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Anti-Semitism must be taken more seriously and opposed more vigorously – posted 6/13/2021

June 13, 2021 Leave a comment

In New York City’s Time Square, a group of men punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed a 29 year old Jewish man who was wearing a yarmulke. The group was shouting anti-semitic words.

In New York City’s Upper West Side, a Jewish man headed to Trader Joe’s to buy food for the Sabbath. A group of teens followed him saying, “Yarmulke. I want to take that yarmulke. I want to hit him in his head and take that yarmulke.That Jewish baby-killer.”

In Brooklyn, a different group of males harassed Orthodox Jews getting ready for Sabbath. The group shouted “Free Palestine – kill all the Jews”. The group banged on locked synagogue doors and when they could not get in they broke off the mirror on a nearby parked car. A little later, the group chased people perceived as Jews with a baseball bat and put a 17 year old in a chokehold.

In Skokie Illinois, someone shattered a window in a synagogue.

In Arizona, police are investigating someone spray-painting a swastika and an anti-Semitic slur on the door of a Tucson synagogue. This was the second synagogue in the city vandalized recently.

In Los Angeles, pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacked Jewish diners at a sushi restaurant.

All these episodes happened in the wake of May’s military conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. During that fighting in May, the Anti-Defamation League tracked a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States including assaults, vandalism, harassment and hate speech. On Twitter, there were more than 17,000 tweets using variations of the phrase “Hitler was right” between May 7-14.

It would appear that Jews are being blamed worldwide for the violence in Gaza. As in the U.S., Jews in Europe have also seen an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Anti-Semites use human rights abuses by the Israeli state against Palestinians as cover for hatred of Jews everywhere.

As a Jewish American, I am not responsible for the actions of the Israeli state. Just for the record, I am a progressive and an anti-fascist. I oppose racism, sexism and class oppression. I support LGBTQ rights. I have opposed the Netanyahu government and the occupation but in this instance, I do not think a person’s position on Israel and the Palestinians is the issue.

In the American Jewish community, there are a wide range of views about Israel but that is an entirely separate matter from anti-Semitism in the United States.

I am among those progressives who were jolted by Charlottesville in 2017. The sight of neo-nazis with their tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” was bracing and a wake-up call. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting reinforced my feelings.

Progressives, along with all others on the political spectrum, have under-estimated the anti-Semitic threat and I think that comes out of a weak historical understanding of both anti-Semitism and fascism.

Anti-Semitic hatred is uniquely deep-seated. It has been justifiably called the longest hatred. Think crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the blood libel and the Holocaust. The body count is enormous but there is a tendency to downplay the danger because of the relative economic success of American Jews. The myth that all Jews are rich figures prominently in the anti-Semitic playbook.

The truth has some complexity. While American Jews as a whole represent the highest earning religious group in the U.S., more than half of American Jews earn less than $99,000 per year with 31 percent earning less than $49,000 per year. Contrary to the stereotype, many Jews do not have much money.

The stereotype that Jews are rich and greedy has a long historical background. Going back to the Middle Ages, Jews had restrictions placed on their economic activity and they were sometimes prohibited from owning land. Ruling classes set up Jews in intermediate positions between those with real power and those without. It was convenient for ruling classes to place Jews in positions where they could be a focus for popular anger that might otherwise be directed at the ruling class.

For over 1500 years, the Church helped generate a popular culture of hatred toward Jews. Anti-Jewish legislation adopted by the Church became the law of the land throughout Christian Europe. Jewish-Christian marriages were forbidden, except in the case of conversion by the Jewish party. Jewish property rights were narrowed. Jews were barred from practicing law and Jews were prevented from testifying against a Christian. In some countries, Jews were forcibly baptized or expelled.

The character Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes to mind. As an unscrupulous money-lender, Shylock depicted the stereotype of Jewish greed. Jews like the Rothschilds or George Soros are still imagined to control the world’s financial systems. Cartoons of grotesque fat Jewish bankers running the planet are epidemic. Conspiracy theories live off half-baked ideas and images.

In her podcast, the comedian Sarah Silverman has directly confronted the anti-Semitic mythology that connects Jews and money. She says:

“The conceit that Jews are rich is why the Holocaust happened. That was the idea they were pushing that got people on board with Nazism.”

I think there is truth in Silverman’s perspective. The Nazis played on the thousand year hatred that had religious and economic roots. Scapegoating was central to their project. Progressives who write off anti-Semitism in the hierarchy of racisms are missing why it remains dangerous. Nazis did not ultimately care whether a Jewish person was rich or not. Rich Jews ended up on the trains to Auschwitz, Sobibor, Dachau and Treblinka too.

Interestingly, Sarah Silverman is from New Hampshire. She lived in Bedford. She described on her podcast how growing up she was used to hearing the phrase “Jew them down”. In high school when she was doing comedy she tells how she was performing, getting laughs and she did a quick turn to serious. She spit out, “Jew is not a verb. It is me, your friend”. After that, she said among her friends she never again heard Jew used as a verb.

Jew-hatred is like other racial hatred or hatred of gay people. It is profoundly irrational. Progressives who do not integrate an understanding of anti-Semitism along with other racism have a superficial grasp of the forms of oppression. They are also not listening closely to the neo-nazis and white supremacists.

