Apr 25, 2009

connecting torture, North and South

I was incredibly moved by the article It's important that we make connections in the latest issue of Presente! the newspaper of the movement to close the School of the Americas. The article is an interview/conversation with black freedom movement leader Ruby Sales. Ruby has personal experience with accompaniment. In '65 Jonathan Daniels, a young white man working with SNCC in solidarity with black activists, was killed as he pushed Ruby out of the line of fire of a white vigilante.

Ruby's analysis in this article is so powerful and clear. I really encourage you to read all of it, but here are a few key snippets:

(warning, disturbing stories - but we need to be disturbed! see through our tears!)

Ruby: No, it was a whole body of white people. For example in 1930 a lynch mob of men, women and children in Meriam, Indiana mutilated and lynched Tom Ship and Abe Smith and lynched them. And they also burned their bodies, and then after their bodies were burned, white men, women and children tore off the victim's clothes and ripped apart their genitals to keep as souvenirs and reminders of their power over Black lives and bodies.

And as the crowd lynched Will Brown, they set up a cheer. And the white representatives of the criminal justice system that were sworn to uphold the law colluded with these crimes. And although when you look at those historical pictures you see the faces of the criminal, the criminal justice system never charged or punished them for these heinious crimes. Very much like police operatives today getting away with this kind of execution.

And then in 1918, a white mob lynched Mary Turner in Brooks County, Georgia. A mob of about several hundred people, and she was 8 months pregnant, and the mob tied her to a tree, took a knife and split her wide open and her unborn child fell from her womb to the ground, where the mob proceeded to crush the baby's head with the heels of other members of the mob. And then they riddled her body with bullets and set her afire with gasoline. And no one was punished for mutilating or murdering Mary Turner. And in the crowd, of course, there were policemen, and the policemen in these small counties knew exactly who had done it, and they never brought charges against them.

Most recently in 2007 in Logan County, West Virginia, Megan Williams was hospitalized after six white men and women held her captive and tortured her for days. They tortured her, they sexually abused her and forced her to eat rat droppings. They choked her with a cable cord and stabbed her in the leg while using white supremacist language designed to dehumanize her. According to Megan Williams, these white supremacists poured hot water over her and made her drink from a toilet. As of this writing, representatives of the criminal justice system both locally and nationally have decided not to charge Megan Williams' torturers with these crimes.

And then of course we have the murders of Adolf Grimes, who was murdered most recently in New Orleans, where the police for no apparent reason at all pumped 14 rounds of bullets in his body. And of course we have Oscar Grant in Oakland/San Francisco, most recently, who was shot by the police as he lay on the ground with his hands cuffed. And we of course have Sean Bell who was shot multiple times by the police in 2006 as he came from a bachelor's party that preceeded his wedding the next day. And of course you have 17-year-old Billy Joe Johnson who died mysteriously in the hands of the police. And on the day that he died, the police would not permit the parents to identify or see his body. As a matter of fact, the parents did not see his body for five days later. And when they returned the body to the parents, Mr. Johnson said that his son had been butchered like a pig. And later on we discover that his brains, tongue and the right side of his jaw were missing.

Vera: It's an overwhelming history and present of --

Ruby: Well, it's like the death squads of Latin America. That's exactly what they did. They cut out people's tongues in El Salvador. elsalvador.jpgSo this continues a trajectory of state violence against oppressed peoples, whether you're in Latin America [or not]. That was my thing, that people could make the connection in El Salvador, but they couldn't bring it back home to this country that has had a heinious history. The trainers of the death squads were able to teach them to do this because they had practiced it domestically at home. That's why they came to this country to be trained in how to commit these heinious crimes. Because this is what had happened in this country with African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.

Vera: And because in this country, the state had this whole body of white people who were supporting them, either silent, and/or perpetrating it themselves.

Ruby: And when the Dyer Bill that came up in Congress against lynchings, that had been fought to bring to the national forefront by Ida Wells Burnett, most white Congressmen voted against the Dyer Bill. Voted against the bill to stop lynching in this country, and that was in the 20th century. That was not in the 18th century.

