been tried by the standards that prevailed here in Canada, he would never have been convicted.”
What’s more, the American lawyer explained, given the Kafkaesque inversion of justice in the Guantanamo commissions, “the only way to win at Gitmo is to lose … the only way to get off the island was to plead guilty.” For a prisoner to insist he is innocent is to sentence himself to life in prison: “That drains the trial process of any real meaning.”
Indeed, last Friday, Canadian lawyers representing Khadr filed civil arguments claiming the Canadian government conspired with U.S. authorities to abuse the prisoner to ensure he pleaded guilty.
Morison, perhaps with the hyperbole of a good trial lawyer, insists the principal crime to which Khadr pleaded guilty — killing a U.S. soldier with a hand grenade — could never have happened the way prosecutors claimed. Indeed, he said, not only did Khadr not perpetrate a war crime, “he was himself the victim of a war crime!” You can click here to see a video of Morison’s illuminating remarks.
This case was the first time in modern history, Morison added, that a 15-year-old was prosecuted for war crimes.
But what can Canadians do now?
“There’s no great big fix in the world,” Edney told the approximately 300 people who attended the forum at King’s. “There’s steps, little steps.”
“You can’t speak in the Supreme Court, but you can speak to your friends,” he explained. “You can go to your local politician…” But nothing will happen, he advised, “without you, without you getting angry, without you saying you will work night and day … only then will you get a result.”
And you must have faith in the rule of law, Edney counselled, as has King’s – “the rule of law is applying here today.”
King’s, he said, “this little Christian university,” has “advocated far more strongly than any other university in Canada, for a Muslim boy.”
So what are the rest of us going to do?
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.