Roger’s note: the nationwide prisoners’ revolt is not something you are likely to read about in the mainstream media. Nor is it an issue that is likely to come up in the presidential debates. Can you imagine Clinton and Trump discussing the massive incarceration of the underclasses (almost entirely, African American, Latino and Native American) in the brutal American Gulag? Regardless of who become the next president, this hidden brutality will continue until the prison revolts are successful. Most Americans have no idea that actual slavery exists in the country on such a grand scale. Inmates are subjected to inhuman periods in the torture chamber know as solitary confinement. If inmates are paid for the forced labor they perform for corporations, it is peanuts; and these earnings are pitted against fines and grossly overcharged commissary items. This is a national shame. But in a nation that routinely bombs civilians in foreign lands, supplies armaments to repressive regimes around the globe, condones torture, and tolerates the fact that millions of its citizens live in poverty and without adequate health care or housing, should we be surprised? Did I mention that the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world and it spends over half its discretionary budget on the military?
Severe state repression and a near-total press blackout make it impossible to determine how many prisoners are continuing the national work strike that began on September 9th. The core demand is an end to prison slavery: the forced low-or-no-wage employment extracted from inmates. “Once we take our labor back,” said an organizer, “prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
“The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike.”
A nationwide prison work stoppage and hunger strike, begun on Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, have seen over 20,000 prisoners in about 30 prisons do what we on the outside should do—refuse to cooperate. “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves,” prisoners of the Free Alabama Movement, the Free Ohio Movement and the IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee wrote in a communique.
This round of prison strikes—there will be more—has had little outside support and press coverage. There have been few protests outside prison walls. Prison authorities—unlike duringthe 1971 Attica uprising when the press was allowed into the yard to interview the rebellious prisoners—have shut out a compliant media. They have identified strike leaders and placed them in isolation. Whole prisons in states such as Texas were put on lockdown on the eve of the strike. It is hard to know how many prisoners are still on strike, just as it is hard to know how many stopped work or started to fast on Sept. 9.
Before the strike I was able to speak to prisoner leaders including Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council, all of whom led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement, as well as Siddique Hasan, one of five leaders of the April 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. (The Ohio revolt saw prisoners take control of the facility for 11 days after numerous grievances, including complaints about deaths allegedly caused by beatings from guards, went unanswered.) Now, authorities have cut off the access of these and other prisoner leaders to the press and the rest of the outside world. I have not been able to communicate with the four men since the strike began.
These prison strike leaders put no hope in a “national conversation” about race and mass incarceration. They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country. The mechanisms of repression are by design. They are the logical consequence of deindustrialization. The corporate state uses fear, police violence and huge networks of jails and prisons to keep hundreds of millions of underemployed and unemployed poor people from revolting.
“They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama. He has been in prison 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
These strike leaders say that, inside and outside the prison walls, rebellion is the only option.
“We are not going to call for protests outside of statehouses,” Ray said. “Legislators are owned by corporations. To go up there with the achy-breaky heart is not going to do any good. These politicians are in it for the money. If you are fighting mass incarceration, the people who are incarcerated are not in the statehouse. They are not in the parks. They are in the prisons. If you are going to fight for the people in prison, join them at the prison. The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike. And we need people to come to the prisons to let guys on the inside know they have outside support to shut the prison down. Once we take our labor back, prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
These striking prisoners are far more effective, and far more threatening to the corporate state, than the outside multitudes entranced and manipulated by the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Goon Show. Denied the right to employment, to vote and to public assistance because of felony convictions, denied the right to justice because they are poor, and denied a voice because they have been silenced by state censorship and a bankrupt media, these prisoners were some of the first to understand the totalitarian nature of the corporate state.
“We do not believe in the political process,” said Ray, who spoke from the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., and who is serving life without parole. “We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families.”
The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons. They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners. They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers.
Why pay workers outside the walls the minimum wage when you can pay workers behind walls only a couple of dollars a day? Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons? Why permit prison reform that would impede profits? Why not expand a system that reduces labor costs to slave wages?
“The beauty of a work stoppage is that the prison administrators have to bring in compensated labor,” Hasan told me last year when I visited him on death row in Ohio. “This is what happened in the Georgia prison system in 2010 when the prisoners held a work stoppage for six days. It cost the state a lot of money.”
Prisoners are the ideal workers in corporate America. They earn from 8 cents to about 44 cents an hour. In some states, such as Alabama, they earn nothing. They receive no Social Security, pensions or other benefits. They do not get paid overtime. They are prohibited from organizing or carrying out strikes. They always show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot complain about poor working conditions or safety hazards. If they protest their meager wages or working conditions they instantly lose their jobs and are placed in isolation cells. They live in an environment where they daily face the possibility of torture, beatings, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, racial profiling, rancid food, inadequate medical care, little or no heating and ventilation, and rape. In short, they are slaves.
The bondage that prisoners endure is, little by little, being imposed on us. The fight inside prison walls is our own. And the harsh repression inside prisons to halt the new strike mirrors the harsh repression that awaits us if we resist.
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, the minister of defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter), sent this message out of his Texas prison a few days ago:
Monday, September 5, 2016: Labor Day. Here at the William P. Clements Unit, a prison in remote Amarillo, Texas, the prisoners awoke to a late breakfast. A single PBJ sandwich, a small bowl of dry cereal, and no beverage.
This grossly inadequate meal, which is our common fare during institution-wide lockdowns, signaled that a weeks—or months—long lockdown was in effect. Hunger pangs set in almost immediately.
“Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons?”
Such lockdowns are routinely imposed twice yearly so guards can conduct a prison-wide search of each prisoner’s living area and property. But this was not a routine lockdown. For one, those lockdowns almost never occur during holidays (however minor). If a holiday is set to fall during the period of a scheduled lockdown, the lockdown is postponed until the day after the holiday. Secondly, those lockdowns happen exactly six months apart, almost to the day. The next one wasn’t due until mid-October, making this lockdown over a month ahead of schedule. Thirdly, for a couple months preceding this lockdown, officials had been rejecting a lot of mail and media on grounds that it contained information on or “advocating” “prison strikes,” “prison disruption,” or “work strikes.” During late August and early September I received a number of these rejections, including for letters from the editor of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, Comrades from the Houston, TX branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, and others.
Officials were also illegally opening and reading privileged legal and media mail outside my presence. They were obviously focused on discovering, scrutinizing, and blocking any information coming into the prison about the work stoppage/strike planned for prisons across the U.S. in protest of prison slave labor and perpetual abuses, which were set to begin on September 9, 2016—the 45th anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison, that exposed to the world the inhumanity and savage brutality that Amerika imposes on those it imprisons.
And here we find the clue to this untimely lockdown which officials here have been falsely portraying to us as just another routine lockdown.
The actual aim of this lockdown was/is to pre-empt the prisoners at this Unit from participating in the September 9th protest by confining everyone to their cells in advance of it, and well into the period during which it might last.
Johnson and other prison strike leaders see through the political theater and illusions that the corporate elites employ to mask Americans’ surrender of freedom. They are not fooled by the clever branding—including the presidency of a black man and possibly the presidency of a woman—used to cover over oppression.
“It does not matter if we have a black or white president.”
“To say that we have a black president does not say anything,” Melvin Ray said. “The politicians are the ones who orchestrated this system. They are either directly involved as businessmen—many are already millionaires or billionaires, or they are controlled by millionaires and billionaires. We are not blindsided by titles. We are looking at what is going on behind the scenes. We see a coordinated effort by the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and political action committees that see in prisons a business opportunity. Their goal is to increase [corporate] earnings. And once you look at it like this, it does not matter if we have a black or white president. That is why the policies have not changed. The laws, such as mandatory minimum [sentences], were put in place by big business so they would have access to cheap labor. The anti-terrorism laws were enacted to close the doors on the access to justice so people would be in prison longer. Big business finances campaigns. Big business writes the laws and legislation. And Obama takes money from these people. He is as vested in this system as they are.”
Items once provided to prisoners, such as shoes, extra blankets and toilet paper, now often must be bought from the prison commissary, run by corporations such as Keefe Supply Co. These commissaries are, in effect, company stores where prices are exorbitant and the buyers are hostage. Companies such as GTL force prisoners to pay phone rates five or six times higher than those on the outside. JPay, a money transfer service for prisoners, imposes fees as high as 25 percent. The incarcerated are increasingly being charged for electricity and room and board. This bleeds the prisoners and their families of the little income they possess. Those who run out of money are forced to take out prison loans to buy medications, cover legal and medical fees and purchase commissary items such as soap and deodorant. Debt peonage is as common among prisoners as it is among the wider public. And when prisoners are released they often owe the state thousands of dollars in debt they incurred while locked up. When they can’t pay it back they are tossed back into prison. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. This keeps the perpetual cycle of neoslavery lubricated.
“For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us,” Ray told me. “Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect. So they began calling us criminals. When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter. It means he or she is a nigger. It means they deserve what they get.”
Chris Hedges, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.
Roger’s note: Not to take anything away from the enormous tragedy in Orlando, mainstream news coverage exposes the ahistorical blindness of the chattering class. What happened in Orlando and what will continue to happen as long as the state sponsored United States terrorism goes unabated at home as well as abroad, goes beyond the culture of hate or the “radicalization” of Muslims.
The Wounded Knee massacre of Lakota at the Pine Ridge Reservation by U.S. soldiers of the 7th Calvary Regiment, December 29, 1980: “by the time it was over, more than 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300.” (Wikipedia)
Or do massacred “Indians” not count?
As the crocodile tears of Obama and his enablers in both political parties and the military industrial complex, evaporate into the air, so does the truth and lessons of American history. We are condemned thus to relive it; the chickens indeed are coming home to roost.
by BAR (Black Agenda Report) editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
The massacre in Orlando was not the largest mass killing in U.S. history, and the United States has been responsible for the massacre of millions around the planet. We should all be mindful of “the nexus between US foreign policy adventures that plunder and violate countries in search of natural resources and US domestic racist actions.” U.S. crimes against humanity stretch from My Lai to Ferguson.
“Historical records remind us that the murders in Orlando, unfortunately, do not constitute the largest domestic mass murders.”
