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 9 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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NH early Spring – posted 4/15/2021

April 16, 2021 1 comment

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Holocaust ignorance and denial open the gateway to authoritarianism – posted 4/13/2021

April 13, 2021 2 comments

April 8 was Holocaust Remembrance Day but we, as a society, seem to be doing a poor job remembering. Possibly readers saw the results of that survey that showed two-thirds of young Americans are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. More than one in ten believed Jews caused the Holocaust.

The survey from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany had other shocking findings. 12% of survey respondents did not recognize the term “holocaust”. Only 44% were familiar with Auschwitz. 36% believed two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

And I think this ignorance is not limited to young Americans. According to Pew Research Center data from 2020, older adults display only slightly higher levels of Holocaust knowledge.

Internationally, the news is also bad. Surveys in France, Austria and Canada also showed major gaps in awareness of historical facts and knowledge of the Holocaust.

This ignorance is not just some abstract evil. Fascism and authoritarianism thrive on destruction of historical memory. After 1945, the news of Hitler’s gas chambers and his extermination camps created a massive obstacle in the path of fascist resurrection. The horrors were so awful that no one in their right mind would go down that road and want such hideous results again.

The fascist project requires burying the past, obscuring and dimming memory. Academic holocaust deniers had very limited success as few paid attention. The passage of time and alt-right propaganda on the internet are what currently assist Holocaust denial. The decline of historical awareness about the Holocaust has meant less neo-fascist compulsion to explain away the unparalleled 1940’s atrocities. The Holocaust is more likely to be dismissed as ancient history rather than something that must be refuted.

Now 76 years later, with forgetting gaining ground on remembering, the question arises: how many people would recognize fascism in their own society if they lack knowledge of its historical legacy? Considering the spread of authoritarian regimes around the world, the question has international relevance.

Fascists and authoritarians may call themselves something else inoffensive and euphemistic. They may weaken and decimate human rights without waving swastika flags.

For countries transforming from democracy to authoritarianism, there is a process of change that occurs. Nazi Germany did not begin with the industrialization of mass death. That only came after years of dehumanization and demonization of the Jews.

In 1920, in its program, the German Nazi Party proposed revoking citizenship rights of Jews. They also proposed removal of Jews from positions in public employment and deportation of those Jews who had entered Germany after the outbreak of World War One.

Hitler unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the German government in 1923. His putsch, carried out in Munich, failed. After a trial for treason, he spent a year in jail where he began work on Mein Kampf.

The fortunes of Hitler and the Nazis dramatically changed with the coming of the Great Depression. The Weimar government failed to respond to the massive unemployment, homelessness, and starvation in Germany. Speaking to the misery, Hitler became known all over the country because of his mass rallies. Radio, then a new medium, greatly contributed to his rise. Hitler’s speeches were broadcast live to dozens of countries.

For Hitler, the Jews were Germany’s principal adversary. He falsely claimed Germany was defeated in World War One because of a secret coalition between Jews and leftists. The stab-in-the-back legend was promoted by the German military high command that wanted to shift blame away from themselves. Hitler and the Nazis carried it farther with the wilder lie that there was an international Jewish conspiracy that intended to exterminate the Aryan race.

After he became chancellor in 1933, the Nazi Party organized a boycott of Jewish stores and Jewish judges were dragged out of court. Hitler demanded the removal of all Jewish civil servants and disbarment of all Jewish lawyers. Two years later, he followed with the drafting of a law depriving Jews of citizenship and another law barring intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews.

All these steps happened a few years before Kristallnacht and years more before the implementation of the Final Solution. Each fascist step prepared the way for the next.

America now has its own authoritarianism problem. In the balance between democracy and authoritarianism, former President Trump tipped the scales toward authoritarianism. He had been shattering democratic norms for four years as he abused public power for private gain. The January 6 insurrection was the culmination of his anti-democratic efforts to overturn a fair election and install himself as dictator.

The authoritarian narrative is wrapped in delusion. Republicans were allegedly the victim of voter fraud. Trump had the election stolen from him by that fraud. Because of the Big Lie of voter fraud, we need new laws to restrict voting to protect the integrity of elections. So we need new laws to protect against something that never happened.

