Archive for August, 2021

Inheritors of the New England Abolitionist Tradition – posted 8/31/2021

August 31, 2021 8 comments

Current debates about racism, critical race theory or the 1619 Project generally lack historical perspective. Advocates take positions pro or con without putting 2021 issues in any historical context. As an anti-racist, I would like to situate current struggles in a different framework.

I would suggest that New Englanders are the inheritors of a most proud and noble abolitionist tradition that includes figures like William Lloyd Garrison, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers, John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

There is a long interracial tradition of New Englanders taking the national lead in opposing racism and slavery. New England’s reputation as a cradle of American civilization is tied up with being in the anti-slavery vanguard.

Surprisingly though, abolitionists have been inadequately recognized in American history for their contributions to moving the struggle against racism forward. They started as a tiny despised minority and ended up persuading much of a nation. The abolitionists present a paradigm that all later progressive social movements in American history draw on.

I would begin with William Lloyd Garrison of Newburyport, Massachusetts and later Boston. In the late 1820’a there were about two million African Americans held in slavery. Few voices were raised in opposition. Garrison got the idea of publishing a newspaper to promote the immediate abolition of slavery. In 1831, he started the Liberator, a paper that had more black than white readers. In the first issue, Garrison wrote:

“…I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this moment to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity…I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice…I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.”

The world around Garrison did not appear to be moving in any direction he favored. The introduction of the cotton gin had made slavery economically indispensable to both the South and the North. Slavery was extremely profitable and deeply entrenched. Nevertheless, Garrison persisted, helping to found the New England Anti-Slavery Society and later the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Garrison believed in moral suasion. He actually believed he could convert all kinds of people, including slaveholders, to oppose slavery.

Garrison paid a heavy price for his writing and activism. Southern states placed a bounty on his head. In 1835, a Boston mob constructed a gallows in front of his office, apprehended him, put a rope around him and almost lynched him. He was rescued at the last minute and put in jail for his own protection. The mob burned him in effigy.

Allies in the Boston African American community supported the anti-slavery fight. In 1830, David Walker, a leader of the Boston black community, authored An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. Walker opposed colonization, a movement that sought to move free blacks to a colony in Africa. At the time, even some abolitionists supported colonization. Garrison published Walker’s Appeal.

Maria Stewart, an African American woman from Hartford Ct and later Boston, became one of the first women to speak publicly including to mixed audiences of black and white men and women. That was almost unheard of then. Stewart lectured before the New England Anti-Slavery Society and Garrison also published her anti-slavery writing. She became famous for powerful speeches she delivered in the early 1830’s.

In 1835, the New Hampshire Anti-Slavery Society based in Concord published the Herald of Freedom, a weekly newspaper with its motto “No compromise with slavery”. A Plymouth-based attorney Nathaniel Peabody Rogers became the editor. In 1840, Rogers represented New Hampshire abolitionists at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Thoreau wrote highly of Rogers and he became a subject of an 1844 Thoreau essay.

Abolitionists built a school in Canaan, New Hampshire named Noyes Academy that admitted 14 black students including Henry Highland Garnet, a later-to-be well-known abolitionist. The school only last a few months. Locals objected to the attendance of black students. They used a team of oxen to drag the school building off its foundation. The building was then destroyed.

On the political front, John Quincy Adams and Charles Sumner, both of Massachusetts, deserve special mention. After this presidency, Adams fought the Slave Power as a Congressman. For years, against massive opposition, he brought up petitions from his constituents demanding an end to slavery. As a master of parliamentary procedure, Adams fought the Slave Power tooth and nail.

Sumner was right there with Adams. Through a long political career, including 20 years as a U.S. Senator, Sumner fought eloquently. He was a great orator. In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Sumner on the floor of the Senate after a Sumner speech excoriating slavery. Brooks felt Sumner had slandered his family. The assault almost killed Sumner. It took Sumner several years to recover but he went on to lead the Radical Republicans in the Senate right through the Civil War.