The updated 2016 ROOTS historical chronicle finally got it right. Africans have resisted European/American terrorism from the moment it reared its ugly head to present day struggle against state sponsored police murders of African peoples. The current version of ROOTS reminds us that beheadings, lynchings, rapes, kidnappings, selling children, working and boiling people to death did not start with ISIL – these perverted and psychopathic practices constituted the building blocks of the American empire. The carnage in Orlando bleeds our hearts with the senseless murder of many innocent lives. Our rapacious thirst for lethal weapons spells future dooms. Yet, we march on desensitized to the violence and injustice in our nation and world.
We seem to be truly bewildered when blood flows on the streets of America. Often, some of these incidents of late, can contextually be linked to murderous US foreign policy adventures in the Middle East. Malcolm X would have noted that US foreign policies have resulted in “chickens coming home to roost.” The ability to contain violence in foreign theaters has become an unattainable goal for the Empire. Therefore, everyday citizens are now targets of combat. Whether the latest mass murderer is insane or not, what is clear is that US citizens must decide whether they will allow murder and plunder across the globe to continue in their names. And, perhaps, more importantly, whether they are prepared to accept the consequences. Certainly one does not want to wade into the quagmire of comparing tragedies but to completely ignore the validity of other massacres and the loss of other lives seems to compound the tragedy.
“Malcolm X would have noted that US foreign policies have resulted in ‘chickens coming home to roost.’”
The news media has framed the latest massacre in Orlando as the largest mass murder in US history. Some members of the media with a measure of intellectual integrity will add that the Orlando Massacre is the largest “post 911.” Regardless, human beings lost their lives and communities are in mourning. However, historical records remind us that the murders in Orlando, unfortunately, do not constitute the largest domestic mass murders. This narrative proposed by corporate media is in search of a public willing to digest a sanitized and less-than thoughtful version of history that conforms with the simplistic but dangerous notion of American exceptionalism. The truth is much less flattering. As we mourn the loss of young life in Florida, let us also mourn the massacre of thousands of young unarmed African men and women who lose their lives almost daily at the hands of police and entire Black communities struggling to escape the violence of white supremacy.
We must not forget the East St Louis Massacres of 1917 described as the worst race and labor violence in the 20th century with casualties ranging between 40 and 200 deaths.
In the spring of 1917, Blacks escaping from the terror of the South were arriving in St. Louis at the rate of 2,000 per week. White union workers were determined to stop Blacks from competing for job in the trades by refusing to allow Africans membership in trade unions. White corporate leaders, taking advantage of cheap and competitive labor viewed Africans as scab workers to stabilize and maintain low wages for whites. These two reactionary views of Black labor from the perspective of the white working class and white corporate interests formed the perfect storm that ignited the conditions that led to scores of Black deaths in the East St. Louis Massacre.
“The ability to contain violence in foreign theaters has become an unattainable goal for the Empire.”
Following a meeting on May 28th in which rumors spread that Blacks and whites were fraternizing, 3,000 white men marched into East St. Louis and attacked Black men and women. In a separate incident, white vigilantes burned entire sections of the city and shot inhabitants as they escaped the fire. In William Heaps 1970 book Target of Prejudice: The Negro, In Riot, USA 1765-1970, he notes: “members of the white community claimed that Southern Negros deserved a genuine lynching” and a number of African-Americans were lynched during the white terror attacks.
There was also the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre in which whites attacked one of the wealthiest African communities in the US. These vilgilantes over the course of 16 hours burned private property, including a Black hospital, and injured over 800 people. Instead of police arresting white rioters they detained and arrested over 6,000 black residents. 10,000 Africans were left homeless and 35 city blocks destroyed by fire. Officials reported that 39 Blacks were murdered but other estimates report between 55 to 300 people murdered.
All massacres are horrific, from Orlando, East St. Louis, My Lai, Vietnam, Wounded Knee to Oklahoma. The latest massacre, however ‘could’ provide an opportunity to understand the nexus between US foreign policy adventures that plunder and violate countries in search of natural resources and US domestic racist actions that trigger staggering incidence of murder and violence on a scale nearly unfathomable outside America.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated: No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha’s successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the Hands Up Coalition, DC.
Roger’s note: I find the Black Agenda Report website consistently one of the most penetrating and incisive, not only on questions of race and the Black movement, but also with an international perspective. Here we see once again (when will we/they ever learn?) how the sham quadrennial presidential election co-opts and swallows precious time and energy that should be dedicated to movement development and action. When all the shouting dies down, there will be a Hobson’s choice between Hillary Clinton, who will not be moved an inch to the left by Bernie Sanders from her war-mongering imperialist position, and either Bush Three or one of the other Republican psychopaths.
The #Black Lives Matter organization may believe that it is confronting, rather than collaborating with, the Democratic Party, by disrupting candidates’ speeches. However, the tactic inevitably leads to “either a direct or indirect, implicit endorsement of the more responsive candidate(s).” In the absence of radical #BLM demands, “all that is left are the petty reform promises that can be squeezed out of Democrats.” That’s not movement politics.
“If the emerging movement allows itself to be sucked into Democratic Party politics, it is doomed.”
A year after the police murder of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, an incipient mass movement struggles to congeal and define itself. The emergent movement is rooted in resistance to systemic state violence and repression in Black America, yet its trajectory wobbles under the push and pull of the contending forces that have been set in motion, and is further distorted by relentless pressures from a power structure that pursues simultaneous strategies of both cooptation and annihilation.
Physical annihilation is a constant threat to the “street” component of the movement, such as the young people of Ferguson whose defiance of the armed occupation inspired a national mobilization, and whose urban guerilla language resonates in all the inner cities of the nation. They are the cohort whose social existence has been shaped and defined by a mass Black incarceration regime inaugurated two generations ago as the national response to the Black movements of the Sixties. The clearly visible fact that many of the cops that occupied Ferguson during this week’s anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder were physically afraid – and that the “street” brothers and sisters were demonstrably not – is all the proof we need that Black youth in what we used to call the “ghetto” remain eager to confront their tormentors.
Physical annihilation, or a lifetime of social death through imprisonment, is also only a presidential executive order away for the “above ground” activists of the movement, whose comings, goings and communications are carefully tracked by the First Black President’s secret police, as reported byIntercept. The various components of what is collectively called the Black Lives Matter movement are on the domestic enemies list of Homeland Security, overseen by Jeh Johnson, a Black man, and the FBI, under the overall direction of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, a Black woman.
“Black youth in what we used to call the “ghetto” remain eager to confront their tormentors.”
Lynch, like her predecessor, Eric Holder, believes her race entitles her to play both Lord High Prosecutor and Black role model. Thus, as a Black “elder” and “credit to her race,” Lynch purports to have the moral authority to define what the movement should be doing to commemorate Michael Brown’s murder. “The weekend’s events were peaceful and promoted a message of reconciliation and healing,” she said – as if people should reconcile themselves to a system that kills a Black person roughly every day, has resulted in one out of every eight prison inmates in the world being an African American; a system that cannot possibly be healed. “But incidents of violence, such as we saw last night,” Lynch warns, switching to her Lord High Prosecutor persona, “are contrary to both that message, along with everything [we] have worked to achieve over the past year.”
What the Obama administration has spent the year trying to do, is co-opt the same activists they are building dossiers on, in preparation for possible future detention. There are clear limits, however, to the enticements that can be offered by an administration that, like all Democratic and Republican governments in the United States for the past 45 years, is totally committed to maintenance of the Mass Black Incarceration regime – albeit with some tinkering at the margins.
The greatest asset of the movement cooptation project is the Democratic Party, itself, an institution that thoroughly dominates Black politics at every level of community life. Not only are Black elected officials overwhelmingly Democrats, but virtually all of the established Black civic organizations – the NAACP, the National Urban League, most politically active Black churches, fraternities and sororities – act as annexes of the Democratic Party. Two generations after the disbanding of the Black grassroots movement and the independent politics that grew out of that movement, the Democratic Party permeates political discourse in Black America. And the Democratic Party is where progressive movements go to die.
“There are clear limits to the enticements that can be offered by an administration that is totally committed to maintenance of the Mass Black Incarceration regime.”
If the emerging movement allows itself to be sucked into Democratic Party politics, it is doomed. Yet, the #BlackLivesMatter organization, a structured group with a highly visible leadership and chapters in 26 cities, is now circling the event-horizon of the Democratic Black Hole. To the extent that it, and other movement organizations, have gotten money from labor unions, they are accepting Democratic Party cash, since organized labor in the U.S. is also an extension of – and a cash cow to – the Democrats. Indeed, labor union money in a presidential election year is far more dangerous to the independence of the movement than grants from outfits like the Ford Foundation. Labor wants measureable results for its dollars, and will make its money talk at the ballot box.
#BlackLivesMatter activists may convince themselves that they are confronting the ruling class electoral duopoly by disrupting presidential candidates’ speeches, but the tactic leads straight to cooptation. What is the purpose? If #BLM’s goal is to push the candidates to adopt better positions on criminal justice reform, what happens afterwards? The logic of the tactic leads to either a direct or indirect, implicit endorsement of the more responsive candidate(s). Otherwise, why should #BLM – or the candidates – go through the exercise?
Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor Martin OMalley, whose draconian street-sweeps resulted in the arrest of 750,000 people in one year – more than the total population of the city – submitted a full-blown criminal justice system proposal after being confronted by #BLM. Will it be graded? Is #BLM in the business of rating candidates? If so, then the group is inevitably acting as a Democratic Party lobby/constituency, and is wedded to certain electoral outcomes. At that point, it ceases being an independent movement, or an example of independent Black politics. It’s just another brand of Democrat.
If the goal is to pressure candidates to put forward “better” positions on criminal justice or other issues, then what #BLM is actually doing is nudging Democrats towards incremental reform. In the absence of radical #BLM demands, all that is left are the petty reform promises that can be squeezed out of Democrats. (None of this works with the Republican White Man’s Party.)
The #BLM tactic avoids formulation and aggressive agitation of core movement demands. But, a movement is defined by its demands – which is one reason that the current mobilization is best described as an “incipient” movement; a mobilization with great promise.
“Any sustained Black movement must, of necessity, be in opposition to the Democratic Party and its civic society annexes.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. denounced Democratic president and sometimes ally Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War, in 1967, and rejected even the appearance of collaboration with the ruling class duopoly. King understood that his job was to move masses of people towards their own empowerment, not to act as an interest group or lobby in the corridors of the system. (Malcolm X, and later, the Black Panther Party, would have pilloried King if he had.) Half a century later, the Democratic Party is full of Black officials, but, in light of their performance in office, this is more evidence of defeat than victory. Two months before Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, 80 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus – four out of five full-voting members – supported continued Pentagon transfers of military weapons and gear to local police departments, including the Black congressman representing Ferguson, William “Lacy” Clay.
