When Race is Equated With Class | AARON VASINTJAN


 

 

Ferguson and the Liberal Left

 

 

 

A lot has been said about the recent events in Ferguson. It’s all-too-clear we’re dealing with a significant event in America’s history, and perhaps a trigger that could kick-start a new anti-racism movement. Instead of focusing on the facts of the shootings, which have been debated at length elsewhere, I want to quickly criticize one claim that I’ve heard many times before, and have seen popping up once again: that it’s not racism we should be worried about, it’s really all about class.

On August 17th, 2014 Time Magazine published a piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that did just that, using the Ferguson protests as a jumping board. The article is titled, “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race”, and in it, Abdul-Jabbar, a renowned author on black history and former NBA star, deftly jumps from drawing attention to the Ferguson protests toward a word that rarely graces the pages of mainstream media: class warfare. So far, so good.

But I knew something was up when I read the following sentences:

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor.

After dismissing race as secondary to poverty, Abdul-Jabbar proposes some things we can do beyond racialized finger-pointing:

I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.

And then you have the clincher:

If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.

There you have it, what started out as a polite shift away from race toward class quickly became a set of demands. This tendency is a problem that ensnares many liberal progressive thinkers. Let’s call it “What we really need to do is…” It goes like this:

-Race is a problem.

-The problem with race is actually a problem of class.

-Let’s focus on the big problems like class, instead of focusing on race.

-This will help create a bigger movement.

-Let’s agree to a certain set of demands for this movement, some of which I’ve already thought about.

Now many of Abdul-Jabbar’s points are valid. Of course Ferguson isn’t just about race. Of course the US is seeing sky-rocketing inequality. Of course the middle class is suffering. And it’s true, what we need now more than ever is a form of class warfare.

But do you see what’s happening here? Abdul-Jabbar neatly and quickly is able to manipulate the discussion away from what people are angry about, what people are organizing around, and turn it into a vision for where he thinks social movements should go. The author is, in effect, trying to bottle a spontaneous uprising into a program.

It reminds me of Peter Gelderloos’ Counterpunch article, “In defense of leaderless revolutions.” Here he responds to Cihan Tugal’s claim that we need movements with leaders and programs. The article as a whole is worth reading, but one paragraph stands out to me:

Tugal is dead wrong when he writes about “the fallacy that the people can take power without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders.” That someone can still talk about taking power as a liberatory proposition without getting laughed off stage, in the face of so many historical examples that show what taking power actually means, shows how deep our collective amnesia runs.

It is no surprise, however, that some people keep sounding the call for unifying behind leaders and a platform in order to take power.

So when Abdul-Jabbar talks about “class war” and “a specific agenda”, he’s doing what so many well-intentioned progressivists have done before him: propose a platform, a set of demands, a political party, and, in-so-doing, try to maneuver the political strife back into their own territory, try to control the conversation. In Gelderloos’ terms, they are practicing to be authoritarians. This is a bit of a hyperbole, but the point is, trying to control a movement, tell it what to do, will only serve to stifle it.

Here’s an example. In 1963, blacks all over the US decided that enough was enough, and they would march on Washington and demand equality. As Malcolm X noted, “This was a national bitterness; militant, unorganized, and leaderless. Predominantly, it was young Negroes, defiant of whatever might be the consequences, sick and tired of the black man’s neck under the white man’s heel.” When the White House got word of this, they panicked. Quickly, they brought civil rights leaders to Washington, and told them to stop the march. Since these leaders didn’t start it, they said they couldn’t do anything. So white politicians opted for the next best thing: endorsing the march, sponsoring it, and electing black civil rights leaders to take it over. What started as an angry demand for justice and equal rights by blacks ended with whites and blacks marching together, carrying the same empty signs, singing “we shall overcome”. Again, in Malcolm X’s words,  “It had become an outing, a picnic …  [a]nd the black masses in America were—and still are—having a nightmare.”

When movements get appropriated and made palatable for the white middle class, demands get diluted. This happens very easily by, for example, black intellectuals defining the conversation, saying race is really about class.

What I find most troubling about Abdul-Jabbar’s call for a coherent program is that he does so through a clever bait-and-switch: “I’m really concerned about racism, but I also think we’re doing it all wrong. Let’s focus on the big problems, like class.”

