Sunday, January 25, 2015

The day the buses ran empty

Sam Smith, 1966 – Monday January 24th, was the day that Washington thumbed it nose at 0. Roy Chalk. There is a long list of grievances against Mr. Chalk a Washingtonian could compile, but it is enough here to mention that Mr. Chalk is head of the D. C. Transit System and that Mr. Chalk, on the day in question, was in the midst of petitioning the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Com-mission for a fare increase from twenty-five cents to thirty cents.

On the morning of the 24th, about 7 a.m., my alarm went off, but I didn’t hear it. About twenty minutes to eight I awoke and remembered the promise I had made to myself to take part in the bus boycott that day. I don’t like demonstrating, probably for the same reason I don’t like ringing door-bells during a campaign, being on committees, or attending civic meetings. The theory of democracy. I concluded long ago, is fine: the practice of it is often a pain in the neck. Still, thirty cents is a lot of money to pay for a bus ride. It’s more than most public transit riders in the coun-

try pay. John Lindsay had only recently emerged from a bruising fight with New York transit workers; one of the major issues had been maintenance of a fifteen cent fare.

It seemed to many Washingtonians that Mr. Chalk and his company were making enough money already and that, in any event, thirty cents was too much to demand of thousands who rely upon bus transportation for the simple reason that there is nothing cheaper.

So I hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my ’54 Chrysler, and made my way to 6th and H Sts. NE, one of the assembly points established for volunteer drivers providing free car rides during the boycott. There a boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle aged and rather fat lady.

A bus drove by and it was empty.

“They’re all empty,” the lady said. It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered whether she was right.

As we drove west a long H. St., I asked one of the students, “Has there been a lot of talk about the boycott at your school?”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been hearing about it on us teenager’s favorite radio station.”

“WOL?” WOL is a popular Negro station.

“Yeah man, soul radio.” A bus passed us with two passengers in it.

“That’s why I’ve got my transistor,” the fat lady said, and she showed me the portable radio she grasped under a purse and a shopping bag with a green floral design on it.

The radio stations, particularly the Negro ones, were playing up the boycott. This was important since the daily papers had not been overly generous with their coverage.

If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent proposed fare increase would cost them twenty cents a day. That’s the price of a loaf of bread. Over the course of the year it would probably cost them as much as they spent in groceries during a month. Nickels add up.

I let off my passengers and headed back to 6th V H. At Florida V New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning and the boycott was working. With the type of metabolism I’ve got, it’s pretty damn hard for me to feel exhilarated about anything before nine o’clock in the morning. But when I saw those five empty buses it was different. Washington was no longer taking. it lying down. The people were being heard from. The city was coming alive. Today it was talking back to 0. Roy Chalk. Tomorrow: perhaps the Board of Trade and its opposition to home rule, or slum landlords and their rat-infested basement apartments.

The boycott had been organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the help of numerous civic action organizations includhg the Coalition of Conscience, a respectable group of mild hell-raisers under the impeccable leadership of a white Episcopal bishop and a Negro minister.

SNCC and the other groups charged that the fare hike was discriminatory since it would largely hurt Negro Washington. They scheduled the boy-

cott primarily against nine heavily travelled routes in the mostly Negro northeast section of town. But they also called for city-wide walkout against D. C. Transit.

Washington is a city of considerable apathy in local matters. It has been so long denied home rule that it tends not to believe that the voice of the people matters. It often accepts its fate with a passivity that would surprise more politically conscious communities. When demonstrations and protests are organized, the police are likely to outnumber the demonstrators.

SNCC proposed that people walk, hitch a ride, or stay home on the dav of the boycott. High school students were urged to organize walk-ins. Cars and volunteer drivers were sought. to pick up riders along the boycotted bus lines. Domestics were asked to tell their employers that they would have to be picked up.

SNCC set up a communications headquarters, procured radio equipped cars, and established car assembly points. Handbills were widely distributed, stuck under doors and beneath the windshield wipers of parked cars. The police stationed additional men along the boycott routes.

“It’s beautiful,” the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for 17th St. NW. “It’s working and it’s beautiful. Hey, you see those two there? Let’s try and get them.” I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.
“Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in,” my rider called to the pair.

“You headed down town?”

“Yeah, get in.”

“Great. It’s working, huh? Great!”

The boycott was like an informal game of touch football on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody was too good at the game but everyone who played seemed to enjoy it just the same.

Not everyone played. As I made my way back from downtown, I stopped at several bus stops. “Fight the fare increase: ride for free,” I’d call out.

Most of those waiting for the bus were white. Some pretended they didn’t hear me and looked the other way. Others stared as if I were a little crazy. Still others shook their head in that nervous, embarrassed way people do when they’re refusing to buy pencils from a crippled man on the street corner. During the day I carried 71 people. Only five of them were white. Three American University students. One man on his way to a job interview in a crummy section of town. And one lady who thought the boycott wasn’t going far enough.
I wondered about those who rejected my offer of a free ride. Perhaps they wanted a thirty cent fare. But I doubted that. It was more likely they were apprehensive about anything that upset the routine of life.

They were more prosperous than the riders I picked up on Benning Road; more successful than the cement-caked laborer who got in on Florida Ave

nue; and had more reason to be satisfied with life than the Negro maid I carried who commuted regularly halfway across town to a badly paid job.
But when someone offered them a free ride they were afraid: better not, he might rape me: what’s the gimmick, must be one of those agitators; hitching rides is dangerous . . .

I was glad to get back to Northeast Washington, where people were help-

ing each other out that Monday without apprehension. Life hadn’t done as well by them, not by a damn sight, but at least they were not afraid of its novelties. It’s too bad people get scared when they start to succeed.

At the delicatessen at 24th and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young, wavy-haired Negro who worked with SNCC greeted me. “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it.
Want a cup of coffee?” “Thanks.” “I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were go-

ing to bomb us, but they didn’t.’’ The SNCC worker went to the pay phone and tried to reach the SNCC office. He couldn’t. “Let’s go out to 34th and Benning.” We got into my car and continued east out to Benning. Lots of empty buses.

“We ,got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed.

“You ever worked with SNCC before?”


“Well, I’ll tell you, man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know like if you get in trouble you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have peo-

ple around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”

People were sticking together well that Monday. SNCC estimated D. C. Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Only occasionally did the enthusiasm for the boycott threaten to get out of hand. One lady said she had heard that kids at her boy’s school were going to wait at the bus stops and beat up any of their schoolmates who got off D. C. Tran-

sit vehicles. But there were no reports of this actually happening. More probably, it was just talk. Like the lady in my car who asked a man we had picked up at a downtown bus stop,

“You weren’t waiting for a bus, were you?”

“No, I just figured someone would come along and pick me up.”

“That’s good. ’Cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you over the head.”

We all laughed and the man reassured her again.

“You know,” the lady in the back continued, “there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I’d go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop ’em one if they got on Mr. Chalk’s buses. Some people just don’t know how to cooperate. And you know you don’t have nothing in this world until you get people together . . . Hey lookit over there, let’s see if that guy’s going out northeast.”

He was. The car was full again and we drove to the northeast end of town together. None of us knew whether the boycott would have any effect on the fare increase. Two days later, however, the transit commission, in a unanimous decision, denied D. C. Transit the hike. The commission’s executive director drily told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor’s equity, rate of return, depreciated value, company rate base. The boycotters vorried about a nickel more a ride. Fortunately, it all came out the same. But in case it hadn’t, the boycott organizers were preparing to renew the protest. It would have been interesting.

There is plenty more to protest in Washington. And the passivity of the city’s citizens can no longer be taken for granted.

Roy Chalk deserves at least some thanks for that.

After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my living room talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed to advise on these matters. For the first time in my life I had joined a movement.