New England abolitionists were also most outspoken on the literary front. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier, all of Massachusetts, and Harriet Beecher Stowe of Connecticut all saw slavery as monstrous. Thoreau wrote “Slavery in Massachusetts” and raked the state for its collaboration with slaveholders. He also fiercely defended John Brown. Emerson denounced the Fugitive Slave Act.

Whittier, a Quaker and a poet, devoted twenty years of his life to abolitionism. He edited a leading Northern anti-slavery newspaper, the Pennsylvania Freeman. In May 1838 its offices were burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob. Stowe was most famous for writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Stowe supported the Underground Railroad. Supposedly when Stowe met President Lincoln in 1862 he said, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”.

I think all American progressives are in debt to the New England abolitionists. Although they were stereotyped as single-minded fanatics, they were quintessential moralists who placed human rights at the center of their world view. They transformed words into deeds and made peaceful co-existence with slavery an impossibility.

As 21st century activists, we are building on the abolitionist tradition. In our era, advancing an anti-racist agenda means attacking the pillars of institutionalized racism which have led to huge economic inequality, restricted voting rights, mass incarceration, poor housing, medical apartheid, and re-segregated public education.

Opponents of critical race theory and the 1619 project have shown no willingness to face the actual history of our country.

Just as the abolitionists moved from being a tiny minority to transforming a majority, we inheritors of that tradition can move toward a more just society now and in the years ahead. The New England abolitionists are a great example to follow.

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Jaan Laaman’s legacy of prison reform – posted 8/22/2021

August 22, 2021 1 comment

I saw that after 37 years behind bars Jaan Laaman was released from federal prison. The name Jaan Laaman would likely not be known by younger people but there are some older people who might remember.

Laaman was a 1960’s radical. He grew up in a blue collar family in Roxbury, Massachusetts and later in Buffalo, New York. Early on, he developed a sense of solidarity with black people. As a teenager he got locked up for a non-political crime. He did some time in prison and he said he became more aware of what life was like for victims of the capitalist system.

Upon his release, he later went to Cornell and UNH and he joined Students for a Democratic Society, the radical student organization of that era. He became a full-time activist and he supported the Black Liberation and anti-war movements.

In 1971, he spoke at an anti-war rally. The authorities charged him with a parole violation for his talk and they sent him to Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Laaman served a period of time at Attica before the September 1971 prison riot. There he met Sam Melville, another radical.

Melville had been party to multiple bombings of government and corporate offices. He was linked to the Weather Underground. Melville was one of the leaders of the Attica uprising. He was seen alive after the uprising was put down by the state police but two days later his name showed up on a list of prisoners killed during the riot. Thirty three prisoners and ten hostages died.

It is hard to know how much Melville’s example affected Laaman. He was close to Melville. Possibly he was already connected to underground clandestine work.

After Laaman got out, he again got into trouble. In 1972, the police arrested him for bombing a Richard Nixon for President Headquarters building and a police station in New Hampshire. No one was injured in these bombings except Laaman who hurt his hand. The state convicted Laaman for the bombings and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He won early release in 1978 after winning on appeal. He served over five years in New Hampshire State Prison.

During his time in the New Hampshire State Prison, Laaman shook the place. He brought seven legal actions against the prison. The Court described Laaman as an “able, prolific and often successful jailhouse lawyer”. Laaman operated a legal clinic for prisoners. In a published opinion, the Court went on about Laaman:

“He has served as an elected inmate representative since 1973 when he helped establish a formal grievance procedure, and has continuously acted informally as a spokesperson and mediator for other prisoners. He has been an officer in the New England Prisoners’ Association and has attempted to establish a prisonwide newspaper at NHSP…Laaman is popular among the inmates and evidences a genuine concern for them…He writes personal letters for the semi-literate, speaks on behalf of men who can’t talk, and demands the things he feels are right and needed.”

Laaman’s case turned into a class action, Laaman v Helgemoe, to improve the living conditions, treatment and programs available at the New Hampshire State Prison. In 1975, Federal Judge Hugh Bownes appointed New Hampshire Legal Assistance as counsel for the prisoners. A number of pro see individual cases were consolidated into the case.

