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(Where’s the) Rage against the Machine?

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The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.

On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)

History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)

The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.

The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)

Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”

Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”

The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.

So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”

“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.

“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.

He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)

Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”

So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.

The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.

“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”

God Sees All

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Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

His hammer had five strings… Pete Seeger dies at 94

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Pete Seeger before rehearsal for Barack Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, January 2009

Slipping on the Third Rail of American Politics—and Recovering

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I made a mistake in a piece posted to the Root today about the role of racial bias in congressional Republicans’ opposition to President Obama. I attributed a quote to John McCain that actually came from candidate Obama: “He doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.”

I apologize to my readers and to the senator.

Here’s a fuller (corrected) version of the story.

IF ONE CAN LOOK regal and profoundly uncomfortable at the same time, that was Leta Watlington the other night before she spoke at the Hampton History Museum about Virginia’s Bay Shore Beach. Ms. Watlington, an 81-year-old registered nurse (still working), relaxed slowly as she described the motel and the rich family life that her grandmother Susie King built around Hampton’s beach for black folks.

After decades of shunning African American bathers like Mrs. King’s family—next-door Buckroe Beach was whites-only—city fathers began to covet the waterfront property blacks controlled.

“The powers that be, when they want to take something from you, they will. And they have,” Ms. Watlington told the small, largely African American audience.

Ms. Watlington said a lot of things about how her family’s property and Bay Shore were land-grabbed into oblivion by developers in the early 1970s. The one thing she didn’t say was the word white. “No I didn’t,” she told me later. “I tried not to get into the color situation.”

It’s impolite for many in her generation to talk race in explicit terms. But her omission was more than a matter of etiquette—Ms. Watlington pronounced the word nigger very clearly when describing the verbal abuse she endured. Experience informs how folks of that generation approach public discussions of matters black and white. As Russell Hopson, a Virginia historian and Jim Crow survivor, reminded me, “the shock waves are gonna come back heavy” when you name the proverbial elephant in the room.

They know we can’t prove it. We can deduce and infer from their actions, statements, and policies. But we can’t confirm that congressional Republicans—a bloc of nearly unbroken white maleness—and their media hatchetpeople are stealthily deploying race, blackness, to obstruct President Barack Obama at every turn.

Obstructionists seldom give us concrete, irrefutable proof of gutbucket prejudice. When we think we have them cold, they’ll use the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue strategy. You’re playing the race card, they’ll say. In fact, you’re the racists for bringing it up. It’s the nyah, nyah, nyah of savvy—or at least well-trained—political machinists. These are men and women who have studied the Republican race-baiting playbook drafted by party strategist and consigliere Lee Atwater.

“By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires,” said Atwater in 1981, quoted years later by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

Rightwing pols continually update the Atwater script. During the president’s first term and the campaign that preceded it, we may recall that Barack Obama was cast as a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist, Nazi witch doctor. Tea Partiers, Birthers, and Republican backbenchers were the nasty tip of the spear of a full-on assault, but the big boys pitched in, too, usually in ways that kept them from getting hit by shrapnel from the vilest attacks.

Chris Matthews called out congressional Republicans on-air, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2012, for what he deemed thinly veiled racism. Specifically, he cited Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn’s accusation that “unlawful acts” and “incompetence” by the administration came “perilously close” to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which would warrant the impeachment of the president.

“They never say their problem with Obama is that he is black, but look at the pattern,” Matthews said to an incredulous anchor. “The pattern is rejection of his legitimacy at the first point saying he is not really here legally.”

This wasn’t a one-off. In a different segment, Matthews hammered RNC chair Reince Priebus for Mitt Romney’s campaign quip, “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.” But he also took him to task for the candidate’s substantive statements, like saying that Obama had “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.” Which wasn’t true.

“You are playing that little ethnic card there,” said Matthews to a momentarily abashed Priebus. “You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, we know what game you’re playing.” Powerful stuff, which hit a wall of denials, deflections, and pooh-poohing from the other members of the all-white MSNBC panel. Google this event to see the national ^%$@storm of denial that enveloped Matthews’s comments.

Moments like these offer black folks a dash of vindication. But in a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge the obvious—the persistence of racism—and that’s wedded to its own myths of egalitarianism, they don’t really change much.

On specific issues, congressional Republican obstructers will say, We have policy differences with the president. These are matters of principle. That’s why we fight the president on damn-near everything—health care, nominations, Libya, income assistance programs, gun control, the debt limit and budget; that’s why we’re on the brink of shutting down the federal government.

