COINTELPRO, the Chicago Police and the Murder of Fred Hampton – posted 12/8/2019

December 8, 2019 Leave a comment

We all get exposed to so many injustices in life. There are so many that maybe only a small number can truly stick with us. The relentless flow of events tends to reduce the meaningfulness of experience.

I suppose how we feel injustice is a very personal thing. Still, some injustices hit harder.

For me, the murder of Fred Hampton was one of those events that hit me harder. Hampton was cut down so young. He died at 21. He had so much promise – and courage. According to all his old comrades, the guy was fearless. He knew his life was in danger but he always remained committed to the goal of black liberation.

This last December 4 was the 50th anniversary of that horrifying day Hampton died. It took a long time for the true story to emerge but the outlines are now much clearer about what happened.

For those who do not know about or remember, Fred Hampton was a young, charismatic activist in the Black community in Chicago. As a young man, he was an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He organized for better recreational facilities and improved educational resources in his impoverished community. He made a mark as a community organizer.

Hampton was an honors student and a fine athlete. Baseball was a passion and he dreamed of playing center field for the New York Yankees. He also dreamed of becoming a lawyer. He had much exposure to police brutality in the Black community because it was a part of the everyday fabric of life.

Chicago, not unlike many other American cities, has had a long history of racism in its police department. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department. A Justice Department report concluded that the Chicago police engaged in “both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities”.

Most famously, a police commander, Jon Burge, and his crew of officers used an electric shock box to torture African American suspects into giving confessions. Other stories of violence committed under Burge include beatings, electric shock to the genitals and games of Russian roulette. Most of this misconduct occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For decades, this torture was covered up by machine politicians and judges. It is estimated Burge tortured more than 200 criminal suspects in order to force confessions.

Numerous civil suits related to police brutality have cost the City of Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars. I think any fair assessment of Fred Hampton requires an appreciation of the context in which he lived. Racism was probably worse during Hampton’s lifetime than in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

As a young man, Fred Hampton became attracted to the Black Panther Party which was in its early days. The Panthers were standing up against the police brutality he saw daily. Hampton joined the Panthers in November 1968. Because of his personal charisma and his organizing skill, he quickly became leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

Hampton was a political visionary. He wanted to organize a rainbow coalition that included people of all races who shared his political goals. This was years before Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition. Jackson did later take the concept from Hampton whom he knew. Hampton brokered a peace agreement among Chicago’s warring gangs.

He helped set up the Panthers Free Breakfast program that particularly served children. The Party also set up the People’s Medical Care Center in North Lawndale, Illinois that provided free health care to the community. The Panthers screened thousands for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease prevalent among Black people.

Hampton was not a racist. He believed in organizing poor people of whatever background across the racial divide. He became a highly visible and popular public figure in Chicago, often speaking to large meetings about police brutality.

Hampton did not escape notice of either the Chicago police or the FBI which was then run by J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI memos, Hoover worried about the rise of a “messiah” who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement. The FBI started bugging Hampton and his mother and tapping their phones. They also recruited an informant to make his way into the Panthers.

The informant, William O’Neal, had a criminal record. In exchange for having his felony charges dropped and a monthly cash payment, O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the Panthers and report back. Behind the scenes, O’Neal worked to sow distrust and to instigate splits among the Panthers and Chicago gangs.

O’Neal drew a detailed map of the layout of Hampton’s apartment which he handed over to the FBI. The FBI shared the sketch of the apartment with the Chicago police. At the behest of the FBI, the Chicago police set up a raid on Hampton’s apartment.

On December 4, 1969, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan organized the raid with a team of 14 operatives. Hanrahan ordered execution of the search warrant at 4:45am. The search was supposedly for illegal weapons.

O’Neal had slipped the barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbital, into Hampton’s drink late that night. When the police came to the apartment, Hampton never got up.

Although the Chicago police called the events that transpired a “shootout”, they were a shoot-in. It was later determined that the police had fired almost 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers fired one shot out (and the circumstances of that shot are contested).

The Chicago police murdered a drugged and unconscious Hampton in his bed. It was found that shots were fired point blank at Hampton’s head. Another Panther, Mark Clark, was also shot and killed in the raid.