Legal Assistance challenged the totality of prison conditions including visitation and mail privileges, work, education and rehabilitation opportunities, medical care, harassment of the named plaintiffs and overall conditions and practices. It was an everything but the kitchen sink lawsuit.

Judge Bownes ruled that the conditions and treatment accorded prisoners at NHSP violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court entered a comprehensive order to address the many unconstitutional conditions at NHSP. In a section of the court order entitled “Debilitating Conditions”, Judge Bownes wrote:

“..Deep anger and hatred of the society that relegates prisoners in the name of reform to cages with nothing to do, frustration and hostility engendered by false promises, and the loss of pride and self-esteem inherent in such a degrading experience spawn antiauthoritarian and often violent criminal behavior. Time at NHSP costs a man more than part of his life; it robs him of his skills, his ability to cope with society in a civilized manner, and, most importantly, his essential human dignity. Degeneration is hastened at NHSP by the impediments placed in the way of inmates who try to gain something positive during their imprisonment.”

A 38 page consent decree approved by the judge ordered creation and implementation of a classification system, protection for inmates from violence and aggression, adequate sanitation, medical care and mental health care, and meaningful vocational and educational opportunities. The Court recognized that idleness was negative and found a requirement that inmates obtain rehabilitation opportunities.

For over three decades, New Hampshire Legal Assistance continued to vigorously enforce the terms of the consent decree. Consent decrees are not self-executing. Without vigorous enforcement, things backslide.

I do not think it is appreciated now how significant the Laaman case has been. Before Laaman and cases in other states like it, federal courts had a hands-off approach and prisoners’ rights were very narrowly circumscribed. A very punitive mentality reigned both in the courts and prisons.

This was captured by George Jackson, the prison writer and revolutionary, who wrote in his book Soledad Brother:

“Most [prison] policy is formulated in a bureau that operates under the heading Department of Corrections. But what can we say about these asylums since none of the inmates are ever cured. Since in every instance they are sent out of the prisons more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered. Because that is the reality.”

Judicial attitudes did change in response to prisoners’ efforts to improve conditions through litigation. While the Laaman case did not create a constitutional right to rehabilitation, it did recognize that inmates had a right to be incarcerated in conditions which did not threaten their sanity and were not counterproductive to their efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

After Laaman got out of NHSP, he moved to Boston and he worked as a community organizer. He opposed South African apartheid and U.S. imperialism in Central America. He helped organize the Amandla music festival held at Harvard Stadium in July 1979 where Bob Marley and the Wailers headlined.

Laaman later went underground again. The police charged him with seditious conspiracy although that charge did not go forward. He ended up convicted of five bombings, one attempted bombing and criminal conspiracy. Sentenced to 53 years in prison, he served 37 years.

In his last prison stint, Laaman taught meditation classes and yoga. As a yoga practitioner, he initiated a yoga class for people with disabilities, those with limited mobility and those wheelchair-bound.

Progressives now seem more about prison abolition and ending mass incarceration than they do about improving conditions of people still confined.

I think that is a mistake because so many remain incarcerated. The Laaman consent decree helped to break the cycle of incarceration and offered vocational opportunities that helped re-entry to society. Back in 1977 there were 261 prisoners in NHSP. In 2020 there were 2283. The provisions of the Laaman consent decree have helped countless inmates. That is an undeniable legacy.

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Stream We Are Still Here by R.J. Phillips Band | Listen online for free on SoundCloud -posted 8/18/2021

August 18, 2021 Leave a comment

I just wanted to share this song “We are still here” composed by Joe DeFilippo and performed by the R.J. Phillips Band, a group of Baltimore musicians.

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A multi-pronged coup attempt against democracy – posted 8/15/2021

August 15, 2021 Leave a comment

Even before Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden in the November 2020 presidential election, Trump whined that the election was rigged. He spouted wild unsupported conspiracy theories that the election would be corrupted by mail-in ballots. Before the 2016 election Trump did essentially the same thing except then he ended up winning.