And I can tell you the story of Will Brown, whose body was broken and charred, after a white mob lynched him and hung his dead body from a telephone pole in 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska. They shot several hundred bullets into his lifeless hanging body. They then cut the rope and then tied his body to a car, and dragged it through the street. Next, they poured oil on his body and burned him. And once again, although the faces of members of the white mob are clear in the photographs, the white representatives of the criminal justice system that was sworn to uphold the law ignored the crime and no one was ever charged.

And what I'm trying to say is that this has always been a community event within white society. And white people have been told that this kind of blood letting and killing and lynching and torture of African Americans are essential to protect law and order and to protect the perogatives of the white community. That left untouched, Black people would destroy civilization and everything that's good in it. And so white people have been taught to fear African Americans. And they have most of the time bought into this.

So when we talk about torture abroad, you must understand that torture abroad that America is involved with begins at home. Even water boarding is not nothing new. The tactic was a little different, but it was water boarding when you unleashed water hoses on demostrators, water hoses that were going about a hundred miles a minute.

Vera: I'm wondering how to stand where we are and push against this. As a white person, I feel a lot of responsibility for pushing other white people, and myself, to see this and to study this and to understand this, but also to work in community with communities and leaders of color, to push against this. I'm wondering if we can speak about that a little bit?

Ruby: Well, one of the reasons why the movement here against death squads in El Salvador and the violence and terrorism in Nicaragua never gained hold among the African-American community here, because it rung with deep hypocrisy. We were living in the heart of police and state violence, and there seemed to have been on the parts of white people no recognition of this and no willingness to admit the truth about the country that they lived in and how their silence accelerates and sustains this police state that Black people have lived in for years. So it seemed weird to go running somewhere else without making a connection between that somewhere else in this community. And so Black people, when confronted with this situation, really saw white people as real hypocrites and that's why -- it's not that we didn't care about what was happening in Latin America, but we simply could not work with people who would deny what was happening in this country and who insisted on remaining ignorant about it. When there have been hundreds of books written on the subject.

So part of what I think needs to happen is that I need to bring young activists together in a kind of school, a movement history of militarism so that they can do their work within the context of a historical frame of reference. Because right now it's ahistoric.

there's much more great analysis in this article, keep reading here.

Apr 18, 2009

testimony with animation

Another creative way of presenting a personal story - of building understanding, connection, solidarity. I'm a huge fan of comics/graphic novels for popular education, and I love this blend of comic, video, music, and personal story. y es cierto, "todo viene en bolsas".

Apr 8, 2009

Memory in song

Fantastic song telling the story of Jiguamindo, one of the Colombian peace communities/ communities in resistance (they use different terms, but the basic idea is that they ask all of the different armed actors, including the army and police, to stay out of the community). This community is accompanied by the Quebec based organization PASC.

Apr 3, 2009

Empire's (and resistance's) workshop

(draft of a book review coming out in the journal Political Geography)

This book is a fast and compelling read and makes a strong case for its main argument: that Latin America served as a laboratory for what Grandin calls “new imperialism”. He argues that it was in Latin America that the US rehearsed both ideas used to justify US power and techniques (from napalm to finance) for a new imperial project in world where formal colonialism was no longer workable.

Lest this argument seem like the grandiose vision of a Latin Americanist, let me point out that David Harvey makes a similar argument in The New Imperialism (2005) (surprisingly Grandin never cites Harvey). Harvey argues that it was because in South America the US faced countries that, like itself, had recently “freed themselves from the colonial yoke through independence struggles” that it had to “work out means of imperial domination that nominally respected the independence of such countries yet dominated them through some mix of privileged trade relations, patronage, clientelism, and covert coercion” (2005: 48). It was in Latin America that the US “learned to mask the explicitness of territorial gains and occupations under the mask of a spaceless universalization of its own values, buried within a rhetoric that was ultimately to culminate, as Neil Smith points out, in what came to be known as ‘globalization’” (Harvey, 2005: 47).