In this narrative, undocumented immigrants, Black Lives Matter and Antifa play the adversary role the Jews played in Germany. Hate is also stirred up against Asian-Americans and easy-to-pick-on minorities like transgender youth.

Just as happened in Germany, our authoritarians see the past as a burden that must be shed. Instead of historical honesty, we must have patriotic education with no 1619 project. Genocide against Native Americans and slavery and its legacy must be minimized and airbrushed away. Republicans prohibit the study of critical race theory without understanding what it is. They want to protect students from learning about the ways racism persists in America.

Fortunately, we do not have to presently deal with any genocidal regime like the Nazis. In saying this, I do not belittle Trump’s crimes like family separation and putting children in cages. It is not however in the league of the Nazis. Still, we have learned the fragility of our democracy.

I believe Holocaust education should be mandated in all states as a part of civics education. A number of states including New Hampshire have done that. These states require all school districts to teach their students about the Holocaust and genocide. That can only help the cause of democracy.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s loss last year will be like the Hitler putsch, a temporary reversal on the road to authoritarianism.


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Chevron’s kill shot against Attorney Steven Donziger – posted 4/6/2021

April 6, 2021 Leave a comment

In our era, there is no bigger global villain than fossil fuel companies. In pursuit of private profit, they poison delicate ecosystems and supercharge climate change. They have done more than any other entity to ruin the planet. Our dependence on fossil fuel is the ultimate Faustian bargain.

For whatever reason, though, and it is easy to speculate why, our mass media has turned away from looking at the destruction fossil fuel companies have wrought.

One under-reported example is Chevron Corporation’s massive pollution of the Ecuadoran rain forest. The oil company, previously Texaco, dumped at least 16 billion gallons of toxic waste in an area inhabited by indigenous people and rural farmers. Between 1972 and 1992, Texaco left almost a thousand pits of toxic oil waste all over the rain forest in what had previously been a pristine environment.

The oil contamination polluted the soil and poisoned the water. Indigenous people have faced and continue to face an epidemic of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and other oil-related illnesses. The pump-and-dump operations polluted 1,700 square miles of land. It began in the 1960’s when Texaco began drilling there. Chevron bought Texaco in 2000.

The company chose to dispose of its wastes by dumping a combination of drilling muds, “formation water” and actual crude oil into unlined pits. This was a method Texas had outlawed as far back as 1969. They also released billions of gallons of oil-laced “produced” waters straight into streams and lakes. This method was contrary to standard American procedures which requires potentially toxic compounds to be reinjected deep underground.

Texaco agreed to remediate at least part of the pollution but Ecuadorans were outraged by what they saw as a sellout by their own government.

In 1993, environmental lawyers filed suit in New York on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people in Ecuador. The oil company challenged jurisdiction for years and in 2003, proceedings got moved back to Ecuador. Then the oil company challenged jurisdiction there. They favored no place for jurisdiction. They hired hundreds of lawyers to fight the litigation, filing endless motions to delay and defeat the case.

In 2011, the environmental lawyers won the case in Ecuador and Chevron was originally ordered to pay $19 billion in damages. The decision has been affirmed by multiple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada including the Ecuador Supreme Court, Ecuador Constitutional Court and Canada’s Supreme Court. An appellate court in Ecuador did reduce the verdict to $9.5 billion in damages. However, rather than pay the judgment, Chevron responded by suing the lawyers who had pursued the case.

One particular target of Chevron was Steven Donziger, a human rights lawyer from New York. Chevron sued Donziger for $60 billion, the largest potential personal liability in American history. Donziger was part of the team of lawyers, including Ecuadoran lawyers, who won the judgment against Chevron.

Because of Donziger’s effectiveness, Chevron decided to make Donziger’s life a living hell. They pursued a strategy of demonizing Donziger to avoid their liability. Chevron filed a series of post-judgment motions to try to hold Donziger in civil contempt based on the theory that he was not allowed to raise third-party litigation financing on behalf of his Ecuadoran clients so they could enforce their judgment outside the United States.

Since 2011, Chevron also indulged in a series of hyper-aggressive, retaliatory SLAPP suits against Donziger. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such lawsuits are designed to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with extraordinary costs.