When he did lose in 2020, Trump’s response was to manufacture a monstrous lie. Out of no evidence, he created the Big Lie the election was stolen. Trump has repeated the Big Lie religiously so that he could transform reality to resemble his lies. He and his allies have worked to purge Republicans who do not buy into his fiction.

Unlike almost all presidents in U.S. history who accepted the will of the voters, Trump embarked on a non-stop campaign to overturn a democratic election. Never accepting the peaceful transfer of power, Trump worked single-mindedly between November 2020 and January 2021 to find a way to install himself as a dictator. He never conceded.

After he lost, he demonstrated a loss of interest in the job of being president. His energies fixated on how he could maintain power because losing was inconceivable for him. Trump’s cumulative actions added up to a multi-pronged offensive against democracy. When his non-violent schemes failed, he opted for violence.

The stages can now be clearly delineated. When Trump’s court strategy failed, he turned to state legislatures. When that failed, he attempted to manipulate the Department of Justice and the military. When every strategy he tried could not get the job done, he resorted to a violent insurrection on January 6 to prevent certification of the Electoral College vote.

Trump’s coup attempt, which has been joked about as inept, came uncomfortably close to success. If Mike Pence, Jeffrey Rosen or General Mark Milley had acted differently, the election might have been thrown into the House of Representatives, with uncertain results. For those who doubt there was a legitimate coup danger, closer scrutiny of the events between November 2020-January 2021 are in order.

After the election, the Trump legal team filed 60 federal lawsuits focused on swing states. These frivolous lawsuits were laughed out of court, even by Trump-appointed judges. Trump made zero headway. His colorful cast of lawyers, including some genuine nutcases, violated professional ethics by repeatedly making false statements of fact to multiple tribunals.

Trump then tried to bully and threaten state election officials, governors and state legislators to do his bidding. A litany of death threats and threats of physical harm directed against election officials has continued since last November. We have had the Arizona audit and Trump pleading with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “to find 11,780 votes”. The solicitation of election fraud is almost certainly a crime.

Trying to get friendly state legislatures to appoint electors may turn out to be one of the most dangerous legacies of Trump’s efforts. As a minority party, Republicans are looking at ways to maintain their power beyond voting. Unlike earlier authoritarians, Republicans suppress votes rather than entirely eliminating the right to vote.

In the future, Republican lawyers will be arguing the “independent state legislature doctrine” to justify the power of state legislatures to run elections as they see fit. It is a possible vehicle for overturning close elections. Instead of votes deciding elections, state legislatures conceivably will.

Trump treated the Department of Justice as if it was his private play thing, not a non-partisan law firm. Although Attorney General William Barr was a sycophant who always went along with his boss, when he disputed Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, that was the end for him. Trump replaced Barr with Jeffrey Rosen whom Trump badgered daily. Trump sought investigation of election conspiracy theories including satellite interference from Italy and Dominion Voting System improprieties.

In a December 27 call, Trump urged Rosen to make a false declaration. According to Rosen’s deputy Richard Donaghue, Trump said, “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen”. Trump wanted to create the appearance of wrong-doing. He intended to use Rosen to nullify the election.

Behind Rosen’s back, Trump also conspired with Rosen’s underling, Jeffrey Clark. Trump wanted to replace Rosen with Clark as Attorney General because Clark was willing to play ball with Trump’s criminal games.

On December 27, Clark produced a letter he wanted Rosen and Donaghue to sign. Following Trump’s lead, Clark wanted to bypass Georgia’s governor and call the Georgia state legislature into session to reject Biden electors and appoint Trump electors. Rosen and Donaghue would not go along.

White House lawyer Pat Cipillone persuaded Trump not to fire Rosen. If Trump had fired Rosen and replaced him with Clark, the entire senior leadership of the Justice Department was poised to resign en masse.

We also now know that the former U.S. Attorney in Georgia, Byung Pak, a Trump appointee, was told he would be fired if he refused to say there was election fraud in Georgia. He abruptly resigned on January 4.