Another concern: Abdul-Jabbar insinuates that, while Ferguson and Jackson State were race issues, Kent State had broader appeal and therefore was more powerful in raising the nation’s ire. What Abdul-Jabbar wants is “mass demonstrations” that are so huge they force the government’s hand. This kind of “massifying” is typical of liberal leftists, who think that a broad-based movement is the only key to true change. Not only is this kind of thinking historically wrong and disrespectful of minorities who have successfully struggled for recognition of their rights, it also serves to, like what happened with the march on Washington, shut out any dissenting voices in social movements. Dissent and difference within movements and a diversity of movements are critical for movement-building and developing strategies.

The broad appeal of events like Kent State do not at all mean that systemic racism is less important than systemic inequality. To be clear: anti-racism and class warfare are related, but not the same. Both battles need to be fought, both require different strategies, and these strategies ought to be determined by those most affected.

What’s more, the author’s list of demands shows exactly the kind of revolution he’s thinking of: he wants to tackle corruption, exploitative and high-risk capitalism, and promote economic equality. While these are all valid, and necessary changes, choosing to focus “on the big problems” like corruption and inequality while ignoring racism means shutting out a whole movement, rather than growing it. It means half-assed demands, rather than demands that have the potential to change everything.

It’s not a surprise, then, that the author’s revolution is one directed at crony capitalism, nothing more. His list of demands stops short at tackling corruption and fixing welfare. But welfare itself has always been a tool for exclusion, and corruption is not a bug, but a feature inherent to state capitalism. As a result, Abdul-Jabbar’s crafty plot to overthrow the 1% will do nothing beyond grafting another authoritarian head onto the capitalist body politic.

The thing is, I’ve heard this way of thinking all-too-often. Like Gelderloos, I’m amazed at how many times I hear liberal calls for “mass movements”, “a clear set of demands”, and “let’s focus on the big problems”, “it’s not race, it’s class” and people don’t heckle them immediately. This is a strong tendency in the largely privileged liberal left, and it will be impossible for movements to move beyond a racist, hierarchical, class system if such an ideology persists.

We have yet to see how Ferguson unravels, and if people’s honest fury will help to address the nation’s systemic race issues. But whatever happens, wherever the movement goes, let it be a movement where not one person speaks over others and decides the course of action. We need leaderless, anti-authoritarian, anti-racist, anti-capitalist movements, now more than ever. This doesn’t mean equating race and class; it means encouraging diverse tactics, proliferating strategies, and allowing myriad movements

Aaron Vasintjan is a writer and researcher living in Montreal and Barcelona. His focus is on social movements, gentrification, and food politics. He is currently researching the issue of food banks in the context of welfare crises. You can see his portfolio here.  

 

Posted in Cultural Studies, Current Affairs, History, International Relations | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beheading of James Foley | GARRY LEECH


 

 

Are We Not Savages Too?

 

 

 

Without question, the beheading of US journalist James Foley was an inexcusable and savage act of violence by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The killing of non-combatants should always be condemned. But there is a clear discrepancy in the response of both the Western media and the general public with regard to the killing of Western civilians compared to Islamic civilians. The number of Western civilians killed by Islamic militants pales in comparison to the number of non-combatants that have died at the hands of the US and its military allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. And yet, the outrage at the killing of these innocent Muslims, many of who are women and children, is virtually non-existent in the West.

According to several studies, more than 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed by the US military in the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom. The number of non-combatants killed by coalition forces surpassed 3,000 by the end of the third year of the occupation. The killing of civilians by the US military continued thereafter with drone strikes accounting for most of the deaths in recent years. According to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 2,400 people were killed by US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during the first five years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The study claims that as many as 951 of these deaths were civilians and that almost 200 of the victims were children.

These numbers are corroborated by another study conducted by the Columbia Law School which reports that approximately 600 people were killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011. According to the report, as many as 155 of those killed were civilians. Together, these two reports suggest that 30 to 40 percent of people killed by US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are civilians. This percentage corresponds with that reported in a study headed by public health expert Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington. Hagopian’s comprehensive study of civilian deaths during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) reveals that Baghdad was at the epicenter of the violence for much of that period and that 35 percent of those killed in that city by US coalition forces were civilians.