The white power movement sees the Jews as an all-powerful force in the background, controlling events and using other minorities and immigrants as pawns in their game. They do not see the Jews as white. They see the Jews as the puppet masters, pursuing white genocide and replacement of white people by minorities.

In acknowledging anti-Semitism, I would recognize that in America the history of oppression against African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinx people has been far worse. That is undisputed but it does not minimize Jew-hatred.

America has a strong First Amendment tradition of religious tolerance. Compared to Europe, anti-Semites have had less success here. Still, Jews need allies who will stand with them and oppose anti-Semitism. Passive or indifferent bystanders do not stop perpetrators. Recent experience provides evidence that a threat remains. As with other racism, anti-Semitism must be vigorously opposed.

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Almost summer – posted 6/12/2021

June 12, 2021 1 comment
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Race-norming and the deeper picture of racism in the NFL – posted 6/6/2021

June 6, 2021 5 comments

Since the 2013 settlement of the NFL concussion lawsuit, there continue to be legal skirmishes about compensation. Two black players, Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport, sued after they were refused a payout under the compensation scheme for brain injuries. The players accused the NFL of racial bias in its administration of settlement funds through a practice called race-norming.

In its use of race-norming, the NFL compared a player’s cognitive test scores with the supposed norm for his demographic group. Under the methodology, black players were assumed to possess a lower level of cognitive function than the average white player. In order to qualify for compensation, the average black player had to demonstrate a greater level of cognitive decline than their white teammates. They needed to score lower to qualify.

To quote NFL safety Eric Reid:

“Race-norming equals blacks are dumber than whites so the brain injuries they suffered didn’t effect them as traumatically because they were dumb to begin with.”

The NFL defended its practice saying that race-norming was used to forestall bias in aptitude tests but then it announced it would stop using the race-based formula.

Judge Anita Brody, the federal court judge overseeing the concussion settlement, threw out the lawsuit filed by Henry and Davenport but she asked for a report about the use of a race-based formula to measure cognitive impairment and to determine eligibility for compensation.

So far, 2000 NFL retirees have filed dementia claims and there have been fewer than 600 awards. The vast majority of NFL retirees are black. Awards have averaged $516,000 for the 371 former players diagnosed with early stage dementia and $715,000 for the 207 players diagnosed with moderate dementia.

Even if not badly intentioned, the NFL’s practice of race-norming reeks of eugenics and our past societal history of scientific racism. While it is little remembered now, racists justified the enslavement of black people by spreading bogus “scientific” theories of black inferiority. Dr. Katherine Possin, a neuropsychology professor and researcher, responded to the race-norming controversy:

“One danger to the continued use of race norms is it perpetuates a false idea that there are genetic differences in intelligence that fall along race lines and that’s simply not true.”

The plaintiff Kevin Henry, now 52, who had his case dismissed by Judge Brody has described how life is different for him now:

“I had more friends. I was more social. I could carry on a conversation without repeating where I was in the conversation. I could find my way around the city better. I could drive without having accidents. Those kind of things have all changed. I am more of a reclusive person now.”

Henry sustained multiple concussions as a defensive lineman playing eight seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. An NFL-approved clinician has diagnosed Henry with mild to moderate dementia but his claim was denied. Henry delineated how he felt watching the NFL’s PR portraying itself as a social justice ally:

“They come out with all these slogans like ‘We care’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. And I’m sitting there, like, you’re lying. You’re lying out of your teeth. It’s so painful to sit there and watch, knowing that you know something totally different.”

I think the race-norming highlights how little progress the NFL has made in seriously addressing its institutional racism. The NFL owners sit atop a massive mountain of cash but their lawyers aggressively fight the claims of black retirees. Denying claims of black players is a money-saving scheme.

It must not be forgotten that the NFL worked for years to hide and minimize the danger of concussions.

To present an overview: of the 32 NFL teams, there are no black owners. Two people of color, Shahid Rafiq Khan, a Pakistani-born American who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kim Pegula, a woman of South Korean descent who co-owns the Buffalo Bills, own NFL teams.

There are three black head coaches and two black general managers in the league. Players of color make up 73% of the NFL but there is a lack of diversity among higher-ups in management and in coaching staffs. There is an acute underrepresentation of African Americans in leadership positions.

This has happened in spite of the Rooney rule established in 2003 which was intended to address racial inequities at the head coaching level. The reality is that the Rooney rule has largely failed. As Jemele Hill has written, NFL owners who are almost all white men have not been willing to let African Americans call plays – either on the field or from the sidelines. Hill wrote:

“This is no different from when franchises presumed that black players weren’t smart enough to play quarterback and lacked leadership skills to command men.”

The NFL owners are representative of the broader American ruling class. They mostly pay lip service to Black Lives Matter. They fund some good social justice endeavors but they maintain the rich white male club just like most Fortune 500 companies do. They guard the 1 percent level money and power and they have a financial set-up they want to maintain. There is an exclusivity to their upper class network that is impervious to change.

I know that many may not be sympathetic to the NFL players but consider this: the average NFL player’s career lasts only 2.5 years. Many suffer brutal neurological and orthopedic injuries. The money is very good but typically very short-lived. About 80 percent of NFL players go bankrupt or suffer financial hardship within two years of leaving the game.

It was wrong when NFL owners blackballed Colin Kaepernick because he had the courage to speak up about unconscionable police brutality. But racism in the NFL cuts far deeper than what happened to Kaepernick. Racism is baked into the NFL. Uprooting it will require much more than slick PR.

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Why the January 6 Commission Matters – posted 5/30/2021

May 30, 2021 Leave a comment

By a vote of 54-35, Senate Republicans defeated the bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. Normally, 54-35 would be a decisive win but under Senate filibuster rules, advocates needed 60 votes so the bipartisan commission failed.

You do not have to look too hard to figure why the Republicans do not want the truth to come out. They are afraid of the truth and what it will show about their complicity. To me this is very similar to their opposition to critical race theory. They do not want to critically re-examine the racial history of the United States. It is better to sweep it under the rug.

The questions a January 6 commission could investigate are straightforward and would be helpful to prevent future insurrectionary events. These questions occurred to me:

  • Who financed January 6 and who planned it?
  • Was the Capitol attack planned by Trump and his inner circle? How much was January 6 an inside job?
  • What was Trump doing before and during the riot?
  • What role did members of Congress or congressional staff play in the insurrection? Did any Congresspeople help plan it or coordinate with others before, during, or after the event?
  • What role, if any, did prominent figures like Michael Flynn or Roger Stone play in these events?
  • Why did security at the Capitol fail so badly? Why did the National Guard show up hours after it was needed?
  • Was physical harm intended against members of Congress, senators, or the Vice-President? Was the gallows set up outside the Capitol symbolic only or were hangings seriously contemplated?
  • What weapons did the insurrectionists bring to the Capitol?
  • How were the two bombs found connected to the insurrection?
  • Did insurrectionists actually believe they could disrupt or prevent Biden’s certification as president?
  • How coordinated were the actions of far right extremists like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Boogaloo Bois?
  • How much were extremist elements within the military and law enforcement involved in the insurrection, did they have any special role and were they coordinated?
  • What is the narrative the January 6 insurrectionists are telling to explain these events?
  • Was the January 6 insurrection a dress rehearsal for any future event? Is it part of a fascist radicalization process?
  • Why were so many Republicans opposed to even a bi-partisan investigation? Was it simply fear of adverse consequences in the 2022 mid-term elections?
  • What steps need to be taken to prevent any future January 6-type events?

When Republicans pretend there is nothing to be learned, you can only shake your head. There are so many questions that deserve real answers. I think many Democrats do not get the urgency and gravity of the situation and many Republicans do not want Trump to be held accountable for the effort to subvert democracy.

Forgetting January 6 serves a political and a propaganda agenda. That agenda is about burying the truth and denying obvious facts. All politicians lie but what sets Trump apart was the absolute lack of any intellectual integrity. Facts that conflict with his goals of power and profit are simply denied.

Trump is squarely within the tradition of fascist and authoritarian leaders who rely on disinformation and propaganda to instill loyalty and to motivate followers to carry out his agenda. Remember in 2018 when Trump said:

“Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written:

“At its core, propaganda is a set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is.”

Republicans have manufactured a mythology about January 6. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll about January 6 found that 73 percent of Republicans pin “some” or “a great deal” of responsibility on “left wing protesters trying to make Trump look bad”. This is even though we all saw who was there with all the Trump flags and Trump paraphernalia. Were our eyes lying?

Other polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of Republicans believe Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. That Big Lie then feeds the Republican voter suppression efforts.

We are at a bad place when we as a nation lack a common baseline of facts. Fascism thrives on disappearing knowledge that conflicts with its ideology. The total fantasy of a stolen election can only harm our democracy. There is no credible proof of voter fraud in 2020 but millions seem to be buying in.

Without a serious investigation of January 6, Republicans will be even more empowered to allow political violence in the future.

Democrats seem to lack the toughness to deal with these very unpleasant realities and some like Joe Manchin seem genuinely surprised by Republican recalcitrance. Ignoring bad things will not make them go away. It is better to have a Select House Committee investigate, than nothing. Such a committee would still have subpoena power. It could address the many questions raised.

I would suggest it is a mistake to look at January 6 as an isolated event, separate and apart from earlier history. It should be seen as a step in the process of fascist radicalization by a significant part of the Republican electorate. By no means is the January 6 insurrection finished.

Growing up as a Jewish young person, I believed that the struggle against fascism was something that you read about or observed happening in other countries. Never did I think I would be living it here in America. How surprising life can be.

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Criminalizing protest as a symptom of fascist decay – posted 5/23/2021

May 23, 2021 1 comment

It has now been almost four years since neo-Nazi James Fields plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville during the infamous “Unite the Right” demonstration. Fields severely hurt over 30 people and killed 32 year old Heather Heyer. Fields was later convicted of first degree murder, malicious wounding and hit and run. He pled guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges to avoid the death penalty.

While the act of driving a vehicle into a crowd of people is deranged, the truth is that since the George Floyd protests, dozens of drivers have maliciously rammed into crowds of protesters marching in roadways. USA Today reported cars have hit demonstrators 104 times since the Floyd protests began. There have been two fatalities, one in Seattle and another in Bakersfield, California.