Strangely, after the shooting, the Chicago police did not secure and seal off Hampton’s apartment. The Panthers opened the apartment for viewing and thousands of people from the community viewed the aftermath where they could see the large number of bullet holes and the bloodstained mattress.

Years of litigation followed these events. No one was ever convicted for the murders of Hampton and Clark. A special prosecutor did indict Hanrahan not for murder but for obstruction of justice. A machine judge acquitted Harrahan of these charges. Eventually in 1982, the City of Chicago agreed to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families’ for $1.85 million.

The various legal proceedings showed that the raid that killed Hampton was part of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program also known as COINTELPRO. Hoover saw almost all strong Black leaders as advocates of hate. His disgusting campaign against Martin Luther King is probably the best example but it certainly was not the only one. Hoover was a vicious racist.

This is an instance where very high government officials abused their power and were implicated in what can only be described as an assassination. Hampton’s case never received the type of publicity of Dr. King, Malcolm X, or the Kennedy brothers.

However, Hampton did leave a legacy. While the Panthers in Chicago never recovered from his loss, Hampton’s death galvanized the broader Black community. I think there is a straight line from the Hampton/Clark murders to the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and now Lori Lightfoot. The Hampton/Clark murders provoked a split of African Americans away from the old Daley machine and toward independent political organizing.

Hampton’s story helped to expose the history of racist policing and white supremacy endemic in large American cities like Chicago. When Laquan McDonald was shot by the Chicago police in 2014, the background example of Hampton placed the event in perspective.

Although he paid with his life, Fred Hampton changed the narrative about racist policing and racist police brutality forever.

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Presidents are not kings – posted 12/1/2019

December 1, 2019 2 comments

“…Presidents are not kings.” Those powerful words from Judge Ketanji Jackson of the Federal Court in Washington D.C. resonated for millions of Americans. Judge Jackson is the judge who presided over the case about whether Donald McGahn, the president’s former attorney, must comply with a Congressional subpoena to testify before Congress.

At issue is whether McGahn can be compelled to testify where the President claims executive privilege prohibits it.

Actually the President is not just claiming executive privilege. He is claiming absolute immunity from prosecution and even investigation. The President and his lawyers are saying such absolute immunity applies to himself, his staff, and his senior aides, even those who no longer work for him.

This is a staggeringly broad assertion of presidential authority. It is also one that has no basis in legal authority. As Judge Jackson made clear in her opinion, absolute immunity is “a fiction that has been fastidiously maintained over time through the force of sheer repetition”.

In other words, there is nothing behind the claim of absolute immunity. Trump and his team made it up. Whether it is for purposes of delay (running out the clock) or some other agenda, Article II of the Constitution provides no such extreme privilege. Executive privilege is a very different beast than absolute immunity; it is narrower and more nuanced.

Trump is trying to place himself above the law. He has said that Article II of the Constitution gives himself the right to do whatever he wants as President. He argues that he cannot be indicted while in office. Whether it is New York state prosecutors seeking information about hush money payments he made to two women or House committees seeking his tax returns, he stonewalls.

Trump’s lawyers did actually argue in a federal appeals court that Trump could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and face no criminal consequence because he is immune from prosecution while in office. Apparently, the role of the Department of Justice is to help him get away with it.

If we step outside the bubble that is Washington DC partisan politics, the absurdity of this position is immediately observable. The President has a good faith constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. There is almost no constitutional support for the assertion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The Department of Justice has a long-standing policy not to indict a sitting president. A policy is not law. It is, at most, persuasive authority.

Congress needs to clarify that a sitting president can be indicted for criminal activity, including obstruction of justice.

I am amazed at the buy-in of conservatives and many Republicans with Trump’s dictatorial view of executive power. I thought conservatives believed in limited government.

Trump is failing to abide by the Constitution in not recognizing the three co-equal branches of government. In the Trump view, there are no checks and balances – only an all-powerful Executive. In his actions, Trump treats Congress as an inconvenience and a nuisance to be strong-armed. Not only does he refuse to share power, he impedes all Congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses. What Congress does is “a hoax” or “a witch hunt”.

After criticism for his decision to host a G-7 Summit of world leaders at his Doral, Florida resort, Trump called the emoluments clause in the Constitution “phony”. I do not recall any president ever disparaging provisions in the Constitution, whatever they privately felt.

James Madison had predicted that elected leaders could become intoxicated with power and might seek greater power for themselves. That is exactly what is happening now.

It is worth recalling that our nation was founded in a rebellion against the British monarchy. The Founders were quite conscious of Europe’s miserable history of despotic regimes subject to the church and monarchs. The design of the three co-equal branches was an effort to avoid an American tyrant-in-charge. The Founders famously worried about power corrupting.

Trump is like an embodiment of those fears. Even worse, is the fantasy world he has constructed through his tweets and public utterances. He won by a landslide. He was the victim of illegal voting and he really won the popular vote. The Ukrainians, not the Russians, interfered in the 2016 election. In the matter of who interfered in 2016, Putin, not the American intelligence services, is a more reliable source. This administration has gotten more done than any other administration.

Destroying facts through the constant repetition of lies and the degradation of words has been part of how totalitarian regimes rule. By October, the Washington Post Fact Checker database found that Trump had made 13,435 false or misleading claims during his presidency. Trump is following a well-established playbook where words become meaningless.

Trump jokes about not leaving office. Although the Constitution limits presidents to two terms, Trump has repeatedly raised the possibility that the people will demand he stay longer. He has praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for being president for life and has said maybe we should give that a shot someday.

One does have to wonder whether Trump sees himself as a temporary custodian of the presidency. Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen warned that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, he would not permit a peaceful transition of power. For Trump, the presidency is the ultimate business opportunity to sell his brand.

For those who think Trump is joking about staying on after two terms, I think of the writer Masha Gessen who has written, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says…humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted with the unacceptable”.

It is not at all clear that checks and balances will save us. Removal by impeachment takes two-thirds of the senate, a daunting number. So far, Senate Republicans have remained cowardly sycophants.

Trump is not a normal bad president – he is an existential threat. He has eroded the rule of law. He delegitimizes judges who rule against his policies. He has tried to undermine free and fair elections both in 2016 and 2020. He claims an absolute right to pardon himself.

As a pathological liar, a sexual predator, a serial tax-avoider, a race-baiter, and an election-corrupter, Trump has more than earned impeachment and removal from office. The problem would seem to be that Republicans are placing party loyalty over constitutional responsibility. Fear of the political cost of defying Trump controls behavior.

If Trump does not face consequences for his corruption, it is predictable he will be empowered toward his goal of being an autocratic strongman, without regard for any ethical or legal limits. Whether we survive as a constitutional democracy is an open question.

There is no certainty how events will unfold. Without vigorous resistance, we could end up with a king for president.

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100 Years Ago: The Palmer Raids and Deportation Mania – posted 11/24/2019

November 25, 2019 6 comments

It is easy to be subjective and think we are living in the worst of times. After all, we have thousands of immigrant children being held in cages, an epidemic of white-supremacist-inspired mass shootings, and rampant climate change denial in the face of a climate emergency.

However, contrary to what you might think, these are definitely not the worst of times. One hundred years ago, the United States experienced a three year period from 1917 to 1920 when anti-immigrant hysteria, mass imprisonment of labor activists and radicals and unprecedented censorship ruled the country.

The extent of that political repression far surpasses anything we have seen, to date. That repression zeroed in on people who had been living in the country – not people trying to enter.

The peak of that hysteria was the Palmer Raids, named after then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Anyone who saw the movie J.Edgar in which Leonardo DiCaprio played J. Edgar Hoover might remember that the movie started with Hoover’s role in the Palmer Raids.

The government carried out raids in 35 cities, sweeping up thousands of immigrants and suspected radicals. There are no clear records of how many were arrested during the raids carried out in November1919 and January 1920. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 people arrested.

There were no search warrants. Suspects were grabbed off the street and from their residences; they were often badly beaten up by the police, thrown in jail, and left to rot there for months.There was no meaningful due process. America was in the grips of a Red Scare and powerful politicians and business leaders favored mass deportation of immigrants and radicals.