Friday, January 23, 2015

What's new with me

Sam Smith, 2011

One of the ways that bad policies, ideas, and values spread is because the system, especially the media, portrays them as normal. One of the ways one knows this to be untrue is to be old enough to remember when life was different.

I’ve been jotting down things of a political, social and economic nature that have been happening lately for the first time or in record quantity since I covered my first Washington story 54 years ago. Here are a few of the things that are new with me:

– The most radical and irrational Republican Party. To be sure, there had been Joe McCarthy but among those who eventually put him down were normal conservatives who found him embarrassing. Those people don’t seem to exist any more in the GOP.

– The most conservative Democratic president. In an earlier time, there would have been a name for Obama: Republican.

– People who would have formerly been considered political jokes are now talking about running for president, such as Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. To be sure there was a Pogo for President movement and comedian Pat Paulsen’s campaign, but neither had a PAC.

– An unprecedented level of political nastiness. I can’t, for example, remember a segregationist politician calling for blacks to be shot and killed by helicopter like “feral hogs” as recently proposed for immigrants by a Kansas legislator.

– A record bipartisan contempt for civil liberties. Never has a Democratic president or a Republican Party been so eclectically contemptuous of constitutional rights. As William Shirer, author of a great book Nazism, pointed out, “You don’t need a totalitarian dictatorship like Hitler’s to get by with murder . . . You can do it in a democracy as long as the Congress and the people Congress is supposed to represent don’t give a damn.”

– A decline in the respect for facts. In America’s political debate, facts are now treated like just another ad hominem argument to be dismissed with colorful rhetoric. And numbers are considered simply another form of adjective.

– A Democratic administration without a single cabinet member one can truly admire.

– A Democratic Congress with only a tiny handful of party members who might have supported either the New Deal or the Great Society. But you can’t save the republic just relying on Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and Anthony Weiner.

– A stunningly vacuous cultural leadership and a weird willingness to let Jon Stewart take care of all it for us.

– Massive passivity by, rather than reaction from, the nation’s young.

– The extraordinary level of bipartisan contempt (depending on who is in which office) for the constitutional powers of the Congress and states.

– The sense one has of Obama seeing himself as a CEO rather than a political leader of multi-faceted democratic institutions. And our treatment as either consumers or employees.

– The level of mind-blowing bureaucratic complexity of new policies such as the healthcare legislation, which no one has truly figured out.

– The willingness to replace legal argument with euphemisms to accomplish violations of the Constitution and international law.

– The bipartisan indifference and ineffectiveness regarding the ecological crises around us, all the more striking because the evidence of ecological danger is now far stronger than when the modern environmental movement started four decades ago.

– The unprecedented willingness by Democrats – from Obama on down – to dismantle great programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.

– A loss of privacy unlike any time I have experienced.

– A record number of people on food stamps.

– A record collapse in housing prices.

– The first decline in family net worth since the 1950s

– Record high average temperatures.

That’s just for starters.

Here, for comparison is how was when I was just a starter, as Jermie D. Cullip describes it:

“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite.

“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year’s recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. . . .Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'”

The amazing thing by today’s standards is that all this was accomplished by a system producing less than 5,000 MBAs a year as opposed to the 142,000 that would be turned out annually by 2005. And nobody talked about branding, mission statements or strategic visions.

There was, of course, plenty wrong and the next couple of decades made big positive changes in the lives of those who had been left behind, including the poor, women, blacks and gays.

Then came the Reagan years and the corporatization of America that would follow. America seemed to stop wanting to be America anymore. Being just another phony brand was good enough. American began its thirty year decline. And to this day, there are few who will tell you.

Further, it all can happen faster than we think. Nine years ago, for example, I gave a talk at a punk rock concert in which I listed nearly 30 ways in which American freedoms had diminished during the lifetimes of the 20-somethings present.

Above I’ve noted just a few of things that have changed since then. If you haven’t thought about them, don’t blame yourself. The media and our leaders have given us cultural Altzheimer’s and they’re not about to change their ways. As Don DeLillo put it, “History is the sum total of the things they’re not telling us.” So that’s what’s new with me. And, I’m afraid, with you as well


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How liberals helped create a bipolar America. . . and what to do about it

Sam Smith

America is trapped in bipolar prejudice. Conservatives dislike blacks, latinos, women and gays while liberals dislike white Americans who don’t agree with them, especially men. Conservatives are encouraged by cultural paranoia and liberals by cultural narcissism.
The conservative prejudices have been more than adequately publicly outlined, but the liberal side remains largely under cover. Both sides condemn, but neither is effective at converting, and so things just get worse.

While cultural discrimination has always been a problem for conservatives, it’s only in the past few decades that liberals have turned on a former major constituency, white men.
I first noticed it in the late 1970s. In 1979 I wrote:

Part of the brilliance of the early civil rights movement was to recognize the difference between the homogenous appearance of the white community and its actual heterogeneity, between its own past subjugation to reactionary cliques of power and its potential acceptance of new ideals and alliances. Had Martin Luther King been as stubbornly ethnocentric as some of his successors in the black movement, the blood might still be spreading in Selma today. It is part of the power of Andrew Young as well; he has the capacity to move others than blacks, to speak first of universal rights and needs and only secondarily to plead a particular ethnic cause.

It is a skill that has not been highly valued in recent years. After King, the black movement – rightfully scornful of the debilitating absorption of minorities by traditional integration (as opposed to desegregation with equality) – turned on the coalition politics of the early civil righters and pursued goals in isolation, with guerilla-like attacks on the white establishment that first stunned and confounded it but later only annoyed it. Important as it was for blacks to rediscover long-suppressed values and traditions, once so armed and united they were still only a minority – and one easily turned away from the door.

The separatist politics flourished anyway. It was more important to shock than to convert, to decry than to convince. Whites were driven away from the civil rights movement just as later males would be shunned in the feminist movement. If you were black you didn’t trust whites, if you were a woman you didn’t trust men. If you were young you didn’t trust anyone over 30. If you were a homosexual you scorned straights. And if you were an over-thirty, straight white male your main role in the social politics of the nation was to be confronted and condemned. The role provided a largely immobilized, somewhat guilty mass of American men against which to sling their ideologies. 

The only problem was that by deliberately disengaging a large segment of the population from the battle for rights, active resistance to these movements could function with little fear that their opposition might be reinforced by politically stronger allies. The minority of those with power could battle the minority that sought it on terms considerably more favorable to the former than in the days of the old coalitions…
If you want someone to treat you decently one of the best ways is to treat them decently. It hasn’t been tried much recently on the white American male. It might just help… It means understanding that while you may think he’s sitting on top of the world, he probably doesn’t feel that way, that he feels as much as you a victim of forces he can’t control. It means being really interested in equality rather than exchanging one form of power abuse for another…

Since then, things have gotten worse. Not unlike our bombings in the Mid East, liberals unintentionally have increased the vociferousness of the opposition. Thirty years ago there was no Tea Party, less disenfranchisement of voters, and no Congress as dramatically opposed to basic democratic principles as there is today

Liberals, in planning strategy, tend to forget that they are a minority. Historically, the way that minorities in America have done best – as with the Irish and Jews – is to find ways to lead the majority rather than simply oppose it. One historian, for example, has noted the influence of the Irish bar as a multicultural gathering place on the political influence of the Irish in places like Chicago. We don’t think of things like that these days.

Secondly, liberals tend to lump all whites together – witness the frequent talk of white entitlement and white privilege. This does not work either morally nor politically any better than the right lumping all blacks or women together.

Thirdly, the overwhelming factor of economics is ignored. For example, whites comprise, by one recent estimate, 41% of the nation’s poor. That’s nearly twice as many poor whites as blacks. There are more white than black children living in poverty. There are more unemployed white males than black males. But in recent decades, liberals have turned their back on such matters and tend to treat white males as though they all had power. Not surprisingly, a large number of white males without power have resented this.

