Bill Ayers's Blog, page 6
July 12, 2014
A pervasive and widely promoted theory that runs loose throughout the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the US (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true, but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When some random politician tells antiwar protestors picketing his town hall meeting that it’s “because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the Middle East, Europe, Panama, or wherever’s next] that you have the freedom to stand there and speak out,” he is tapping into that seemingly bottomless cliché. When a TV talking head or pundit says that it’s a misfortune that US economic strength rides on a resource—oil—that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but a “blessing” that we have the power to police that part of the world, he’s doing the same thing. And when Americans across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” even while refusing to send their own children into war or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US invasion and occupation is currently in play, they are similarly situated in that open field of received wisdom, stuttering and unexamined truisms, and diminishing options.
Questioning this sentimental dogma in these instances might mean, for example, insisting that the most honest and straight-forward way to support US military men and women would be to demand their immediate return home, and to insist that they be provided with excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities. Speaking up in the face of that wooly politician might mean challenging him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s implicitly defending, noting that “No one in Iraq ever said I couldn’t speak my mind, and please deal directly with the content of what I’m raising, not some rhetorical sleight-of-hand.”
Imagine dramatically rethinking this manufactured rationale, reframing it and turning it upside-down, and it might be stated this way: the massive US military powerhouse and increasingly privatized war machine makes Americans (and everyone else) unsafe in the world, undermines human security and hard-won rights and freedoms, and is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. Deploying a “global basing strategy,” maintaining nuclear warheads in the air at all times, hiding CIA agents in every embassy and behind every tree, spying on everyone everywhere all the time, sending hundreds of thousands of “fighting men and women overseas” is the starting point of our problems, and in no way leads toward any lasting solutions. Beyond that, the rise of this domineering nexus creates a culture of deception and dishonesty and militarism, places the economy in the precarious position of adjunct and subsidiary to the Pentagon, degrades language, undermines the moral landscape, and enriches a few while devastating the lives of millions.
Now we’re discussing war and military might on an entirely different terrain. Now we’re coming closer to the truth of our predicament. Now we might step up and echo the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against War: another drop of blood and another wasted dollar on the “war on terror” or the imperial dreams of the 1% only deepens the catastrophe and suspends or destroys the possibility of reimagining and rebuilding the US as a more peaceful, joyous, just, participatory, and cooperative place; finding our balance would create better conditions for the ordinary people of the world to ignite their own specific dreams and aspirations, summon their own agency to throw off the yokes of empire and dictatorship as they rethink and rebuild their various communities with their own hands.
This kind of reimagining taps into a different bit of plain, good sense: we want to think of ourselves as good people, peaceful people; we always want to be kind and generous and neighborly; we want to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The warrior is not the only American archetype; there is, as well, the hard worker, the good farmer, the peace-lover, and the free thinker. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become a new Sparta, perhaps with some imagination and effort we can reach for a new Athens. Two histories, two aspects of the American experience, two spirits in the collective psyche: fighter/peacemaker, trooper/bridge-builder, man-at-arms/pacifist. Re-framing the discussion begins when we dive into the contradictions head-first in order to engage that thorny and contested space.
July 10, 2014
War culture is everywhere: at athletic events where everyone is expected to sing ritualistic patriotic songs at the start and once again at half time or the seventh inning stretch, and where uniformed and armed people march with flags onto the field of play; at airports and train stations where uniformed military people are given a designated waiting area and priority boarding; in our schools where military recruiters have free reign; in our language, where war metaphors hang heavy over all aspects of life from sports and commerce to local politics and social policy, and where the word “service” has morphed quietly into a seemingly acceptable short-hand for time in the uniformed military.
War culture combined with an ascendant and triumphant individualism has led to the passage across the land of legislation that contains a bizarre contradiction: on the one hand “stand your ground” laws that allow anyone to shoot a person who seems threatening, and on the other hand “open-carry” laws that allow folks to carry their guns openly wherever and whenever they please. It’s a matter of time before a posse of open-carriers walks into a mall or a restaurant and meets a stand-your-ground crew—let the fireworks begin!
