Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ferguson Reflections

I just got back from a trip to Ferguson, and elsewhere in the St Louis area, and I thought I'd share some of the thoughts and observations I've had along the way.

A little background seems in order, particularly for readers from other countries, who might not know.

Yes, there is a black president. However, the US is a segregated country. It is and always has been institutionally a profoundly racist country. Slavery was defeated, but Jim Crow essentially remains. Only the formalities have changed.

You don't need a “whites only” sign to maintain a very separated, unequal society. My own history is a classic illustration.

When I was a toddler, my parents decided to buy a house in the suburbs of New York City. My dad had a good union job as a university professor and my mom also taught there part-time, and part-time to piano students who came to our house. Even with this sort of employment, even back in 1969, it was a stretch for them to buy a house in what was then a fairly remote suburb, even though it was a less expensive one to buy a house in than some others. But with help from their fairly gainfully-employed, homeowning parents, they were able to swing it.

Like so many other similar suburbs around the US, growing up in Wilton, Connecticut, the town I lived in was almost entirely white. Out of the 1,200 students at Wilton High School, there was a small handful of nonwhite students – one Iranian, two Latinos, and a handful of African-American students, like five or so, all of them bused in from the black-majority, impoverished city of Bridgeport, an hour away.

Ten miles away was South Norwalk, which at the time was, like most of the cities in the US then and now, the very image of urban decay, full of boarded-up, abandoned buildings, overflowing garbage cans, stripped cars, and densely-populated, barren government housing known as “the projects.” All the kids from places like Wilton knew never to set foot in places like South Norwalk. The expression was, “that's a bad neighborhood.” “Bad” in this case almost always means “black.” In polite society in places like Wilton, you didn't refer to it as a “black” neighborhood. That would raise questions. We used the term “bad” because it's safer.

Some of my friends and I did set foot in South Norwalk, though – to buy drugs. There, as a cowering young teenager, I waited outside the projects in the car while my more worldly friends went inside. I remember feeling safer when the police were passing by and shining their floodlights in at us, even though we were there to buy drugs. When the police cars left, the projects were in total darkness, I remember, since all of the street lights around them were out for one reason or another. But they'd always be back minutes later.

I'd talk to people there from this town ten miles away from my home sometimes, but I often wouldn't understand them. For the most part they spoke a different dialect of English from mine – not because they were from a different region that had developed a different accent or dialect because they were separated from other parts of the country. But because I and these other people who both grew up in the little state of Connecticut were separated by racism, and economics (which are concepts that generally go hand-in-hand in the US).

My parents always told me as a kid that the main reason we had left New York City was for the schools. This is one of the main reasons for the massive phenomenon known here as “white flight.” The last thing they wanted to do was to move to an almost completely homogenous town. See, the bizarre state of affairs that many people outside of the US are unaware of is that education in this country is about 98% locally-funded, mostly through local real estate tax. So, in wealthier communities they are able to spend much more on education, and they do.

So you end up with a situation where the vast majority of people who grew up in places like Wilton become home-owning college graduates with good jobs, and the majority of people growing up in the projects of South Norwalk end up not going to college, not owning homes, not getting good jobs, and in a huge number of cases, not even being functionally literate. And in so many cases, dying violent deaths at a young age.

White kids from the suburbs like me are the ones doing most of the drugs, statistically. But for the most part, we're not the ones taking the risk of importing, manufacturing and distributing the drugs. That's too risky, you could go to jail for that. So the politicians we elect refuse to fund education or other aspects of the social welfare in any kind of meaningful, national way like they do in civilized countries. Then the very large suburban white population descends upon these neglected communities to buy illegal drugs, thus fueling a massive, prohibited drug economy, and the gang violence that prohibition tends to engender. (Especially when the prohibition is combined with racist laws, racist police departments, and an utter lack of local, regional or national government spending on anything other than law enforcement, the military, and building more highways for people from the suburbs to use.)

I went to three different summer camps as a kid, some of them for multiple summers, and at all of them, I don't recall there being a single person of color -- either campers or staff. When I went to a private college in the midwest, out of two thousands students, there were maybe two or three African-Americans, and several Africans, including my roommate, Enock, from apartheid South Africa.

At the age of 18, growing up in a country with tens of millions of people of African descent who lived within a hundred miles in any direction, Enock was the first friend I ever had who was black. And somehow I had to go to Indiana to meet him.

The US is nothing like it is in the Hollywood movies. These days, much more often than not, the movies and TV shows like to depict a multiracial, relatively egalitarian, solidly middle class society. In reality, there are occasional pockets that more or less accurately reflect Hollywood's version of society. But that's not at all the norm. The norm is segregation.

The norm is white and black people who only meet from either side of the checkout counter.

Since I dropped out of college I have lived in many towns and cities – Boston, Brookline, Somerville, and Medford in Massachusetts. Seattle and Olympia, Washington. Berkeley and San Francisco, California. New Haven and Southbury, Connecticut. Houston, Texas. Now in Portland, Oregon. All of these cities are almost completely segregated by race. The ones that aren't segregated are that way because they barely have any people of color in them.