Fear got completely out of hand. In understanding why the Palmer Raids happened, the historical context is critical. The United States had entered World War I in 1917. In November 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred, with seismic shock impact. Many American business leaders feared social revolution would happen here.

There was an active radical labor movement led by the Socialist Party and by the International Workers of the World also known as the IWW or the Wobblies. Part of the resistance in that era was a small anti-war movement opposing America’s role in World War I. Radicals like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman organized against the draft.

For the powers-that-be, deportation became a political weapon to be used. If they were not citizens, foreign-born radicals especially became government targets. For example, federal authorities put Emma Goldman (and 248 others) on a boat back to Russia even though she had lived in America for over 30 years.

The Palmer Raids had followed on the heels of attacks on the Wobblies. In September 1917, Federal agents raided 48 Wobbly offices around the country as well as the homes of activists. Over 100 Wobblies were put on trial in Chicago. This still remains the largest mass trial in American history.

The judge found all the accused guilty on all counts, handing out sentences totaling 807 years of prison time and fines of more than $2.4 million. The punishment delivered a crippling blow.

In Butte, Montana, in August 1917, a mob lynched a Wobbly organizer named Frank Little. Vigilantes played an important role in the Palmer Raids, supplementing the authorized persecution.

Little was not the only one lynched. Lynching has been an American tradition and 1919 saw more lynchings than in the previous ten years. President Wilson himself stoked the racism by predicting that American blacks “would be our greatest medium for conveying Bolshevism to America”. 83 African Americans were lynched in 1919.

That era had seen a huge increase in immigration to America, especially from people living in Italy, Eastern Europe and Russia. There were many Jewish immigrants too. Not unlike now, many Americans believed immigrants should go back where they came from. Nativism was a powerful current.

Anarchists had tried to blow up the home of Attorney General Palmer himself. Palmer believed that 90% of socialist and anarchist agitation was “traceable to aliens”. The American Establishment looked down their noses at aliens as undesirable and inferior. Shortly after the Palmer Raids, the government initiated strict immigration quotas.

Many of those arrested during the Palmer Raids had no relationship to anything radical but they were foreign born. In New Hampshire, federal agents and local police conducted a series of raids around the state, including in Berlin, Nashua and Manchester.

Russians were particularly suspect because of the fact of the Russian revolution. State-wide, 260 people were rounded up for such offenses as reading Russian newspapers or for being members of the Tolstoy Club.

Part of the repression was an assault on the media. President Wilson’s Postmaster General Albert Burleson went after a wide range of progressive newspapers and magazines especially those connected to the Socialist Party and the Wobblies. Over 75 different publications were either censored or completely banned.

Interestingly, most of those seized in the Palmer Raids were not ultimately deported although almost 600 were. 80% of those arrested ended up being released without charge.The reason more extensive deportations failed was because of the actions of an unknown hero, Louis F. Post, the acting Secretary of Labor. In that period, while Palmer’s Justice Department had the power to arrest people, deportation was under the jurisdiction of the Immigration Bureau which was then part of the Labor Department.

Post was a wily opponent of Palmer and Hoover. He invalidated over 3000 arrests when he discovered that many of the raids had been made without warrants or with warrants based on faulty information. Post also found that many of those swept up in the raids were questioned without being informed their answers could be used against them. They had never been given access to lawyers. Post managed to eliminate or dramatically reduce bail for many of those held.

Hoover unsuccessfully tried to get the American Legion to pressure for Post’s dismissal. There was then an effort to get Post impeached. That failed. Post prevented thousands from being deported.

I am struck by how little known the Palmer Raids are. They have been largely forgotten. In comparing that era and our own, I do think there is a greater awareness now of due process and constitutional rights.There is also greater media attention to violations of civil liberties. Still, both eras point to how hysteria about immigrants can quickly lead to the erosion of fundamental rights and values.

If Trump thought he could pull off something like the Palmer raids, does anyone doubt that he would try? The Palmer Raids stand as an example of how bad things can get when hysteria commands public policy.

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Remembering Martha Gellhorn – posted 11/11/2019

November 11, 2019 1 comment

Not too long ago, I wrote about Dorothy Thompson, a journalist who warned early about the danger of fascism in the 1930’s. She tirelessly wrote about the German Nazis at a time when their threat was downplayed and underestimated.