Domestic debates about private gun ownership and gun control are dominated by Second Amendment myth-makers who insist that there’s no common or collective possibility of public safety, and that it’s each person’s individual right and responsibility to defend life and property and personal well-being with lethal force. The National Rifle Association urges everyone to arm up, noting that the best defense against “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun.” I propose that the NRA introduce legislation offering a $1000 stipend in order to purchase guns for any American citizen or resident living below the poverty line—there are many good guys among the poor, and I’ve always gotten a kick out of the words scrawled across the Night Watchman’s guitar: Arm the Homeless! Hell yes!
For those who prefer gun control, we might offer this alternative to arming everyone: Disarm everyone, starting with the dangerous and out of control US military, move on the deadly domestic police forces, and then the rest of us. Guns for everyone, or no guns for anyone.
I cringe with the constant and insistent reference to (and self-referencing of) the president as the Commander-in-Chief. The continual mention of that single aspect is a contemporary thing, and fully in keeping with the militarization of the public space.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the operational line of command was set as running from the President to the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander. Before 2002 combatant commanders were referred as “commanders-in-chief;” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that the use of “commander-in-chief” should be especially reserved to refer to the president alone. Now we are reminded at all times and at every turn in keeping with our warrior status that our president is primarily our Supreme Commander, like the imperatores of Rome, sitting on the throne of empire and commanding its violent legions.
The military detail handled personally by presidents in wartime has, of course, varied dramatically. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and day-to-day operations, while Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush paid practically no attention whatsoever. Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in Korea, and to fire Douglas MacArthur. And Barack Obama personally picks out targets for drone strikes every week.
As a little blue-sky exercise, what if any bit of the war culture were transformed into a peace and love culture: the Super Bowl opening with thousands of local school kids rushing through the stands distributing their poetry, and then everyone singing “This Land is Your Land” or “We Shall Overcome;” an airlines or bus terminal clerk saying, “We want to invite any teachers or nurses in the gate area to board first, and we thank you for your service.”
Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven together in such a way that members of the culture can communicate and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common-sense of American violence unleashed.
The US spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The US has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken-for-granted, occasionally visible and on full display, and always lurking in the shadows.
I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful and so I never saw the film nor can I remember the title—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, and saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace” just before blasting them to smithereens. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but after a while the classic challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of another come into play: Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?
This is precisely the situation the US finds itself in all over the world: We come in peace…we always come in peace. But for the youth in the streets of Cairo or Tunis facing US arms in the hands of American-financed dictators, or the women servicing the US military bases stretching across their landscapes, or the farmers and workers all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose repressive police forces and militias are trained and supplied by US aid, or people anywhere who find themselves in the sights of an American-made rocket or a US drone, what are you going to believe? Your own lying eyes?
In our stuttering mechanical recorded message we announce to ourselves and to everyone else that we are a peaceful people, our intentions always righteous and just. It’s comforting, and it’s a deeply held self-description, so compelling that it rises quickly to the status of common sense, requiring no investigation, no fact-checking, no external validation whatsoever. All right-thinking people believe it; everyone simply knows that it’s true.
July 9, 2014
David Brooks, the moderate “human face” of the plutocrats and its dangerous fang faction within the Repulsican Party, trumpeted the need for “a national greatness agenda” in his New York Times column and managed to evoke a grotesquely mangled and romanticized image of the Black Freedom Movement of 50 years ago in an attempt to rally people to a left/right social movement of all the politically disaffected built around the goal of broad revitalization: “Like the civil rights movement, this movement will ask Americans to live up to their best selves.” And our “best selves” is easily summed up by DB: “Love of country.” Yes simple patriotism will, in Brooks’ cosmology, allow Americans to see that sacrificing Social Security benefits “at a time when soldiers and Marines are sacrificing their lives for their country in Afghanistan,” or giving up pensions as an investment in “America’s future greatness,” represent the sensible unifying path forward.