I have lived in neighborhoods that were almost completely white, or almost completely black, or almost completely Latino. I'm not sure if I have ever personally been to a town in the US that reflects the demographics of the country as a whole, where different people live together in a more random sort of pattern. I'm not sure if a town like that exists. Though I haven't yet been to all of them. The only time that such a demographic seems to exist, from what I've seen, it's temporary. Temporary because when either white flight or its opposite, gentrification, is taking place in a neighborhood, town or city, it doesn't happen immediately. It takes a few years, or longer.

Despite the obvious realities of Apartheid in the US, as a white person I could nonetheless mostly ignore the fact that I lived in a violently racist, terribly unequal, segregated society. Like other white people with a conscience, I could think about it if I wanted to, and then stop thinking about it when I wanted to. My ability to keep it all at a theoretical distance ended suddenly in the early morning hours of May 1st, 1993, when my housemate and close friend, Eric Mark, was killed in a gang-related shooting when we went out that night in San Francisco.

The exact circumstances really don't matter, except that Eric was killed by a violent street gang, and the proliferation of heavily-armed gangs on the streets of American cities is a direct consequence of a vicious combination of poverty, racism, and drug prohibition. But beyond that, what really matters is that Eric's death blew my sheltered white middle-class world into shreds, permanently. Because suddenly for me people no longer fit into boxes according to class, race, national origin, etc. Now people only fit into two boxes, I suppose: those who had suffered the sudden, violent loss of friends and relatives, and those who hadn't.

I suddenly could plainly see the extraordinary pain on the faces of my neighbors in the neighborhood I lived in in San Francisco, which at the time was around 95% black, and on the faces of the Central American refugees that made up the vast majority of the population in the neighborhood in which Eric was killed. (Both of these neighborhoods have since been gentrified, with most of the former residents forced by economics to move to places like Oakland, San Jose, or further afield.)

Ever since Eric's death, hearing a gunshot reverberating among the hills of San Francisco – a common occurrence – was no longer just a loud noise. Since that time, people became more human, more mortal, more three-dimensional. Except those who had grown up the way I grew up, and had managed to maintain their protected lives. Those people suddenly became more foreign to me, harder to relate to.

So I guess that's the background. Too much background, perhaps. Anyway, Ferguson.

I tend to structure my tours around protests. All sorts of protests around all sorts of issues, but the kind that are planned in advance – against a meeting of the G8, or the World Bank, or a climate summit. If there's a protest planned with less advance notice, I try to make it to them, too. Which mainly works if it's near home, or near the tour route if I'm touring at the time.

Police kill black men under very questionable circumstances more than once a week in this country. It's so routine that most of these events don't inspire a large-scale community reaction. Sometimes, though, if the circumstances are completely insane – such as an unarmed man with his hands raised in surrender being shot multiple times in the head at very close range by an enraged cop for nothing but a refusal to move to the sidewalk, and then his body is left face-down in the street for over four hours, while aggressive police refuse to allow the victim's mother to go to her son – there is a community reaction, as was the case with the racist execution of Michael Brown, Jr.

Protests had been happening for a week in and around Ferguson before it finally occurred to me that this mobilization of the community there might just keep happening. Usually these things fizzle out over the course of a few days. But the outrageously disproportionate and violent police reaction to thousands of nonviolent protesters (as well as to the comparatively small number of people engaged in property destruction and looting of liquor stores and gas stations) fueled more outrage.

So I called my friend Chrissy, who lives four miles down the road from where Michael Brown was killed. As I had predicted, she had been out protesting with the Ferguson community every day since the shooting, and she brought me up to speed on events. I got a plane ticket the next day, for the first day I could get there on frequent flier miles, which was last Saturday night.

As I waited for Saturday to arrive and continued to follow events in Ferguson, post to social media my thoughts about things, share the song I wrote about Mike Brown, etc., I was shocked every day by some of the idiotic comments I was seeing from clueless white people talking about Mike Brown's character, or talking about waiting for the authorities to investigate what multiple people witnessed. Most people commenting were in sync with my take on the situation – that a racist cop serving a racist institution executed a young black man in the street while he had his hands raised in the air. But a number of people commented or emailed me privately to express their perspective that Mike Brown was something other than an angel, which, true or not, is completely irrelevant. Just as irrelevant as their comments about the cop having no record of prior complaints against him.

These comments from people were another reminder that what you might call “white progressives” is a very mixed bunch. I write songs about many different issues and sing for many different kinds of causes, and it never ceases to distress me that people who are so hip to anti-imperialism or environmentalism might on the other hand be so ignorant when it comes to the realities of institutionalized racism in the USA.

And then there's the gaping divide between white progressives and the black community. I tour all over the country, playing in many different places. I've been to St Louis many times. Like Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and many other cities in the US, St Louis has a population that has an African-American majority. Knowing that fact, it's always hard not to notice that at my shows in places like St Louis or Philadelphia, my audience is usually around 90% white -- about as white as a show might be in Idaho. This, essentially, is my audience: white progressives with a penchant for acoustic music, and a smattering of other folks who don't fit some aspect of that mould.

Normally, at least 9 times out of 10, if I'm planning to go to a protest in the US or just about anywhere else in the world, if I put the word out among my activist-oriented contacts (that is, my email list, Twitter followers, etc.) that I'm coming to town, I'm soon going to hear from someone about singing at the protest or other events happening that call for music. This time that didn't happen. (And I say that just to illustrate the point about the separation of racially-divided communities in the US, not to complain that I didn't get a chance to take my guitar out of its case.)