The irony is that concentrating on economic politics would bring various parts of America far closer together than emphasizing ethnic or gender differences that liberals claim aren’t meant to matter anyway.

Martin Luther King understood the problem, as Morris Dees noted recently. Three years before his assassination, King gave a sermon in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, in which he said:
[In the 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,] I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered… I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty. And I’m concerned about white poverty as much as I’m concerned about Negro poverty.

And a year before ‘I Have a Dream’ , King was in Puerto Rico, telling an audience, “We must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice. .. For God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers.”

A major turning point away from such a view was the Poor People’s Campaign, started by King before his death. Other activists took the lead. Robert T. Chase of George Mason University writes:
Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s successor to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 with the proclamation that “the poor are no longer divided. We are not going to let the white man put us down anymore. It’s not white power, and I’ll give you some news, it’s not black power, either. It’s poor power and we’re going to use it….
The five different ethnic groups at [Resurrection City] were equally represented as African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and poor whites. The Convention then allowed each ethnic group to elect a spokesman….
By 1968 African Americans were left with the choice between “black power” to create a more separate and empowered black community or integration through the inter-racial movement of poor people to achieve a new socioeconomic policy in the United States. Stokely Carmichael, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and proponent of “black power,” commented that the difference between SCLC and SNCC was between “mobilizing versus organizing.” As [Godfrey] Hodgson has concluded “to mobilize meant to rely, in the last analysis, on white help. To organize meant to stand or fall by what black people could do for themselves.”
Therefore, the “mobilizing” philosophy of the SCLC depended on white, liberal, middle-class support for the PPC. When that support failed to materialize, the PPC failed as a movement. The result was that without King and without white, liberal, middle-class support, the PPC inadvertently served as notice to the black community that integration had not worked. Thus, with King gone and the PPC a failure, the SCLC lost credibility as the forefront Civil Rights organization causing the black community to lose its primary organizational alternative to “black power.”…
The failure of the Poor People’s Campaign extended beyond questions of leadership and tactics. Ultimately, the PPC failed because the traditional constituency of the Civil Rights movement — the white, middle-class, liberals — was repulsed by the goals of the campaign itself. Bringing the poor together as a racial amalgamation of similar interests and goals heightened the issue of class in America and, consequently, Americans came to view the Civil Rights movement as an instrument questioning the legitimacy of America’s economic system and its capitalistic “way of life.”…
Chase concludes:

After the six-week debacle for the PPC, it was clear that white, middle-class, liberal Americans would only engage in the Civil Rights movement when it clung to “American” ideals. In other words, the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s suceeded because it fought racial inequality as part of a regional and political — not national and economic — problem. The Poor People’s Campaign, however, questioned America’s capitalist system and was thus seen as economically akin to revolution. Therefore, the PPC garnered little support from the white, middle-class, liberals who could concede concrete legislative reforms for the poor but not outright change of the economic system for all Americans. Therefore, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the apathy of the middle class, the terrible weather conditions, the failure to produce anti-poverty legislation, and the inherent difficulty of managing a city of the impoverished caused the Poor People’s Campaign to end ignominiously. When the revolutionary call for a class-based confrontation failed to garner support among the traditional Civil Rights’ constituency, the Poor People’s Campaign was doomed to failure and along with it the last vestige of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.”
Thus, as early as 1968, white liberals had rejected a cross-cultural economic approach to action.

Another little noted factor was that the black concentration in Americans cities would make it easy for black politicians to gain power without having to lead whites. It seems astounding today, but when Marion Barry first ran for mayor in 1978, he had so much white support that the Afro American newspaper ran a column claiming that he was part of a plot by whites to take over the majority black city. Within one term, however, Barry had moved to a more politically comfortable heavily black constituency.

Today, liberals make up less than a quarter of the electorate. Where do they find the support to get anything done? This is a key question that has not been seriously considered for several decades.

A better politics and a happier country would more likely come from changing some their current practices and thinking.

A few suggestions:

- Stop talking so much about ethnicity and gender and talk more about economics.
- If you want to complain about what some white guys are doing, identify them by name, group or class, not by terms like “white males.”
- Tackle the bad guys not because they’re white but because they’re bad and enlist the help of ordinary white men in the task.
- Find ways that minorities can lead the majority. The remarkable Moral Mondays coalition is a good example. A national blending of black, latino and labor leaders dealing with national issues well as ethnic and union ones, could have a huge impact.
- If you don’t like being stereotyped as a black or woman remember that a white guy won’t like it either
- Preach reciprocal liberty, as in you can have your guns but we get gay marriage and abortion rights.
- Don’t try to organize the future by alienating those you want to change. Discover what you have in common.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The other side of Memphis: Mississippi in 1965

In February 1965, one month before the Selma march, your editor, then 27, went to Jackson, Mississippi, to cover the hearings of the US Commission of Civil Rights. Here's my story.

Sam Smith, 1965

And the Lord came to the Good Man and said, "Son, I want you to go to Mississippi and help the poor people down there." And the Good Man replied, "Lord, I'll go if you'll be there with me." And the Lord said, "Son, I'll go with you, but only as far as Memphis."

Mississippi, despite civil rights laws, statements of principle and hints of progress, still inspires Negroes to tell such stories, stories born in the deepest frustration, despair and anger.The U. S. Commission on Civil Rights went the other side of Memphis, to Jackson, Miss., to view for itself this state, that, 100 years after the end of Civil War, remains morally and philosophically seceded from the Union.

We attended the week of hearings and took a look around. This is our story:

Alfred Whitley is a Mississippi Negro who works at a Natchez rubber plant. Coming home from work one evening, he was stopped by a road block. Hooded men with robes appeared, hauled Whitley out of the car, took him into some nearby woods, stripped and beat him.

The hooded men accused Whitley of being "the leading nigger in the NAACP" and demanded to know the name of the white man in charge.

The beating continued, punctuated by the crack of a bullwhip. Whitley was forced to drink a bottle of castor oil. One of the men said, "He's the toughest one I ever beat." Then Whitley was told, "Get up and run." He took off in the Mississippi dark, ran about fifty feet, and fell on his stomach. Searchlights glared above him. Then the sound of guns. Bullets whizzed overhead. Finally it stopped. The men were gone.

Whitley got dressed and went home.

Archie Curtis is a Negro who runs the Curtis Funeral Home in Natchez.

One year ago, late on a February evening, Curtis received a phone call asking that he bring his ambulance to a remote rural spot to pick up a sick person. The funeral director called his ambulance driver, Willie Jackson, and the two of them drove off on the call.

They had been told to come to a crossroad where someone would be waiting to lead them to the proper house. Reaching the rendezvous, the two Negroes found no one. They proceeded a bit further, then stopped to ask directions from those in a car behind them.

It was an ambush. Four men with white hoods stepped from the car.

Curtis and Jackson were blindfolded, taken a distance, made to strip, then struck with whips.

Curtis pleaded, "Man, don't be whipping me like this." But the men continued.

One suggested, "We ought to kill them." But they didn't: instead left the pair with the warning, "You better not tell anybody about this." Curtis turned to his driver and, with the resignation of a man to whom such an experience came as no surprise, said simply, "Well, Willie, we got to get dressed and go home."

T. V. Johnson, a Belzoni Negro, has not been beaten or whipped. He even registered to vote back in 1954.

But he hasn't voted.

During his testimony before the Civil Rights Commission, the following exchange took place :

Q. Are you going to try (to vote) .'

A. No, not until the intimidation

Q. When will you vote?

A. When they all go down.

Q. Who are you afraid of?

A. Everybody .

And why not? Tomorrow it may be T. V. Johnson's night in the woods.