Of course US empire in Latin America started out much more old school. Many of largest US companies got their start in Latin America, including those of the Guggenheims, Schwabs, and Rockefellers (Grandin, 2006: 17). They had astounding military backing. Grandin argues that Nicaragua in the 1920s was the “first practical laboratory for the development of post-war aviation in coordination with ground troops” The US marines practiced tactics that would become standard, such as reconnaissance flights, ground-to-air signalling, and propaganda leaflet drops. They also engaged in the first dive-bombing campaign in military history (2006: 22).

Grandin argues that the US’s overt imperial moment ended when FDR, in 1933, proclaimed the Good Neighbor policy and withdrew occupation forces, declared a non-interventionist policy, and even stood by while Bolivia and Mexico nationalized their oil (2006: 27). Why? He argues that though Sandino, in Nicaragua, had drawn them into their first quagmire, and the Mexican revolution threatened to be a second, it was really the great depression that inspired a new sort of imperialism (2006: 28). The US decided that it was more cost effective to be a good empire, er, neighbor. It set up alliances/treaties, and in the name of fighting communism and promoting development, structured economic and political relationships so that it had effective control over the supply of oil, ore, minerals and other primary resources – free of the burdens of formal colonialism (2006: 40).

When Arbenz came to power in Guatemala in 1954 the CIA, recently established 1947, took it as a chance to practice their new psych ops techniques for the first time (2006: 43). These were given a new spin with Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in the early 60s, which tried to steal the thunder of the ‘59 Cuban revolution and began the tradition of speaking of democracy while training death squads and supporting coups (in Uruguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile from ‘64 to ‘76) (Grandin, 2006: 47, 48).

Grandin argues that there was no whiff of insurrection in El Salvador in the early 60s when agents from the State Department, green berets, CIA and USAID organized two paramilitary groups that became the backbone of the death squad system. This was part of a purported attempt to professionalize Latin American security agencies and was part of Kennedy’s campaign to pre-empt communism (2006: 95), though if anything the ‘counterinsurgency’ repression in El Salvador seems to have finally conjured up the insurgency (2006: 99).

As part of same push “General William Yarborough also advised the Colombian government to set up an irregular unit trained to, “execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents”. As Grandin puts it, this is “as good a description of a death squad as any” (2006: 96) (and seemed to serve to similar effect, for the FARC guerrillas also attribute their taking up arms to US intervention in the 60s (Murillo 2004). This general had just come back from Vietnam, from which there was a good bit of traffic of personnel and tactics at the time. Strikingly, Grandin argues that it was actually in Colombia that the US did its first pre-Vietnam experiment with scorched-earth tactics (ie, razing villages and setting up “strategic hamlets”) and that it was in Colombia that the US first used napalm in combat (2006: 98).

Grandin argues that it was with the Latin American solidarity movement that the US government learned to bring its psych ops techniques home. Much of the Patriot Act and recent attacks on the peace movement are eerily like the COINTELPRO campaign he details. The FBI and CIA worked together in the 80s, using over two thousand individual agents to infiltrate over one thousand groups over five years in a campaign that involved all 59 FBI field offices. CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, was the primary target. They shadowed and intimidated activists, seized papers, tampered with mail, questioned employers, and did over 200 obvious break-ins. Yanira Correa was kidnapped from in front of the LA CISPES office, driven around in a van, tortured and raped, while explicit comments were made about her activism. There has been total impunity for all of these crimes (2006: 129), so why not do it all over again today?

My main frustration with Grandin is that he does not detail how Latin America has also been a key workshop for both grassroots and state resistance to empire, which continues to grow in brave creative new ways. For those of us in the global North who work against the new empire to ally and work with these movements in Latin America is not a matter of guilt or good will (though surely some of both comes into play), but good strategy. We need all the help of their courage and vision from their key location inside the workshop for our own resistance work inside the belly.

Grandin, Greg (2006) Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism. NY: Metropolitan Books

Harvey, David (2005) The New Imperialism. NY: Oxford Univ. Press

Murillo, Mario (2004) Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. NY: Seven Stories Press