Among the lawsuits, Chevron sued Donziger under a civil provision of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. Federal Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a pro-corporate jurist, who refused to look at the scientific evidence in the original case, ruled the initial verdict was the result of fraud, a holding contrary to three appellate courts. He ordered Donziger to pay millions in attorney fees to Chevron and ordered him to turn over decades of client communications.

It should be noted that Chevron’’s star witness was a disgraced former Ecuadoran judge who lost his position because of corruption. Chevron spent $2 million on moving him and his family to the United States. Chevron’s lawyers rehearsed his testimony 53 times. Subsequently the witness has admitted to lying about his interactions with Donziger.

Chevron went totally over the top when it demanded unfettered access to Donziger’s computers, cellphones and reams of privileged and confidential information. No ethical lawyer would ever comply with something like that and Donziger did not. As a result though, Judge Kaplan charged Donziger with criminal contempt of court for disputing a discovery order.

Judge Kaplan asked the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York to prosecute the criminal contempt. That office declined. Judge Kaplan then took the highly unusual step of appointing a team of attorneys from Seward and Kissel, a private firm that had an ongoing attorney-client relationship with Chevron, to prosecute the criminal contempt in the name of the government.

As if this was not bad enough, things spiraled downward. Kaplan bypassed the usual random-case assignment procedure of the federal judiciary and handpicked a judge to hear the contempt case. The judge, a member of the Federalist Society, a powerful far right legal organization, refused Donziger’s request to have his trial heard by a jury of his peers.

Donziger’s contempt charge is a misdemeanor, a petty charge with a maximum sentence of six months in prison. His trial is slated to begin on May 10. Under the contempt, he has now been held under house arrest for over 600 days, while being forced to wear an ankle bracelet. The judge has deemed Donziger a flight risk.

Under the terms of his sentence, Donziger can only leave his home for specific reasons like legal meetings, medical appointments or school events for his son. He must get 48 hours advance permission from a pretrial services officer for such events and he must go to a specific address and return back by a specific time.

No lawyer convicted of contempt in New York has ever been held for more than 90 days in home confinement. Yet, on March 29, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Donziger’s motion to be released on bail while awaiting trial for contempt. They did, however, throw out Judge Kaplan’s main contempt finding.

Donziger also faces being disbarred. His law license was suspended in 2018 without a hearing based on Kaplan’s findings in the contempt case. He is now fighting to get his law license reinstated. In February a referee for the New York Bar Association, John Horan, ruled in Donziger’s favor, recommending that his law license be restored. That decision must now be reviewed by a New York state court. Horan said,

“The extent of (Donziger’s) pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, (that) while not a factor in my recommendation (it) is nonetheless background to it.”

Chevron’s strategy against Donziger has been called the kill shot. The case has not received attention. However, 55 Nobel Prize laureates recently announced their demand for freedom for Donziger as well as demanding that Chevron face justice for its Amazon pollution.

What we have here is an out-of-control corporation using its vast resources to persecute a human rights lawyer. The corporate message is both clear and chilling: cross us and you will pay, hugely.

Two retired federal judges, Nancy Gertner and Mark Bennett, took the step of publishing a critique of the still-pending criminal case against Donziger. They have called it “excessive” and “deeply troubling”. Human rights and environmental justice organizations, including Amazon Watch and Amnesty International, have written the new Attorney General Merrick Garland and have asked him to review and investigate Chevron’s mis-use of the legal system.

This story is the ultimate in vindictiveness: Chevron was whipped by human rights lawyers and they have counter-attacked to avoid paying the judgment they lost. They want to destroy the idea that indigenous people can hold an oil company accountable. When a corporation is as wealthy as Chevron, the question remains: can there ever be any corporate accountability? That question remains unanswered.

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The racist history of the filibuster – posted 3/30/2021

March 30, 2021 1 comment

There is no doubt that Senator Mitch McConnell is a shrewd political operator. Winning at all costs is his signature approach to politics. But I have to say I was surprised by his response to a reporter’s question on March 23 about the filibuster. McConnell responded:

“It has no racial history. None. There’s no dispute about that.”

Possibly McConnell was talking about the origins of the filibuster but what he said was absolutely misleading. Historically, the filibuster has been the primary device used by Southern senators to block civil rights legislation dating back 100 years.