Most Americans (and the whole world besides) think that the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been and continue to be catastrophic. The vast majority of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (not the “insurgents” or the Taliban or the “jihadists”) have overwhelmingly opposed the US military presence in their respective lands practically from the start. Any ethical person would tell the government to end its senseless wars for a start, bring those Marines and soldiers home now, and spend those squandered billions on education, health, and the common good.
But Brooks sees the hand writing on the wall: US power is in deep crisis, and the American empire is coming to an end; his solution is to mobilize a nationalistic movement and shred any expectation of a common commitment to human welfare: line-up, re-load, and march. Or as he puts it, his social movement will have one simple and unapologetic goal: “preserving American pre-eminence.” He asserts that “American ‘supremacy’ is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.” To Brooks the US Century must continue and the echoes of Rome and London and Berlin and Tokyo—pick your century, pick your conqueror—are unmistakable. The world will be a far, far better place if everyone will accept the obvious fact that the US makes a great ruler and that it should simply be allowed to run the whole show forever.
People around the world can’t possibly agree with Brooks’ assessment, and most never will no matter what the cost. Most people think the US (less than 5% of the world’s population, but gobbling up vast resources and acting as if it’s some sort of entitled aristocracy or super-majority) has some noble traditions and hopeful rhetoric but it is also a misguided and menacing cowboy, the largest mercenary force ever created, benighted and armed and dangerous, and more than a little out-of-control.
The problem here, as always, is whether ordinary people can be counted on to support the long war, pay the price, avert their eyes, become participants or accomplices in conquest and occupation and war without end. Brooks and his patrons in power and privilege are worrying about the pesky and unpredictable home front (That’s us, folks!!!) and he’s calling on us to close our eyes to injustice everywhere and build nothing less than a patriotic/nationalist popular movement to resist “national humiliation, diminished power in the world, drastic cuts and spreading pain.”
American Exceptionalism inflamed, structural racism ascending, American supremacy triumphant. America uber alles and of course war after endless war. Here lies the deadly dictate from the big brain of the “reasonable” right.
July 8, 2014
The question poses problems from the start.
First, I was always told that pride is a sin—it’s so tightly linked with arrogance and self-righteousness—so pride may not be the expression we’re looking for here. Perhaps satisfied is a better choice, or fulfilled or contented or happy.
Second, “American” is such a vast and complex and contradictory landscape. For most Americans being American is simply an accident of birth, and we could have as easily been thrust into the world as Algerian, Bulgarian, Cambodian…Zimbabwean—the whole alphabet soup. Why take pride in a chance happening, even if it turns out to be a joyful one personally? And for most immigrants, coming to America and becoming an American is freighted with complicated motives and meanings, deep conflict and an abiding sense of dislocation: a few are political refugees, many more are refugees from the ravages of poverty or climate change imposed by wealthier nations (think NAFTA), and others are fleeing wars—note the waves of Vietnamese and Indochinese immigrants following the US invasion and occupation there, and more recently the huge numbers of people coming from Iraq following that invasion. Pride doesn’t begin to capture the lived realities of actual people.
Third, pride in America leans fatefully toward nationalism, and nationalism leads inevitably to moral blindness: every atrocity universally condemned—torture, assassination, bombing civilians—changes its meaning for nationalists depending on who does the deed.
Imagine meeting a Japanese citizen and asking her if she’s proud to be Japanese. “Well,” she answers, “I am a happy person, and I love my family and care for my neighbors and community; I like hiking in the countryside; the language is lovely, the food remarkable, and many aspects of the culture are alive deep within my bones. But I’m not proud to have an emperor, nor am I proud remembering the ‘rape of Nanking,’ the Korean ‘comfort women,’ the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or more recently, the avoidable devastation at Fukashima.” That’s a pretty thoughtful and sensible answer.