It is hard to be more specific in a state where hooded men appear in the night with bullwhips, bombs are thrown from passing cars, and phone calls bring anonymous threats.

It is said that the Mississippi Negro is fighting for equality. That is not true. He hasn't even gotten that far.

His struggle of the moment is to gain a foothold so he may begin the fight, for equality.

Mississippi is a state where a pronouncement by the Governor or the Chamber of Commerce calling for law and order is a novelty. It is a state where members of a federal panel appointed to look into the rights of citizens solemnly applauds a city not because of any great strides in promoting equality, but because no heads have been bashed in there recently.

It is a state where many appear to believe that the limits of progress are reached when terror is eliminated.

In such an atmosphere sophisticated arguments over civil rights lose their meaning. Until some of the most primitive concepts of democracy are accepted - such as the right of a citizen to vote and the obligation of government to protect its citizens - it matters little who uses which washroom.

The Negro in Mississippi is not only segregated: he has been isolated from almost every mechanism that might possibly change his condition.

You do not have to experience the brutal nights of Archie Curtis or Alfred Whitley to learn the high cost of being a Negro in Mississippi.

The story of these incidents spreads through their county and beyond, bringing with them the tacit moral: don't try to change things.

Over the past few years Negroes have been trying to change things and the most fundamental change they have sought is the right to vote.

Henry Rayburn, a 63-year-old farmer from near Charleston, was approached by a man with a club when he went to vote. Rayburn says the man told him "he would kill me if I tried to vote." The Commission wanted to know if the police had been notified of the threat. No, Rayburn replied, because "the law coincides with what the other side does insofar as Negroes are involved." Alena Hamlett of Scobey registered in 1962. When her name was published in the local newspaper, as required by Mississippi law, a female effigy was hung near her home.

Dorothy Mae Foster went to register with her husband at Fayette in 1963. She was later visited by three men who presented a card that read: "Thousands of Klansmen are waiting, watching, Don't be misled. Let your conscience be your guide. Ku Klux Klan."

She was told, "If you don't take your name off the list you will be sorry." Mrs. Mary Welch of Humphreys County said she was told by a county official that "I was going to get in trouble and wasn't going to get any more commodities." Rural Negroes in Mississippi depend upon surplus agricultural commodities for survival.

When the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee attempted to organize a voter registration drive in Macomb, 16 bombings occurred.

Mrs. Mary Thomas, a high school graduate, had her photograph taken by county police when she went to register. She was asked why she wanted to register. "We've always given you commodities." a county official told her.

Shortly after her return home, a deputy sheriff arrived and arrested her for selling beer without a county license.

She was fined $365.71 for failure to have a $15 license. She had never been told whether she passed the registration test.

Jesse James Brewer, a farmer from Tallahatchie County, went to register last summer. He was told by the sheriff that he had gone to the wrong place. On the way to the proper courthouse, the sheriff passed him. Upon his arrival, Brewer and other Negro registrants were surrounded by a group of men.

One of them said. "You niggers get away from the courthouse. You don't have no business here." For the next three weeks trucks with gun racks on the back repeatedly drove up and circled Brewer's house.

He finally registered on the fourth try.

Brewer is a World War II veteran.

He told the Commission, "The only time I felt like a man was when I was in the Army. After I got out it seemed my freedom run out." And he added, "I want to vote because there are some things I want to get straight."

The Negro community was indicated by a survey of Negro teachers presented to the Commission by James W. Protho.

Teachers in four counties were interviewed.

In one county, 62% of the teachers refused to be interviewed because the school superintendent had warned them not to discuss' civil rights with anyone.

Registration of teachers ran from a low of 0% to a high of 74%. In every county at least 40% of 'the teachers volunteered expressions of fear concerning voting. In one county 79% expressed fear.

They did not like talking about it.

As one teacher put it, "The walls have ears." Mississippi, pollster Protho concluded, is a "totalitarian local system." Beatings, bombings, burnings, threats of vioience, warnings tha: commodities will be cut off, loss of jobs, removal of credit, as well as photographing, trumped up charges, and other harassment by police, are routine methods of voter intimidation.

But even if these were to disappear tomorrow, the state of Mississippi would still have impressive legal hurdles for the Negro to surmount in order to register.

The odds are clearly stacked against a Negro trying to register. The Justice Department is in the process of challenging several of the state requirements, but the procedure is a tedious and difficult one. In only one county has there been any significant increase in registration because of a federal suit.

The staff of the Commission made a study of how Mississippi law is actually applied by county registrars.

A thorough review of the records of Issaquena County showed that until last summer all white applicants passed voter qualification tests while all Negroes failed.

There was strong evidence that white applicants were given aid in their interpretation of sections of the state constitution. Commission Attorney Charles Hempstone said he discovered that 15 of 48 whites given an identical section to interpret had also given identical answers.

The real hypocrisy of the "reasonable interpretation" requirement was revealed in an exchange between Commission member Dean Erwin Griswold of the Harvard Law School and Humphreys County Clerk G. H. Hood. Griswold, a heavy-set lawyer who speaks in tones reminiscent of W.C. Fields, slowly lifted himself out of his chair, walked over to witness Hood, handed him a copy of section 182 of the state constitution and asked him for a reasonable interpretation.

Hood, who had given this section to applicants and had judged their ability to vote on the basis of their answers, stared at the sheet for several minutes, then started to give a reply that included much of the wording of the section.

Griswold bit off the reply: "I didn't ask you to read, I asked you to interpret." Hood huddled with his lawyer and then said that he would refuse to proceed because of the pressure being put on him by the committee.

"You mean on the grounds that it may incriminate you," Griswold asked.

Hood said, "Yes, sir." The point was made.

Civil rights leader Aaron Henry told the Commission that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not helped to get one Negro registered in Mississippi.

This is an exaggeration, but even the optimism of Burke Marshall in describing the progress the Justice Department has made (time required for litigation has been reduced, court decrees have been issued to speed up registration), can not conceal the need for additional federal legislation if the Mississippi Negro is going to be able to exercise his right to vote.

The President's new voting proposals would be invaluable in this regard.

Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson has warned that "federal registrars could almost bring civil war," but even he admits "most of our people realize that there has been some discrimination." He noted, in an interview in the Washington Post, that "you don't have a leg to stand on whom a registrar registers a white man who can hardly read or write and turns down a Negro woman with a M.A." But the governor said he would take no steps to remove such a registrar since "it's purely a local situation. ' ' And so it will remain for some time, it would appear, unless the federal government's hand can be strengthened.

George Washington, Sr., appears superficially to fit the image of an Uncle Tom.

Much about the middle-aged Canton, Miss., store owner suggests it. His name, his manner of speech, his buoyant spirit that shields him from the brutality of his environment, and his expressions of faith in the goodness of white men, ill fit him to join the company of the new Negro generation.

Speaking of the police chief of his town, Washington says, "Now, Mr. Dan - he's real nice. He's always polite to me." But George Washington, Sr., is not an Uncle Tom. He has joined the fight.

Last summer he rented a building to COFO workers involved in voter registration. Last summer this house was bombed.

When Canton Police Chief Dan C. Thompson's officers arrived to investigate the bombing, Washington was arrested. He had failed to report the bombing promptly and the police wanted to know why.

Taken to jail, Washington, according to his testimony, was told by one of the officers, "We're going to send your so-and-so to the penitentiary. We can get you ten years." Then, Washington said, the officer "hauled off and hit me."

"What were you doing," a Commission member asked.

The ever-cheerful Negro replied, "I wasn't doing anything. I was just going into jail." He was struck again and questioned for three or four hours before being released.

Reflecting on the investigation of the bombing, Washington commented,  "It looked like to me that they weren't too particular to see who did it."

It was a cogent observation. Two thirds of the one-page police report was concerned with the failure to report the incident promptly. The rest was about the investigation into the bombing.

Later, Washington went to see "Mr. Dan" to complain about the police action. The police chief promised that such incidents would not occur again. And they haven't.

Chief Dan Thompson has had 21 years of police experience. Whatever his views on segregation, he appears to take his responsibilities as a police officer seriously. He told the Commission that he lectured his officers severely after the Washington incident.

Not all Mississippi police officials have as much professional background or seem interested in gaining it.

County sheriffs are elected by the predominately white electorate. They are not allowed to succeed themselves.

Their duties are complicated from the start due to the fact that they also serve as tax collectors and are paid on the basis of commissions received from taxes, fines and licenses

(This doubling in brass is not limited to sheriffs. A sign on a Mississippi road called for the election of a man who was running for the combined post of coroner and ranger.) Canton is located in Madison County. Its sheriff is Jack Cauthen, a member of the White Citizen's Council. Until his election he was a vocational agriculture instructor. Armed with this experience, he administers the law in Madison County.

Over at Laurel, Miss., local justice also proceeds in a curious fashion.

When an attempt was made to integrate the coffee shop of the Pinehurst Hotel in accordance with the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Police Chief Nix acted on the complaint of the management and arrested several persons for breach of the peace.

Nix maintained that he was obliged to serve any warrant sworn out.

"Any charges," he said, "that are made, I am obliged to serve them, not to prove them. I can't set myself up as the judge." Nix was asked if he was familiar with the public accommodations law.

He said he was.

And there were these exchanges:

Commission Counsel William Taylor: Were you aware they had a right to be served under the public accommodations sections . . . and knowing of this right, did you warn the owner?"

Nix: That's not up to me to determine, that's up to the courts.

Griswold: Do you have any obliqation to enforce federal laws in Laurel? Don't you take an oath to, obey the Constitution of the United States? . . .

Nix: I don't believe I can enforce the segregation or desegregation.

Even in Natchez, where defiance of the law has gone so far that the police chief has been threatened and the mayor has had his house bombed, Police Chief James T. Robinson could attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting and be "very impressed." Eight or nine hundred persons were present and, said Robinson, "I did not see anything that night that would make me think they were anything but outstanding people."

Robinson has, however, made an investigation to rout out members of KKK from his force. He says he found none.

In case after case of civil rights violence, the last notation is "No arrests made." There is no doubt that the police have a difficult job in Mississippi. As George Washington, Sr., told US, "Every white man is the law here." But the evidence strongly indicates that where law officers have behaved in a professional manner, violence has been greatly reduced.

In many instances the police and the courts have been more interested in suppressing civil rights activity than they have in putting an end to bombings and beatings.

There are numerous current practices that do not help to maintain law and order. Among them:

-Failure to investigate thoroughly incidents of violence.

-Arrests of Negroes after they report incidents to the police.

-Failure to present cases properly to grand juries and courts.

-Active police participation in the intimidation of Negroes.

-Indifference to the activities of groups such as the KKK and the John Birch Society.

There are good policemen in Mississippi.

And when you find them, you find men who have been professionally trained and who regard their first obligation to the law. There are not enough of them.

Mississippians have been moderately successful in spreading the idea that civil rights workers from the North have unduly stirred up trouble in their state. They talk of "outside agitators messing in local problems." We have heard civil rights supporters in the North express doubts about the wisdom of a program such as last summer's COFO project in Mississippi.

William Eskridge, a 64-year-old farmer, told us, "I can't honestly say all our trouble is the white man's fault. There's fear among the Negroes. Unreasonable fear. When minds are enslaved, they are hard to change." The arrival of the COFO workers was the catalyst that dissolved the fear and permitted Negroes to take the first halting, difficult steps into the light of hope.

One of the sad ironies of Mississippi is that, even today, the federal government plays an ambivalent role in Mississippi.

The Civil Rights Commission held its hearings in the Veterans Administration Center. In that federally operated building there was a segregated barbershop.

Local federal agencies, such as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and Social Security, which greatly affect the Negro, are closely connected with the white leadership of the state.

There are 2,700 ASCS committeemen in Mississippi: only 18 of them are Negroes.

The FBI, despite its many investigators in the state, has an exceedingly poor record. In fact, a number of law officers appearing before the Commission used the FBI as a rationalization for their own failure to make arrests, e.g. if the FBI can't solve these crimes how do you expect us to? It has been argued, by us among others, that the federal government has the power and the duty to become more actively engaged in the protection of life and property in the state. Nothing in the testimony given to the Commission indicated that this need had significantly lessened in recent months. This is not to say that a federal "invasion" of Mississippi is desirable. But there is no reason why federal officers cannot provide discreet protection for Negro churches, meeting places, and threatened individuals. ooo

In Mississippi these days there is talk about a climate of change. Such a climate does exist.

Moderates are saying in public things they would not have dared whisper in private a few years back.

Important groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Mississippi Economic Council, are issuing statements calling for equal administration of justice and law that once would have been considered seditious.

In a few cities, Greenville is noteworthy among them, the responsible forces of the community - local government, the newspaper, the businessmen - have overcome the racial fanatics.

The road the state must follow leads not just away from racial tension but towards an adequate level of economic development, education and social well-being.

To appreciate the difficulties one need only look at the new program announced by Mississippi business leaders. It's called "75 x 75." Its goal: to raise the average income of Mississippians to 75% of the national average by 1975.

To the outsider such an objective may seem extremely modest. But in Mississippi it is simply realistic.

As Mississippians face the fact that they have segregated not only Negroes from whites, but their whole state from America, change will come.

The state's top businessmen know it. Mississippi is changing. As the stranger sees the small signs and smiles, his confidence renewed in the process of democracy.

He leaves the state shoving the memories of callousness and cruelty aside to make room for more pleasant thoughts of progress, statements of principle, and communications between the races.

But as he stares out the window of his compartment on board the Southerner rumbling towards Birmingham, Atlanta and the North, the memories keep forcing their way back. Tar paper drooping from wretched walls; torn, rusted iron roofs that will not last another season; and weathered faces deteriorate silently as the train passes.

An aging Negro stops in a field to wave at the train, then turns without waiting to see if anyone is waving back.

Mississippi is changing.

Will he know it?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The war on terror: Misnamed, misfought, misthought

Sam Smith - According to the belligerently bombastic Daily Beast:
ISIS continues to gain substantial ground in Syria, despite nearly 800 airstrikes in the American-led campaign to break its grip there. At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began.
At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities it hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate.

In the first two months following American airstrikes, about a million Syrians who had previously lived in areas controlled by moderates now lived in areas controlled by extremist groups al Nusra or ISIS, according to CDS, citing conversations with European diplomats who support the Syrian opposition.
If the Daily Beast had used the phrase “because of” rather than “despite” it would have been much closer to describing the situation and its context.
We haven’t seen a war close to its traditional meaning since Vietnam and even there we badly misgauged it as Ray McGovern pointed out last November:
Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was “progressing.”
Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high … the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army…

Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.
A traditional war is, in no small part, about gaining ground, but since Vietnam the term has become hard to define because our leaders use it in whatever way seems most convenient at the moment. For example, in Iraq, our mission was accomplished – at least according to our then president – in a matter of months but we stayed there another eight years and now may be headed back. As for Afghanistan, even our publicly stated mission was far mushier, but also a failure: to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

To understand why the world’s most powerful nation – one that spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey combined – should do so badly it helps to recognize that war today is no longer about physical conquest so much as it is about the reaction of the prospectively conquered and their allies. It is far more about anger than about acres.

And when the targets are especially poor and lacking in economic and social support, bombing their friends and relatives does little good. The Pentagon is trying to defeat those who already feel defeated and furious about it. Further, it makes these societal victims perfect conversion targets for the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. The war on terror is really a war for more terror.

In a sense, what we are seeing is the grand failure of the drug war being applied to foreign affairs, involving a massive cultural dysfunction created by our government’s action and exploited by what we would call in the case of drugs, cartels, mob leaders or drug lords.

In short, we are seeking to obtain acreage when we should be seeking to contain anger. The terminology of war serves little good and works against our stated goals.

A few scholars and journalists have noticed this. Tom Porter in the International Business Times drew some striking parallels between the war on terror and the war on drugs:
US president Barack Obama has deplored Isis' violence and pledged to "degrade and destroy" the group, but Musa al-Gharbia, a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, claims that there is a far graver threat to the US closer to home.

He points to a series of figures showing that the violence of the [drug] cartels in some cases eclipses, and in others equals that of the Islamist group.

A recent United Nations report estimated that nearly 9,000 civilians had been killed and 17,386 wounded this year in fighting in Iraq… On the other hand figures from the Mexican government show that last year cartels were responsible for murdering more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and an estimated 60,000 in the preceding six years.
- Like Isis, cartels aim to strike fear into their rivals and opponents through torture and mass executions. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year, and deliberately target women and children. Executed and mutilated victims have been displayed in gruesome arrangements in town squares and at town roundabouts, as cartels strive to outdo each other in violence.

- Both groups exploit social media to advertise their exploits. Only this week, cartel members executed anti-cartel activist, Dr Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, accessed her Twitter account, then posted a picture of her corpse.

- Isis is believed to have enslaved approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children, yet by some estimates cartels have enslaved tens of thousands, forcing some into sex work, and others to labour in plantations.

-Isis is believed to have recruited children as young as 10 to take part in suicide bombing missions and to fight on battlefields. Mexican cartels are also believed to have recruited scores of child soldiers, and have kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

The author goes on to argue that with its tentacles having reached every city in the US and claimed thousands of US victims in the 'narco wars', the cartels in fact pose a graver threat to the US than Isis.
Coleen Jose, writing for Mic Network last fall, added, “The cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010. The groups have also repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. In October 2008, two assailants fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the consulate in Monterrey.”

To bring it even closer to home, consider that the domestic drug trade has been estimated to be the size of the pharmaceutical industry yet you would have no hint of it in the major media which virtually never looks into the effect on politics and life in general from the perspective of those with power. It is only the minor dealers and their customers who get covered. As I learned examining the drug culture of Arkansas in the 1990s, nobody in the establishment wants to touch this issue and that, rather than there being a drug war, there is a covert relationship between the alleged enforcers and the actual enablers.

A rare exception is a remarkable story from the British paper, The Independent:
The entire criminal justice system was infiltrated by organised crime gangs, according to a secret Scotland Yard report leaked to The Independent. In 2003 Operation Tiberius found that men suspected of being Britain’s most notorious criminals had compromised multiple agencies, including HM Revenue & Customs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, as well as pillars of the criminal justice system including juries and the legal profession.

The strategic intelligence scoping exercise – “ratified by the most senior management” at the Met – uncovered jurors being bought off or threatened to return not-guilty verdicts; corrupt individuals working for HMRC, both in the UK and overseas; and “get out of jail free cards” being bought for £50,000.

The report states that the infiltration made it almost impossible for police and prosecutors to successfully pursue the organised gangs that police suspected controlled much of the criminal underworld.

The fresh revelations come a day after The Independent revealed that Tiberius had concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” at the time, and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will.”….

In 2000, according to Tiberius, a key police informant was secretly helping Scotland Yard with an investigation into the importation of £10m of heroin by a Turkish gang in north London.

The deal went wrong, the informant was tortured in a cellar and “an attempt was made to sever his fingers with a pair of garden shears”. His associate was also attacked and had “three fingers chopped off with a machete”.

The henchman Tiberius alleged had committed the assaults was the son of a named Met detective, who repeatedly tried to impede police inquiries into the case, according to Tiberius. He also had a corrupt relationship with a named detective sergeant then based in Marylebone police station who is suspected to have “organised cheque frauds”. Research conducted by The Independent suggests that none of the three men has ever been prosecuted.
The truth is that in Mexico, Arkansas or Britain – to name a few – there are too many in power who could say “Je suis ISIS” people who have learned how to defeat or capture the system without the conventional tools of warfare.
Their weapon is a populace too much ignored, mistreated or excluded from the benefits of conventional citizenship, making them easy candidates for either ISIS or a Mexican dug cartel. Chris Hedges hit on this remarkably recently:
The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts. Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures…

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows…

“You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

“America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.
To declare a war on terror and ignore such socio-economic realities makes no more sense than to declare a war on drugs or crime and ignore the similar truths of the neighborhoods being targeted for raids, chokeholds and stop and frisks.
The typical result of such a mindless strategy is to create more violence and far more power for the violent, which is just what is happening now in the Mid East.

To end the violence, we must end our part in it and seek solutions that move both sides – however slowly – towards a more peaceful and rational future.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Flogging the blogs

Sam Smith 2005 - One major differences between journalism today and when your editor started out 47 years ago is that there wasn't as much bragging, pomposity, hypocritical self-analysis and professional narcissism back then. Reporters, in fact, were among those most skeptical of their trade and the public readily endorsed their judgment. HL Mencken put it this way: "The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer."

Even the far less contentious Richard Harwood remarked, "We were perceived as a lower form of life, amoral, half-literate hacks in cheap suits. Thus I was assigned to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Nashville in the late 1940s and, with other reporters, was given lunch at a card table set up in a hallway to protect the dining room from contamination."

Moving from this dubious trade, a majority of whose practitioners hadn't gone to college, to a profession graced by graduate schools and thence to a status part actor and part apparatchik of a rising corporate uber-culture, journalists became ever more prominent and self-referential even as they were losing touch with both their purported constituency and their purported purpose. They became the first group in human history to dramatically improve their socio-economic status simply by writing about themselves, self-casting themselves among the very elite from whom they had once been expected to protect their audience.

Ironically, the result was a status not only without substance but without honor. While this may appear a contradiction it is quite typical of early 21 Century power in which one finds such figures as Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, and George Bush notable for an authority almost inversely proportional to reputation, admiration or affection. So many individuals and institutions of power these days have become only that, impressive for the dominance they have achieved rather than for the virtues, skills and honor they have exhibited. Which is why we don't see many Pope Johns, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelts, Beatles, Katherine Hepburns or Martin Luther Kings anymore. The only surviving requirement for being on top is being on top. And reminding others constantly that you are there. Everything else, from actual achievement to criminal conviction, becomes largely irrelevant.

Thus, despite the media's rise in prominence, a Harris survey over nearly 30 years has found that as far as prestige goes, the press remains stuck, still ranked near the bottom just ahead of accountants, stock brokers and real estate dealers. This, of course, was probably also true fifty years ago; the difference is that no one then pretended otherwise.

But since no one else can get the airtime or column inches to point this out, the media can happily go about its business in deep denial and without challenge save for its own braggadocio parading as criticism in which minor flaws such as a single story going awry are subjected to portentous analysis while major media errors - like years of downplaying global warming or buying into false justifications for invading Iraq - escape scot free.

Take just one responsibility of the press, investigative reporting. Most investigative reporting these days is done by non-profit organizations, led by groups like the Center for Public Integrity, which probably has more investigative journalists usefully engaged than any media corporation in the country. Environmental organizations and governmental watchdogs have broken story after story that a real reporter would have been proud to have uncovered. And Ralph Nader has been one of the best investigative reporters this country has ever known. Further, non-profits, rather than the media, have been at the forefront of defending freedom of the press and government accountability, ranging from the daily work of the ACLU to freedom of information suits and the legal protection of government whistleblowers.