The Democratic Party, like its Republican duopoly cousin, is a criminal enterprise, polluting the politics of Black America. Any sustained Black movement must, of necessity, be in opposition to the Democratic Party and its civic society annexes. They are the enemies, within, the people who have facilitated the mass Black incarceration regime for two generations. “Lacy” Clay and his CBC colleagues have killed thousands of Michael Browns.
People’s core demands ring out in every demonstration. When Black protesters shout, “Killer cops out of our neighborhood,” they aren’t referring to a couple of especially bad apples; they’re talking about the whole damn occupation army. That’s why the Black Is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations, which holds its national conference in Philadelphia,August 22 and 23, believes “Black Community Control of the Police” is a righteous, self-determinationist demand. Other groups may feel strongly about other demands, and that’s fine. Movements are lively places. But, a movement cannot congeal without core demands.
Roger’s note: I found this article to be particularly insightful with respect to the underlying and cynical political underpinnings in the rhetoric and strategy of the snake oil salesman who is the president of the United States.
Based as it is in the concept of “grace,” President Obama’s eulogy on June 26, 2015, for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the Emanuel AME Methodist Church, was framed to be moving . But at the same time it was crafted not to rock the ship of state by steering it safely through the troubled political waters of the controversial issues raised by the murders of the Reverend Pinckney and eight of his parishioners. Moving yet politically safe is the keynote of the eulogy.
In this respect the eulogy follows the rhetorical pattern of other speeches Obama has given in the past, most notably the 2008 Philadelphia speech on race. The pattern of these speeches is one in which Obama touches on key issues—poverty, race, gun violence, etc—and then does not propose concrete policy initiatives to deal with the issues, even as a way of educating the public on the specific route to justice we should be taking, no matter what the political obstacles. Instead, he offers us consolation and, of course, his trademark “hope.” That is, he sentimentalizes the issues: “…an open heart,” the president tells us at the end of the eulogy, “That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think.” So while earlier in the speech he insists that “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again,” the eulogy, devoid of any policy recommendations to follow, is no more than a symbolic gesture.
In the case of the murders at Emanuel, the president offers us the consolation and hope of “grace,” which he tells us “according to the Christian tradition [cannot be] earned.” In point of fact, the president is wrong here. It is only a segment of the Christian tradition, the Protestant tradition, in which grace cannot be earned. For the 76.7 million Catholics in the U.S. (a significant number of whom are Black) grace must be earned, through penance. And Catholics, of course, are the first Christians. How significantly different would the eulogy have been had Obama pursued this avenue to grace? For, indeed, there is much actual penance in the form of restorative justice that the United States needs to do.
We should have no doubts that the killings of the Reverend Pinckney and the eight parishioners of the Emanuel AME Methodist Church on June 17, 2015, are part of the ongoing history of lynching of Black people in the U.S. In the present, these wanton killings of Black adults and children have most often been carried out by the police acting in the name of the law: Amadou Diallo, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Brown, Tarika Wilson, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, to name but a few. But they have also been carried out by white vigilantes as in the present case, where Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were lynched alongside Clementa Pinckney. Recently as well, there have been others: James Byrd, Jr., tied to a pickup truck and dragged to death in Texas in 1998 by white racists, comes to mind; and, preceding the recent murders by police in several U.S. cities and by Dylann Roof in Charleston, the lynching of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, stands out. But these few names only represent the multitude of Black lynchings, past and present.
Yet I have not heard any official or mainstream media commentary refer to the AME murders, or any of the killings I’ve referenced, as part of an ongoing history of “lynching?” Nor, while mentioning the history of racial violence in the most general terms, did the president reflect on this specific history in his eulogy. Why not? The reason would seem to be that the U.S. is continually in denial of its own continuing violent history, a denial that acknowledges this history but very generally, almost abstractly, distancing it from us as a way of not coming to grips with it in the present, a denial that works against real reform.
In his eulogy, President Obama referred to slavery as “our original sin.” An implicit effect of Obama’s equating the national “original sin” with slavery is that it reinforces the classic black/white binary. While this binary serves to emphasize a key strain of U.S. history, it simultaneously serves to erase other key components of a continuing history of imperial and colonial violence. In fact, our original sin was not slavery but Native American genocide and the theft of Native land. This genocidal theft was the very ground of slavery, both literally and figuratively. But the U.S. does not want or cannot afford to admit that it is a settler colony.
In addition to Native genocide and continued colonialism in Indian country under the regime of federal Indian law, in addition to the legacy of slavery and the fact that 150 years after the Civil War Blacks along with Native Americans remain at the bottom of the economic ladder, the U. S. has continued to deny, under the myth of American exceptionalism, which informs all the president’s speeches, its colonial-imperial past and present in Latin America and the Middle East. If we are going to speak in religious terms, as the president chose to do in Charleston, the U.S. has a multitude of “sins” for which to atone both at home and abroad, where it continues to violate international law with undeclared drone warfare that is killing civilians like those who were murdered in church in Charleston.
Perhaps, then, if we followed the Catholic Christian tradition, in which there is also a strong tradition of action for social justice, we might do “penance,” and thereby earn our grace, by fighting for actual policy initiatives: gun control, reparations in the form of economic development for the official theft of labor and land owed the Black and Native communities, the end of deportations for undocumented workers, a living wage, permanent voting rights, equal pay for women, and total LGBTI equality under the Constitution. The implementation of such policies, indeed placing them at the top of the national political agenda, would go a long way to ending the psychological and social conditions that continue to foster lynching in the U.S, conditions that devalue not only Black lives but the lives of other marginalized people of all races, ethnicities, and sexual identities.
This tradition of action for social justice is also a part of the tradition of the Black Protestant Church, which the president references in the eulogy. In that Church this tradition is represented not only by Clementa Pinckney but by such ministers as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whom presidential candidate Obama jettisoned in his Philadelphia speech by taking out of context Wright’s just criticism of the United States’ history of violence at home and abroad; that is, by erasing Wright’s taking exception with American exceptionalism.
In the eulogy, Obama develops his meditation on grace by first noting , with admiration bordering on awe, that the families of the fallen forgave the killer at his arraignment hearing: “The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.”
In contrast to Obama’s praise for this act of forgiveness, on the June 24, 2015, Michelangelo Signorile satellite radio show on Serius XM Progress, two days before Obama’s eulogy, Mark Thompson—Black activist, minister, and host of his own show Make It Plain on the same channel—commented skeptically on the time and place of this expression of forgiveness: “What I as a Christian minister can’t understand and what no other Christian minister I know can understand is how you announce forgiveness less than 48 hours after your loved ones have been taken out by Dylann Roof…. it is humanly impossible with all the stages of grief that have been codified and studied ad nauseam…to make that kind of statement credibly that soon.”
Moreover, Thompson pointed out, to make the statement of forgiveness at a “bond hearing” is particularly inappropriate “because that opens the door for legal maneuvering on the part of his counsel.” Thus for Thompson, and he is not alone in this, the time and place of this expression of forgiveness by the bereaved, not forgiveness itself, suggests that the event “was orchestrated, staged and choreographed” in order to suppress potential aggressive protests by the Black community of Charleston, of the kind that had just taken place in Ferguson and Baltimore over the police lynchings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (and Thompson made it plain in this interview that he understands these killings, along with those in Charleston and the others I have referenced, as part of the continuing history of lynching): “Nikki Haley,” Thompson remarks, “gets up there and says we’re not like Baltimore…which was insulting to the people of Baltimore, maybe you didn’t have that because people are still in shock, maybe you didn’t have that because you all choreographed, you made a phone call and said to some relatives you all need to come down to this bond hearing and say forgive this man,” though, Thompson notes, “I’m not saying I know that’s what happened but… we just really do not understand how that came to be, the timing of it, highly, highly, highly inappropriate….”
The timing, Thompson suggests, also served to present a comforting , indeed subservient, image of Black people to the nation: “It’s also part of the subjugation of our people…some people cannot feel comfortable in America unless we as Black people are always in this passive and submissive role….” The immediate expression of forgiveness by the families of those murdered at Emmanuel AME , then, is the perfect emotional antidote to the anger of the protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore and in fact to all the acts of Black resistance that are a crucial part of American history and of which the Emmanuel AME and the Black Church as a whole are a part. This act of forgiveness might remind some of us of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antebellum bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which presented a sentimental picture of a forgiving Christian Black populace in a U.S. caught up the in the antebellum violence of slavery and of Black and white abolitionist resistance to and rebellion against this “peculiar institution.”
This is exactly the comforting picture that Obama’s eulogy presents with its theme of forgiveness through unearned grace. At the end of the eulogy, Obama sang, in fine voice, quite movingly, Amazing Grace, and once again we might be reminded of the sentimental power of Stowe’s novel, even as we understand its hallucinatory vision of race relations in the United States.
Social critic Jon Stewart got to the heart of our continuing hallucination about the conjuncture of race and violence, when, a day after the Emanuel lynchings, he spoke about them on The Daily Show:
“I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack s—. Yeah. That’s us….And we’re going to keep pretending like, ‘I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.”
Obama’s eulogy does the hard work of denial by at once “acknowledging” the continuing U.S. history of racist violence against Blacks (though he is careful not to call this continuing violence by the name of “lynching”), by “staring into that and seeing it for what it is,” but in the same breath denying this history by sentimentalizing it and turning policy into morality, most pointedly in the moment when he speaks about gun violence:
“For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation…. The vast majority of Americans — the majority of gun owners — want to do something about this. We see that now. (Applause.) And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country — by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”
This is vintage Obama: the problem of gun violence is at once articulated and solved in a virtual reality where the “vast majority of Americans—the majority of gun owners, expressing “God’s grace” make “the moral choice to change.” No policy needed; the “something” that “the vast majority of Americans…want to do” about gun violence is not specified, precisely because there is no consensus on the issue. It follows that if one does not voice an actual policy on guns, there are no hard choices of the kind, for example, that Australia (another frontier colonial state) made in instituting rigorous gun laws in 1996 after a lone gunman, Martin Bryant, went on a shooting rampage that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded in Tasmania. Indeed, Obama has cited Australia’s response to this massacre favorably in the past. Here, however, within the scope of God’s grace, the U.S. can apparently have its political cake and eat it too “by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country.” We can, it appears, control guns without disturbing “the traditions and ways of life” of gun owners. This is magical thinking, which clearly ignores the NRA and its vast lobbying power.