As a further illustration of this divide, people I know in St Louis were asking protest organizers about what's happening next. Things were moving fast day by day, and inevitably people were organizing by the seat of their pants, and in any situation like this it's going to be hard to know what's going to happen next. But the response of the organizers was interestingly confounding in this particular situation. They would generally tell people to check their social media.

There's a phenomenon that I only just heard about in St Louis called Black Twitter. I also just learned that per capita, African-Americans use Twitter around twice as much US society as a whole. But me and the white folks I know in St Louis aren't on the right feeds, and were basically unable to rely on social media to keep us informed, unlike everybody else around there – the overwhelmingly African-American majority involved with the protests.

Reiko took me to the airport in Portland on Saturday afternoon. The young African-American man working at the restaurant we went to first asked me where I was headed. I said something about protesting the cops in Ferguson, and somehow we ended up with an extra meal.

Upon landing in St Louis I took the shuttle to the rental car place, and was asked the same question by the white woman behind the counter. I told her I came to attend a funeral in Ferguson. She had a bit of a scowl on her face then, and spoke to me with suspicion after that. Perhaps she would have said more, but she seemed to be mindful of the two black men in line behind me to rent cars.

Hundreds of people, at least, came from all over the country to be part of what was happening in Ferguson, as well as media from around the world. There were white people coming from various places, along with much larger numbers of people of African descent, but from what I saw, most of the white people at protests and other events were journalists on assignment.

Upon arrival at Chrissy's place in Florissant, we reminisced about past protests we had been at together – the teargas-drenched FTAA talks in Miami in 2003, the NATO meetings in Chicago a couple years ago which involved Occupy kids getting charged with terrorism for alleged possession of molotov cocktails, and others. And I heard stories about the ongoing protests in Ferguson, and the especially hairy first few days, which saw so many nonviolent marchers and journalists both gassed and arrested, and some shot.

In the morning we drove down Florissant Avenue to the Target store whose parking lot had been largely taken over by military and police vehicles, which was the police “command center.” We passed a new, shiny Quick Trip gas station/market that was surrounded by a shiny new fence. This wasn't the Quick Trip where the alleged theft of Cigarillos had taken place, but they were taking no chances. We passed a liquor store that had been boarded up, and the “ground zero” Quick Trip, which was a blackened hull.

Locals knew that not all of these boarded-up buildings had been victims of the recent unrest – many of them were businesses that had shut down years before, in this economically struggling part of the world. We visited the site of the murder, on a small street just off of Florissant Avenue. One thing that's hard to glean from the news coverage is the feel of the place. While it is not doing well economically, there isn't the same kind of ghost town feel that you find in large parts of St Louis. It's got a suburban feel to it. The apartments around where Mike Brown's grandmother lives seem nice and well-maintained, though small. There's a lot of green space around them, fields and trees.

We parked in the shade on this scorching hot day, and we met a middle-aged man who came to Ferguson from South Bend, Indiana. We walked toward the makeshift memorials for Mike Brown, one of which was in the middle of the street, on the yellow lines, where he was gunned down, arms raised. People say there is still dried blood beneath the now-dried up flowers that stretch up and down the yellow lines. Someone leaned a very large wooden cross against a tree in memory of Mike. There was a crowd of a couple dozen people talking and milling about. Local people, journalists, and various visitors like us. (Including two other white people, a gay couple from St Louis I believe.) During the few minutes we were there, several police cars drove by, in a way that somehow felt inherently disrespectful.

The word managed to trickle down to me that there was a Peace Fest that was happening that day in St Louis which was a place people were going, so we headed there next. It was an annual event planned well in advance, a small, free festival with a theme focusing on ending gang violence. There were the usual booths from local sponsors, and then there were other tents set up by activist sorts who I imagine might not have been there otherwise, like some folks who came from Chicago with some freshly-made, powerful “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” t-shirts (one of which I bought).

I had been hearing rumors of people coming to the St Louis area from all over for the weekend. When there are ongoing protests around a particular theme – Occupy Wall Street, protests against Israel's war in Gaza, etc. – things often heat up on the weekends. This wasn't the case last weekend. Well, the weather heated up, a lot – every day it was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and extremely humid. But the numbers of people engaged in marches and the like had decidedly dwindled.

The world's media was still around to report on daily events, so a few hundred people coming to the Peace Fest was among the top news stories on AP that day. Many parents of other young men unjustly killed were in town, and one of those who spoke at the Peace Fest was Trayvon Martin's father.

Among the small white minority at the Peace Fest were a number of members of the Revolutionary Communist Party from Chicago, San Francisco and perhaps elsewhere, and one lone old guy pushing the newspaper of the extremely bizarre Spartacist League, who, last I checked, dedicated most of their paper's column inches to criticizing other leftists.

In another part of town the Festival of Nations was on, and as the name implies, there were several stages with musicians from around the world, as well as a huge array of fried food from dozens of different countries. I guess whatever your national cuisine is, you have to fry it in order for it to be palatable to Missourians, I don't know. Just about the only thing among the food tents that wasn't fried was the Ethiopian food, so we ate that.