I might have created the impression that Thompson was alone in her heroic efforts to expose the horrors of fascism. That was certainly not the case.

Along with Thompson, I would mention Martha Gellhorn, a reporter, novelist, and war correspondent who deserves far more recognition than she has ever received.

Gellhorn was a type of journalist we almost never see now. Fueled by a sense of outrage at injustice done to everyday working people, Gellhorn repeatedly travelled to war zones and covered conflicts for 60 years. She especially covered the victims of war. She was more likely to be interviewing bombing victims than generals or heads of state.

Gellhorn’s career had an unusual trajectory. She dropped out of Bryn Mawr College where she was bored as a student. She moved to Paris and started a journalism career working for the New Republic and a Hearst paper. In 1934, she returned to the United States where she got a job working for Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration under FDR.

In her new capacity, she travelled through Southern states and interviewed all kinds of people. It was the Great Depression. She was horrified by the poverty, sickness and malnutrition she found and she wrote about it. Hopkins forwarded her reports to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt was so impressed she invited Gellhorn to the White House for a visit. That was the start of what proved to be an important relationship in the lives of both women. Martha and Eleanor became fast friends. The Roosevelts invited Gellhorn to live in the White House which she did for a while. Mrs. Roosevelt became a close confidante and advisor.

As a journalist, Gellhorn had a desire to be where the action was. She had returned to St. Louis, her hometown, to write novels but she was drawn to Spain and the Spanish Civil War. She wrote:

“We knew, we just knew, that Spain was the place to stop fascism. This was it. It was one of those moments in history when there was no doubt.”

Gellhorn’s Spanish reporting was a high point in her journalism career. She wrote for Collier’s Weekly. The contending forces of democracy and fascism were lining up in an epic confrontation that proved to be a prelude of World War II. The Republican government fought against the fascist forces of General Fransisco Franco. The Australian writer, John Pilger said this about Gellhorn:

“I first understood the importance of the struggle in Spain from Martha Gellhorn. Martha, who was one of my oldest friends, is remembered as one of the greatest war correspondents and especially for her dispatches from Spain during the civil war. In November 1938 she wrote:

In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather. The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded.There was nothing much to drink: a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out, enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come for at least two hours. The flower stalls look bright and pretty along the promenade. “The flowers are all sold, Senores. For the funerals of those killed in the eleven o’clock bombing, poor souls.” It had been a clear and cold day all yesterday… “What beautiful weather,” a woman said and she stood, holding her shawl around her, staring at the sky. “A catastrophe,” she said. Everyone listened for the sirens all the time, and when we saw the bombers, they were like tiny silver bullets, moving forever up, across the sky.”

Time and again, Gellhorn saw the human cost of those bombers and the misery inflicted on unarmed civilians. She used to invoke a Tolstoy quote that ‘governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us’.

She was a premature anti-fascist. Recognizing the danger early, she saw that World War II would be a necessary war. In the late 1930’s her position was not widely held. In that era, there was plenty of confusion, lies and deceit obscuring the fascist threat. She wrote:

“Journalism is education for me. The readers, if any, may get some education too but the big profit is mine. Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn.”

During World War II, Gellhorn ignored American military restrictions on female war correspondents, stowing away on a hospital ship to gain a first-hand account of the Allied invasion of France in 1944. She reported from the beaches of Normandy in a nurse’s uniform. She spent the rest of the war filing from various front lines. She said she never knew if she was going to be alive the next day and that was immensely interesting.

At the end of the war, Gellhorn went to Dachau with the liberation troops and described it as a “circle of hell”. She wrote:

“Behind the wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and scratched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.”

Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead, wrote that exposure to Dachau changed Gellhorn in a profound, despairing way. She lost her belief that truth, justice, and kindness always prevail in the end. It was her dark side education. She said. “I’ll never forgive the Germans. Never. Never.”

Although her later career history is less well known, Gellhorn continued traveling to war zones and reporting, working for the Atlantic. She covered the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Vietnam war, the civil wars in Central America and the U.S. invasion of Panama.