If the audience hasn’t been moved by this sentimental appeal, and apparently it has been if the applause the appeal calls forth is any indication, then the president’s invocation of “this beloved country” functions rhetorically to conjure his imaginary consensus.
At worst, one might be tempted to think that Obama’s eulogy was cynical in its turn away from policy, that is, from the major political form of accountability, to a sentimentality that mimics the precipitous act of forgiveness of the bereaved in Charleston. As Mark Thompson points out such acts of forgiveness, if they are to come at all, typically come at the sentencing hearing after the trial has been concluded. But there has been no trial as yet, not simply of the killer but of the country from which the killer emerged, from us: no testimony, no rigorous analysis of the evidence, no accountability, no verdict, no punishment or “penance” if you will.
We can be certain that the killer will be put on trial and a verdict rendered in due time. But it is highly doubtful, given our powers of denial, that the country has the will to face its own day of judgment.
Eric Cheyfitz is Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University. He is the author of The Poetics of Imperialism.
Roger’s note: white middle class Americans cannot see anything at all legitimate in rioting and looting. The black mother who chased down and assaulted her teen age son on the streets of Baltimore became and instant hero with white America and a favorite with the mass media. The black middle and professional class also by and large eschews and condemns the kind of things that happen when anger gets “out of control.” What came to pass in Baltimore this week is nothing new. In my time there have been revolts in Watts (Los Angeles), Newark, Detroit, Miami, Cincinnati, New Orleans and probably a few that don’t come to mind at the moment. In context, I consider breaking into a store and running off with a television a genuine revolutionary act, regardless of the conscious mindset of the perpetrator at the moment. Well, this article says it better than I can.
Just let me add that there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the so-called rioting and looting in Baltimore brought about immediate charges against the police officers responsible for Freddy Grey’s death in a way that no peaceful protesting could have done. Am I advocating violence? Absolutely not. I am only underscoring the profound and inescapable wisdom of four simple words: “No Justice, No Peace.”
Television screens throughout the US, and around the world, have broadcast in recent days images of Baltimore in crisis: young people of color on the streets clashing with police, protesters marching peacefully shoulder to shoulder, and a relatively small number of city residents taking food, toiletries, and consumer goods from stores. Naturally, the forces of political reaction both in the media and society at large have attempted to isolate these incidents – ‘looting’ they call it – in order to demonstrate the purported savagery and lawlessness of people and communities of color.
“You see?” the racist narrative goes, “They have no respect for property or the law,” or some such variation on this theme. However, as should be expected, the political and media establishment demonstrate an incredible degree of hypocrisy in portraying the events in such a manner. For while in 2015 media outlets such as the allegedly center-left MSNBC and CNN, and the unabashedly right wing FOX News, propagate a shamelessly racist narrative of “thugs” and “criminals” on the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson, these same media outlets almost without exception worked hand in hand with the Bush administration to justify similar actions in Iraq. So too have the media been complicit in presenting biased narratives of US wars in places like Libya and Syria where the media parroted Washington’s talking points to justify and/or condemn whichever actions were politically expedient at the time.
Examining the issue further, the questions of power and “otherness” are also unavoidable. When the powerless and marginalized – those who are not deemed worthy by the establishment – engage in such actions, they are described as violent thugs. When the powerful engage in far worse actions, they are deemed righteous. Whether it is the looting of cultural artifacts by British and French imperialists in Africa, the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples by American settlers, or the wholesale plunder and exploitation of entire continents, such actions are somehow justified by their historical context and role in modern social and cultural formation.
From Baltimore to Baghdad
Were one to examine the events of the last week in Baltimore purely through the lens of the corporate media and political class, one would get the sense that the actions of a small minority of the black community constitute egregious and criminal acts of savagery and barbarism, acts that could have no possible justification. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking so, as even President Obama (you know, “the First Black President”) had nothing but words of condemnation and contempt. As Obama explained to the media:
There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive…When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson… A handful of people [are] taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.
Here Obama reveals not only an ignorance of the nature of these actions, but also a complete disregard for the systemic and institutionalized social and economic violence perpetrated against these communities for decades. While Obama waxes poetic about “property owners” being “stolen from” he has little to nothing to say about the fact that the people who live in those communities are almost entirely shut out from property ownership themselves; that the true owners are the real estate developers, speculators, financiers, and economic elites from the affluent communities. This is the class that perpetrates the true violence by exploiting the economic blight left by unequal wealth distribution, the elimination of employment opportunities, the breakdown of communities thanks to police violence, drug abuse, and countless other preventable phenomena that are the symptom, not the cause, of poverty and desperation. And make no mistake, it is poverty, desperation, and frustration that is transmogrified into violence.
But of course, Obama knows these things, he simply cannot address them as they are the fruits of the financial and political elites he serves. Make no mistake: the establishment understands perfectly the phenomenon of looting. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US war on Iraq:
While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures … (who wouldn’t) accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.
Reading such a statement devoid of context, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was made by activists in Baltimore, and not the Secretary of Defense in justification for the illegal war he and his cronies had just waged in Iraq. Do communities of color not have pent-up feelings resulting from decades of repression? Have not countless members of those communities had members of their families killed by the “Law and Order” regime that acts as an occupying force on their streets?
In its landmark report, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement concluded through extensive research that a Black person is killed extra-judicially every 28 hours by law enforcement or quasi-law enforcement. Such brutal repression would certainly qualify as eliciting pent-up feelings of anger. And yet, Black youth in Baltimore are nothing but criminals according to Obama, the corporate media, and White America. Is it because of the objective value of their actions? Or is it because the sort of repression that they experience every day simply does not count because, rather than serving to legitimize the political and economic agenda of the ruling class, it challenges it, exposing it as fundamentally racist?
Indeed, it is power, not objective reality, which determines what is and is not acceptable violence. To take by force in Baghdad in 2003 is liberating and justified; to take by force in Baltimore in 2015 is violent “thuggery” and unjustifiable. The relation of any group to the agenda of power is the only determinant of righteousness and sin according to the morality of the Empire.
Hypocrisy: America’s Top Export
Sadly it is no surprise that the corporate media would spin a narrative of mindless violence and race riots, barbarism and chaos. The media exists not to inform, but to reflect the values and objectives of the forces that own and control it. It is interesting though to compare the portrayal of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson with other violent actions around the world.
When the US and its NATO allies were bombing in support of Al-Qaeda terrorists – affectionately referred to as rebels and freedom fighters – in Libya, there was little mention of the brutal trail of violence and bloodshed they left in their wake. The brutal lynchings and ethnic cleansing of black Libyans, and anyone else who opposed the foreign-backed aggression, was almost completely suppressed from the media narrative of the neat and tidy “war for democracy and freedom.” Such violence served Washington’s interests, therefore it was deemed to be unworthy of reportage.
Similarly in Syria, the US and its NATO-GCC-Turkey-Israel allies have been arming and financing terrorist forces infiltrating the country to wage war against the legitimate government. These terrorists have directly caused the deaths of tens of thousands (if not more) of innocent Syrians, to say nothing of the refugees and internally displaced whose lives have been forever shattered by the US-backed war on their country. However, this extreme violence is somehow acceptable in the service of the war against a “brutal regime” which, conveniently enough, presents a political obstacle to the Empire.
In Gaza however, a people living under a vicious and illegal occupation and inhuman siege are denied even the right to resist by the US and Israel. The Palestinians are portrayed as barbaric terrorists whose inhumanity is manifested by their each and every action. Never mind the fact that they have been robbed of their basic rights, had their homes destroyed, and their land stolen. Never mind the fact that their economy is suppressed by a military occupation, their employment opportunities almost non-existent, and their children made to live as second class citizens, racial inferiors to the Israeli settlers. Objectively speaking, a Palestinian is in many ways in a similar socio-economic position to many Black Americans in the poorest communities of color.
One could point to countless other examples, from the demonization of rebels in Eastern Ukraine fighting against a US-backed fascist-oligarch government that calls them “terrorists,” to the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, to the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia – all groups that have been crudely characterized as violent thugs because of their opposition to Washington’s favored groups. Conversely, the death squads of Central America, mujahideen of Afghanistan, Chechen extremists, and countless other terror groups, they are kindly referred to as “freedom fighters,” primarily because they fight for the freedom of the Empire to continue to make war and dictate the fate of peoples and nations.
It is power – political, economic, military – that draws the line between good and bad violence, between rebels and terrorists. It is the establishment that wields the power that determines when a rebellion in Baltimore is a violent riot, and when “taking” becomes “looting.” But of course, we’re not forced to accept these crude, bigoted, racist generalizations as truths to be held self-evident. We know what we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, just as what we see in Gaza, is not simply violence…it is resistance!
Eric Draitser is the founder of StopImperialism.org. He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roger’s note: this is another in my series of western”heroes” who benefit from the dictum that the victors write history. We have had Winston Churchill, virulent and murderous racist and incinerator of the denizens of Dresden, and forthcoming is our own anti-Semitic General Patton. Here we have the Father of the Country, slave holder and chaser (and his charming wife Martha), he of cherry tree fame (a grade school student when asked why Washington’s father didn’t punish him after he had confessed, speculated it was probably because George still held the axe).
AMID the car and mattress sales that serve as markers for Presidents’ Day, Black History Month reminds Americans to focus on our common history. In 1926, the African-American historian Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro History Week as a commemoration built around the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Now February serves as a point of collision between presidential celebration and marginalized black history.
While Lincoln’s role in ending slavery is understood to have been more nuanced than his reputation as the great emancipator would suggest, it has taken longer for us to replace stories about cherry trees and false teeth with narratives about George Washington’s slaveholding.
When he was 11 years old, Washington inherited 10 slaves from his father’s estate. He continued to acquire slaves — some through the death of family members and others through direct purchase. Washington’s cache of enslaved people peaked in 1759 when he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. His new wife brought more than 80 slaves to the estate at Mount Vernon. On the eve of the American Revolution, nearly 150 souls were counted as part of the property there.
In 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States, a planter president who used and sanctioned black slavery. Washington needed slave labor to maintain his wealth, his lifestyle and his reputation. As he aged, Washington flirted with attempts to extricate himself from the murderous institution — “to get quit of Negroes,” as he famously wrote in 1778. But he never did.
During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.
The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.
Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”
The president went on to support policies that would protect slave owners who had invested money in black lives. In 1793, Washington signed the first fugitive slave law, which allowed fugitives to be seized in any state, tried and returned to their owners. Anyone who harbored or assisted a fugitive faced a $500 penalty and possible imprisonment.
Washington almost made it through his two terms in office without a major incident involving his slave ownership. On a spring evening in May of 1796, though, Ona Judge, the Washingtons’ 22-year-old slave woman, slipped away from the president’s house in Philadelphia. At 15, she had joined the Washingtons on their tour of Northern living. She was among a small cohort of nine slaves who lived with the president and his family in Philadelphia. Judge was Martha Washington’s first attendant; she took care of Mrs. Washington’s personal needs.
What prompted Judge’s decision to bolt was Martha Washington’s plan to give Judge away as a wedding gift to her granddaughter. Judge fled Philadelphia for Portsmouth, N.H., a city with 360 free black people, and virtually no slaves. Within a few months of her arrival, Judge married Jack Staines, a free black sailor, with whom she had three children. Judge and her offspring were vulnerable to slave catchers. They lived as free people, but legally belonged to Martha Washington.
Washington and his agents pursued Judge for three years, dispatching friends, officials and relatives to find and recapture her. Twelve weeks before his death, Washington was still actively pursuing her, but with the help of close allies, Judge managed to elude his slave-catching grasp.
George Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799. At the time of his death, 318 enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon and fewer than half of them belonged to the former president. Washington’s will called for the emancipation of his slaves following the death of his wife. He completed in death what he had been unwilling to do while living, an act made easier because he had no biological children expecting an inheritance. Martha Washington lived until 1802 and upon her death all of her human property went to her inheritors. She emancipated no one.
When asked by a reporter if she had regrets about leaving the Washingtons, Judge responded, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.” Ona Judge died on Feb. 25, 1848. She has earned a salute during the month of February.
Roger’s note: this article ran, in a sense (at least to my mind), side by side with this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/sunday-review/surviving-the-nazis-only-to-be-jailed-by-america.html?_r=0) in the same online edition of the New York Times the other day. An uncanny juxtaposition. The heartless racism — buttressed by capitalism’s inherent inequality — that infects America, which has its roots in the First Nations genocide and the African slave trade, is not a matter of the past, as we see here. You can talk about practical politics all you want, but sending children back “home” to be violated and tortured constitutes a moral and ethical crime of the highest nature. President Obama and his heartless Homeland Security (sic) bureaucrats have deported more refugee claimants than his immediate predecessors.
The back story to all this, of course, is that the corruption and violence in the Mexican and Central American nations from which masses are trying to escape to the United States is a direct result of the US government’s policies.
Christina Brown pulled into the refugee camp after an eight-hour drive across the desert. It was late July of last year, and Brown was a 30-year-old immigration lawyer. She had spent a few years after college working on political campaigns, but her law degree was barely a year old, and she had only two clients in her private practice in Denver. When other lawyers told her that the federal government was opening a massive detention center for immigrants in southeastern New Mexico, where hundreds of women and children would be housed in metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire, Brown decided to volunteer legal services to the detainees. She wasn’t sure exactly what rights they might have, but she wanted to make sure they got them. She packed enough clothes to last a week, stopped by Target to pick up coloring books and toys and started driving south.
As she pulled into the dusty town of Artesia, she realized that she still had no idea what to expect. The new detention center was just north of town, behind a guard station in a sprawling complex with restricted access. Two other volunteers had been in town for about a week and had permission from federal officials to access the compound the following day.Brown spent the night at a motel, then drove to the detention camp in the morning. She stood in the wind-swept parking lot with the other lawyers, overlooking the barren plains of the eastern plateau. After a few minutes, a transport van emerged from the facility to pick them up. It swung to a stop in the parking lot, and the attorneys filed on. They sat on the cold metal benches and stared through the caged windows as the bus rolled back into the compound and across the bleak brown landscape. It came to a stop by a small trailer, and the lawyers shuffled out.
As they opened the door to the trailer, Brown felt a blast of cold air. The front room was empty except for two small desks arranged near the center. A door in the back opened to reveal dozens of young women and children huddled together. Many were gaunt and malnourished, with dark circles under their eyes. “The kids were really sick,” Brown told me later. “A lot of the moms were holding them in their arms, even the older kids — holding them like babies, and they’re screaming and crying, and some of them are lying there listlessly.”
Brown took a seat at a desk, and a guard brought a woman to meet her. Brown asked the woman in Spanish how she ended up in detention. The woman explained that she had to escape from her home in El Salvador when gangs targeted her family. “Her husband had just been murdered, and she and her kids found his body,” Brown recalls. “After he was murdered, the gang started coming after her and threatening to kill her.” Brown agreed to help the woman apply for political asylum in the United States, explaining that it might be possible to pay a small bond and then live with friends or relatives while she waited for an asylum hearing. When the woman returned to the back room, Brown met with another, who was fleeing gangs in Guatemala. Then she met another young woman, who fled violence in Honduras. “They were all just breaking down,” Brown said. “They were telling us that they were afraid to go home. They were crying, saying they were scared for themselves and their children. It was a constant refrain: ‘I’ll die if I go back.’ ”
As Brown emerged from the trailer that evening, she already knew it would be difficult to leave at the end of the week. The women she met were just a fraction of those inside the camp, and the government was making plans to open a second facility of nearly the same size in Karnes County, Tex., near San Antonio. “I remember thinking to myself that this was an impossible situation,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and sad and angry. I think the anger is what kept me going.”
Over the past six years, President Obama has tried to make children the centerpiece of his efforts to put a gentler face on U.S. immigration policy. Even as his administration has deported a record number of unauthorized immigrants, surpassing two million deportations last year, it has pushed for greater leniency toward undocumented children. After trying and failing to pass the Dream Act legislation, which would offer a path to permanent residency for immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, the president announced an executive action in 2012 to block their deportation. Last November, Obama added an executive order to extend those protections to their parents. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he said in a speech on Nov. 20. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” But the president’s new policies apply only to immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years; they do nothing to address the emerging crisis on the border today.
Since the economic collapse of 2008, the number of undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico has plunged, while a surge of violence in Central America has brought a wave of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. According to recent statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the number of refugees fleeing Central America has doubled in the past year alone — with more than 61,000 “family units” crossing the U.S. border, as well as 51,000 unaccompanied children. For the first time, more people are coming to the United States from those countries than from Mexico, and they are coming not just for opportunity but for survival.
The explosion of violence in Central America is often described in the language of war, cartels, extortion and gangs, but none of these capture the chaos overwhelming the region. Four of the five highest murder rates in the world are in Central American nations. The collapse of these countries is among the greatest humanitarian disasters of our time. While criminal organizations like the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha exist as street gangs in the United States, in large parts of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador they are so powerful and pervasive that they have supplanted the government altogether. People who run afoul of these gangs — which routinely demand money on threat of death and sometimes kidnap young boys to serve as soldiers and young girls as sexual slaves — may have no recourse to the law and no better option than to flee.
The American immigration system defines a special pathway for refugees. To qualify, most applicants must present themselves to federal authorities, pass a “credible fear interview” to demonstrate a possible basis for asylum and proceed through a “merits hearing” before an immigration judge. Traditionally, those who have completed the first two stages are permitted to live with family and friends in the United States while they await their final hearing, which can be months or years later. If authorities believe an applicant may not appear for that court date, they can require a bond payment as guarantee or place the refugee in a monitoring system that may include a tracking bracelet. In the most extreme cases, a judge may deny bond and keep the refugee in a detention facility until the merits hearing.
The rules are somewhat different when children are involved. Under the terms of a 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Meese, children who enter the country without their parents must be granted a “general policy favoring release” to the custody of relatives or a foster program. When there is cause to detain a child, he or she must be housed in the least restrictive environment possible, kept away from unrelated adults and provided access to medical care, exercise and adequate education. Whether these protections apply to children traveling with their parents has been a matter of dispute. The Flores settlement refers to “all minors who are detained” by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its “agents, employees, contractors and/or successors in office.” When the I.N.S. dissolved into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, its detention program shifted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Federal judges have ruled that ICE is required to honor the Flores protections to all children in its custody.
Even so, in 2005, the administration of George W. Bush decided to deny the Flores protections to refugee children traveling with their parents. Instead of a “general policy favoring release,” the administration began to incarcerate hundreds of those families for months at a time. To house them, officials opened the T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center near Austin, Tex. Within a year, the administration faced a lawsuit over the facility’s conditions. Legal filings describe young children forced to wear prison jumpsuits, to live in dormitory housing, to use toilets exposed to public view and to sleep with the lights on, even while being denied access to appropriate schooling. In a pretrial hearing, a federal judge in Texas blasted the administration for denying these children the protections of the Flores settlement. “The court finds it inexplicable that defendants have spent untold amounts of time, effort and taxpayer dollars to establish the Hutto family-detention program, knowing all the while that Flores is still in effect,” the judge wrote. The Bush administration settled the suit with a promise to improve the conditions at Hutto but continued to deny that children in the family detention were entitled to the Flores protections.
In 2009, the Obama administration reversed course, abolishing family detention at Hutto and leaving only a small facility in Pennsylvania to house refugee families in exceptional circumstances. For all other refugee families, the administration returned to a policy of release to await trial. Studies have shown that nearly all detainees who are released from custody with some form of monitoring will appear for their court date. But when the number of refugees from Central America spiked last summer, the administration abruptly announced plans to resume family detention.
From the beginning, officials were clear that the purpose of the new facility in Artesia was not so much to review asylum petitions as to process deportation orders. “We have already added resources to expedite the removal, without a hearing before an immigration judge, of adults who come from these three countries without children,” the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, told a Senate committee in July. “Then there are adults who brought their children with them. Again, our message to this group is simple: We will send you back.” Elected officials in Artesia say that Johnson made a similar pledge during a visit to the detention camp in July. “He said, ‘As soon as we get them, we’ll ship them back,’ ” a city councilor from Artesia named Jose Luis Aguilar recalled. The mayor of the city, Phillip Burch, added, “His comment to us was that this would be a ‘rapid deportation process.’ Those were his exact words.”