Some may argue that civilian deaths are inevitable in a war and that militants, not civilians, are the intended target of US operations. In accordance with such arguments we use terms such as “collateral damage” to eradicate the human factor and to justify the deaths of these innocents. But the rate of so-called collateral damage is extremely high if, as these studies suggest, 30 to 40 percent of those killed in US military operations over the past 13 years have been civilians. This means that when the US military plans an operation it can assume that approximately one out of every three people it kills will be a civilian. It is difficult to dismiss such a high rate of civilian deaths over such an extended period of time as merely accidental; clearly, military commanders are authorizing operations with the full knowledge that a significant number of civilians will be killed by US forces.

President Obama addressed the issue of civilian casualties earlier this year when he stated that “we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” There are two troubling aspects to Obama’s statement. Firstly, the “risks involved” are not borne by Americans, they are almost 100 percent assumed unwillingly by civilians on the ground when operations involve drone strikes or aerial bombing, which have constituted the majority of US operations in recent years. And secondly, Obama’s use of the word “fallout” suggests that his primary motivation for reducing the number of innocents killed is the avoidance of bad press that might result from military actions rather than saving human lives.

But the conscious killing of civilians by the US military cannot always be easily dismissed with such Orwellian doublespeak as “collateral damage,” there have been many cases in Iraq and Afghanistan where there was no question regarding the intention of US troops to murder civilians. In his book, Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, Jim Frederick describes the 2006 extrajudicial execution of an Iraqi family of four—a father, Leech_Capitalism_Cover-191x300mother and two daughters. According to Army Specialist Paul Cortez, his unit was on patrol south of Baghdad when Army Specialist James Barker suggested that they find an Iraqi woman to rape. “We’ve all killed Hadjis, but I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches,” Barker stated.

Having chosen their target, the soldiers entered the house and locked three members of the Janabis family in the bedroom with Private First Class Steven Green standing guard over them. Meanwhile, Cortez took the 14-year-old daughter Abeer into the living room and began raping her. According to Frederick’s account:

In the bedroom, Green was losing control of his prisoners. The woman made a run for the door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The man became unhinged. Green turned his own AK on him and pulled the trigger. It jammed. Panicking, as the man advanced on him, Green switched to his shotgun. The first shot blasted the top of the man’s head off. Then Green turned to the little girl, who was running for a corner. This time the AK worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in the back of the head. She fell to the ground. …

As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, “They’re all dead. I killed them all.” Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.

There is a term that US presidents love to use in their efforts to assume the moral high ground in international affairs. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used it repeatedly in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. That term is “the civilized world.” It is used to portray us Westerners as sophisticated and “civilized” and Islamic militants as barbaric “savages.” As with the term collateral damage, it is used to appease our conscience with regard to the brutal acts of violence that we repeatedly inflict on innocent people. After all, if we represent the civilized world then we must stand for all that is good. And if we stand for all that is good, then any innocent women and children that die from our actions must merely be unfortunate victims of a tragic occurrence. While we may be comforted by such rhetoric and self-agrandization, I doubt our self-serving attitude provides much solace to a Pakistani mother who has watched her child get blown to pieces by a missile fired from one of our drones.

Every form of colonialism throughout history has given birth to a violent resistance movement. And it should not be surprising that the current imperialist model in the form of capitalist globalization has also spurred a violent response. There were no extremist groups in Iraq before the US invasion. It was the US invasion and occupation that opened the door to al-Qaeda’s entry into Iraq as part of the broader insurgency that rose up to liberate the country from its foreign occupiers. And it was this insurgency that gave birth to ISIS. Therefore, it could be argued that our widespread killing of civilians in Iraq helped to create a fertile recruiting environment for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and contributed to the emergence of ISIS.

There is no question that the beheading of James Foley was a barbaric and savage act. But was Foley’s death any more barbaric and savage than the rape and killing of 14-year-old Abeer? Is it any more tragic than the deaths of the many other Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been summarily executed by US troops? Is it any more heartbreaking than the killing of thousands of civilians in aerial bombardments ordered by US military commanders fully aware that the targeting of residential areas would result in the deaths of many innocents?

The lack of graphic video footage of the killing of innocent people by our bombs and missiles does not make these deaths any less brutal or horrific. So while we must condemn the tragic and gruesome killing of James Foley, we also need to take a good look in the mirror and reflect on our own complicity in the slaughter of innocent civilians. Perhaps then we will realize that we are not so civilized after all.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). ). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Cape Breton University in Canada.

 

Posted in Cultural Studies, Current Affairs, History, International Relations | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment