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
Roger’s note: few things, if any, are more necessary for human survival than water. The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world. It is a nation replete with millionaires and billionaires, and it is a nation that spends trillions of dollars on warfare. It is also a nation that operates within the dictates of capitalist economy where people who cannot “afford” to pay their water bill are cut off without this fundamental necessity. There is something very wrong with this picture.
Detroit residents have organized direct actions, mass marches, and creative emergency responses to confront the water shut-off crisis. (Photo: Detroit Water Brigade)
Detroit’s “unprecedented” shutoff of water utilities to city homes condemns residents to “lives without dignity,” violates human rights on a large scale, and disproportionately impacts African-Americans, United Nations investigators declared Monday following a two-day inquiry.
“Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family,” wrote UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, in a joint statement. “It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.”
The officials visited the city following appeals in June from organizations concerned with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) escalation of water shut-offs to accounts that have fallen behind on their bills, amounting to up to 3,000 disconnections a week. The increase touched off organizing efforts by residents who charge they’re part of a larger plan, in keeping with Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s bankruptcy push, to displace African-Americans and privatize water and public services.
During their investigation, the UN experts held interviews and meetings with local residents, as well as with city officials. On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded into a town hall meeting with the officials. “Once again, the international spotlight was on Detroiters trying to carve out dignified lives while being denied basic necessities of life,” said Maureen Taylor, spokesperson for the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the Detroit People’s Water Board, at the town hall meeting.
DeMeeko Williams, coordinator for the Detroit Water Brigade, told Common Dreams that it is absurd that people in the city have to appeal to the United Nations for support. “You can’t get help from the city government, the state government is the main culprit, and the U.S. government is not doing anything, so what else is there to do? Who do we turn to?” he asked.
Despite a grassroots push for the Water Affordability Plan, the city has increased water rates 8.7 percent at a time of massive unemployment and poverty. Detroit is effectively passing “the increased costs of leakages due to an aging infrastructure” onto residents who can’t afford it, the investigators charge.
The rapporteurs document the heavy toll the shut-offs have taken.
“We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” they state. “Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity—they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.”
Despite the lack of data provided by the city, information obtained by the investigators suggests the city’s vulnerable and dispossessed are bearing the brunt of the crisis. “About 80 percent of the population of Detroit is African American. According to data from 2013, 40.7 percent of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty level, 99 percent of the poor are African American,” they write. “Twenty percent of the population is living on 800 USD or less per month, while the average monthly water bill is currently 70.67 USD.”
Furthermore, they note, “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children. In many cases, unpaid water bills are being attached to property taxes increasing the risk of foreclosure.”
The investigators continue, “It was touching to witness mothers’ courage to strive to keep their children at home, and the support people were providing to each other to live in these unbearable circumstances. And it was heartbreaking to hear of the stigmatization associated with the shut-offs—in particular the public humiliation of having a blue mark imprinted on the sidewalk in front of homes when their water was shut off due to unpaid bills.”
Meanwhile, the shut-offs continue. “There is still a high number of people going without water,” said Williams. “The Detroit Water Brigade is on the front-lines trying to help people get back to self-sufficiency. We need more support. The situation is not just going to go away.”
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The question of who ordered the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is a vital one, and thousands of pages have been written on the issue. Those who dismiss the notion that the United States Government would engage in assassination (by characterizing those who believe this as ‘conspiracy nuts’) willfully ignore the 1975 Church Committee Report (that exposed covert, illegal government activities) and the many CIA-orchestrated assassinations and coups d’etat from Africa to Latin America.
The CIA’s experience with overseas assassinations has given it more than enough expertise to conduct domestic assassinations, with the added advantage of having control over investigating agencies at the local, state, and national levels.
Deciding criminal guilt is largely based on proving means, motive, and opportunity. When it comes to political assassination, the key question is motive.
Powerful government institutions possess, or can easily obtain, the means and the opportunity to conduct an assassination and divert attention to “a lone gunman,” or a patsy like Lee Harvey Oswald. The mainstream media conveniently forget this fact as they rush to legitimize wacky theories that take the heat off the CIA, FBI, NSA, and police.
“When it comes to political assassination, the key question is motive.”
In Why the U.S. Government Assassinated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Roland Sheppard exposes the U.S. Government’s motive for assassinating Malcolm X in New York’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The fact that Sheppard is one of the few remaining eye witnesses to the assassination of Malcolm X adds a note of immediacy and authenticity to his analysis.
Sheppard describes the unusual absence of security on the day of Malcolm X’s assassination, and he recounts his personal observations of what happened in the crucial moments. He tells of a second suspect apprehended that day by the New York Police, a man whose existence later disappeared from the official version of events. However, when Sheppard was interrogated at the Harlem Police Station, he saw this man walking freely into one of the offices. Sheppard recognized him as the assassin.
In 1999, the King family launched a civil suit in 1999 to expose the facts surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“After considering all the evidence, a Memphis jury ruled that someone other than James Earl Ray had been the shooter … that the City of Memphis, the State of Tennessee, and federal government agencies were all involved in the assassination.”
The heart of Sheppard’s work is his analysis of the motive for these two government assassinations.
There is nothing more threatening to the U.S. corporate elite, the government, the military, and the mass media than the prospect of revolution. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were developing beyond their original Black liberation philosophies. They were emerging as powerful advocates and organizers for revolutionary change in the American economic and political system.
In his final years, Malcolm X expanded the fight against racism to include the fight against poverty and war. In 1962, he supported striking hospital workers in New York City. And he was the first mass leader in the United States to publicly oppose America’s war against Vietnam.
In his speech at the Oxford Union in 1964, Malcolm X gives Shakespeare a revolutionary twist. He begins with the famous question: “Whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.” His answer, “And I go for that. If you take up arms you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
The U.S. Government also feared Malcolm X’s growing international stature and the political connections he was making in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Sheppard reminds us that Malcolm X met with Che Guevara and the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in New York, in December of 1964. He was invited by Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian revolution, to participate along with Che and other independence movement leaders at a conference in Bandung beginning March 3, 1965. He had also arranged for the issue of human rights violations against Afro-Americans to be considered on March 12, 1965, by the International Court of Justice at the Hague. His assassination put an end to all of this. (Ben Bella was assassinated just four months later.)
Fighting words Martin Luther King, Jr. was also beginning to challenge a political system that profits from racism. Sheppard cites King’s speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention in August 1967,
“Why are there forty million poor people in America? … when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth … you begin to question the capitalist economy.”
King pointed out that the Northern Liberals, who had given moral and financial support to end Jim Crow laws in the South, would not support the effort to eliminate economic segregation. As Sheppard states, “Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to subvert the Poor People’s Campaign. King was building a mass movement against poverty, and those who profit from poverty were determined to stop him.”
King’s opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam sent shivers down the back of the military-industrial complex. In his historic sermon at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, sometimes referred to as the greatest MLK speech you never heard of, King exclaimed:
“Money that should have been spent on Johnson’s War on Poverty was being lost in Vietnam’s killing fields … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death … We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
King called for a coalition of labor, anti-racist, anti-poverty, and anti-war activists; and a united movement poses the greatest threat to the status quo.
In his books on Malcolm X, George Breitman states, “Malcolm was not yet a Marxist.” A reviewer of Breitman’s work added, “Not yet! But it was only a matter of time.”
Malcolm X wrote:
“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., may not have been as far along the road of rejecting capitalism for socialism. Nevertheless, I believe that this was also a matter of time. In a 1966 speech to his staff, King explained: “… something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to subvert the Poor People’s Campaign.”
The U.S. Government was determined that neither of these fighters should be allowed to have that time. However, before moving to assassinate them, it tried to “neutralize” them.
Sheppard describes the activities of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to infiltrate, disrupt, and destroy the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam-War movement, and any other threat to the status quo.
FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover, called King “the most dangerous Negro” and tried to blackmail him into silence. To discredit Malcolm X, the FBI paid an informer inside the Nation of Islam. When these efforts failed, assassination was the final option.
The U.S. Government assassinated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. because they rightly came to understand and challenge the capitalist economic system, its social impact (war, poverty, injustice, environmental disaster), and its reliance on racism to divide-and-conquer.
Sheppard concludes with an appeal to action; we must learn the truth about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. so we can carry their vision forward and conclude the struggle they so bravely began.
Roland Sheppard describes himself as a retired Business Representative of Painters Local #4 in San Francisco, a life long social activist and socialist. Prior to being elected as a union official in 1994, he worked for 31 years as a house painter. Roland Sheppard’s Daily News is accessible athttp://rolandsheppard.com/
Roger’s note: the United States was founded on the genocide of the First Nations peoples and much of its enormous wealth was derived from the forced labor of African slaves. Racism is as American as apple pie. This is not leftist ranting, it is historical fact. Sadly, under the “leadership” of the country’s first African American president, the situation is only getting worse. Obama’s immigration extradition policies, his orientation towards Wall Street and away from Main Street, the federal government’s militarization of urban police forces — all this contributes to the discrimination and impoverization mostly of peoples of color. The Republican Party may be more overtly racist in its ideological bias, but it is a Democratic president that is implementing racist policies. God help America.
Reuters | By Stephanie Nebehay
Posted: 08/30/2014 8:31 am EDT Updated: 08/30/2014 9:59 am EDT
* Panel issues recommendations after review of U.S. record
* Says killing of Michael Brown “not an isolated event”
* Decries racial bias of police, pervasive discrimination
* ACLU calls for addressing racial inequality in America
GENEVA, Aug 29 (Reuters) – The U.N. racism watchdog urged the United States on Friday to halt the excessive use of force by police after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman touched off riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
Minorities, particularly African Americans, are victims of disparities, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said after examining the U.S. record.
“Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing,” Noureddine Amir, CERD committee vice chairman, told a news briefing.
Teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer on Aug. 9, triggering violent protests that rocked Ferguson – a St. Louis suburb – and shone a global spotlight on the state of race relations in America.
“The excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against racial and ethnic minorities is an ongoing issue of concern and particularly in light of the shooting of Michael Brown,” said Amir, an expert from Algeria.
“This is not an isolated event and illustrates a bigger problem in the United States, such as racial bias among law enforcement officials, the lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force, and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials.”
The panel of 18 independent experts grilled a senior U.S. delegation on Aug. 13 about what they said was persistent racial discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, including within the criminal justice system.
U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper told the panel that his nation had made “great strides toward eliminating racial discrimination” but conceded that “we have much left to do”.
Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown, has been put on paid leave and is in hiding. A St. Louis County grand jury has begun hearing evidence and the U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation.
Police have said Brown struggled with Wilson when shot. But some witnesses say Brown held up his hands and was surrendering when he was shot multiple times in the head and chest.
“STAND YOUR GROUND” LAWS
In its conclusions issued on Friday, the U.N. panel said “Stand Your Ground” Laws, a controversial self-defense statute in 22 U.S. states, should be reviewed to “remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to principles of necessity and proportionality when deadly force is used for self-defense”.
Ron Davis, father of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old shot dead in a car in Jacksonville, Florida during an argument over loud rap music in November 2012, attended the Geneva session. Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen killed in Miami, Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer, testified.
The U.N. panel monitors compliance with a treaty ratified by 177 countries including the United States.
“The Committee remains concerned at the practice of racial profiling of racial or ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Transportation Security Administration, border enforcement officials and local police,” it said, urging investigations.
The experts called for addressing obstacles faced by minorities and indigenous peoples to exercise their right to vote effectively. This was due to restrictive voter identification laws, district gerrymandering and state-level laws that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies, it said.
Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the U.N. recommendations highlighted “shortcomings on racial equality that we are seeing play out today on our streets, at our borders and in the voting booth.
“When it comes to human rights, the United States must practice at home what it preaches abroad,” he said.
Roger’s note: As with MLK’s more radical anti-war, anti-American speeches vanish (whitewashed, pun intended) from official history, so do genuine revolutionary radicals like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, my birthplace). It is no coincidence, rather a conscious amnesia. In the same week celebrating the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, the US Supreme Court upholds racist anti affirmative action state law. This week also saw the passing away of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the prize fighter who spent 19 years in prison based on racist prosecutions and verdicts in Patterson, New Jersey (my beloved home state).
By FELICIA R. LEE
APRIL 24, 2014, New York Times
Dinobi Agwu reading a poem inspired by James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in Erika Brantley’s, background, 9th-grade English class at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.
James Baldwin’s 1953 novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” about a Harlem teenager’s search for meaning, quickly became a classic, along with his searing essays about race published a decade later in the book “The Fire Next Time.” But in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.
In a year that marks the 90th anniversary of his birth, educators offer different reasons for Baldwin’s faded presence there, from the concern that he is too controversial and complex to the perception that he has been eclipsed by other African-American voices. Collectively the explanations illustrate how attitudes about race have changed, along with the way the high school literary experience has evolved according to currents in the field.
“Baldwin is still there, but he’s not there in the way he was,” said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, chairwoman of the secondary level of the National Council of Teachers of English, pointing out that while in the 1960s and ’70s students would study Baldwin’s essays, short stories and novels in their entirety, today they often encounter his work only in anthologies.
Isaac Asante participates in a discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” in Ms. Brantley’s class.
Now teachers, scholars and other Baldwin fans are seizing on the anniversary of his birth in Harlem to inspire what they hope will be a revival of a younger generation’s interest in the work of one of the country’s most gifted writers and major voices on race and morality.
The New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time,” which began on Wednesday and continues through Sunday with performances and events across disciplines, is an extensive commemoration of the writer, who was black and gay and died in 1987. The festival kicks off a yearlong, citywide consideration of Baldwin at several places, including Harlem Stage, the Columbia University School of the Arts and the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
Additionally, some of Baldwin’s books are being reissued this year, and there are new appraisals of his work as well as new work inspired by him. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” (Beacon Press), with an introduction by the poet Nikky Finney, came out this month. Vintage reissued “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” last year. Already the attention has prompted a broader conversation about Baldwin’s legacy.
“I think he’s not taught as much anymore on the high school level because he’s incendiary and, for some, inflammatory,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Paradoxically, the belief that the county is somehow postracial, Mr. Blint said, has shut down some discussions about race. “Think about how impoverished our racial conversations are now,” he said.
Educators also cite poor reading habits, censorship and Baldwin’s absence from the list of works suggested for Common Core standards as reasons his works are not studied regularly. And since the late ’70s and early ’80s, as school districts have scrambled for more diverse subject matter in the classroom, Baldwin has had to share space with a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Over the years, some parents and schools have also challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence and profanity in Baldwin’s work. Sex — interracial and intraracial, gay and straight — is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.
Long before it was fashionable to argue that race was a social construct, Baldwin famously said, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant,” during a 1979 speech in Berkeley, Calif., a sentiment he repeated in his writing and public appearances. Racism was not a stain on American exceptionalism, Baldwin argued, but a deliberate feature of a country that he said routinely terrorized black people. He moved to France in the late 1940s to evade racism, but he returned home often, and he helped to articulate the pains of the civil rights movement.
“He was one of the fiercest critics of the American race problem who ever put pen to paper,” said Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A historian, Mr. Muhammad has taught Baldwin to students as young as eighth grader to help them understand history and to articulate and communicate the conditions of their lives, he said. In his travels around the country, though, he does not find nearly enough young Baldwin readers, he said.
In the words of Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning children’s author, in an interview, “It begins with the fact that the students are not reading that well at all, the teachers shy away from complex issues, and the parents are not making demands.” While it can be difficult to generalize about a vast universe of schools, high school students who do read Baldwin are more apt to attend elite or high-performing schools, said Mr. Myers, who in 2012 and 2013 traveled to dozens of libraries, schools and community centers around the country as a national ambassador for young people and literature.
Nevertheless, in some quarters Baldwin remains a vivid part of adolescent lives. In a classroom decorated with Baldwin quotations at the Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in Harlem, students in freshman English one recent morning recited poems inspired by “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s short story about a jazz musician whose demons include heroin.
“In a dark place is where my soul lays/one parent dead and the other missing,” went two lines of “Stanley’s Blues,” by Stanley Anisca.
Shawnakay Shaw recited, “Living in the hood ain’t no joke/especially when you’re broke selling dope.”
To include young people in the new considerations of Baldwin, students from the James Baldwin School, a Manhattan high school, will join such prominent artists as Ms. Finney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Marcus Gardley, Vijay Iyer and others in reading and discussing Baldwin’s writing at a Live Arts noon program, “Jimmy at High Noon,” at the New York Live Arts Studio every day during the festival.
For some Baldwin fans, those events are a bright spot on a generally dull landscape. “On one hand, he’s on a U.S. postage stamp; on the other hand, he’s not in the Common Core,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. “A lot of public high school students will not have heard of him, and that’s a tragedy. The burden of protecting James Baldwin’s hugely important legacy is on teachers of English.”
Baldwin’s name and books are not listed in the appendix of the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Richard Wright, for instance, is included.) Its proponents argue that the core’s “exemplar” list of books and writers is just a guidepost, not definitive and not reflective of a canon or a curriculum. Many canonical titles are not on the list, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain being one example.
Susan Pimentel, a leading writer on the standards for English language arts and literacy, said in an email message that it would be heartbreaking to think that a great story like “Sonny’s Blues” would be overlooked just because it was not on the list. However, she said, “It simply was not the aim of Appendix B to create a list of important authors to read and wade into the canonical arguments of the 1980s.”
At Frederick Douglass, there was no doubt that Baldwin would be in the canon and the classroom. Joseph D. Gates, the principal, said his school has the latitude to create the curriculum with the staff and to include work that will be relevant to students. The school has a reputation for sending all its seniors to college, including some to Ivy League schools.
“I think Baldwin presents a perspective that is uniquely Harlem,” Mr. Gates said. “Many of the struggles the students face are the same: self-identity, racism, drugs and alcohol, even though the times have changed.”
Roger’s note: there are strong words. Back in the late 1960s those of us protesting the US aggression in Vietnam were criticized for using the word “fascist” to characterize the U.S. government. It seemed to many then, as it may seem to many now, that the use of such language was going overboard. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. And believe me, friends, in terms of the kinds of governmental actions that can be described as fascist, we have come a long way since then.