To the extent that Gellhorn is now remembered, it seems to be mostly because of her short-lived marriage to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway dedicated his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls to Gellhorn. There was a 2012 movie, Hemingway and Gellhorn, where she was played by Nicole Kidman. Gellhorn resented being known as Hemingway’s ex-wife.

Gellhorn lived to see Mandela address a multiracial parliament in Cape Town. Suffering from ovarian cancer, she took her own life in London on February 15, 1998.

The writer Victoria Glendenning, a friend, said Gellhorn was “a woman who was afraid of nothing and nobody. Though she held her convictions with passion, she had no self-conceit.” Since 1999, there has been a Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for exposing what Gellhorn called “official drivel”. That seems fitting. We might want to ask why a writer of her stature remains so little known now.

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Shady and Blue – Fall 2019 – posted 11/8/2019

November 8, 2019 1 comment
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Where is the antisemitism coming from? – posted 11/2/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/16/2019

November 2, 2019 2 comments

These are uneasy times for American Jews. After Charlottesville and after the Pittsburgh and Poway, California synagogue shootings, it does seem like there has been some kind of resurgence of antisemitism. The degree of the resurgence remains unclear.

I had never thought I would see armed guards screening worshipers as they enter American synagogues.

On November 1, federal authorities arrested Richard Holzer, a self-described skinhead and former Ku Klux Klan member, who was accused of plotting to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado. On Facebook, Holzer had written that Jews “need to die” and that they were a “cancer”. He had previously posted a video of himself urinating on a temple.

Holzer’s plot was quickly followed by another story about the alt right leader, Richard Spencer. Milo Yiannopolis, his alt right colleague and apparently ex-comrade, leaked an audio recording of Spencer from the day after the Charlottesville march. The recording has Spencer ranting about “little f—— kikes. They get ruled by people like me”.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents nationally in 2018, with incidents ranging from vandalism to harassment. Of these antisemitic incidents, 1,794 were classified as “right wing (anti-government, white supremacist or other)”.

In 2019, the main danger to Jewish people comes from the far Right. It is not now nor has it ever come from the Left. Certainly there have been episodes of insensitivity or wrong-headed comments on the Left but there is no comparability. The numbers alone are very clear.

The increasing antisemitism goes along with an international trend reflected in right wing authoritarian governments and movements. Trump, Orban, Bolsanaro, Duterte and others of that ilk thrive on fear of the stranger, anti-intellectualism, and hateful rhetoric. Anti-semitism is one element in that toxic stew.

I think the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway also persuasively show the role of online communities in radicalizing antisemitic bigots to engage in acts of violence. Neo-nazi and white supremacist websites have generated and continue to generate a surprising amount of traffic.

With the most disturbed racists and antisemites, there is a pattern of the true believer authoring an online manifesto explaining and attempting to justify his actions before he goes on a deadly shooting rampage. Their ideology is a key factor in understanding why they murder. Over the last ten years, white supremacists have been responsible for more homicides than any other extremist group in America.

The role of President Trump in all this must be mentioned and considered. It is no accident that he is a favorite of neo-nazis and the alt-right. They re-tweet him all the time and Trump returns the favor. Trump has served as an inspiration to far right extremists. He has continuously messaged the far Right that he is their guy.

Cesar Sayoc, the now-convicted Florida pipe bomber, illustrates the point. He was the guy who prepared pipe bombs for multiple Democratic leaders and people he considered political enemies. His bombs never went off and he was captured by police. Sayoc is a kind of fruit off a poisonous tree. You have to wonder how many other Sayocs are out there.

Consider Trump’s comments in August when he described Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats as showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”. This was the second time this year that Trump invoked the antisemitic trope about dual loyalty. In April, before an audience of Jewish Republicans, he referred to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister”.

The dual loyalty trope has a long history. Trump is playing with the false association that the loyalty of American Jews is primarily to Israel. The antisemitic trope is that Jews are not loyal to their home countries; rather, they are infiltrators and outsiders.

I immediately thought of the Dreyfus Affair when Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of betraying France. The common thread in the trope is that Jews harbor secret loyalty to some other, not us at home. The accusations against George Soros are very much in this same vein. Antisemites call Soros a “globalist” which effectively places him in the outsider category.

