Monday, May 10, 2004

Building a Movement That Outlasts the Occupation

Max Sawicky, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute who keeps a very popular blog MaxSpeak, argues that right-wingers are forming a lynch mob to scapegoat the US soldiers in the Abu Ghraib torture photographs, trying to pass off what happened at Abu Ghraib as an isolated incident and to exonerate the power elite of the White House, the US military, and private "security" firms:
So the correct line is straight-forward: investigate the brass, the CIA, the civilian DoD leadership, and the contractors. Any problems in those areas are much more important than the perverse behavior of some individuals on the front lines.

Support the troops, or support the command. The right choice is clear. ("Support the Troops," May 8, 2004)
Indeed, activists ought to seize this moment of division in the right-wing ranks and exacerbate a legitimation crisis for the George W. Bush administration, rather than letting the right sacrifice individual soldiers -- victims turned victimizers on a small scale -- who are expendable in their eyes to protect the biggest war criminals of all:
Inside the White House, several of Mr. Bush's aides have argued that he has little choice but to make them [still classified images of rape, murder, and torture] public. Sooner or later, they say, the images will leak out, prolonging the pain, fueling Iraqi and Arab suspicions of a Pentagon-orchestrated cover-up, and giving new life to calls for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's removal.

Many in the Pentagon, though, are resisting. Pentagon officials warned that a public release could jeopardize its criminal inquiry. They theorized that defense lawyers could cite a governmental release in motions to dismiss charges, arguing that their clients could not get a fair hearing. So far, seven soldiers are facing charges related to abuse of Iraqi detainees. . . .

That argument [about whether, when, and how to disclose hitherto unreleased images to the public] broke out in public on Sunday when the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, seemed to back keeping the images from public view, describing them as "of a classified nature" on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." He was immediately challenged by a fellow Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who shot back: "If there's a videotape out there, for God's sake let's talk about it, because men and women's lives are at stake, given how we handle this. So I want to get it all out on the table." (Thom Shanker, "Officials Grapple With How and When to Release Images," New York Times, May 10, 2004)
Activists also have a chance of making an anti-occupation movement become more than a movement of predominantly white activists who think that the best way to expand the movement is to focus on Iraq alone (Cf. Malik Miah, "Race and Class: Blacks and the War on Iraq," Against the Current 104, May/June 2003; and Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez, "Looking for Color in the Anti-War Movement," Z Magazine 16.11, November 2003). No other incident in the occupation of Iraq made the connection between oppressions at home and abroad as clearly visible as Abu Ghraib:
Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates. . . .

The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates. Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.

The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq as part of a team of prison officials, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to rebuild the country's criminal justice system.

Mr. McCotter, 63, is director of business development for Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based firm that says it is the third-largest private prison company, operating 13 prisons. In 2003, the company's operation of the Santa Fe jail was criticized by the Justice Department and the New Mexico Department of Corrections for unsafe conditions and lack of medical care for inmates. No further action was taken. . . .

Nationwide, during the last quarter century, over 40 state prison systems were under some form of court order, for brutality, crowding, poor food or lack of medical care, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington that calls for alternatives to incarceration.

In a 1999 opinion, Judge Justice wrote of the situation in Texas, "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions."

In a case that began in 2000, a prisoner at the Allred Unit in Wichita Falls, Tex., said he was repeatedly raped by other inmates, even after he appealed to guards for help, and was allowed by prison staff to be treated like a slave, being bought and sold by various prison gangs in different parts of the prison. The inmate, Roderick Johnson, has filed suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Mr. Johnson. (Fox Butterfield, "Mistreatment of Prisoners Is Called Routine in U.S.," New York Times, May 8, 2004)
How should activists respond to the link already made in the mainstream media? Rather than trying to recruit more Black, Latino, and other activists of color to the existing anti-occupation movement, it makes sense for white activists of the anti-occupation movement to get involved in struggles against the war at home -- especially the class war against Black and Latino communities waged in the name of "war on drugs" or "war on crimes" that has devastated them more than anything else: "In the 1930s approximately 75% of prison admissions were white while 22% were African-American. By 1992 those figures were reversed: '29% of prison admissions were white, while 51% were African-American and 20% were Hispanic . . . Ninety percent of the prison admissions for drug offences are African-American or Hispanic'" (Tony Samara, "Prisons, Punishment and Profiteers," Workplace 3.2, December 2000). While anti-occupation activists should continue organizing vigils, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience in the streets, calling for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq, doing more of the same alone is unlikely to keep the movement alive and kicking, much less grow more numerous and powerful, especially in a presidential election year when electoral campaigns tragically and yet inevitably siphon away a number of activists for a very short-term goal of electing the lesser of two evils. Those of us who are committed to the long-term project of building a mass movement and political party independent of the power elite should pick our battles, so to speak, prioritizing the struggles of people who already know they are "against the racist war" and are "well aware that the U.S. government's foreign policy is hypocritical too, as it gives billions in aid to the state of Israel, blantantly financing illegal settlements and occupation, while attacking Palestinians and Arab countries as 'terrorists' and failed states" and yet have not been at the center of the anti-occupation movement (Miah, May/June 2003). Taking on the entire racist prison-industrial complex, pointing to Abu Ghraib as merely a tip of the proverbial iceberg, would be a step in the right direction, which can not only prevent the Bush team from using the rank-and-file soldiers as scapegoats but also help us build the kind of movement that truly has a fighting chance beyond the election day -- and even beyond the occupation's demise.

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