Instead of recognizing the criminality of such cold-blooded, vicious behavior, Republican legislators around the country responded with laws providing immunity for drivers who kill or injure protesters. It is like they are offering permission and a seal of approval to assault protesters with their cars. They are making it easier for that to happen.

The ACLU calls these bills “hit and kill” bills. In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that grants civil immunity to people who decide to drive their cars into protesters who are engaging in non-violent civil disobedience, blocking a road. Republican legislators in Oklahoma similarly passed a bill that grants civil and criminal immunity to motorists who kill or injure protesters “fleeing from a riot”.

These bills are part of a broader effort to criminalize protest and narrow our First Amendment rights. GOP legislators in 34 states introduced 81 anti-protest bills since the beginning of the year. Using the excuse of being “anti-riot”, many of these bills make it dangerous to engage in mass public protests of any kind.

The bills do things like expand the definition of rioting to sweep up more protesters under that rubric. Florida makes it a crime to use what they call “mob intimidation” which is defined as when three or more people “gather to threaten to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will”. What constitutes “mob intimidation” is beyond vague, just wildly open to interpretation. Vagueness allows prosecutorial mischief with chilling effect.

In Iowa, the legislature introduced an anti-protest bill that would increase the penalties for a riot from an aggravated misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill enhances the punishment for unlawful assembly by those who block streets or sidewalks during protests. South Carolina has also proposed legislation that criminalizes blocking streets or sidewalks and imposes a punishment of five years in prison.

In power and rising to power, fascist parties typically do not tolerate political opposition and dissent. They have a history of gaining power by squashing political opposition. The anti-riot bills are the Republican response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the ferment caused by the repeated episodes of police brutality. They are a further step down the authoritarian road.

This criminalizing of protest is part of a broader pattern discarding any quality of normalcy in Republican politics. We are witnessing the degeneration of the party into a 21st century fascist entity.

I am not being hyperbolic. Consider the voter suppression legislation in many states, the refusal to accept the 2020 presidential election and the peaceful transfer of power, opposition to a January 6 Commission, the sexist effort to eliminate womens’ reproductive rights, and the Trump-inspired “patriotic education” bills which attempt to whitewash American history.

Winning at all costs is the game plan and amorality is the ethos.

These are all pieces of a bigger puzzle and the cumulative picture is not the old Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It is a different creature. The party is now unified in its submission to a cult of personality. Along with commitment to white supremacy, loyalty to Donald Trump, aspiring dictator, is the reigning ideology. Republicans must slavishly fall into line behind their Dear Leader or face the ostracized fate of Liz Cheney.

The party has wedded itself to the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. For Republicans, how humiliating to mouth a fraudulent narrative when the entire world knows it is a lie. You get the absurd spectacle of the Arizona audit.

Fear of Trump and his goons keep Republican officeholders in line. Some like Rep. Pete Meijer (R-MI) have expressed concern about the physical safety of Republican colleagues who told him they were afraid to impeach Trump after January 6. GOP freshman Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-S.C) applied for a concealed carry permit and sent her kids away out of fear because she opposed Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Trump increased tolerance for intimidation, hate and bullying inside the party.

Officeholders like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu who take the most modest steps to separate from Trump are extremely careful to never disparage him. This is no profile in courage. Behind his smiling face, Sununu must worry the Trump mob might turn on him. Only a very few Republicans have had the courage to speak up about the authoritarianism.

In both 2016 and 2020, Trump said losing was not an option. In 2016, he had said he would not accept the results of the election – until he won. In 2020, Trump lost but refused to concede. Refusing to concede broke with a democratic tradition dating back to 1797 when George Washington willingly stepped down as our first president.

If you argue that losing is an impossible result, you are mirroring the behavior of autocrats who refuse to give up power and who reject the results of democratic elections.

What motivates rank and file Republicans to reject democracy in favor of a Putin-wannabee figure like Trump? Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, offered a surprising answer. Researching 377 people who were arrested in connection with the January 6 insurrection, Pape found that fear of the “Great Replacement” was a powerful motivator.

Insurrectionists interviewed believed minorities are replacing white population due to mass immigration policies and low white birthrate. Pape found that the insurrectionists were generally older and more professional than right wing protesters surveyed in the past. They were overwhelmingly white and male. A high percentage of the insurrectionists hailed from counties experiencing a significant decline in the non-Hispanic white population.

Fascist movements rely on scapegoating and, in America, immigrants are playing the role the Jews played in Nazi Germany.

People who identify as Republicans need to ask themselves: are you on board with junking democracy for fascism? What happens next with the Republican Party could make or break our democracy.

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Seen on the wall in Provincetown last Saturday -posted 5/18/2021

May 18, 2021 Leave a comment
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My May Day, 1971 – posted 5/9/2021

May 9, 2021 4 comments

50th anniversaries have a way of sneaking up and, for me, that was true about May Day 1971. I was one of the more than 12,000 people arrested in Washington D.C. at that largest ever act of civil disobedience.

The May Day Tribe, a loose-knit coalition of anti-Vietnam war activists, organized the demonstration around the slogan “if the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government”. Activists adopted a posture that has been described as “disruptive but non-violent”. We intended to block city streets and bridges to stop business as usual. A goal was to create gridlock in the city.

It is hard to recreate that time. Among those on the anti-war side, there was a consuming hatred for the Vietnam War. On TV, we observed nightly body counts. There was broad awareness that the war was an unjustified horror and a racist, imperialist enterprise.