Trump clashed with General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who worried Trump might call on the armed forces to decide the outcome of the 2020 election. Trump was replacing senior officials at the Pentagon with his loyalists. General Milley compared November 2020 with 1933 when Hitler used an attack on the German Parliament to establish a Nazi dictatorship. Milley said, “This is a Reichstag moment”.

After the December 12 pro-Trump demonstration in Washington D.C. protesting the Supreme Court not coming to his rescue, Trump tweeted on December 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”.

Probably the most cogent statement made about January 6 comes from Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn. When he testified before the House select committee investigating January 6, he said:

“If a hitman is hired and he kills somebody, the hitman goes to jail. But not only the hitman goes to jail, the person who hired them does. There was an attack carried out on January 6. And a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that.”

Take your pick on the crimes Trump has committed: solicitation of election fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding (Electoral College certification), violation of the Hatch Act and inciting insurrection jump out. Failure to prosecute likely guarantees a repeat performance in the future by Trump or a Trump clone. You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder if our legal system is up to the task.

With Trump we have a cult leader who incited a violent and deadly insurrection. He presents himself as some kind of national savior to his followers. He has promoted a culture of hatred and dehumanization against immigrants and an utter disregard for the rule of law. Believing himself above the law, he has no hesitation in trying to steamroll any obstacles in his path to power. This behavior is far more consistent with the fascist strongman tradition than any kind of conservatism.

Nobody should be reassured that we barely escaped this time.

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Summer time – posted 8/14/2021

August 14, 2021 2 comments
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Next chapter in the persecution of Attorney Steven Donziger – posted 8/8/2021

August 8, 2021 2 comments

Back in April, I wrote an article about Attorney Steven Donziger’s fight with the oil giant, Chevron. The story is a model for how a powerful corporation can corrupt our legal process and try and buy results. As Donziger has said, “I’m like a corporate political prisoner”.

In 2011, Donziger, a human rights attorney, had won an epic two-decades long lawsuit against Chevron. Back between 1964-1992, Chevron, previously Texaco, had dumped 16 billion gallons of benzene-laden oil waste into the forest, rivers and streams of Ecuador. On behalf of 30,000 indigenous people of Ecuador, Donziger and a team of attorneys won an unprecedented $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron. The judgment has been upheld by both the Supreme Court of Ecuador and Canada.

Since April there have been some significant developments in the Donziger-Chevron saga. In July, the federal court in New York found Donziger guilty of six charges of criminal contempt. Donziger has already served more than 700 days of home confinement with an ankle bracelet and he is looking at an additional six month jail term with sentencing on October 1.

Donziger is the only lawyer in U.S. history to be deprived of his liberty pre-trial on a misdemeanor charge. He is also the only person ever charged in the U.S. with criminal contempt for appealing a court order related to discovery in a civil case.

Chevron has pursued a scorched earth strategy against Donziger. To divert attention from their environmental crimes, they have demonized and attempted to destroy him. That may sound like hyperbole but it is not.

Chevron hired private investigators to track Donziger. They created a publication to smear his reputation. With their virtually unlimited resources they put together a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from 60 law firms to try and ruin Donziger and they have done real damage.

Donziger cannot work, travel, earn money or leave his home. He has been disbarred, had his passport seized, and his bank accounts have been frozen. He now has a lien on his apartment where he lives in New York. Donziger owes enormous court fines and costs and he remains under house arrest.

Chevron had filed a Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations or RICO lawsuit against Donziger. The case is before Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former tobacco company lawyer. Kaplan once described Chevron as:

“..a company of considerable importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels and lubricants on which everyone of us depends every single day.”

Chevron had originally sought $60 billion in damages against Donziger. Two weeks before trial Chevron dropped the monetary claim entirely to deny Donziger a jury trial. They wanted the case before Kaplan. With the money claim gone, Kaplan had the option to deny Donziger’s request for a jury trial and he did that.