A German might respond similarly, adding: “I like the economic privileges I enjoy here, the sophisticated infrastructure, and the beer—but World War II and the Holocaust, no. I’m young and so I didn’t live through those years, but it’s part of the German reality and so I still feel a painful responsibility that can and should never be forgotten.”
A Belgian could love the lakes and loath King Leopold; an Englishman might like the food—I said “might”—and despise the bloody Royals. So it goes.
And so it is for this American: I’m happy to be alive today searching for answers to the monstrous challenges we face—permanent war and the largest military behemoth ever created with its attendant war culture eating away at the foundations of democracy and justice, mass incarceration and a culture of cruelty and debasement (the “New Jim Crow” according to legal scholar Michelle Alexander because of the vast over-representation of men of color) with the US caging 2.5 million people, 25% of the world’s prisoners crowded into American hell-holes, and avoidable environmental catastrophe looming above us all—happy to be swimming through the wreckage toward a distant and more hopeful shore.
I’m delighted to be in a revolutionary tradition that broke with empire and a kingdom—because a king to me is always a son-of-a-bitch—and engaged in a second powerful revolution that overthrew the slavocracy. I’m pleased to draw a straight line from where we are now back to the great Americans who opposed the Castillian invasion and the Columbian genocide—Crazy Horse, Osceola, Cochise—to those who broke with Great Britain—Thomas Paine, Governour Morris, Patrick Henry—and to those who rebelled against slavery and led to the Second American Revolution—Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Harriet Tubman with that little pistol concealed in her pocket.
I’m inspired to be in the tradition of America’s radicals: Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs and WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Stokely Carmichael, Leonard Peltier, and on up to today and the efforts of James Thindwa and Karen Lewis, Grace Lee Boggs and Ai-jen Poo, Bill McKibben and Jeff Jones, Kathy Boudin and Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis and Beth Richie, Kathy Kelly and Bernardine Dohrn and Reyna Wences. Of course as Ella Baker said of Reverend King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were thousands, tens of thousands and millions putting their shoulders on history’s wheel and sharing a faith that injustice can be opposed and justice aspired to, a belief in human solidarity and connectedness as a living force, a spirit of outrage tempered with vast feelings of love and generosity, a commitment to open-ended dialogue where the questions are always open to debate, and a full and passionate embrace of the life we’re given combined with an eagerness to move forward striving to build a world-wide beloved community.
One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in the terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
When Maxine Greene passed away on May 29, 2014, I felt that I’d lost more than a friend and a beloved teacher; I’d lost a significant part of myself as well. She was so vivid and powerful and animated one moment and then suddenly gone. The air left the room.
Many of us who loved her so much gathered to share stories and memories as we consoled one another—and we will do so again in a large public space in the Fall—and we laughed and we cried, always reminding ourselves that she had lived a long life—96 years!—largely of her own making and her own choosing, that she was purposeful and true to herself insisting until the end that “I am what I am not yet,” still pushing herself to pay attention and to be wide awake. She taught her last class just weeks before she passed away, and that’s pretty great as well.
Many have said hers was a complete life, and perhaps here I disagree. How is a life ever complete? When do the stories actually end? It’s more accurate I think to say that while death ends a life, it does not necessarily end a relationship. The screen goes dark, but the stories—stunning, alive, and on-going, our stories and your stories—are still unfolding, still in the making, still drawing from the deep well of her dazzling life.
Here are a few other giants who fell from us recently, each a relationship to nourish and continue, or to start up for the first time right now:
Vincent Harding, 82, who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. and drafted the radical “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.
Yuri Kochiyama, 93, who was a friend and ally of Malcolm X, cradling his head in her lap as he lay dying, and was an activist over many decades, always encouraging and joining with the young, always bravely standing with the oppressed.
Carl Bloice, 75, courageous journalist and US Communist Party leader.
Chokwe Lumumba, 66, militant co-founder of the radical nationalist Republic of New Afrika and Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi who said, “I feel kind of comfortable being militant. Fannie Lou Hamer was a militant. Medgar Evers was a militant. Martin Luther King was a militant. In pursuit of good interests, there is nothing wrong with it.”
Sam Greenlee, 83, Chicago activist and author of The Spook Who Sat by the Door.
Amiri Baraka, 79, fierce and generative poet, freedom fighter, leader of The Black Arts Movement, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, reviled for his post-9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America?”
General Baker, 72, labor activist, anti-racist fighter and founder of DRUM (the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) at Dodge Main in Detroit, who devoted his life to working people and in 1965 refused induction into the US Army.
Ruby Dee, 91, actor, artist, author, and activist, who with her husband Ossie Davis fought for decades for peace and justice and joy—friend and champion of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Grace Lee Boggs.
Maya Angelou, 86, legendary poet and activist, author of “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.
July 6, 2014
“The American Dream” is a kind of social Rorschach: It might mean a one-family home in the suburbs, a two-car garage, marital bliss plus three beautiful children, or a partridge in a pear tree. Maybe it’s job security or a career, good health or a pension for when you’re old, a college education for the kids, or season tickets to the Bulls or the Knicks. Yes, yes, yes—achieving the American Dream includes picking up some, or preferably all of the above. It surely implies mobility and climbing spryly up the social ladder.
Is the American Dream military dominance, the US astride the world like Colossus, nuclear superiority? Yes, this too. How about the freedom to speak your mind, or the freedom to acquire unlimited cash and shop till you drop? Yes, yes—both. Every cheery politician or run-of-the-mill billionaire will happily tell anyone who will listen: “I’m living the American Dream.” It’s a stuttering echo throughout the culture, the irresistible comfort food of all clichés—it may not be healthy, but it feels good going down.
The American Dream means anything—rampant consumerism, unchecked acquisition, being bigger and badder than anyone else—and therefore it means nothing at all. One part sunny fantasy like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, one part hackneyed chestnut, the American Dream is an unfortunate illusion—more shadow than substance, more myth than reality, more shapeless phantom reminiscent of the corruption at the hollow heart of Gatsby’s delusion than concrete, shared aspiration.
And the American Dream has that lurking, entangling darker side: it evokes a narrow nationalism, a careless jingoism, and an acute patriotism. We are the chosen people, we’re building that city on the hill, and we’re number one.
USA! USA! USA!
Step outside the echo chamber for a moment and the blind arrogance can be staggering, and yet for establishment politicians this has become a catechism that must be spoken in order to even enter the political discourse: if you’re not wearing your flag pin and genuflecting before the disturbing notion of American Exceptionalism, if you’re not asking God to bless America above all others, you have no right to speak. The American Dream morphs into a bludgeon to beat people into quiet submission. USA!
In 1998 Madeleine Albright marked the US as exceptional when she told NBC’s Matt Lauer that America is indeed the one and only “indispensible nation.” “If we have to use force, it is because we are America,” she said. “We are the indispensible nation.”
One interpretation of her condensed and curt claim is that we are a beacon to the world and a paragon of democratic values and human rights; another is that we are exempt from international agreements (on the environment, for example, the criminal court, children’s rights, racism, human rights, and disarmament) and above the rules that govern all others, particularly concerning the use of lethal force. In her own mind she likely conflated the two: because we are the good guys, models of virtue and righteousness, our actions will always be good; because our actions are always good, we are not subject to ordinary restrictions that apply to other nations and peoples, like international law; because we are above the law, rules and statutes and sanctions are applied selectively, in our favor, and against the bad guys. Back to the start: we are the good guys. In other words, if the US takes an action, it is by definition good. We are the indispensable nation.
That path leads straight to antagonism, irritation, resentment, hostility, turmoil, enmity, isolation, aggression, rage, fury, and peril. That way lies chaos. The American Dream becomes a global nightmare, circles back, and collapses in our own back yards.