The tide of public opinion had swung against the war but the U.S. remained stuck in the quagmire. Nixon was president and he had run in 1968 on the false promise that he intended to end the war. His plan was actually to escalate.

The May Day demonstration came at the end of a series of protests in April. Earlier, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had conducted an incredibly powerful event, Operation Dewey Canyon III, where they threw back medals that they had received for their service in Vietnam. Also, a mass rally organized by the National Peace Action Coalition drew 500,000 people.

I was in college at the time, outside Boston. My girl friend of the last year had just dumped me and I was feeling blue. Pretty spontaneously, I decided to head down to Washington D.C. for the protest. Since I did not own a car, I hitchhiked. Hitching was different then. There was less fear you would become the victim of a serial killer.

When I got to D.C. there were crowds of people on the National Mall and in West Potomac Park. I had hoped to meet up with friends who were going but this was a time before cell phones and it was not so easy to connect. The day before the blockade demonstration, there were planning meetings for the thousands who had descended on the city.

People formed small affinity groups and developed plans consistent with the May Day tactical manual about where they would go the next day. There was a concert that night and I remember seeing Phil Ochs perform. D.C. locals generously put up some of us (me included) in their homes that night. Early the next morning, my affinity group headed out to march toward the Pentagon.

We did not get that far. The Nixon administration had brought in 20,000 local state and federal police officers. I have a distinct memory of hearing the sound of police nightsticks connecting with the bodies of demonstrators. That sound focused the mind. The police were on horseback, motorcycles and patrol cars and they charged us.

Running away, I got completely separated from my affinity group. I was not sure what to do next but I ran back downtown to try and evade the police. They were omnipresent, including overhead in helicopters.

The police tactics changed that morning. Soon they started arresting anyone who had long hair or looked like a hippie. Then they started arresting anyone who was on the street downtown. The police made no effort to collect information about the people arrested, what they had done or who arrested them. They suspended using field arrest forms.

Turning a corner, I ran into a group of police who grabbed me. Asking me nothing, they immediately took me to a paddy wagon. I remember in my paddy wagon there was a Canadian family. They were tourists who had come to see the sights but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of them told me they had come to see how the U.S. government operated.

Because so many people were arrested, the jails were full. The police took us to a Washington Redskins practice field surrounded by a chain link fence outside RFK Stadium. National Guardsmen patrolled the perimeter outside the fence. There was a large make-shift tent inside on the field. Some people huddled under the tent because it was unseasonably cold. I saw Dr. Benjamin Spock and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Tons of people kept arriving.

We were held at the football field most of the day. In the late afternoon buses arrived and many of us were taken to the old Washington Coliseum, an indoor sports arena. It looked like ice hockey was played there.

I ended up staying inside the Coliseum for two nights. Thousands of us were jammed onto the floor and the stands. I remember people snake-dancing through the crowd and singing Power to the People. We never got formally charged. I recall people joking about giving the police false names and trying to mess up their fingerprints with vaseline. Back then, the technology to track people was not remotely like what it is now.

We were allowed one phone call. I remember calling my parents and speaking to my mom. She was less than thrilled.

We did know the ACLU was working on getting us released. After two days, news came that we could leave the Coliseum. We had to pay ten bucks to get released. Later there were class action lawsuits filed about the mass preventive detention. Those suits went on for 16 years and the plaintiffs were ultimately vindicated and won. Nixon was quoted saying: “I think we should have clubbed a few more of the bastards”.

Then a Justice Department official (and later Chief Justice of The U.S. Supreme Court) William Rehnquist described the government’s action as the imposition of “qualified martial law”. Rehnquist wrote a memo saying Nixon had inherent constitutional authority to use federal troops to ensure that the May Day demonstrators do not prevent federal employees from being able to carry out their government functions.

Charges ended up being dropped against virtually all May Day demonstrators and some won monetary damages for their mistreatment. As the writer Lawrence Roberts has written, key Nixon administration players in the suppression of May Day ended up spending more time in jail for more serious offenses than anybody who blocked traffic to end the war in Vietnam.

About May Day, Federal Judge Harold Greene said:

“Whenever American institutions have provided a hysterical response to an emergency situation, we have come later to regret it.”

The value of protest is sometimes not immediately apparent. Daniel Ellsberg has said that President Nixon was alarmed and worried by the growth of the anti-war movement. Ellsberg says Nixon had picked out targets in North Vietnam to use nuclear weapons and he didn’t do it because of his fear of the anti-war movement.

May Day 1971 broadened the scope of demonstrations, free speech and the right of assembly. As with Black Lives Matter, it expanded our notions of non-violent protest. It is distressing to see Republican-led states enacting laws that drastically suppress protest and First Amendment rights. Republicans have now introduced 81 bills in 34 states that limit protest.

At a time when fascism lurks in the wings and the Republican party has rejected democracy, nothing is more important than protecting our democratic rights, including the right to protest non-violently. Our futures depend on it.

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Erasing history or what Rick Santorum got wrong – posted 5/5/2021

May 6, 2021 4 comments

At a recent conference of right-wingers from the Young Americas Foundation, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum created a stir. He stated:

“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Candidly, it is hard to know where to begin with a statement of such profound ignorance. If there was nobody on the land, what happened to the Native Americans?