I think Trump’s attacks on Congressman Adam Schiff as “Shifty Schiff” are antisemitic. Schiff is Jewish. He is also chair of the House Intelligence Committee. In light of the impeachment probe, Trump has his reasons for fearing Schiff. Nevertheless, the way he has chosen to criticize Schiff is revealing. Trump has said:

“We don’t call him Shifty Schiff for nothing. He’s a shifty, dishonest guy.”

Trump had previously called Schiff “little pencil-neck”. Here he is playing on stereotypes of Jews as shady and unscrupulous. Think Shylock.

On October 2, Trump’s son, Don Jr. tweeted:

“And for those who don’t know who Adam Schiff is, he is not just a radical liberal, he is someone who has been hand-picked and supported by George Soros”.

Don Jr. went on to call Schiff a “Soros puppet”. While the Trump modus operandi is sliming opposition, Don Jr. has zero grounds to make the Soros accusation. Here Don Jr. is playing the antisemitic boogeyman card, throwing a bone to the irrational haters and conspiracy mongers in the Trump base.

Since 2016, the Trump campaign has played a cagey game with the use of antisemitism. Pepe the frog was a regular campaign meme. In July 2016, Trump tweeted out an image of the star of David, Hillary Clinton and piles of money. Shortly before the election, Trump used George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in his closing campaign ad.

Clearly, if Trump thinks that antisemitism can advance his interests, he is using it. It takes major league chutzpah to use antisemitism while accusing your opponents of being antisemites. Trump has certainly done this with the Squad, particularly Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all women of color.

Trump’s accusations, especially against Omar, have been hateful smears. The pattern is well-established: find a quote about Israel, cherry pick a phrase or a quote, and make blatantly false accusations of antisemitism. Then get pro-Trump media outlets to pile on.

The real reason for these accusations of antisemitism is that Trump and the Republicans have lost the Jewish vote so badly. In the 2018 mid-term elections, 79% of American Jews voted for Democratic candidates with just 17% voting for Trump’s Republican Party. Next to African-Americans, American Jews have been the most loyal Democratic voting bloc.

Trump is weaponizing false accusations of antisemitism in an effort to peal away Jewish voters from the Democrats. Such political machinations minimize and trivialize real antisemitism.

Also, Trump absolutely refuses to call out the racism and antisemitism in his base. Witness the neo-nazis in Charlottesville who were “very fine people”. If Trump wanted to be taken seriously as someone who genuinely opposes antisemitism and racism, he would denounce it among his own supporters. I think we will be waiting a long time for that to happen because it won’t happen.

It needs to be said that no nation state is beyond criticism. Like all nation states, Israel needs to be criticized. I personally think the Netanyahu government has been a disaster for Israel and for the Jewish people. Part of the problem has been Israel’s failure to recognize the human rights of the Palestinian people. Jewish racism against Palestinians has been a disgrace and a shame. Given the history of the Jewish people, we should know better about all kinds of racism.

As an American Jew, I find accusations of disloyalty offensive. In the United States and in Israel, there are Jewish people with a wide range of political views on every issue. People need to vote their conscience. The last thing we need is President Trump or any other authority, acting as arbiter, dictating how we vote and passing judgment.

American antisemitism is coming from the same deep well that has long brought us racism, white supremacy and xenophobia. It is the same deep well that perpetrated the genocide against Native Americans, enslaved generations of African Americans and has cursed our history.

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Franklin Pierce and Slavery – posted 10/20/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/7/2019

October 20, 2019 1 comment

In writing about the New York Times 1619 Project and slavery, I made a notable error. As pointed out by Concord Monitor reader, William Judd, I had included New Hampshire’s only president, Franklin Pierce, on a list of presidents who owned slaves. He did not.

As someone who attended Franklin Pierce Law Center and as someone who has been to the Pierce Homestead in Hillsborough, I became curious about Pierce and the slavery question. There is not much good quality information readily available about Pierce.

I had previously read that a consensus of historians generally ranked him as one of our worst presidents. While it is true that Franklin Pierce did not own slaves, I think it is fair to say his slavery views and his handling of slavery-related issues were beyond abysmal.