All patriotism in all places includes the manufactured or imposed capacity to see similar sets of facts in dramatically different ways. Torture, rendition, imprisonment without trial, extrajudicial killings, assassinations, drone strikes and the bombing of civilians—all of this and more is condemned as evil or embraced as good by the governing class and its “amen chorus” of nationalist/patriots depending on only one item: who does the deed.
American Exceptionalism is the magic potion US patriots drink in order to justify these specific atrocities and other human rights violations when carried out by the US state: the American cause is always just, we are assured, the American heart always pure, and “our” side always righteous. Not only does the idea that the US is the “one indispensable nation” permit Americans to approve of bad behavior in our names, it mostly puts us to sleep, only dimly aware of happenings that are excruciatingly experienced and acutely perceived in other parts of the world.
The American Dream in big, sparkling bold letters is more than distracting and deluding—it’s a hoax in the hands of snake-oil salesmen who want nothing more than to anesthetize and confuse, lull us all to sleep and steal our stuff; it’s an arrogant myth that blinds people to global reality; it’s a big lie covering aggression, invasion, and occupation. Rejecting the suffocating dogma and entangling repercussions of the American Dream is a step toward connecting with our own more authentic human hopes, our own plans and projects, our human-sized dreams and aspirations. If everyone would take a moment to gather in the assembly or the coliseum or the theater, the community center, park, or town square; if we would face one another more authentically, without masks, as who and what we really are, and, importantly, who we aspire to become in the world; if we could speak more directly and plainly to one another and share in just a few words our deepest dreams about how we want to live and where we want to go and what gives meaning to our lives— in that free space and from that wild diversity, a more honest and humane American dream could surely emerge: out of many, one.
The brilliant soliloquy by Jeff Daniels on the notorious and endlessly googled episode now known as “America is not the greatest country in the world” from the TV show Newsroom has his hard-bitten reporter character deciding to cut the crap when a student asks “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He points out that the US is 7th in the world in literacy, 49th in life expectancy, and 178th in infant mortality. “We lead the world in only three categories,” he asserts: number of incarcerated fellow citizens; military spending; and number of adults who believe in angels.
June 29, 2014
June 27, 2014
Saw the chilling and powerful “Death and the Maiden” at Victory Garden Theater last night, followed by an inspiring conversation with Chicago torture survivors and anti-torture activists and lawyers. Please see it, and also join the movement for reparations: change.org/petitions/pass-the-ordinance-seeking-reparations-for-the-chicago-police-torture-survivors
I was inspired to re-read the following written in 2008 by Bernardine Dohrn from our book Race Course: Against White Supremacy, but for the latest go to peopleslawoffice.com:
In 1969, a young man named Jon Burge returned to Chicago from military service in Viet Nam. Part of his assignment in Viet Nam was to guard and accompany detainees who were interrogated as suspected Viet Cong guerrillas at Dong Tam base, south of
Saigon. Army records show that 1,507 detainees were interrogated in the three-month period starting November 1, 1968, when Sergeant Burge was assigned to the Ninth Military Police Company of the Ninth Infantry Division. Back in Chicago, he joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970, and was assigned to Area Two, a police station on Chicago’s south side. Over a period of twenty years, as is now widely acknowledged, a group of white police officers engaged in the routine torture of more than one hundred
African American suspects at Area Two stationhouse. The torture methods included electrically shocking suspects’ testicles, tongues, and ears (using a “black box” from Vietnam and cattle prods), burning suspects by shackling them to boiling radiators, and
putting lit cigarettes on their arms, legs, and chests, suffocating them with typewriter covers, forcing gun barrels into their mouths to simulate mock executions, and depriving them of water, food, and sleep. All of the victims were African American men. More than thirty-five years later, not a single person has been indicted for these
crimes—a pattern of total impunity.