During the first five weeks that the Artesia facility was open, officials deported more than 200 refugees to Central America. But as word of the detention camp began to spread, volunteers like Christina Brown trickled into town. Their goal was to stop the deportations, schedule asylum hearings for the detainees and, whenever possible, release the women and children on bond. Many of the lawyers who came to Artesia were young mothers, and they saw in the detained children a resemblance to their own. By last fall, roughly 200 volunteers were rotating through town in shifts: renting rooms in local motels, working 12-hour days to interview detainees and file asylum paperwork, then staying awake into the night to consult one another. Some volunteers returned to Artesia multiple times. A few spent more than a month there. Brown never moved back to Denver. She moved into a little yellow house by the detention facility, took up office space in a local church and, with help from a nonprofit group called the American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, she began to organize the volunteers pouring in.
As Brown got to know detainees in Artesia, grim patterns emerged from their stories. One was the constant threat of gangs in their lives; another was the prevalence of sexual violence. A detainee in Artesia named Sofia explained that a gang murdered her brother, shot her husband and then kidnapped and raped her 14-year-old stepdaughter. A Guatemalan woman named Kira said that she fled when a gang targeted her family over their involvement in a nonviolence movement at church; when Kira’s husband went into hiding, the gang subjected her to repeated sexual assaults and threatened to cut her unborn baby from her womb. An inmate named Marisol said she crossed the U.S. border in June after a gang in Honduras murdered the father of her 3-year-old twins, then turned its attention to her.
Less than a week after her arrival in Artesia, Brown represented the young Salvadoran mother she met on her first day. It was a preliminary hearing to see whether the woman met the basic preconditions for asylum. A frequent consideration in the refugee process is whether an applicant is being targeted as a member of a “particular social group.” Judges have interpreted the phrase to include a refugee’s victimhood on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. At the hearing, Brown planned to invoke the pervasiveness of gang violence and sexual assault, but she says the immigration judge refused to let her speak.
“I wasn’t allowed to play any role,” Brown said. Speaking to the judge, her client described her husband’s murder and the threats she faced from gangs. “She testified very well,” Brown said. But when the judge asked whether she felt targeted as a member of a “social group,” the woman said no. “Because that is a legal term of art,” Brown said. “She had no idea what the heck it means.” Brown tried to interject, but the judge wouldn’t allow it. He denied the woman’s request for an asylum hearing and slated her for deportation. Afterward, Brown said, “I went behind one of the cubicles, and I started sobbing uncontrollably.”
Detainees who passed their initial hearings often found themselves stranded in Artesia without bond. Lawyers for Homeland Security have adopted a policy they call “no bond or high bond” for the women and children in detention. In court filings, they insist that prolonged detention is necessary to “further screen the detainees and have a better chance of identifying any that present threats to our public safety and national security.” Allowing these young mothers and children to be free on bond, they claim, “would have indirect yet significant adverse national-security consequences.”
As the months ticked by in Artesia, many detainees began to wonder if they would ever be free again. “I arrived on July 5 and turned myself in at 2 a.m.,” a 28-year-old mother of two named Ana recalled. In Honduras, Ana ran a small business selling trinkets and served on the P.T.A. of her daughter’s school. “I lived well,” she said — until the gangs began to pound on her door, demanding extortion payments. Within days, they had escalated their threats, approaching Ana brazenly on the street. “One day, coming home from my daughter’s school, they walked up to me and put a gun to my head,” she said. “They told me that if I didn’t give them the money in less than 24 hours, they would kill me.” Ana had already seen friends raped and murdered by the gang, so she packed her belongings that night and began the 1,800-mile journey to the U.S. border with her 7-year-old daughter. Four weeks later, in McAllen, Tex., they surrendered as refugees.
Ana and her daughter entered Artesia in mid-July. In October they were still there. Ana’s daughter was sick and losing weight rapidly under the strain of incarceration. Their lawyer, a leader in Chicago’s Mormon Church named Rebecca van Uitert, said that Ana’s daughter became so weak and emaciated that doctors threatened drastic measures. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to force her to eat, and if you don’t, we’re going to put a PICC line in her and force-feed her,’ ” van Uitert said. Ana said that when her daughter heard the doctor say this, “She started to cry and cry.”
In October, as van Uitert presented Ana’s case to an immigration judge, the lawyer broke down in the courtroom. “I’m starting to make these arguments before the judge, and I just couldn’t,” she said. “I sounded like a barking seal, just sucking and gasping, and because I was crying, a lot of people started crying. The attorney next to me was crying, Ana was crying, her little girl started crying. I looked over at the bailiff, who actually ended up being my friend when I went back another time. He had tears in his eyes.” The judge granted Ana’s release on bond; she is currently waiting for an asylum hearing in North Carolina.
Many of the volunteers in Artesia tell similar stories about the misery of life in the facility. “I thought I was pretty tough,” said Allegra Love, who spent the previous summer working on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. “I mean, I had seen kids in all manner of suffering, but this was a really different thing. It’s a jail, and the women and children are being led around by guards. There’s this look that the kids have in their eyes. This lackadaisical look. They’re just sitting there, staring off, and they’re wasting away. That was what shocked me most.”
The detainees reported sleeping eight to a room, in violation of the Flores settlement, with little exercise or stimulation for the children. Many were under the age of 6 and had been raised on a diet of tortillas, rice and chicken bits. In Artesia, the institutional cafeteria foods were as unfamiliar as the penal atmosphere, and to their parents’ horror, many of the children refused to eat. “Gaunt kids, moms crying, they’re losing hair, up all night,” an attorney named Maria Andrade recalled. Another, Lisa Johnson-Firth, said: “I saw children who were malnourished and were not adapting. One 7-year-old just lay in his mother’s arms while she bottle-fed him.” Mary O’Leary, who made three trips to Artesia last fall, said: “I was trying to talk to one client about her case, and just a few feet away at another table there was this lady with a toddler between 2 and 4 years old, just lying limp. This was a sick kid, and just with this horrible racking cough.”
In early August, a paralegal from Oregon named Vanessa Sischo arrived at the camp. Raised in a small town near Mount Hood, Sischo did not realize until high school that her parents brought her into the United States from Mexico as an infant without documentation. She gained protection from deportation under the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. When Sischo learned that children arriving from Central America were being incarcerated in Artesia, she volunteered immediately. She arrived a week after Christina Brown, and like Brown, she stayed. After about a month, AILA and another nonprofit, the American Immigration Council, hired Brown as the pro bono project’s lead attorney. Brown recommended Sischo for the job of project coordinator. The two women began rooming together in the small yellow house near Main Street.
Brown and Sischo make an unlikely pair. Brown, who has a sturdy build and dark brown hair, has an inborn skepticism and a piercing wit. Sischo is six years younger and preternaturally easygoing. Until she discovered her own immigration background, she had little interest in political affairs and spent much of her time in Oregon as a competitive snowboarder. For both, Artesia was a jarring shift from life at home. As they sat together one evening in December, they described a typical week. “The new volunteers come in on Sunday, go through orientation, and by Wednesday night, everyone is crying,” Brown said. “A lot of the attorneys come in and say: ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve seen all of this before. I’ll be fine.’ ”
“I remember the first time I went in,” Sischo said. “I just stopped, and all I could hear was a symphony of coughing and sneezing and crying and wailing.”
“Kids vomiting all over the place,” Brown said.
“There was a big outbreak of fevers,” Sischo said. “It sent an infant into convulsions.”
“Pneumonia, scabies, lice,” Brown said.
Officials for ICE say these accounts are exaggerated. But they declined multiple requests to visit the Artesia facility and took weeks to answer questions about its facilities. Brown, who oversaw more than 500 detainee cases as lead attorney, was also unable to gain access to the camp’s housing, dining, medical and educational facilities. “I requested three times to be taken on a tour,” she said. “I sent it through the appropriate channels. No one ever responded, to date, to my request.”
Visitors who did gain access to the facility have raised troubling questions about the ethics — and legality — of how it handled children. The Flores settlement requires the government to provide regular schooling for juveniles in detention, but the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, said that on several visits to the compound, the classrooms were always empty. “I was told that children were attending classes,” he recalled. “Did I personally witness it? No. And none of the tours that I made did I see the children actually in class.” Members of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, who toured the facility in October, say that officials also showed them the empty school. When one member asked why the building was empty, an ICE official replied that school was temporarily closed. Detainees have consistently told their lawyers that the school was never reliably open. They recall a few weeks in October when classes were in session for an hour or two per day, then several weeks of closure through November, followed by another brief period of classes in December.
In response to questions about the school, ICE officials would say only that “regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, and ended Dec. 17.” Asked whether the school was open consistently, and for how many hours, ICE officials declined to respond. The deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, Esther Olavarria, who has purview over ICE, said that she was aware “there were challenges” at the Artesia school, but couldn’t say exactly when it was open or for how long. Olavarria has a distinguished record as advocate for refugees and previously served as a top immigration adviser for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. She said that she was under the impression that attorneys in Artesia were granted access to the facility, and she could not explain why Brown was not. She also believed that the meal service in Artesia was adapted to reflect the dietary norms of Central America and that medical care was adequate and available. After hearing what detainees, attorneys, faith advocates and elected officials described in Artesia, Olavarria promised to look into these issues and provide further documentation. Despite several attempts to elicit that documentation, she provided none. In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said: “The regular school instruction began Oct. 13, 2014, but was suspended shortly thereafter in order to ensure appropriate vetting of all teachers.” Officials say that school resumed on Oct. 24 and continued through Dec. 17.
Attorneys for the Obama administration have argued in court, like the Bush administration previously, that the protections guaranteed by the Flores settlement do not apply to children in family detention. “The Flores settlement comes into play with unaccompanied minors,” a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security named Karen Donoso Stevens insisted to a judge on Aug. 4. “That argument is moot here, because the juvenile is detained — is accompanied and detained — with his mother.”
Federal judges have consistently rejected this position. Just as the judge reviewing family detention in 2007 called the denial of Flores protections “inexplicable,” the judge presiding over the Aug. 4 hearing issued a ruling in September that Homeland Security officials in Artesia must honor the Flores Settlement Agreement. “The language of the F.S.A. is unambiguous,” Judge Roxanne Hladylowycz wrote. “The F.S.A. was designed to create a nationwide policy for the detention of all minors, not only those who are unaccompanied.” Olavarria said she was not aware of that ruling and would not comment on whether the Department of Homeland Security believes that the Flores ruling applies to children in family detention today.