Pierce hated abolitionists. It was a defining passion for him. Pierce was a Democrat and in that era before the Civil War, the Democrats were the political party generally aligned with pro-slavery interests. Although he was a Northerner, he had Southern-type principles.

When an Anti-Slavery Society formed in New Hampshire in 1835, Pierce wrote to a friend:

“One thing must be perfectly apparent to every intelligent man. This abolition movement must be crushed or there is an end to the Union.”

Before the Civil War, the country was incredibly divided over the slavery question. Pierce was a compromise presidential candidate in 1852. Democrats correctly believed Pierce would have national appeal since he was loyal to the Union but with a pro-Southern ideology. Pierce was the most pro-slavery New England politician.

Pierce won the Democratic nomination on the forty-ninth ballot at the 1852 Convention. He upset James Buchanan who had been expected to be the nominee. Senator William King of Alabama became Pierce’s Vice-President. Senator King’s family was the largest slaveholding family in Alabama.

After the 1852 Convention, New Hampshire Congressman Edmund Burke wrote to Pierce:

“I think we did right in putting King on the ticket. You know he is Buchanan’s bosom friend and thus a great and powerful interest is conciliated….The slave states will fall into our laps like ripe apples.”

At his inauguration in 1853, Pierce had this to say about slavery:

“I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution. I believe that it stands, like any other admitted right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions.”

Jefferson Davis, later the president of the Confederacy, was one of Pierce’s best friends. After his 1852 election to the presidency, Pierce made Jefferson Davis his secretary of war.

A crucial issue for Pierce was the expansion of slavery into the western territories beyond what was then the United States. Kansas and Nebraska were two places that were in play.The Compromise of 1820 had previously banned slavery north of the 36 degree 30” parallel, excluding Missouri. The South wanted to overturn that compromise.

There was a continuing battle between slave and free states that was reflected in the Compromise of 1850. Pierce was pushed by Senator Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and other Southern interests to weigh in on the side of the South. Pierce did so when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a highly consequential piece of legislation that repealed the Missouri Compromise.

Both pro- and anti-slavery advocates poured into Kansas, leading to violent political confrontation in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Probably no act of Congress divided the nation as much, heading the United States toward Civil War.

Pierce became unpopular in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Democrats moved on from him, making James Buchanan the party’s presidential nominee in 1856. Pierce was generally seen as someone who advocated for the pro-slavery states.

It needs to be mentioned that as president, Pierce enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. When an escaped slave named Anthony Burns was seized in Boston, President Pierce dispatched federal troops to enforce Burns’ return to Virginia. That show of force backfired and turned many New Englanders against slavery, so much so, that a multi-racial crowd of abolitionists attacked the court in Boston where Burns was being held and tried to free him. Pierce became hated for his role in this affair.

After his tenure as president, Pierce became a harsh critic of President Lincoln. When Lincoln was assassinated, a mob gathered outside Pierce’s home in Concord demanding to know why Pierce had not raised a flag as a public mourning gesture. Pierce was able to talk the mob down.

Pierce had been a very successful trial lawyer in Concord in the 1840’s. Before he became President, he had a long record of public service, including Speaker of the House in the New Hampshire Legislature, Congressman and Senator.

Although on domestic policy, Pierce had inflamed conflict, he had tried to unite the country with a very aggressive program of imperialism and foreign expansion. He had sought to annex Hawaii and purchase Cuba. Many abolitionists believed though that he wanted to acquire new territory for slavery.

Pierce suffered deep tragedies in his life, including the death of his three children. His eleven year old son Benny died in a horrible train accident in Andover Ma right before Pierce became president. Both he and his wife were there.

Pierce had a serious alcohol problem. He persisted in drinking even though his physical condition was deteriorating. He died in 1869 of cirrhosis of the liver. None of his family members were present. In his last years he had expressed support for Andrew Johnson’s version of Reconstruction and he applauded Johnson’s acquittal after he was impeached.

While to his credit, Pierce was not a slaveholder, I submit there is almost nothing there to feel good about. He was from New Hampshire but fundamentally he was a slavery collaborator.

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