Mokabe's cafe nearby was adorned with a large antiracist banner, and felt like liberated territory. Early evening Chrissy had a weekly soccer get-together with friends in the neighborhood where the loose-knit Catholic Worker movement has various houses in the midst of block after block of abandoned, boarded-up, or just completely gutted buildings that the city hasn't done anything with for ages. Much of the city is like that.

The area where we went later in the evening for dinner and to hear some music was just on the other side of what's known locally as the Delmar Divide. On one side of Delmar Boulevard is a ragged neighborhood where every other house is boarded up, and 99% of the population is black. The only statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is nearby. On the other side of Delmar – which used to be the other side of the tracks, back when St Louis had decent mass transit, a long time ago – is a posh street adorned with American flags every ten feet or so, lined with overpriced restaurants and cafes filled with white people, a large number of whom live in gated communities right there, only a block from the boarded up neighborhood on the other side of Delmar.

The commercial street with the cafes and such there is the only one you can drive on without a password for frequent stretches. Every street coming off of it has a gate on it. Talking to one member of the all-white crowd of people in the restaurant where we ate, at one point she commented that although she lived in the neighborhood, she didn't know anyone who lived in the neighborhood on the other side of Delmar. Quite likely she had never dared even take a walk on that side of the disused train tracks.

We passed through Ferguson on the way to Florissant later that night, and a small march was proceeding down a sidewalk beside the main drag, Florissant Avenue, maybe a couple dozen people.

When I initially got the plane ticket, the timespan was fairly random. I just figured I'd come for three nights. It turned out that my timing was accidentally going to coincide with Michael Brown, Jr's funeral, which I heard about on the AP newswire. I hadn't brought much in the way of clothing that's really appropriate for the occasion, but I did have a “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” t-shirt now, and I figured that would be OK.

There had been rumors the previous day that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to show up outside the funeral, but when we went to the megachurch by 9 in the morning, there was no sign of those bigoted lunatics, thankfully. The line to get into the church went around the block, and there was a huge media presence, with loads of satellite trucks. By the time we got to the entrance of the sanctuary, it was full, and we were directed to an auditorium, which also soon filled up, with close to five thousand people altogether, and many hundreds more outside.

I very rarely attend church services of any kind, and this one was easily the most exciting church service I've ever experienced. The chorus and band were fantastic, and even in the auditorium, watching things in the sanctuary on screens and listening through speakers, the people in there danced, clapped and sang magnificently.

There was much talk from the lengthy string of male ministers who dominated the program about stopping the violence in the black community. Their animated speeches seemed to focus more on gang violence than on police violence, and decidedly focused more on peace than it did on justice. That theme changed noticeably with Attorney Benjamin Crump's short speech and introduction to Reverend Al Sharpton, who gave a long, eloquent, impassioned plea for movement-building, for justice, for accountability on the part of the police.

Every time I hear Reverend Sharpton speak I wonder what the heck the pundits in the corporate and “public” media are talking about when they constantly berate him as a “divider.” It seems so obvious to anyone who's paying attention that he's not dividing anyone – in fact he's trying to unite people, behind common sense. Talking about obvious divisions doesn't make you divisive. (Ignoring them does make you divisive, though!) The worst thing you could say about Al Sharpton, it seems to me, is that he still has faith in the Democratic Party. Why an apparently sensible person like him would have such faith is a complete mystery to me.

Well under 1% of those in attendance at the homegoing service were white, and most of those whites were journalists. Some white antiracists I talked to didn't go to the funeral because they felt like doing so would somehow be intrusive. Like just because the event is open to the public doesn't mean it's OK to invade the cultural space or something. Maybe I'm just thick, but I'm pretty mystified by that perspective. Seems to me, someone was killed by the police, and anybody who shows up at the funeral is showing solidarity with that person, his family, and his community, whoever that may be, wherever in the world they may be. (Period.)

The embarrassing reality was that, far from being unwelcome, we were treated in that church like ambassadors. Every other person I passed by at the end of the service thanked me for coming, and shook my hand, for being a white person who showed up. I was reminded of that saying, I don't remember who said it, about how sometimes you just need to show up. The fact that we were there to mourn the sudden, early death of a young man with great potential who was killed in a racist hate crime was horrific as it was, but the almost complete lack of visible solidarity from anyone outside of the black community was about equally depressing. (As was the dominant message of most of the speakers preceding Crump and Sharpton, that not being violent, praying, and voting would solve everything.)

Outside the church, a hundred or so black motorcyclists were now revving their engines at deafening volume and producing such clouds of smog that it resembled a tear gas attack in several ways. The colorful bunch had been requested by the Brown family to escort the funeral procession, rather than the police.

Chrissy and I walked down the street toward where we parked, now being thanked for showing up by people outside a car repair shop. We hadn't really eaten yet that day and it was now afternoon, so we skipped off to a nearby diner, which was filled with other well-dressed people from the funeral who had the same idea. We talked with many of them there, all of whom recognized us from the funeral (we were very recognizable there) and thanked us for showing up.

At the cemetery, the motorcyclists were guarding the entrance theatrically. We parked nearby and walked in. There may have been no police in there, but the fire department had managed to create a small presence, handing out cold bottles of water. At the cemetery the crowd was much smaller, maybe two hundred people. Someone close to the casket was talking, but there was no amplification, so only people really nearby could hear that. People started singing “We Shall Overcome.” I didn't know the songs about Jesus they were singing at the church, but I knew this one, and joined in, quietly, singing a bass part.

Members of the Nation of Islam had been present in large numbers outside the church, and some were at the burial as well. Someone, I didn't see who, said in a nasally voice very much resembling Louis Farrakhan, “the white man really is the devil.” Everyone else ignored him. Spike Lee walked away from the casket with his family, toward his car. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his movies, but figured it was the wrong time.

Chrissy and I headed back to our car, and met a journalist from Guatemala who had driven to St Louis from Austin, Texas to attend the funeral. He was telling us how he was embarrassed to take out his fancy camera because he didn't want to just be another journalist, since really he was mainly there in solidarity and had come on his own dime.

We thought we'd visit the site of the most recent “officer-involved shooting”/racist execution in the area, which happened last Tuesday, not very far from where Michael Brown was shot. There was a makeshift memorial there, too. Teddy bears, flowers and a plastic, upside-down American flag.

There was a “town meeting” at the Missouri Museum of History. We got there early. The exhibits in the museum that were not closed off for the evening's event were a bizarre mix. A collection of photographs related to the Mississippi River on one floor. A collection of newspaper covers praising the achievements of local Nazi sympathizer airman, Charles Lindbergh on another floor. A statue of a dead, rich white slaveowner named Thomas Jefferson in the front of the building. He wasn't even from Missouri.

But the program of events held regularly at the museum was much more interesting than the museum itself would indicate, and it included the event that evening, which was being led by Kevin Powell, an author and activist from New York City.

My 60 hours in Missouri ended with a visit to a swimming pool, in the forest down the hill from a house a half mile down a private road in the far reaches of Florissant, so close but so far from Michael Brown's little apartment in Ferguson.

Early the next morning, eating breakfast at the airport before boarding my flight home, CNN was reporting on a new audio recording that indicated that Officer Darren Wilson had fired ten shots at Michael Brown, Jr, rather than six, as had been previously reported. The next day, back home, while taking my morning walk around the swamp on the campus of Reed College, I heard the news that two more young black men somewhere in the US who had posed no threat to police whatsoever had been been shot and killed the day before.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Road to Ferguson: A Musically Annotated, Partial History of the US Police State

I have heard multiple journalists expressing their shock at seeing heavily-armed and armored riot police using tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and other "nonlethal" weapons against peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

While it's a good thing that so many of these journalists evidently feel that the police practices they're observing (and falling victim to) are abhorrent, the fact that they're shocked by them belies the general bias of the corporate media. Where have these people been all their lives? Apparently not where I've been. They haven't been reporting on the bigger protests of the past years and decades, that's for sure.  (And they haven't been listening to my music or reading my blog.)  If they had been, they would realize that these kinds of police tactics are not the exception in the USA (and elsewhere) -- they're the norm.

So it occurred to me that at this point I'm in a pretty good position to give to all who might want one a musically annotated history of the US police state.

The police states of America systematically kill black people.  Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant were three of thousands of US citizens who were simply killed for the crime of being black.

The police state is afraid of its people, especially its poorer, darker residents.  So when the people of majority-black New Orleans were dying, the police state shot them for stealing water needed to survive, from shops already abandoned and destroyed by flooding.  The police state uses tragedies to ethnically cleanse cities like New Orleans.

The police state is horrified by the specter of militant resistance, especially when its very popular.  When militant, popular organizations arise, the police state kills, shoots and jails their leaders and many of their adherents.  They had "shoot to kill" orders on Assata Shakur and all of her colleagues when they shot her on the highway in the police state of New Jersey, while her hands were above her head.

The police department in cities like Portland, Oregon are systematically racist in their approach to "serving and protecting" the public.  One of their recently-promoted officers, Captain Mark Kruger, is a known Nazi.  Studies of have shown that fascists in the ranks of police departments of the US and other countries is disproportionately common, compared to the rest of the population.

Collective punishment of large crowds of nonviolent protesters because of the actions of a few kids with rocks is the norm here.  The police state beat, gassed, arrested thousands and nearly killed several people during Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy Wall Street was an almost entirely nonviolent movement that was drowned in blood and choked in gas.

I have breathed tear gas in cities throughout the US myself, only in my adult life, to say nothing of times past and places I haven't been.  As a nonviolent protester, I have breathed the acrid gas-filled air in Miami, been clubbed by police in Pittsburgh, arrested and threatened with gang rape by police in the progressive heartland of Berkeley, California.  (And this is what they do to white people they don't like!)

In the police state, chiefs like John Timoney encourage illegal, brutal behavior on the part of their police.  But even when they lose millions of dollars to successful lawsuits won by victims of police misconduct, people like John Timoney get promoted.

The police state tortures prisoners around the world, very much including within the US, such as at Pelican Bay in California.

The police state is there to defend the property of the owning class.  They arrest people like Brad Will (who was killed by the police state in Mexico -- in the US he was only beaten and arrested) for living in an abandoned building, or for growing illegal vegetables.  The police state beats and arrests people for serving food to hungry people without a permit.

The police state systematically serves the interests of the big corporations.  The police state serves the banks and evicts people from their homes.  The Coast Guard was sent to Cordova, Alaska not to punish Exxon for their crimes against nature and humanity, but to break up the blockade of Prince William Sound by fishermen.

The police state systematically spies on millions of its own people.  The police state frames people for crimes and charges them with "terrorism."  The police state jails people in Communications Management Units for providing food and medicine to Palestinians.

The police state massacres students from a distance of 300 feet.  Not once, but twice in one month.  The police state orders its armed enforcers to kill students when the police state is concerned about its ongoing well-being as a police state.

The police state comes in with guns drawn to arrest people nonviolently trying to stop a new highway from being built.  The police state burns down the houses of anti-highway activists who get in the way.

And the police state goes way, way back.  Soon after the American Revolution, the police state came down solidly on the side of the wealthy landowners and violently suppressed a three-year rebellion by tenant farmers in Massachusetts, including many veterans of the Revolutionary War, called Shays Rebellion.  A few decades later, the police state mobilized in large numbers in defense of one of the richest landlords in the history of the world to oppose another rebellion by tenant farmers, this time in upstate New York, called the Rent Strike Movement.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the police state hunted down escaped slaves and sent them back to their masters.  In much of the North as well as the South.  The police state killed John Brown and his followers for fighting to end slavery.

The police state systematically lies in order to garner support for its wars.  When necessary, the police state jails, lynches and executes those who refuse to fight, particularly during World War I and the Vietnam War.

Soon after World War I, the police state was beating, arresting, and massacring union coal miners, their families and supporters.  The police state of West Virginia was holding a hundred miners with no charges, and eventually there was a rebellion in West Virginia of coal miners against the state and the coal operators.  Every cop in the state of West Virginia lined up alongside the authorities.  The precursor of the US Air Force flew in and dropped bombs on the miners.

Then again in the following decade, the 1930's, the police state massacred or attempted to massacre nonviolent protesters in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Washington, DC and many other cities.  World War I veterans were shot and killed, their protest encampments burned by troops under the command of one Douglas MacArthur, the future general who would command the US troops in the war with Japan.

The police state branded veterans returning from fighting fascism in Spain "premature antifascists."

Then and now, the police systematically serve the interests of the few, of the elite, systematically against the interests of the many, of the working class majority of this country.  The policeman's primary role is to be a bully.

But they and the corporate elite that they serve are always afraid of the people they police.  They know, to varying degrees, that they are governing over a powder keg.  They know that if the spell is broken and a militant, popular, well-organized mass movement gets its footing, everything can change very quickly.

You can listen to all of the songs I linked to in this piece in the Road to Ferguson playlist on Soundcloud.

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Neither King Nor Kaiser"

I'd like to introduce a song I just wrote, “Neither King Nor Kaiser” (which you can listen to if you click on the title).

Governments, the media, and lots of people around the world are now commemorating the beginning of the four years of industrial-scale carnage that was World War I, which began a hundred years ago this month. The commemorations don't gloss over the carnage – that would be impossible. The scale of the slaughter was so massive, killing tens of millions of conscripted men from all walks of life from around the world, it wouldn't be possible to ignore that aspect of the war, just as it would be impossible not to notice the size of the cemeteries containing the dead soldiers, or the vast numbers of rows of gravestones within them.

What most of the commemorations will ignore, however, are the things we most need to remember. One of those things is the widespread opposition to the war across the world. Labor unions, feminists, leftwing organizations and pacifists were numerous in many countries, and vociferously opposed the war. Labor leaders and activists were deported, hanged, jailed, beaten, and killed for their opposition to the war. (One such labor leader in Canada was Ginger Goodwin.)

Another aspect of the lead-up to war that will be generally ignored by the government-sponsored commemorations and most of the media coverage is the fact that in order for many countries to join this terrible fight, democracy had to be actively subverted or ignored. For example, in Australia, two national referendums opposing Australian participation in the war were ignored by the Australian government. In the US, the popularly-elected president of the day, Woodrow Wilson, ran on a platform of noninvolvement in World War I – which is why he won.

The most important aspect of the commemorations that will be generally ignored is the fact that World War I was fundamentally and undeniably a war for empire (though apologists for empire will deny it was anything of the sort, and will even deny the empire exists!). The aftermath of the war saw much of the world divided up by the colonial powers. Borders were drawn in a systematic way, in order to ensure as many different forms of division as possible in these newly-created countries, which were then systematically exploited by Britain, France, and the United States in the decades to follow. The legacy of these artificially-imposed divisions are very much with us today, in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Palestine, to name a few.

For a lot more on this subject, I cannot recommend highly enough Robert Fisk's epic book, The Great War for Civilization.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Israel/Palestine FAQ

With the recent escalation in conflict between Israel and Hamas, social media has been full of all kinds of misconceptions about reality, fueled by very biased western media and other factors. Off the top of my head, I thought I'd try to shine some light on some of this stuff, so it hopefully becomes a bit clearer for some people.

Is the Israel/Palestine conflict an intractable conflict going back thousands of years?