The Court charged Donziger with contempt for refusing to hand over his computer, cellphone and other electronic devices. Donziger did not comply, citing client confidentiality, as identification of his clients could place them in great danger. When Judge Kaplan asked the U.S. Attorney to prosecute the contempt, the U.S. Attorney refused the prosecution.

While corporate power had already turned the tables on Donziger, here is the point where things went sideways. Instead of random assignment of judges as required by local court rules, Judge Kaplan handpicked another judge, Loretta Preska, to preside over the contempt case. Under an unusual procedure, Kaplan also appointed a private law firm, Seward and Kissel, as prosecutors since the U.S. Attorney had declined to prosecute the alleged contempt.

The appointed private law firm, Seward and Kissel, had and has a disqualifying conflict of interest as they had a direct tie to Chevron. Chevron had been their client as recently as 2018 but that was not disclosed until months into trial. Still, Seward and Kissel remain as prosecutors.

As for the judge handpicked by Kaplan, Loretta Preska, she is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that has received funding from Chevron. As Kaplan had done, Preska also denied Donziger’s request for a jury trial. At the trial she denied virtually all the objections of Donziger’s defense team while sustaining all prosecution objections. Martin Garbus, one of Donziger’s lawyers, said this about Kaplan picking Preska:

“He knows in choosing her, he is choosing the one judge in the Southern District, perhaps, who is going to go after Steven in the worst possible way. And Kaplan was exactly right”.

Prosecution witnesses in Donziger’s contempt trial included attorneys from Gibson Dunn, a law firm which had represented Chevron in litigation against Donziger.

What we have is the hijacking of a legal proceeding by a hugely powerful corporation that uses its massive resources to crush an environmental activist lawyer. Changing the subject away from its environmental crimes has been an effective strategy. The company will do anything to avoid paying the $9.5 billion court judgment.

The punishment Donziger is suffering is crazily out of whack to any standard of fairness. It is off the charts and it is Chevron sending a message to all its adversaries, current and potential: cross us and you will pay. Lengthy home arrest and jail time for a lawyer under these circumstances is beyond unusual.

Donziger’s lawyer, Martin Garbus, is famous for his trial skills, for being a civil libertarian and for having vast experience as an international lawyer. He said:

“I have seen many, many oppressive judges, and I have seen many, many rigged court systems. The way this is rigged is peculiar and amazing in New York. Nothing like this has ever happened before in the American legal system.”

Donziger is, of course, appealing the contempt charges and he remains hopeful about his chances on appeal. He is also fighting his disbarment. Many have raised public questions about these proceedings including Sen. Ed Markey, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner and former Federal Judge Mark Bennett.

The Donziger prosecution reflects a deep tension and a corrosive passivity within our legal system. The other side of the coin from the legal system’s failure to enforce judgments against a climate-ruining corporation is the hyper-persecution of activist lawyers like Donziger.

Edward Abbey once said, “There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed”. With its role in climate destruction, that speaks directly to Chevron. As a society, we are failing to respond to the real dangers.

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Native American family separation was cultural genocide – posted 8/1/2021

August 1, 2021 2 comments

Maybe readers have seen those stories about the mass graves of Indian children found at boarding schools in Canada and the United States. The remains of thousands of children have been found around the school sites and more unmarked mass graves keep appearing.

Beyond superficial apologies, the explanations given do not do justice to the scale of the crimes committed.

Native American history, as conventionally told, has big gaps. One gap is the story of how between 1869-1978 the federal government removed hundreds of thousands of Native American children, some as young as five, from their parents. By 1926, 83% of Indian school age children were attending boarding school.

Since Trump’s election in 2016, family separation became a big issue but the problem has very deep, under-appreciated roots in American history. That history has been erased.

After the violent removal of Native Americans from their land by white settlers and the creation of reservations, Native children became subject to a policy that was called “assimilation”. It was actually cultural genocide.

First started by Christian missionaries, boarding schools required Native American children to be educated according to Anglo-American standards. Federal law mandated the education. Nationally, 350 boarding schools came into existence. The schools attempted to divest the children of their Native identities.

As the founder of Carlisle Indian School, the first government-run, off-reservation boarding school for Native Americans, Richard Henry Pratt expressed it, the goal was “kill the Indian, save the man”. He desired to take children at a young age, remove them from family and eradicate Indian culture.

Before starting Carlisle, Pratt, a U.S. Army lieutenant, ran a prison school for Indians in Florida that focused on destroying culture, language and family connection as a means to assimilate Native children into mainstream American life.

The schools gave the children new names. They stripped the children of their clothing and forced them to wear military style uniforms. The schools made the children cut their long hair, forbid them from speaking their Native American languages and prevented them from practicing their religion. The children were physically punished for being caught speaking Native languages.

The schools told the children that what their parents practiced would send them to hell. They were forced to adapt Christianity. The indoctrination was intended to make the children ashamed to be Native Americans.

Pratt also saw family separation as a strategy to control the adults in tribes. In a letter he wrote in 1879 to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Pratt said that he took the children of tribal leaders to the boarding school because their parents “will be restrained by that fact and invited to seek for themselves a better state of civilization”.

The colonialist mentality saw stripping away Native identity as part of the process of bringing Native people from savagery to civilization. A similar process went on in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

There was significant resistance by Native people. Families that refused to cooperate were jailed. The boarding schools discouraged close family proximity and they were typically located far from reservations. Many children tried to escape. If captured they were beaten and whipped. They also were subject to other harsh punishment like solitary confinement.

Why so many children died at the schools remains something of a mystery although it is easy to speculate. Illness and suicide were two reasons. Some who tried to escape died trying. It is impossible to know the numbers.

In June, Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, ordered a federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to recover the histories of the institutions. Secretary Haaland wants the investigation to identify the children who attended and their tribal affiliations. She also wants to find records of cemeteries or burial sites that may contain unidentified human remains.

Haaland herself has a connection to Carlisle Indian School. Her great-grandfather was removed from his family and sent to Carlisle. Haaland said, “I am a product of these horrific assimilationist policies”. In requesting the Initiative, she wrote:

“Survivors of the traumas of boarding school policies carried their memories into adulthood as they became the aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents to subsequent generations…The loss of those who did not return left an enduring need in their families for answers that, in many cases, were never provided.”

There was a culture of pervasive physical and sexual abuse at the schools. It is hard to get a handle on the extent of the abuse because the issue of abuse was not recognized in that era. Stories come from survivor interviews.

Along with the federal government, Christian churches and especially the Catholic Church played an integral role in the boarding schools. Under the Civilization Fund Act, Christian missionaries and other “persons of good moral character” were charged with introducing Native children to “the habits and arts of civilization”.

The Native boarding schools were poorly funded and overcrowded. They were infamous for inadequate food, poor health care and neglect. Infections often would sweep through dirty dorms.

The schools had an Outing program where students were lent to non-Native patrons who exploited them as low-cost labor. Patrons paid the school for the student’s services but they did not pay the students who typically performed domestic or farm work.

Many schools failed to keep accurate records of student deaths. If they were notified at all, parents of those students who died were often notified after the child’s burial. When students died, classmates were sometimes forced to bury the bodies in mass graves.

This history has been hidden. Christine McCleave, the chief executive officer of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, estimates that fewer than 10% of the U.S. public knows anything about the history of Indian boarding schools in this country.

I would mention that family separation did not end with the decline of Indian boarding schools. Between 1941-1967, a shockingly high number of American Indian children, as many as one-third, were forcibly removed from their families and were permanently placed in homes with white parents.

Unlike Canada, the United States has failed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to consider these matters. Nor has it ever acknowledged or addressed its role in the cultural genocide of Native American children. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would create a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy but it died in Congress when it was first introduced. Sen. Warren plans to re-introduce the legislation.

In considering the widely-recognized problems in Native American communities like substance abuse and suicide, the context of cultural genocide and its legacy is typically missed. Traumatic childhood experiences disrupt brain development and can lead to negative health outcomes for adults. We as a society need to stop blaming and start listening. Truth-telling about cultural genocide has barely begun.

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