Domestic U.S. lynch has morphed into imperialist terrorism. “Washington uses a nexus of intelligence and military institutions to lynch the world’s people of their lives and resources.”
“The prospect of being lynched by Obama’s ‘kill list’ or detained under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is just a ‘terrorist’ label away from any American the US government finds a threat to its ‘national security.’”
The political and economic foundation of the United States is built on the corpses of legal lynching, or “lynch law.” Without the genocide and enslavement of Black and indigenous peoples, the US capitalist class could not have amassed its profits, wealth, or power. Following the passage of the 13th Amendment that supposedly ended Black chattel slavery at the close of the Civil War, the US capitalist class moved quickly to reorganize the capitalist economy so newly “freed” Blacks would remain enslaved. Convict-leasing, sharecropping, and legalized segregation ensured Black exploitation and white power. These brutal forms of exploitation were kept intact by white terrorism in the form of lynching.
Thousands of Black people were lynched by white supremacists from the end of the Civil War until 1968. Ho Chi Minh, the first revolutionary president of socialist Vietnam, worked in the US in the mid-1920s and examined the horrors of lynching. He described the gruesome details of white vigilantes torturing and killing Black people with impunity. Local law enforcement officials protected white lynch mobs like the KKK and Black Legion and often participated in lynching alongside their white counterparts. ‘Uncle Ho’ states in his work Lyching (1924) that “the principal culprits [of lynching] were never troubled, for the simple reason that they were always incited . . . then protected by the politicians, financiers, and authorities . . . “ It wasn’t until Black people organized themselves to defend and arm their communities that white mobs were forced to curtail their racist murder sprees.
“80,000 mostly Black prisoners are caged in solitary confinement, which by definition is torture and illegal under international law.”
The so-called end of “Jim Crow” racism only changed the form in which Black people would be lynched by the US racist order. The US capitalist class responded to the force of the Black liberation movement by institutionalizing “lynch law” into its criminal injustice system. Today, some form of law enforcement murders a Black person in this country every 28 hours. Nearly half of the estimated 3 million US prisoners are Black and nearly all are “people of color.” 80,000 mostly Black prisoners are caged in solitary confinement, which by definition is torture and illegal under international law. Numerous states in the US have “Stand your ground” laws that allow white supremacists to murder Black people with impunity. Sound familiar? And President Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of US imperialism, is too concerned with pathologizing Black America than forwarding substantive policies that address “lynch law” on behalf of his most loyal constituency.
In this period of heightened exploitation for the oppressed in general and Black America in particular, the propertied classes are becoming increasingly paranoid about the potential for popular unrest. “Lynch law” is becoming the law of the land for the entire populace. A homeless man in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shot dead by local police for being homeless on March 16th. More US citizens have been murdered by US law enforcement in the last decade than have died in the US invasion of Iraq over the same period. The surveillance US imperialism had to conduct in secret on radical dissent in the past has expanded to the entire population through a massive surveillance state of federal intelligence agencies, private contractors, and US multinational corporations. The prospect of being lynched by Obama’s “kill list” or detained under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is just a “terrorist” label away from any American the US government finds a threat to its “national security.”
“More US citizens have been murdered by US law enforcement in the last decade than have died in the US invasion of Iraq over the same period.”
“Lynch law” is also a global tactic for US imperialism to maintain its global domination. Washington uses a nexus of intelligence and military institutions to lynch the world’s people of their lives and resources. This can be examined in specific instances like the thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa murdered by Obama Administration drone strikes or the NATO bombing of Libya that killed tens of thousands and nearly exterminated the Black Libyan population. The CIA has overthrown over 50 foreign governments since the end of World War II. These are just a few important examples of how Washington and its masters, the capitalist class, must lynch the majority of the world’s people to obtain their wealth and power.
The increasing violence, suffering, and social death imposed on oppressed people by US imperialist “lynch law” exposes the bankruptcy of the liberal wing of the capitalist class. Propped up by the corporate media like MSNBC, this self-proclaimed “left” actively participates in bi-partisan lynching in all of its forms to further their careers with the liberal imperialist Democratic Party and the untouchable fascist Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama. Any movement that depends on this corporate brand of leftism to bring about the end of US lynch law is destined to fail. A people’s movement for complete justice will have to be led by the struggle of Black America’s oppressed majority and all communities suffering from US fascist rule. We must spend each day building a movement that empowers oppressed people to demand the power to collectively determine their own destiny. This movement is far from victory’s reach, but each day we fail to act, another exploited human being is lynched by the US imperialist system.
I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.