Not really. For the most part it dates back to the rise of the Zionist movement, starting around the turn of the twentieth century. The Nazi Holocaust in Europe then results in a massive increase in the popularity of Zionism, and the immediate post-War period sees the formation of the state of Israel and the forcible displacement of 700,000 Palestinians. Trouble ever since.

Who are these Palestinians?

Mostly farmers and city-dwellers, along with some nomads, a combination of Muslims, Christians and Jews who have lived in Palestine for thousands of years. The modern-day Palestinians include the descendents of the original Jews of the region, most of whom converted to Christianity or Islam over the generations.

Who are the Israelis?

This depends on where you put Israel's borders, which has been a matter of dispute for a long time – dispute between what Israel says and what everybody else in the world says, more or less. The area under direct Israeli military control includes the West Bank and Gaza, which the rest of the world does not recognize as Israeli territory. (It was conquered, occupied, and settled by Israeli Jews after 1967 – illegally as far as the UN is concerned.) So if we're talking about the whole of Israel plus what the rest of the world knows as the Occupied Territories, then Israel's population is roughly half Jewish and half Palestinian Arab. About one million of those Palestinians live within Israel as second-class citizens, and the rest – the vast majority – live under direct military occupation, can't vote, and aren't citizens of anywhere.

So the Israeli Jews, who are they?

Overwhelmingly, they are people of European descent, who moved to Palestine before, during or after World War II. They have been identified as or have self-identified as Jews (or both) in Europe or North America, where most of them are from (or are descended from). The Jewish religion claims Jerusalem as it's holy land. Jerusalem was ruled by a Jewish king for a little while a long time ago, and for a much longer time was ruled by the Romans, Ottomans and others. It's the home of at least three major religions. The European Jews who lay claim to it are generally not related to the Jews who lived there before – the Palestinians who they have displaced are, however.

Is Israel a democracy?

Not in the modern sense. By Roman standards, yes. But by modern standards, no. A very large percentage of the adult population of the land controlled by Israel cannot vote. Not because they have a criminal record or don't qualify for voting for some other reason, but because they are Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza. They're not even subject to civilian rule, but instead, direct military rule.

But if they let all the Palestinians vote, then Israel wouldn't be a Jewish state anymore, right?

Correct. So the Palestinians need to be occupied, ethnically cleansed, not allowed to have rights, etc., naturally. The Jewish state must have a Jewish majority if it's to be a “democracy.” So they can't let the Palestinian majority have the vote.

So what's the game plan for Israel here, with regard to the Palestinians?

No matter what kind of leadership the Palestinians have, whether religious, secular, collaborationist, oppositional, etc., the Israeli game plan, as made very clear by Israeli practice, is to take most of the remaining Palestinian lands away from the Palestinians, forcing the remaining Palestinian population into crowded cities, much like the bantustans under Apartheid South Africa, except these bantustans are surrounded by very high walls with heavily-armed Israeli soldiers on top of them in guard towers. There is no question that the Palestinians can't under these circumstances have anything you could call sovereignty, or a “two state solution.”

Do Jews run the world?

No. There are many Jews in very powerful positions politically and economically, but currently, the only country in the world you could say is run by Jews is Israel. There are other groups, such as Cuban Americans in the US, particularly in Florida, who have a disproportionate political influence because many of them have a common political agenda, as do many Jews in the US, though not most of them. There are periods in the history of some countries in eastern Europe when Jews had a very disproportionate influence on politics and economics, much like, say, the Chinese minority in Malaysia does today. But that was a while ago.

After the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, don't Jews deserve to have their own country?

The Nazis killed millions of people. They killed people for their political beliefs in very large numbers, and for being gay or lesbian, for being disabled, and for many other reasons. The idea that every group victimized by the Nazis needs to run their own country afterward seems like a strange solution. Better to learn from what happened in Europe that gave rise to the fascist movement, and prevent that from happening in the future. In any case, if you're going to take millions of people and move them somewhere else in the world, where shall they go? Probably somewhere already occupied by other people. And then the new occupants are supposed to run the show? The people from whom they're taking over, by force, might not like that.

But if Israel stops oppressing the Palestinians, and gives up the idea of a Jewish state in favor of a real democracy, what will happen to the Jews? Haven't Muslims and Jews always had problems with each other?

They haven't. In fact, there were many thousands of Jews moving into Palestine during the first few decades of the Zionist movement. There were tensions of all kinds, but for the most part, the indigenous Palestinian population and the new arrivals from Europe got along OK. Which is surprising, given the large numbers of new arrivals, and the superiority complex many of them had.

Furthermore, going back over the centuries, while Jews and other nonbelievers were being ruthlessly slaughtered by Inquisitors and Crusaders in Europe, the Jewish refugees from Spain and elsewhere went to places like Istanbul, where they prospered for hundreds of years, an accepted part of Ottoman society, which was a very multicultural, multilingual, multireligious society, with a Muslim majority that was almost incomparably more tolerant than their Catholic and Protestant counterparts in Europe.

But Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist! What about that?