As the pro bono project in Artesia continued into fall, its attorneys continued to win in court. By mid-November, more than 400 of the detained women and children were free on bond. Then on Nov. 20, the administration suddenly announced plans to transfer the Artesia detainees to the ICE detention camp in Karnes, Tex., where they would fall under a new immigration court district with a new slate of judges.
That announcement came at the very moment the president was delivering a live address on the new protections available to established immigrant families. In an email to notify Artesia volunteers about the transfer, an organizer for AILA named Stephen Manning wrote, “The disconnect from the compassionate-ish words of the president and his crushing policies toward these refugees is shocking.” Brown was listening to the speech in her car, while driving to Denver for a rare weekend at home, when her cellphone buzzed with the news that 20 of her clients would be transferred to Texas the next morning. Many of them were close to a bond release; in San Antonio, they might be detained for weeks or months longer. Brown pulled her car to the side of the highway and spent three hours arguing to delay the transfer. Over the next two weeks, officials moved forward with the plan.
By mid-December, most of the Artesia detainees were in Karnes, and Brown and Sischo were scrambling to pack the contents of their home and office. On the afternoon of Dec. 16, they threw their final bags into a U-Haul, its cargo area crammed with laundry baskets, suitcases, file boxes and hiking backpacks, all wedged precariously in place, then set out for the eight-hour drive across the desert to central Texas.
The next morning, a law professor named Barbara Hines was also speeding into San Antonio. Hines is a wiry woman in her 60s with a burst of black curls and an aspect of bristling intensity. In the battle over refugee detention, she is something of a seminal figure for advocates like Brown and Sischo. As co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas, Hines helped lead the 2007 lawsuit against the Hutto facility, which brought about its closure in 2009 and the abolition of widespread family detention until last summer. When the Obama administration announced plans to resume the practice in Artesia, Hines was outraged; when officials opened the second facility in Karnes, just two hours from her home in Austin, Hines began to organize a pro bono project of her own. Although she’d never met Brown or Sischo, she had been running a parallel operation for months. Now that they were in Texas, Hines was eager to meet them.
But first, she had a client to represent. Hines pulled into a parking lot behind the immigration court in downtown San Antonio and rushed inside, up a clattering elevator to the third floor and down a long hallway to a cramped courtroom. At the front, behind a vast wooden desk, sat Judge Glenn McPhaul, a tidy man with slicked hair and a pencil mustache. He presided from an elevated platform, with a clerk to his right, an interpreter to his left, and a large television monitor in the corner. On screen was the pale and grainy image of a dozen exhausted Central American women.
These were just a few of the Karnes detainees, linked by video feed to the courtroom. Another 500 women and children were in the compound with them. There was no legal distinction between their cases and those of the women in Artesia; they had simply been sent to a different facility, weeks or months earlier. Each of them, like the women in Artesia, had already been through the early stages of the asylum process — presenting herself to immigration authorities, asking for refugee status and passing the “credible-fear interview” to confirm a basis for her claim. But the odds of release in Karnes were worse. One of McPhaul’s colleagues, Judge Gary Burkholder, was averaging a 91.6 percent denial rate for the asylum claims. Some Karnes detainees had been in the facility for nearly six months and could remain there another six.
The sitting area of the courtroom was nearly empty, save for half a dozen attorneys. Many of the volunteers at Karnes are friends and former students of Hines, who has been drafting every licensed lawyer she can find. As she slid down the long bench to a seat, she nodded to some of the attorneys in the room and stopped to whisper with another. Then she spent a few minutes fidgeting with her phone until the clerk called her client’s name, and Hines sprang forward, slipping past the bar rail to a table facing the judge. On the television screen, her client, Juana, was stepping toward the camera at Karnes. She was a young woman with a narrow face and deep eyes. Her hair was pulled back to reveal high cheekbones and a somber expression.
McPhaul asked the stenographer to begin transcription, then he commenced with the ritualized exchange of detention proceedings, recording the names of the attorneys, the detainee and everyone on the bench. He noted the introduction of a series of legal documents and confirmed that Juana was still happy to be represented by Hines. There was a stream of legal jargon and a few perfunctory remarks about the status of the case, all of it in clipped judicial vernacular and a flat, indifferent tone. Then McPhaul set a date for the next hearing, at which Hines could begin to present an argument for Juana’s release on bond.
For now, Juana’s turn was over; the whole affair took less than 10 minutes, without any meaningful discussion of her case or its merits. As Hines stepped out of the courtroom, Juana was turning away from the camera to return to her children in Karnes. It was impossible to say how much of the hearing she understood, since none of the proceedings were translated into Spanish. The courtroom interpreter was there only to translate the judge’s questions and the detainees’ responses; everything else was said exclusively in English, including the outcome. For all that Juana knew, she might have been granted reprieve or confined for another six months.
Over the next two hours, the scene would repeat a dozen times. Each time McPhaul called a name, a new lawyer would step forward, taking a seat before the bench and proceeding through the verbal Kabuki. In a few cases, McPhaul offered the detainee the opportunity to post bond — usually around $3,000. But the courtroom interpreter was not allowed to convey this news to the detainee, either. If the pro bono attorney spoke Spanish fluently, there might be a few minutes at the end of the session to explain what happened. If not, the detainee would return to custody and might not discover that she had been granted bond until, or unless, someone paid it.
These, of course, were the lucky women with an attorney to represent them at all. Although the families in Artesia and Karnes have been detained in an environment that closely resembles incarceration, there is no requirement in American law to provide them with the sort of legal representation afforded to other defendants. Unlike the Artesia project, where the involvement of AILA brought in hundreds of volunteers from across the country, Hines could scrape together only so many friends and compatriots to lend their time. She formed a partnership with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or Raices, in San Antonio, and the law firm Akin Gump assigned a young lawyer named Lauren Connell to help organize the Karnes project. But there still weren’t enough lawyers to represent the detainees, and Hines and Connell were forced to evaluate which cases were most likely to win. The remaining refugees would proceed to court alone. They would understand little of what happened, and most would be deported.
It was difficult for Hines to think about what might happen to those women next. The refugees who are returned to Central America can be subject to even greater harassment by gangs for having fled. Hector Hernandez, a morgue operator in Honduras, has said that children who come back from U.S. detention “return just to die.” Jose Luis Aguilar, the city councilor for Artesia, recalled a group deportation on the day in July when Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the facility. “He came in the morning, and that same night, they took 79 people and shipped them to El Salvador on the ICE plane,” Aguilar said. “We got reports later that 10 kids had been killed. The church group confirmed that with four of the mortuaries where they went.”
Hines was hoping the attorneys from Artesia would help represent the women in Karnes, but she had no idea whether they would be willing to do so. This was her agenda for the first meeting with Christina Brown, which took place that afternoon in a sunlit conference room in the downtown offices of Akin Gump. Hines sat at the head of a long table, with Lauren Connell to her left and an attorney from Raices named Steven Walden to her right. After a few minutes, Brown appeared in the doorway. She was wearing the same green T-shirt and black leggings she had been wearing the day before in Artesia, and she smiled sheepishly, offering a handshake to Hines.
“I’m really sorry,” Brown said with a small laugh. “I want to let you know that I believe very strongly in first impressions — but I am living out of a U-Haul right now.”
Hines smiled sympathetically as they sat down. “So,” she said. “What are you all going to do here?”
Brown paused. “Well, we know we’re going to be continuing our cases,” she said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Hines said.
“And I’m working on cleaning up our spreadsheet and figuring out who’s here,” Brown said. “Many of our clients who were transferred here had already been granted bond.”
“Wait,” Connell said. “They transferred them here to have them bond out?”
Brown sighed. “Yes,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous,” Connell said.
“We’ve had numerous fights on this issue,” Brown said. “We’ve had family members go to pay, and they can’t because the client is already in transit to Karnes.”
Hines shook her head in disbelief.
“It’s been kind of a nightmare,” Brown said.
“Do you have people who have been detained more than 90 days?” Hines asked.
“Every one we’re going forward with on merits has been detained more than 90 days,” Brown said. “So I want to see how you all are moving forward, so I can see what resources are here for Artesia clients.”
Hines laughed. “We can barely staff our cases,” she said. “My hope was that people who were at Artesia, after they’re finished your cases, are going to help with ours.”
“If she says that enough, maybe it will come true,” Connell said.
Brown shook her head. “At the moment, I can commit to nothing,” she said. “Right now, I’m the only attorney, and there’s no guarantee that other volunteers are coming.”
Hines and Connell exchanged a look. Even if the Artesia lawyers could double or triple their workload, the number of detainees was about to overwhelm them regardless. The day before, officials in Karnes had approved a plan to expand the detention facility from about 500 beds to roughly 1,100. At the same time, two hours west of Karnes, in the little town of Dilley, the Department of Homeland Security was about to open another refugee camp for women and children. It would be the largest detention facility in the country, with up to 2,400 beds. If Hines and Brown had trouble finding lawyers to represent a few hundred women and children, there was little chance of generating support for more than 3,000.
After the meeting, Brown returned to her motel and spent the afternoon searching for an apartment, but the options were limited, and by late afternoon, she and Sischo still had nowhere to live. They decided to spend their first evening in Texas at a vegetarian restaurant downtown. As they settled into a booth at the back of the cafe, they talked about the situation they’d left behind in Artesia, where much of the town opposed the detention facility and the lawyers with equal measure. Town-hall meetings in Artesia became so heated that city officials asked the police to stand guard.
“For people there, it’s a resource issue,” Brown said. “They blame the immigrant community for coming in and being jailed, and for us having to educate their children, when they would like more resources put into their own schools.”
Sischo nodded. “That’s what a guy at the electronics store said: ‘Oh, you’re helping the illegals?’ That’s how they view it. I remember a sign that a protester was holding that was like, ‘What about our children?’ ”
“It’s a legitimate question,” Brown said. “They don’t have a lot of resources in that town, and they should have more.”
“I agree,” Sischo said. “We should not be spending resources on detaining these families. They should be released. But people don’t understand the law. They think they should be deported because they’re ‘illegals.’ So they’re missing a very big part of the story, which is that they aren’t breaking the law. They’re trying to go through the process that’s laid out in our laws.”
For Sischo, seeing the families struggle — families much like her own — was almost more than she could stand. On visits to her parents in Oregon, she struggled to maintain composure. “Every time I’ve gone home, I’ve just cried pretty much nonstop,” she said. “It’s grief and anger and hopelessness and confusion as to how this could happen and whether we’re making a difference.”