For the past three years, I’ve had the distressing but dynamic experience of teaching a law school seminar on torture. Simultaneously, I’ve had the good fortune of participating in the Chicago Coalition Against Police Torture with a large circle of
activists who will not remain silent. In fact, the most recent report from the intrepid coalition of community activists, lawyers, and human rights organizers documents that the taxpayers in the City of Chicago and Cook County have spent some $6 million to defend Jon Burge and his cohort, and up to $45 million to settle wrongful conviction civil rights claims dating from the current Mayor Richard J. Daley’s time as state’s attorney, plus an estimated $20 million in legal fees for those cases. Taxpayers footed the $7 million bill for an investigation by special prosecutors that took over three years
to complete. Their 292-page report found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that numerous defendants had been tortured, but concluded that “the statute of limitations bars any prosecution of any officers.”
Another $20 million is part of a settlement by the city of Chicago on torture claims by Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson, four men who served a total of seventy years on death row in Illinois for crimes they did not commit. They were convicted and sentenced to death by prosecutors under then State’s
Attorney Daley, based on false confessions extracted through torture. These four men were pardoned (based on innocence) and fully exonerated in 2003. They are among nine innocent Illinois men sentenced to death and two dozen others sentenced to prison
for crimes they did not commit during this period. Some twenty men remain in prison based in part on evidence obtained under torture from the white officers of the Area Two police station.
The People’s Law Office’s Flint Taylor, civil rights attorney Standish Willis, and clinical law professor Locke Bowman, who together fought for justice for the Burge torture victims, their families, and their community, show no signs of slowing down. In the
summer of 2007, the Cook County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support making torture a new crime as defined by international law, without a statute of limitations; to initiate new hearings for the twenty-six Chicago police torture victims who remain incarcerated; and to support any action taken by the U.S. attorney to
investigate and prosecute crimes of torture by the Chicago police. As a result of a resolution signed by twenty-six of the fifty Chicago aldermen, the Police and Fire Committee of the Council held a well-publicized open hearing on July 2, 2007, to examine the failures of the special prosecutors’ investigation and to explore remedies
that the council can take with regard to Jon Burge and the police torture scandal. For the mayor and the current state’s attorney, this is the case that just will not go away.
Not until 1993 was Jon Burge fired from the Chicago police force. He lives today in Florida, with a full police pension, on his boat called Vigilante. The torture of one hundred twenty-five Black men from 1973–1993 has, to date, only required him to return to Chicago, to take the Fifth Amendment in depositions, and to face demonstrators.
In 2005, after receiving no satisfaction from local or federal authorities, the Chicago Coalition Against Police Torture decided to go international. We brought torture victims and community members to the Inter-American Commission on Human
Rights of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., to ask the Commission to hold hearings in Chicago on the blatant violations of The Organization of American States charter, and to bring the Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination in the Americas to Chicago to investigate. In the spring of 2006, the
coalition participated in a shadow report to the UN Committee on Torture in Geneva, which was holding hearings based on a report by the U.S. State Department on their compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The committee was stunned to learn about the well-documented cases of police torture of African American men in Chicago. The CAT committee’s final report includes a highly critical section on the Chicago Area Two torture cases, smack between their responses to the U.S. government about torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. A month later, Joey Mogul
presented the Burge torture cases to the UN Human Rights Committee, again before a substantial delegation of U.S. State Department officials, again with an official demand that the U.S. government explain the absence of prosecutions for documented
torture against Black men in Chicago.
These allegations of police torture were no secret. They circulated in the African American community for years, and by the late 1980s everyone who practiced in criminal court was aware of the tortured confessions and open secret of racist punishment and pain being used and defended by officials up the chain of command. A book was written (Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy, 2000), a documentary film was made (The End of the Nightstick, directed by Peter Kuttner, 1993), Amnesty International issued a report on the cases (1991), and there have been thousands of
newspaper reports about the cases, the victims, and the perpetrators.