This outsourcing of journalistic responsibility both saves the media money and provides it with distance in case something goes wrong with a story. But non-profits don't win Pulitzers so the myth of journalism as public savior goes on even though the profession is ever more in the hands of some of the least public-minded people in American history.

There are, however, a few recent signs that even the media is feeling a bit less secure upon the pedestal it has constructed for itself. The crowds no longer seem to be paying homage. . . or even attention. In fact a recent survey found that only 22% of Americans say they get most of their news from a newspaper, barely twice as many as say they use the Internet as their primary source. Radio is at a mere 15% while 50% rely upon the true church of our new Middle Ages - guardian of the faith, inquisitor of free market apostasy, perpetuator of sanctified superstition, lord of all men, judge of all things, which is to say, television.

If you look closely at this division of news curricula, one finds that just under a third of the public relies on media that by habit, methodology, and tradition are most likely to concern themselves with the rational and the factual. This does not mean that such matters are absent from TV, only that you won't use up anywhere near your Tivo memory recording every Front Line, 60 Minutes and available equivalent.

Yet far from welcoming their colleagues in cyberspace, the print media has gone out of its way to disparage and ridicule digitized news, with particular disdain for bloggers who dare to occupy space the archaic press believes belongs to them. There is of late much talk about the social and professional status of bloggers who are presumed not to be as properly credentialed as, say, Jason Blair, Robert Novak, Geraldo Rivero, Bill O'Reilly, the broadcast staff of defense contractor General Electric, or the 400 journalists who moonlighted for the CIA in times past.

But Tom Paine, Ben Franklin, and Frederick Douglass did not have press passes either, nor did anyone give them credentials before they commenced their unlicensed practice of the First Amendment. And where does one go these for such a license anyway? Usually to the government or to a committee comprised of employees of large media corporations whose interest is not in dispensing news but in owning its profits and who hire numerous lobbyists to manipulate the same White House and Congress their ace reporters are covering.

There are, of course, good bloggers and there are bad ones. There are gay prostitutes pretending to be objective cyber-journalists and there are internet journalists uncovering answers to questions conventional reporters don't even bother to ask. A simple test of the average quality of these efforts would be to invite nothing but bloggers to the next presidential news conference. Can anyone doubt that it would be more interesting and useful than a room full of David Gregorys asking questions so predictable that the president already has the answers on paper?

Something of the same effect could be achieved by ridding the White House news confabs of media prima donnas and replacing them with that quiet body of lesser known reporters who cover truly tough beats such as Congress - a task at least 535 times more complex than trailing a bubble wrapped president. Science reporters, investigative journalists who don't usually have time for show business, hacks who know federal agencies inside and out, not to mention well-informed advocacy scribes from right and left, would serve the country far better than the present club of servile stenographers.

The archaic media's discomfort with the Internet began early. I collected some examples for my book, Why Bother?:

- Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote a column, headed 'Internet Could Become A Threat To Representative Government,' warning against the direct democracy of the Internet and saying it could threaten the "very existence" of Congress.

- A commentator on Court TV argued that acceptance of government regulation of the Net was the equivalent of growing up.

- Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes called for the removal of undesirable information from the Net. Asked on what grounds, Stahl replied, "That it's wrong, that it's inaccurate, it's irresponsible, that it is spreading fear and suspicion of the government; 10,000 reasons."

- A writer in the Washington Post warned that without gatekeepers of information -- e.g. the Washington Post -- "our media could become even more infested with half-truths and falsehoods."

- On Crossfire, Geraldine Ferraro breathlessly warned that "we've got to get this Internet under control."

- A front page story in the New York Times was headlined 'Term Papers Are Hot Items On The Internet.' Other horrors in the Times' series included a story that the Net had caused Dartmouth students to forget sex, socializing and drinking; another on how to spot your computer addiction; and, finally, how the same technology that encourages celibacy at Dartmouth encourages flagrant and prolific sex everywhere else.

I went on to note that "those not in media elite have found something quite different on the Net. They are creating a cyberarchy of transformation -- as different from the hierarchy of traditional information and politics as the vast wilderness of America was from the taut geography of 19th century Europe. The old dukes and baronets, clinging to their decadent landscape of conventional thought, rail against the primitiveness, the raucousness, the freedom of the new media, but theirs is effete whining in a happy hubbub of people discovering the ubiquitous potential of a new frontier. The ways of the Net have become inseparable from the ways of new politics -- they are the smoke-filled room, the Tammany Hall, and the political picnic of a new age.

"With the heady discovery of how many of us there really are has come a sense of incipient rebellion based not on ideology but on dreams and values -- a shared faith that truth, freedom, the individual, community, and decency still matter."

I have been a radio reporter; have edited newspapers and newsletters; have written for local, national and foreign readers; have had articles in more than two dozen publications; and then ten years ago I took to the Internet. Nothing has made me feel closer to the guardian angels of journalism and more a honest part of the free press than this latter adventure, while nothing has made me feel more distant from those who haughtily claim custody of journalism's holy grail even as they dishonor its most hallowed traditions. Anyway, in the end, there is only one journalism credential that really counts: telling good stories well - and truthfully.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

When the bad congeals and the good scatters

Sam Smith

Never in the history of the United States have the powerful been so closely intertwined in so many ways and with such contempt for the rest of the country. Democratic and Republican politicians are beholden to the same large corporations and wealthy individuals who bribe them regularly in the guise of campaign contributions. The major news media are deeply embedded in the values, perspectives and interests of the powerful they publicize rather than expose. Corporate America has outsourced both its production and its profits thanks to trade agreements and offshore tax havens. Its largest domestic expansion has been in the number of lobbyists it has hired to get Washington pols to do its will, the money it spends on campaigns, and the pay it gives to its CEOs. Academia has surrendered its integrity in no small part to get big money from corporations and government. It has let its business and law schools write the language and standards it uses to analyze our economy, politics, and morality. And too much religion watches it all and barely says a mumblin’ word.

The participant media gives all this only a passing glance. But then, after all, it is the Washington Press Club that holds the annual dinner celebrating the incestuous relationships of politicians, Hollywood, Wall Street, the media and academia. And it is the media that offers us shows like House of Cards, The Good Wife and Madam Secretary that help accustom us to drugs, crime, murder and torture in high places and learn to live with it.

We have never had a more corrupt, criminal and narcissistic elite, one that functions with such integration and impunity thanks in no small part to the fact that those at the top share the same destructive rules.

The irony is that those who are abused, manipulated, ignored and deceived by this elite enjoy no such unity. They are atomized, pacified, scattered, niched, and often even critical of their fellow sufferers.

There are many reasons for this. For example, as America has become an increasingly urban nation, its citizens’ lives have become further removed from the sort of community, cooperation and mutual support one finds in smaller places.

Those organizations that once would have led a counter-movement against the elite have become increasingly dependent on funding from foundations and other sources opposed to serious activism. Further, these organizations are seeking their money in competition with those who should be their allies in action.

The Internet, which some of us naively thought would be a great tool for progressive activism, has too often just provided one more screen to put between us and others. And our cellphones help teach us that life is a vicarious experience.

As one who daily checks the sites of all sorts of progressive organizations, I am struck by how seldom this news supports or cites coalitions beyond the specific interests of the group involved. After all, as was recognized in earlier times such as the New Deal or the Sixties, a budget cut can hurt both the environment and schools, NSA can illegally spy on both black and senior citizens’ phones, and a war takes money away from every decent cause.

There are notable exceptions, such as Moral Mondays, but in a larger sense there is no national counter culture, too few cross-cultural coalitions and little talk about the important service they could provide.