The filibuster, a Senate rule that now creates a 60 vote threshold for major legislation, is a procedural maneuver which allows a minority to stop almost all legislation. It is highly ironic that Republicans now tout the filibuster as protecting minority rights because its history is as a racist tool of white supremacy.

The most famous filibuster ever was the filibuster over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It went on for 60 days. The Civil Rights Act protected voting rights, banned discrimination in public facilities and enforced equal opportunity in employment.

In the debate, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia spoke for over 14 hours. At the time, the Senate needed a two-thirds vote to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill. That was one of the very rare occasions where the Senate obtained a vote for cloture to end a filibuster so there could be a vote on the bill itself.

In 1957, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina staged the longest continuous filibuster in U.S. history. He spoke for over 24 hours to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a bill designed to protect the rights of African Americans to vote. In this instance, Thurmond failed, as the bill passed two hours after his speaking marathon.

Probably the most insidious racist use of the filibuster was its use against anti-lynching bills that came before Congress. Over several decades, starting just before 1920, Congress would consider nearly 200 anti-lynching bills. Not one bill ever passed nor did they get votes on the merits. The filibuster was the main tool preventing a vote on all civil rights bills. Writing in the Atlantic, David Litt described the Senate obstruction:

“First, to slow the proceedings, they demanded that the Senate journal be read out loud each day in full, something technically required by the chamber’s rules but rarely enforced. Then the filibusterers began offering amendments to the journal during the reading. These could be as meaningless as inserting a senator’s middle name or changing a single word in a speech. Yet the vote on each of these amendments could be filibustered.”

The problem for the anti-lynching side was that the filibuster sidetracked all other legislative priorities. Consistently, senators ended up caving in and giving up on anti-lynching bills. They did not want to sacrifice all other priorities.

There was awareness in Congress about lynching. Thousands of African-Americans were lynched in the 1890’s. Between 1901 and 1929, more than 1200 African-Americans were lynched in the South. The NAACP led the anti-lynching legislative campaign. Their report, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919”, educated the public.

The anti-lynching campaign was led by NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson and Atlanta civil rights activist Walter White. Rep. Leonidas Dyer, a Congressman from St. Louis, first brought an anti-lynching bill forward in 1918. Dyer argued that lynching and state’s refusal to prosecute the perpetrators violated victims’ Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Advocates were never able to overcome Southern parliamentary maneuvers, including threats that the filibuster would shut down all Senate business.

In 2005, the Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. The resolution noted that 99% of all perpetrators of lynching escaped from punishment by state or local officials. The resolution did not mention the role of the filibuster which was the procedural mechanism utilized to avoid even a vote on anti-lynching bills.

The filibuster was also used to obstruct bills outlawing use of the poll tax in Southern states. Millions of African-Americans and poor whites in the South were disenfranchised. In the 1940 election, in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina 264,419 votes were cast out of a population of 9,300,000. Huge numbers could not afford to vote.

In 1946, the Senate came close to passing anti-poll tax legislation but a cloture vote on the filibuster which then required a two-thirds supermajority failed. The bill never got a vote.

The poll tax lasted until 1964 when it was ended by a constitutional amendment.

The filibuster idea goes back to 1790 when Senators from Virginia and South Carolina filibustered to prevent the location of the first Congress in Philadelphia. Possibly this is what Sen. McConnell was referring to because the filibuster had use beyond race. It is also possible that McConnell was referring to Sen. John Calhoun’s actions in 1841 when Calhoun organized opposition to the chartering of the U.S. Bank. Still, Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery, used the filibuster to protect Southern interests.

The fact that the filibuster had other utilities beyond race does not erase its extensive use for over 100 years to reinforce racism in the American way of life. It has been used in the service of our most dishonorable tradition.

The Democrats should ignore McConnell’s threats about how filibuster reform would produce “nuclear winter”. The filibuster has an ignoble history, thwarting civil rights legislation. It has zero constitutional foundation. It is simply a clever device blocking majority rule. The idea Democrats could get 60 votes for any of their legislative goals is an impossible dream. If the Democrats want to realize any part of their agenda beyond the Rescue Plan, they must end the filibuster.

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Spring thaw – posted 3/26/2021

March 26, 2021 Leave a comment

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