Santorum appears to know nothing of early American history which should not be surprising because, after the revolution, early American history is not generally well known. I think history between the Revolution and up until the Civil War is generally overlooked.

Saying there was nothing in America when the settlers arrived hides the history of the campaign to expel and exterminate Native peoples from the area east of the Mississippi River. It is impossible to understand early American history without seeing the centrality of that expulsion and extermination.

For the southeastern states, deportation of the Indians was necessary to clear the land for the growth of cotton plantations and the full emergence of the slave economy. The white planter class profited hugely from the dispossession.

From even before the Revolution, back country settlers burned Indian villages and waged a war of aggression. Settlers saw the Indians as savages and acted with genocidal intent.

For example, in April 1779, New York militia attacked Onandaga, the center of the Iroquois League, and they burned the town. Shortly after, the American army invaded the Seneca and Cayuga homelands, burning 40 towns. From 1810-1814, brutal military campaigns were conducted against the followers of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the Ohio River Valley and against the Creek Confederacy farther south.

The Native people called the settlers “long knives”. Scalp hunting by the settlers developed into a lucrative commercial practice. The settlers practiced extreme violence against Native civilians, prompting indigenous resistance.

The history of the early 19th century was euphemized into what was called “Indian removal”. Readers can take their pick about what decade in American history has been most hidden and obscured. I would pick the 1830’s as a culmination of years of struggle between American settlers and Native tribes.

The 1830’s saw the passage of the Indian Removal Act promoted by President Andrew Jackson. The law proved pivotal in forcing 80,000 Indians westward. The story of this epic struggle is told in Claudio Saunt’s revelatory book, Unworthy Republic.

The sustained brutality of the removals, the failure of government accountability, and the sheer racism of the entire enterprise are mind-boggling. The Choctaw, the Creek, the Chickasaw, the Cherokee and the Seminoles all faced massive dispossession.

Still, it was not a given that Native Americans would be expelled from the eastern U.S. There was a ferocious political battle between the forces favoring Indian removal and those who opposed it.

Part of what is insidious about Santorum’s comment is the way it erases the real struggle that did take place. If America was a blank slate, then it was only about the settlers’ actions to conquer a wilderness. While many settlers saw no value in Indian culture, that view was not universally shared. When the Indian Removal Act passed Congress in 1831, it barely squeaked through the House by a vote of 102-97.

The Indians had supporters. When debating removal in the Senate, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen argued:

“We have crowded the tribes upon a few miserable acres on our southern frontier; it is all that is left to them of their once boundless forest; and still like the horse-leech, our unsatiated cupidity cries, give! give!…Sir…Do the obligations of justice change with the color of the skin?”

Many Native Americans did not want to be forced West. An impressive Native American resistance to Jackson emerged. The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in English and Cherokee, forcefully advocated for Indian concerns. Cherokee Chief John Ross tried to stop the removal effort. He had negotiated with the U.S. government and effectively defended Cherokee interests.

When Ross was unsuccessful in protecting Cherokee land through his efforts in Congress and with the Executive Branch, he creatively pursued a judicial strategy at the U.S. Supreme Court. That also ultimately proved unsuccessful.

The challenges presented the Native Americans were overwhelming. Federal treaties and federal laws gave Congress authority over the tribes. The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act passed by Congress in 1802 had previously said that there could be no land cessions except by treaty with a tribe.

President Jackson ignored treaties and laws. He also disregarded a Supreme Court mandate barring Georgia from intruding on Cherokee lands. Southern states passed state laws to exert control over Indians in their territory. As Howard Zinn wrote:

“These laws did away with the tribe as a legal unit, outlawed tribal meetings, took away the chief’s powers, made the Indians subject to militia duty and state taxes, but denied them the right to vote, to bring suits or to testify in court. Indian territory was divided up, to be distributed by state lottery. Whites were encouraged to settle on Indian land.”

It proved hard to maintain a unified opposition among the tribes. Pressures on the tribes led to some agreeing to removal in exchange for financial help in leaving, some compensation and a guarantee they would never again be required to move.

Land speculators and voracious capitalists descended on Indian lands like a plague. Fraud and deceit were epidemic. In Florida, a white invasion of Indian lands led to a guerrilla war between the Seminoles and government troops. That war went on for years.

The multiple horrors of the removal make it hard to tell this story in a manner commensurate with the degree of tragedy inflicted on the Indian tribes. The removal killed Indians through exposure to freezing temperatures, cholera outbreaks and starvation. Thousands died before reaching their destinations.

In October 1838, President Martin Van Buren ordered Major General Winfield Scott into Cherokee country with the mission of forcibly relocating the tribe westward. The U.S. military rounded up 17,000 Cherokees and forced them into stockades. That led to the Trail of Tears. Over a four month period in wintry conditions, nearly 4,000 Cherokees died while trying to walk the 1,000 miles to where they had been ordered to live.

The government, in a paternalistic way, sold the Removal Act on the basis that Native Americans who made the journey west of the Mississippi would never have to move from their new homelands. That later turned out to be a lie. The passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 again drove out indigenous people.

If you are going to say the country was birthed from nothing, which is ridiculous, you should at least explain. Like other conservatives who do not want the true story told, Santorum is another phony who cannot stand the truth.

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Suave and the Supreme Court’s heartless ruling on juvenile lifers – posted 4/25/2021

April 25, 2021 7 comments

Recently I listened to the seven-part podcast, Suave. It tells the remarkable story of David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez. A Latino juvenile lifer, Suave had been on what he described as a suicide mission. Convicted of the first degree murder of a 13 year old boy, Suave had received a sentence of life without parole when he was 17.

A hellion for his first ten years in prison (he spent 8 years in solitary confinement), things dramatically changed for Suave when he persuaded prison authorities to invite the journalist Maria Hinojosa to speak at Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania where he was incarcerated. He had heard Hinojosa on the radio and was intrigued because she was Latina. This was in 1993.

After Hinojosa spoke, he approached and asked, “I’m serving life. What can I do?” Hinojosa responded, “You could be my source. You could be the voice for the voiceless”.

That moment sparked a transformation in the life of Suave. Totally written off by the system, given an IQ of 56 and told he was retarded and would never amount to anything, Suave taught himself to read.

He paid another inmate in cigarettes to read him books Hinojosa sent him in prison. He read them over and over. Over a 16 year period, Suave obtained a GED and a B.A. degree from Villanova University.

He taught other inmates to read. As president of a Latino organization in prison, he organized a scholarship program for students who who lived in Philadelphia, Chester, and Bethlehem. The organization gave away scholarships of $500, $1,000 and $2,000. It was funded entirely by inmates from their wages which started at 19 cents an hour.

Also, Suave was a talented artist. He started painting watercolors when he was in prison. He taught other inmates how to paint watercolor. Suave contacted Mural Arts of Philadelphia and his wall murals started showing up around the city. He has produced 52 murals in the city of Philadelphia. His paintings are also on display at the Morton Contemporary Gallery.

Things in Suave’s life took a completely unexpected turn when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in the case of Miller v Alabama that, for juveniles, mandatory life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan emphasized that judges must be able to consider the characteristics of juvenile defendants in order to issue a fair and individualized sentence. Kagan wrote that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk and inability to assess consequences”, all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.

Then in 2016, the Supreme Court decided the case of Montgomery v Louisiana and ruled that Miller had to be applied retroactively. Justice Kennedy, writing for a 6-3 majority, found that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability”. Kennedy wrote that the severest penalty must be reserved “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility”.

Justice Kennedy was responding to research that showed that because of developing brains, children were less culpable for their crimes and were more likely to be rehabilitated than adult offenders. The Court’s analysis was rooted in a long-standing rule that the Eighth Amendment embodies “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”.

The Miller and Montgomery cases led to a review of Suave’s sentence and his release from incarceration in 2017 after over 30 years behind bars. Since his release, Suave has continued painting. He has also been an activist against mass incarceration.

I could not help but think about Suave and other Suaves when I heard about the new U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v Montgomery. In a shockingly backwards decision authored by Justice Kavanaugh, the Court reinstated juvenile life without parole. In embarrassing fashion, all the Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices went along.

In her passionate dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dismantled the majority opinion and showed how the Court dishonestly overruled precedent while claiming it was not doing that. To quote her, “How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk”.

Youth supposedly mattered but the new majority in the U.S. Supreme Court regressed in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The Jones decision effectively closed the door of judicial review for many outstanding cases. As Justice Sotomayor wrote:

“The Eighth Amendment does not excuse children’s crimes, nor does it shield them from all punishment. It does, however, demand that most children be spared from punishments that give no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”

In Jones, the Court ignored the plaintiff’s significant steps toward rehabilitation and maturity. At his resentencing hearing, Jones told the Court:

“I’m not the same person I was when I was 15… I’ve become a pretty decent person in life. And I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself…Minors do have the ability to change.”

Like so many of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences, Jones was physically and verbally abused as a child. His stepfather beat him with belts, switches and a paddle labelled the Punisher. His stepfather did not call him by his name but referred to him by cruel epithets. Jones committed his horrible crime when he did not have access to medications he was taking for his mental health issues.

The U.S. is the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning age 18. The punishment is now banned in half the states and in a handful of states no one is serving the sentence. At the start of 2020, there were 1465 juvenile lifers nationally. This represents a 38% decline since 2016.

Juvenile life without parole sentences disproportionately hit Black and brown children. 70% of all juveniles serving life without parole are people of color. Dehumanized as super-predators, these inmates pay the price for institutionalized racism. It is no accident so many children of color get such extreme sentences. They are part of the broader trend of racial disparities in sentencing with people of color getting harsher sentences.

The Jones decision is an undeniably major setback in the movement to end juvenile life without parole. Instead of an “evolving standard of decency” on the Eighth Amendment, our Supreme Court has a devolving standard rooted in cruelty and blindness to institutional racism.

Suave’s life shows the difference second chances can make.

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The problem of far right extremism is nothing new in America – posted 4/21/2021

April 21, 2021 Leave a comment

The Trump presidency and the events of January 6 made me wonder about past American experience with authoritarian threats. Did America ever have other close calls with far right wing extremism? Here I am not talking about the racist, totalitarian system that persisted in the South for almost 100 years after Reconstruction.