Hamas's leadership has never said that Jews shouldn't live in Palestine. In fact, Hamas activists and Jews live peacefully side by side in places like Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank, where there is a longstanding Palestinian Jewish community. But asking Hamas or any other Palestinian organization or governing entity to recognize a state which won't itself tell anyone else where their own borders are, a state which is continually, illegally stealing more and more Palestinian land for Jewish-only settlements, a state which itself won't recognize the right of the Palestinians to have a state, this is different from recognizing that Jews have a right to live in Palestine alongside other people.

But if a Jew sets foot in Gaza, he'll be shot, right?

No. Lots of Jews, and others, regularly visit Gaza, when the Israeli or Egyptian authorities will allow visitors in. Many of them are activists with groups like the International Solidarity Movement. Others are journalists, UN employees, etc. They are welcomed with open arms by the people of Gaza, including Hamas, and face no discrimination for being Jewish, let alone violence or threats thereof.

But I've seen videos where people in Gaza say things like, “The Jews are coming. God is great. Kill the Jews.”

For a lot of regular people in Gaza and various other refugee camps, people who have never had the opportunity to leave their refugee camp in their entire lives have the impression that their enemy is “the Jews.” This is mainly because the only Jews they've ever seen have been driving tanks, shooting at their kids, and bulldozing their homes. When they say “the Jews” they are talking about the Zionists or the Army, but this distinction, for them, seems very moot, under their extreme circumstances. Even so, many Palestinians, especially those who have had a chance to travel outside of the Occupied Territories, end up meeting nice people of Jewish lineage, and learning that all Jews are not Zionist soldiers trying to kill them.

But the settlers left Gaza years ago, and now Hamas is shooting rockets at Israel. What's up with that? What's their beef?

The settlers left, but then the fighter jets moved in. Gaza was and is still very much occupied. An embargo is an act of war. Gaza has been subject to a merciless embargo maintained by the Israeli military for many decades. And then drones fly overhead constantly, firing at people whenever someone in the control room in Israel wants them to, usually killing women and children more often than their supposed “terrorist” targets.

But as long as Hamas is firing rockets, doesn't Israel need to defend itself?

Hamas is firing rockets in the first place because they don't know what else to do to try to end the siege of their home by the IDF. The siege needs to end, the Palestinians need to be able to breath, to build, to eat, to travel freely within Palestine, to have a port with access to the outside world, so they can go visit Turkey like so many Israelis love to do. Then most people won't want to fire rockets at Israel anymore, and the people who do want to do that won't be able to get traction, because most people will be living too comfortably to want to fire rockets at anyone.

But doesn't Hamas want to stop girls from going to school and nasty stuff like that?

No. You're thinking of the Taleban. Hamas is not the Taleban. There are big, big differences between different Muslim organizations in the world. If you don't know this, you are either ignorant or Islamophobic or both. Why would you want to be an ignorant Islamophobe? Much more interesting to learn about how the world really is, in all its glorious diversity!

But isn't Hamas a terrorist group that's oppressing their own people?

Well, first of all, if they were, it might not be up to Israel or anyone else to rescue them. And if it were up to someone, Israel would be the wrong choice, in any case, as would all of the former/current colonial powers in the region (US, UK, France), who have a proven record of messing everything up every time (usually on purpose). But in fact, Hamas is a popular political party that was democratically elected by popular vote to lead the Palestinian Authority throughout Gaza and the West Bank just eight years ago, the last time there was a fair election held in the Occupied Territories. Throughout most of its existence, Hamas has been dedicated to distributing food, running hospitals, and fighting against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. All very popular activities among Palestinians at home and abroad. This is not to say everybody loves them. There are lots of secular Palestinians as well as Christian Palestinians who are uncomfortable with the religious emphasis within the party. But Hamas is not a terrorist group according to the United Nations, and is popularly-elected, and very popular, and they believe in educating girls, too.

So what does this whole thing have to do with us in the USA, anyway?

Israel is only able to conduct itself as it does because it has the political and military backing of the US. These daily atrocities are committed with our tax dollars, with weaponry we sent them. Plus a lot of the people running Israel were born and raised in New York and they have dual citizenship.

So maybe the whole thing is unfair, but shouldn't the Palestinians just accept defeat and move on?

Many of them have been trying to do that for decades, but Israel won't let them. If Israel had allowed the Palestinians to have a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza (22% of the original Palestine), things might have turned out differently. But Israel insists on taking almost all of Palestine, and controlling all of it. History shows that if Jews can share the land, so can Muslims and Christians – even if the Jews in question are not from the region and have no reasonable historic claim to any of it. That's some pretty impressive sharing! But it's not good enough for Israel.

But aren't you a bleeding heart liberal self-loathing Jew middle-class unrealistic white guy from the suburbs of New York?

Nope. I know what I'm talking about. I've studied the history of the region, and I've been there, and seen the Israeli occupation up close. I've spent time with lots of regular people from the region, not just members of the intelligentsia, including members of all the major Palestinian factions.

This is all so different from how I understood the situation. Where can I learn more about how things really are there?

Turn off your American news programs, forget about your American education, and start paying attention to the rest of the world. Get your news from a variety of different sources, from different countries, most of which have an English broadcast. Variety is better, and you won't get that from US news sources for the most part. You can also read some good books, like anything by Robert Fisk, Nicholas Guyatt or Phyllis Bennis.