For Brown, by contrast, the same experiences seemed to have amplified her energy and commitment. “I haven’t had time to go home and cry yet,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a job at Dilley, because then I won’t have to process anything!” Brown laughed, but she acknowledged that some part of her was ready to commit to the nomadic life of a legal activist, parachuting into crises for a few months at a time. “That appeals to me,” she said. “It’s nice to be where people need you.”
As dinner came to an end, Brown and Sischo stepped outside into the night. They had parked the U-Haul in a nearby lot, and it had just been towed.
Over the next year, most of the families who are currently in detention will wend their way through the refugee system. Some will be released on bond to await their asylum hearing; others will remain in custody until their hearings are complete. Those without an attorney will most likely fail to articulate a reason for their claim in the appropriate jargon of the immigration courts and will be deported to face whatever horror they hoped to flee. Of the 15 families who have been shepherded through the process by the volunteer lawyers so far, 14 have received asylum — “Which should be all you need to know about the validity of their claims,” Brown said.
By late spring, the construction of the new facility at Dilley should be complete. It already represents a drastic departure from the refugee camp in Artesia. Managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country, the South Texas Family Residential Center has its own promotional website with promissory images of the spacious classrooms, libraries, play areas and lounges that will eventually be available to refugees in long-term detention. Architectural drawings for the site show eight distinct neighborhoods on the campus, with dormitory housing, outdoor pavilions, a chapel and several playgrounds. How much of this will ultimately materialize remains to be seen. Last week, C.C.A. listed job openings for child care workers, library aides and mailroom clerks at the site.
Esther Olavarria, the senior counselor for immigration issues at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that there had been shortcomings in Artesia but described the Dilley facility as a correction. “We stood up Artesia very, very quickly and did the best that we could under the circumstances,” Olavarria said. “As concerns were brought to our attention by advocates, we worked with them to try to address the concerns as quickly as possible.”
Many advocates have expressed concerns about the Dilley facility as well. Its management company, C.C.A., is the same firm that ran the Hutto detention center, and it has been at the center of other significant controversies in recent years. In 2006, federal investigators reported that conditions at a C.C.A. immigration jail in Eloy, Ariz., were so lacking that “detainee welfare is in jeopardy.” Last March, the F.B.I. started an investigation of C.C.A. over a facility the company ran in Idaho, known by inmates as the “Gladiator School” because of unchecked fighting; in 2010, a video surfaced of guards watching one inmate beat another into a coma. Two years ago, C.C.A. executives admitted to fraud in their government contracts at the prison, including 4,800 hours of falsified business records. The state has now taken control of the facility.
The management contract at Dilley was also created with unusual terms. In their hurry to open the new facility, officials for the Obama administration bypassed normal bidding procedures and established Dilley under an existing contract for the troubled C.C.A. jail in Eloy. Although the Dilley camp is nearly 1,000 miles away from Eloy, all federal funding for the new camp in Texas will flow through the small town in Arizona, which will keep $438,000 of the annual operating budget as compensation. Eloy city officials say they do not expect to monitor, or even visit, the Dilley facility.
Any new refugees who surrender this spring may spend more than a year in Dilley before their asylum hearings can be scheduled. Olavarria said that officials hope the process will move more quickly, but it will depend on the immigration courts in San Antonio, which fall under the Department of Justice. “From what I’ve heard from the Justice Department, generally it’s not taking 18 months,” Olavarria said. “We’re hearing that cases are being completed in a shorter time. But it’s a case-by-case situation that depends on the complexity, it depends on continuances that are provided to seek counsel, to prepare for cases, all those kinds of things.” The cost to house each detainee at Dilley is about $108,000 per year. A study funded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, of more than 500 detainees between 1997 and 2000, found that 93 percent will appear in court when placed in a monitoring program. The savings of such a program for the 2,400 detainees at Dilley would be about $250 million per year.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security say the facilities in Karnes and Dilley are still insufficient to house the detainees they expect to process in the coming year. “Last year, we saw 60,000 families come in,” Olavarria said. “We’re hoping we don’t see those kinds of numbers this year, but even if we see half, those two facilities would hold a fraction of those numbers.” Olavarria said the department was not yet considering additional facilities. “We are in the middle of a battle with the Congress on our funding, so there’s very little discussion about long-term planning,” she said.
For now, the Artesia facility is closed, its bunk beds and hallways empty. Brown and Sischo remain in Texas; they rescued their U-Haul from an impound lot and found an apartment soon thereafter. That same week, an email from the mayor of Artesia, Phillip Burch, was circulating among city residents. “The pro bono attorneys have left our community,” he wrote. “Hopefully not to return.”
Roger’s note: to my fellow white congenitally Eurocentric readers, this is what we look like from the outside.
January 15, 2015
The White Power Rally in Paris
by AJAMU BARAKA
“The “civilized” have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their “vital interests” are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death; these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the “sanctity” of human life, or the conscience of civilized world.
– James Baldwin
I have witnessed the spectacle of Eurocentric arrogance many times over my long years of struggle and resistance to colonial/capitalist domination and dehumanization. The grotesque, 21st Century version of the “white man’s burden,” which asserts that the international community (meaning the West) has a moral and legal “responsibility to protect,” is one current example; the generalized acceptance by many in the West that their governments have a right to wage permanent war against the global “others” to maintain international order is another.
Yet, when I think I have seen it all, along comes the response to the attack at the racist, Islamophobic publication Charlie Hebdo. Even though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am still left in complete wonderment at the West’s unmitigated self-centeredness and self-righteous arrogance.
The millions who turned out on Sunday claimed to be marching in solidarity with the victims at Charlie Hebdo and against terrorism. They were joined by political leaders from across Europe, Israel and other parts of the world – on the same weekend reports were emerging that 2,000 Nigerians may have lost their lives at the hands of Boko Haram, another Muslim extremist group.
Surely there would be expressions of solidarity with the survivors in Nigeria at a gathering ostensibly to oppose terrorism and uphold the sanctity of life. But the expressions of solidarity never came. In fact, based on the attention the massacre received from the Western press, it was if the massacre had never happened.
It is clear that there was a different agenda for the march and a different set of concerns for Europe. The people of France mobilized themselves to defend what they saw as an attack against Western civilization. However, the events in Paris did not have to be framed as an existential attack on the imagined values of the liberal white West. Providing some context and making some political links may have been beneficial for attempting to understand what happened in the country and a political way forward beyond the appeal to racial jingoism.
The attack could have sparked an honest conversation about how many Muslims experience life in contemporary France and viewed French policies in various Muslim and Arab nations. It could have examined the relationship between the rise of radical Islam and the connection of that rise to the activities of various branches of the French intelligence services. An open discussion might have framed it as a classic blowback operation resulting from the weaponization of radical Whabbanism as a tool of Western power from the late 1970s to its current assignment in Syria. But those ideas were not allowed a forum on that massive stage.
Je Suis Charlie: European lives have always mattered more than others
The Je Suis Charlie slogan like one of those mindless advertising themes meant to appeal to the unconscious and the irrational, nevertheless, has to have cultural reference points, culturally embedded meanings that evoke the desire to want to buy a product, or in this case to identify with an imagined civilization. It does not matter that the supposed superiority of Western civilization and its values is based on constructed lies and myths, it is still the basis of a cross-class, transnational white identity.
The white identity is so powerfully inculcated while simultaneously invisibalized that identification is not seen as the essentialized identity politics that people of color supposedly engage in, instead it is just being “human.” And as we witnessed this weekend and throughout the colonial world, identification with whiteness is not limited by one’s racial or national assignment.
It is not necessary in this short essay to even address the contradictory nature of the European self-understanding, how that self-perception is utterly disconnected from its practice, and how many people in the world see the 500-years European hegemony as an interminable nightmare.
However, for those folks who believe the simple assertion that black lives matter and that “racial progress” will be realized through progressive legislative reform derived from a better understanding of the harmful impact of racially discriminatory practices, the unfiltered expressions of white solidarity and the privileging of white life should be a wake-up call.
The humanity and cultures of Arabs and Muslims have been denigrated in France for decades. Full recognition of the humanity of Arabs and Muslims has always come at a cost – Arabs and Muslims are required to “assimilate,” to mimic French lifestyles, embrace the language, adopt the values and worldview of their cosmopolitan patrons. Older generations of fully colonized individuals subjected themselves to that degrading ritual, but later generations see this requirement as the colonial assault on their being that it is and have resisted.
It is the arrogant lack of respect for the ideas and culture of non-European peoples that drove the French ban on the wearing of the niqab and other traditional veiling clothing for Muslim women, just one example of the generalized discriminatory treatment of Arabs and Muslims in France. In this lager context, Charlie Hebdo’s blatant disregard and disrespect for another religion, shielded by an absolute commitment to freedom of speech that gives them blanket immunity, is now compounded by the “Je Suis Charlie campaign,” orchestrated in the name of upholding the values of liberal, Western civilization.
What it means for many of us in the Black community is that Je Suis Charlie has become a sound bite to justify the erasure of non-Europeans, and for ignoring the sentiments, values and views of the racialized “other.” In short, Je Suis Charlie has become an arrogant rallying cry for white supremacy that was echoed at the white power march on Sunday in Paris and in the popularity of the new issue of Charlie Hebdo.
A shared ethical framework under the system of capitalist/colonial white supremacy is impossible. Deeply grounded in the European psyche and in the contradictions of its “humanist” traditions, who was considered fully human always had qualifications, and equality was always a nuanced concept.
The contradictory ethical framework that informs the world view of Parisians is grounded in the colonial division of humanity that emerged out of the liberal humanist movement of the 18th Century. This tradition allowed for humanity to be divided into those people who were considered fully human with rights that should be respected and those peoples consigned to non-being. Those non-beings became eligible to have their lands taken, to be enslaved and murdered at will.
The valuation of white life over everyone else is a fundamental component of white supremacy and not limited to those people that might be defined as white. That is why no one cares about the families that weep for their love ones in Nigeria and no one marches for them. That is why anti-Muslim and anti-Arab violence has exploded across France but the only mention in the Western press is the supposed fear in the Jewish community. And that is why that after the attack in Baga, Nigerian authorities were largely silent until Nigerian President Goodluck finally issued a statement on terrorism where he forcefully condemned the attack in Paris!
Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. He is a contributor to “Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com