Although it is little remembered now, before Pearl Harbor, there was a surprisingly strong pro-Nazi movement in the United States. The story of the heroic war against the Axis powers has overshadowed what happened before Pearl Harbor.

In his book, Hitler’s American Friends, Bradley Hart reconstructs a forgotten time. In 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationism was a strong American political tendency. The America First Committee organized to keep America out of the coming war. It had considerable, possibly majority, support nationally.

The slogan America First did not originate with Donald Trump. It had been a favorite slogan of the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1920’s. It also had been used to support eugenicist, anti-immigration bills in that same time period. Earlier presidential candidates had also adopted the slogan.

In the 1930’s, while it attempted to present itself as patriotic, America First’s agenda ran on a parallel track with the German Nazis. The goal of German propaganda was to discredit the British and to promote confusion so that the U.S. would take no side in the war in Europe. America First opposed entry into what they called “a faraway war” on behalf of the British empire. In their propaganda, they smeared the British.

As a mass movement, America First included a variety of political types from isolationists to Gold Star mothers to anti-New Dealers to Nazi sympathizers. The movement had a strong anti-semitic undercurrent. Its most charismatic front man was the pilot, Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, in speeches around the country, blamed the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration for conspiring to push America into war against Germany. Even though the Nazis had invaded and taken France, Lindbergh argued that America’s geographic separation from Europe and Asia offered protection from any foreign attack.

Lindbergh minimized any risk to America should Britain fall to the Nazis. In retrospect, it is hard not to see him as a stooge of the Nazis. In 1938, Herman Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, on behalf of Hitler, gave Lindbergh the Service Cross of the German Eagle.

While acknowledging the persecution of Jews in Germany, Lindbergh simultaneously argued that the Jews presented a unique danger to America. Indulging an anti-semitic stereotype, he complained about Jews’ ownership of the movies and media and their influence in government.

Even with Lindbergh’s anti-semitism, the America First Committee saw an outpouring of support around the country. America First was not alone on the far right. There were multiple other pro-fascist forces in the U.S. before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor utterly changed the equation.

The German-American Bund was possibly the most prominent. The Bund emerged in 1936. With chapters around the nation, Bund members paraded with American flags and swastika flags. Under their leader, Fritz Kuhn, the Bund required members to state they were “of Aryan descent, free from Jewish or Colored Blood”.

The Bund’s high point was probably 1939 when it filled Madison Square Garden for a “Pro-America Rally” featuring a large picture of George Washington surrounded by swastikas.

Along with the Bund was the Silver Legion with its founder William Dudley Pelley. The Silver Legion, also known as the Silver Shirts, was a membership organization founded in 1933 open to all except Jews and African Americans. The Silver Shirts advocated the establishment of a fascist government in America that would oversee a “Christian Commonwealth”.

Pelley said he would save America just as Mussolini saved Italy and Hitler saved Germany. In his propaganda, Pelley called for a Secretary of Jewry for his future government. That Secretary would be responsible for dealing with the Jewish population by restricting them to a single city per state so that their activities could be monitored.

Then there was the religious right of the time, especially Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin was a Catholic priest who developed a massive radio following estimated at a monthly audience of nearly 29 million listeners. The German newspaper Der Sturmer praised Coughlin as one of the only Americans “to speak his conviction that national Socialism is right”.

Coughlin claimed that Nazism was a natural response to the threat posed by communism. He typically conflated Jews with communism.

Father Coughlin was not the only religious figure to organize on the far right. Gerald L.K. Smith, a former Midwest preacher who moved to Louisiana, and Gerald Winrod, a Christian fundamentalist from Kansas, expressed admiration for Hitler. They both said that the Nazis were protecting Christian churches from Jewish and Communist threats. Winrod ran for U.S. Senate in Kansas but was defeated in the Republican primary.

The American business community also figured noticeably in support for Hitler. Much of corporate America hated Roosevelt for his New Deal policies. Some corporate leaders felt they could do business with Hitler – and they did. General Motors, Ford and Coca-Cola all pursued business with the Nazis.

Most infamously, Henry Ford and Hitler had a mutual admiration society. Ford was a vicious anti-semite. He built trucks for the German military while distributing huge numbers of the anti-semitic tract, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion at home. Ford continued its operations in France after France had fallen to the Nazis. A Ford plant near Paris built aircraft engines, military trucks and other vehicles for the German military while the war continued.

The diverse pro-Nazi forces in America were never able to unify around a leader. It is easy to speculate about things that never happened but if Charles Lindbergh had run for President in 1940 he might have been a formidable opponent to FDR. That is the premise for Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America.

After Pearl Harbor, things changed overnight. People who had previously identified as pro-Nazi disappeared into the shadows. The FBI paid attention to Nazi agents and convicted over 100 of various offenses during the war period. Many people changed names and tried to start over. The Nazis had developed a far-reaching network of sympathizers, spies and supporters which mostly vanished into obscurity.

The U.S. government never took any action against Henry Ford and other corporate leaders who had actively collaborated with the Germans. After the war, the Nazi threat was quickly forgotten as the U.S. government moved on to fear of the Soviet Union.

January 6 should serve as a wake-up call about the threat posed by the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo Bois and others of their ilk. That movement has surprising military and police background and training. They are the newest incarnation of our recurring far right authoritarian tradition.

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