On October 21, 2008, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, 60 was arrested by FBI agents at his home on Florida on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for allegedly lying about whether he and other officers under his
command participated in torture and physical abuse of one or more suspects in police custody, dating back to the 1980s. He faces prosecution in federal court in Chicago, with a maximum penalty of twenty years for each count of obstruction of justice and
five years for perjury. Prosecutors noted that the investigation is continuing.
So the war in Viet Nam did come home—in a damaged and deranged manner—as will the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the so-called War on Terror. African American men experienced the full force of “collateral” damage through the practices of police
interrogation techniques, trials using tortured confessions as evidence, and disappearances into the prison industrial complex. One of the consequences of the returning troops and military personnel and private security forces to the U.S. will be the domestication of new violent technologies and new brutalizing techniques that will again be used by law enforcement at home. Enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation, “fear up harsh,” cover-up and secrecy, and legal impunity will migrate back, whether or not we call these practices torture or “just” cruel, inhuman, and
degrading treatment or punishment. In the Chicago Area Two police torture cases, no one can avoid the documented evidence of systemic, racist torture directed solely against the Black community over two decades. We can contemplate the level of harm to individuals. We can imagine the impact on family members and on an entire community. We can stand in awe at their humanity and survival. We can see the resonance with historic examples of white domination and terror. We can decide not to be innocent, to insist on seeing and on official accountability. We can surely address
the question of justice and reparations.
June 24, 2014
You can always count on the war-mongers: John McCain, who’s been wrong about every foreign policy issue for 50 years, is still wheeled out to offer his sage advice on what the US should do next, and it’s always a variation on a theme, and a badly broken record: Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Dick Cheney, of course. Lindsey Graham. Henry Kissinger—the biggest killer of them all. Wrong side of humanity, wrong side of history, but always in the thick of things, spinning lies, re-writing the record, spreading fear and hatred in the hope of one more war, and one more after that. And always enabled by the Talking Heads and Opinionators from the right, center, and “left”—that fatally narrow band considered (mainly by itself) to be the American political spectrum.
The liberals are entirely predictable as well: “No one could have foreseen this rapid descent into sectarian war!” (Sorry folks, every serious scholar and analyst predicted this would be the eventual result of a US invasion way back in 2003—look it up, starting with Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University); “Most people thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” (Nope—look that up to); “Prime Minister al-Maliki is the problem—not multicultural or inclusive enough. We did our best, but our client just wasn’t up to it.” (Ah yes! Always).
We look in the mirror and see brave and selfless heroes, peace-loving and well-intentioned, and wherever we go on our missions of peace and love—Viet Nam, Cambodia, Panama, Grenada, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, on and on—the people for some reason resent our beneficent presence, and American soldiers on the ground say they can’t tell their friends from their enemies. We may break a lot of stuff, but we’re mainly on a mission of repair, to save and civilize the good down-trodden natives. We are wonderful, always, and always the Puppet just can’t build on the wonderful work we’ve done and get the job done.
Blame the Brown Guy!
June 22, 2014
My brother Rick was one of the heroes of the American war against Viet Nam—he helped to organize and articulate war resistance in his unit, refused to kill people or to be killed in pursuit of the rulers’ imperial dreams, and deserted the US Army, spending the next decade on the run and in active resistance to war and racism. Unlike folks like John McCain who committed war crimes every day, dropping bombs on civilians, ruining farmland and infrastructure and murdering farmers and workers from the air, Rick stood for peace and justice.
A few years ago a group of German radicals and peace activists created a huge depiction of a soldier in profile, running hard as his helmet and rifle are flying away from him, and called it The Monument to the Unknown Deserter. They displayed their monument from town to town and city to city all over the country. We need that kind of sentiment—that monument—here, now more than ever.
If Bowe Bergdahl went AWOL, becoming one of millions of deserters throughout history, we should embrace that action on his part. We should stand up visibly, noisily, and salute the courage not to fight.