Meanwhile, liberalism has turned from being a movement to being a demographic that is often contemptuous of, or indifferent to, those such as lower class whites who were, in the New Deal and Great Society, part of their shared coalition.

And when in power, as the Obama administration sadly demonstrates, responsibility is now disproportionally given to those who favor data over decency, legal labyrinths over logical legislation, and picky process over populist progress. In the past four decades, Democrats in Washington haven’t come up with any legislation as clear and broad as that which brought us social security, a minimum wage, or a 40 hour work week or scores of similar actions of earlier times.

While there’s no doubt that a part of Obama’s problems are due to ethnic prejudice, that doesn’t explain the fact that his approval rating among white non-college graduates has fallen over 20 points since he first took office. While some of this may come from watching too much Fox News, it would be helpful if Democrats recognized that they have done hardly anything to improve the life of these voters.

And it would help to realize that talking about “white privilege” doesn’t go over too well in a white family on food stamps. According to Census data, there are over 7 million more whites in poverty than there are black and latinos combined. While the percentages for blacks and latinos are higher, that doesn’t make any easier for a white without jobs or food. Yet there is little in the liberal discourse that recognizes this.

And a different approach isn’t all that hard. Here’s one example, as reported recently by Al Jazeera America:

While there were notable exceptions, white craft unions in the U.S. were often at odds with the non-union black underclass in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois – the philosopher, writer and activist – wrote that black workers being kept out of unions had convinced “the American Negro that his greatest enemy is not the employer who robs him, but his fellow white workingman.”

But in recent years some of the most fertile union organizing now has the explicit backing of racial justice organizations.

Case in point: This summer the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the fast-food workers’ movement. That movement [is] made up various groups in roughly 150 cities demanding the right to form a union and an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour.

Members of the fast-food coalition voted to approve the strike during a conference call. Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, joined the call to draw an explicit connection between the civil rights movement and the modern labor movement.
“I want you to know without a shadow of a doubt that the fight for labor wages and the fight for civil rights are two movements headed in the same direction,” he told workers on the call.

Many fast-food workers have returned the favor. In addition to leading the state NAACP, Barber is the architect of what he’s dubbed the Moral Mondays movement: a series of demonstrations and sit-ins against North Carolina’s government and its policies on issues such as Medicaid expansion, voting rights, education cuts and reproductive health. Several fast-food workers have joined in the Moral Mondays protests.

If low-wage labor campaigns and civil rights groups share a sense of purpose, it’s largely because they are often organizing the same constituency. Much of the labor movement’s most intensive organizing is now taking place in the low-wage service and retail sectors, where black and Hispanic workers make up a disproportionate share of the labor force.

“The same people being constantly victimized by police brutality are also being consistently victimized by deprivation of resources and not having access to living wage jobs,” said [Montague Simmons, head of the St. Louis-based group The Organization for Black Struggle]

One of my current dreams is that black, latino, and labor coalitions will explode and become the national movement we have been waiting for. Hell, they might even get the backing of some police officers’ unions since the average cop earns less than the national median wage. If that sounds impossible, consider that the Maine State Troopers Association backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, a gay, card carrying member of the United Steel Workers.

Unless we do change our dreams and our habits, though, it’s not going to happen. At present we are too often prisoners of the propaganda and false premises of an elite that want the unhappy to fight with each other rather than with those at the top. Just like in the days of segregation when the Southern elite taught white sharecroppers that blacks were the cause of their troubles.

And when groups and individuals break the boundaries it’s rarely reported. For example, the Religious News Service is where I had to go to learn things like this:

Evangelicals  are teaming up with environmentalists to support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Mitchell Hescox, president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, submitted comments from more than 100,000 “pro-life Christians” who he said are concerned about children’s health problems that are linked to unclean air and water.

Or this from a story on how white evangelicals are getting involved in the protests against police brutality:

“I weep & pray for his family,” tweeted Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the day before he led a prayer for justice at his school in Wake Forest, N.C. “I beg our God to bring good out of this tragedy.”….
Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African-American Clergy Network, sees a growing interest among white Christians and others to speak up about the “pile on” of events capped with the Garner decision.

“It just so offends the human spirit of people of every race that it compels them to act,” she said. “We don’t have to ask young white students and young white adults anymore to act. They understand . . . if the system will so violate the rights of people of color today, they will violate everybody’s rights tomorrow.”

It was a confluence of causes and cultures that created the 1960s . It is still the reassembling of political, ethnic, cultural and economic differences in a common direction that leads to change.

Admittedly, this is hard to see in the wake of recent police killings. It’s easier to speak with anger about racism than to try to build communities of decency despite it all. Anger, however, is too often an unspoken admission of helplessness. And if one is helpless nothing changes. The odds improve when there is an alternative to what makes one mad. Your mind moves from frustration with the wrong to plans for the just and decent.

As you do so, you discover new friends and allies. They may be black., they may be white, they may be IT junkies, musicians, ecologists or even a white guy whose pension has been cut and is about to lose his house and blames it all on Obama because Bill O’Reilly and Ted Cruz told him to – and no one, until you came along, has told him a different way.

It’s okay if people don’t agree with you on every issue. You’re not converting them to a religion; just be happy that they’re willing to help you on what you’re doing today. As I’ve put it before, if you find a gun toting, abortion hating nun who’s willing to help you save the forest, put her on the committee.

And it doesn’t help to scold those you are trying to encourage or convert, such as with post-Ferguson headlines like this one from a liberal news service: “Dear White People: Here Are 5 Reasons Why You Can’t Really Feel Black Pain.”

The first protest I ever got involved with was a 1966 boycott against a hike in DC bus fares. As this then 20-something white person wrote later:

At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: “Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn’t send it. Want a cup of coffee?”


“I’m tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn’t.”

We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.

“We’ve got to live together, man. You’re white and you can’t help it. I’m Negro and I can’t help it. But we still can get along. That’s the way I feel about it.” I agreed. “You ever worked with SNCC before?” “Nope,” I said.

‘Well, I’11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they’re a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they’re going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they’ll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That’s good, man.”

One cup of coffee, one exchange and carrying 71 people down their bus route began a lifetime of activism. And a few weeks later I became the media guy for the SNCC leader, a fellow named Marion Barry.

Sometimes when advocates of good causes say things, they don’t realize are putting others off, or drawing a fence around their own righteousness, or dissin’ someone they should be enlisting. That  SNCC guy had simply welcomed me into the club of possibility.

Over the years, other activists have taught me some good stuff. Things like:
  • Organize by issues not by ideology
  • Go after the big guys but find common ground with the ones they’ve been fooling. That’s why economic issues are so much better than moral ones.
  • Build a community and a counterculture and not just a cause
  • Value songs and symbols. That’s why we still use the peace sign and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
  • Be the person you want us to be; not just someone reacting to what makes you mad.
  • Encourage the idea of reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours. Your friends get to keep their guns, mine get to have abortions. And if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a gay, but don’t stop others who want to.”
  • Enlist others in your cause by helping them in theirs.
  • And, as someone put it once, don’t try to be a saint, just be a sinner trying harder.
Never in our history have so many at the top of our society been so disloyal to our constitution, its principles and to the people they are meant to lead, so rapacious in their greed, so indifferent to the pain created by their misdeeds and so cruel in their paranoia.
And never in our history have so many been so frustrated by such excesses without knowing which way to turn.

Yet as the black activist Florynce Kennedy said, “Don’t agonize, organize.” All around you are those who share your concerns. They may look, talk, or think differently, but in this very variety lies our secret power.

It is when the angry, oppressed, concerned and annoyed come together to share their dreams and discover their collective strength and values that change occurs. For far too long we have tried to do it in too many separate and disconnected pieces. Put those pieces together and you have a movement of great power and direction, one we can embrace because we embraced each other.