And yet John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. will pretzelize themselves into the oddest, most contradictory, and self-denying positions just to be anti-Obama. They loved corporate tax cuts until the president, previously a socialist income redistributor, agreed to them. Instantly, such cuts were the work of Wall Street’s lapdog-in-chief.

House Republicans pulled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps) out of its customary place in the farm bill so they could kill it. A simple policy difference?

Killing SNAP—rather, replacing it with a plan from Majority Leader Cantor that would increase work requirements irrespective of local unemployment levels—isn’t sound economic policy, if one believes the Department of Agriculture. SNAP, says the USDA, “provides assistance to more low-income households during an economic downturn or recession and to fewer households during an economic expansion. The rise in SNAP participation during an economic downturn results in greater SNAP expenditures which, in turn, stimulate the economy.” Isn’t that what Republicans say they’re all about, economic growth?

Interestingly, 15 Republicans broke ranks. “I just felt the cuts were a little too steep, especially because right now, I have a lot of Sandy victims who have never been on assistance ever in their life,” New York Congressman Michael Grimm told The Hill. “And a lot of these hardworking families have lost everything, and for the first time, they’re needing food stamps. So I didn’t want to affect those Sandy victims.”

Before Sandy, Grimm didn’t think income assistance was such a great idea. He supported Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would have slashed Medicare benefits, welfare, and food stamps. A whole lot of hardworking people would have been hobbled by Ryan’s plan.

But here again is our helpful guide: history. Republicans have successfully linked income assistance programs to the duskier “special interests,” folks Ronald Reagan called “welfare queens.” More recently, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama “the food stamp president.”

History also tells us that this is much more than reflexive or even ideological opposition. From Capitol Hill obstruction to public finger-wagging (see Arizona governor Jan Brewer), the campaign to diminish, neuter, humiliate, and defeat the nation’s first African American president is but one battle in the larger war to preserve the last vestiges of white power and privilege in the face of a browning America. In other words, this is existential, strategic opposition with a profound racial component.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Attorney General Eric Holder remarked with rather surprising candor at an African American history event in 2009. His prescription for change: more candid talk about race.

I take issue with Holder’s national sweep, but I agree with the spirit of his comment.

For us to get beyond race, we—and by we, I mean people who are consistently targeted by this white power bloc—need to name race. And not just ours, but theirs, too.

Juneteenth, African Burial Ground, New York City, June 19, 2013

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Here’s the piece I shot and wrote for Parade.com on the day of.

Shouting Truth to Power at NDU

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I immediately recognized the top of Medea Benjamin’s blond head on my computer screen as she was being dragged out of President Barack Obama’s May 23rd address at the National Defense University. Benjamin is well known on Capitol Hill for her activism with Code Pink, specifically their antiwar protests and pickets that disrupt hearings and other official goings-on.

I had interviewed Benjamin in the late 1990s for a Fortune magazine piece about corporate social responsibility. Then, she was working with another social justice group she helped create, Global Exchange. The day after the president’s NDU speech, though, Benjamin was “The Heckler.”

Let’s be clear about our terms. Heckling is spewing insults at a stand-up comic under cover of darkness after six scotch and sodas too many. Benjamin, a veteran human rights campaigner and an antiwar activist—and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control—was protesting. (USA Today called her a “protester” who “heckles.”) She was practicing the venerable and always controversial art of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to—and intervene in—an issue of great importance to society. Such actions are, by definition, disruptive of business as usual—in this case a presidential address to the American public about national security to which the American public had not been invited.

Before making an appearance on Arise News to talk about the president’s speech, I called Benjamin to find out why she did what she did. [Here’s the link to the Arise segment, and to the entire show.]

“I was waiting until the very end,” Benjamin told me. She was waiting for him to say something “significant,” for specifics, not just the “standard blaming of Congress.” But she didn’t hear that.

So Benjamin interrupted our president: “There are 102 people on a hunger strike, these desperate people. Eighty-six are cleared for release. You are commander in chief. You can close Guantánamo today, and you can release those 86 prisoners!”

Who are the 86 Benjamin refers to? Ask Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, as the Voice of America did. “Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them,” Davis told VOA.

The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress, nor does he need to issue an executive order to transfer the remaining prisoners from Guantánamo, where more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike. Thirty are being force-fed. Obama could issue a national security waiver to override restrictions Congress has placed on transfers,  Benjamin said. That’s what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president—in a confidential memo leaked to the press, described in a Daily Beast article by Daniel Klaidman.

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” Benjamin shouted at Obama. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

These are questions of life and death, particularly for those on the business end of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere the administration chooses to exercise its still-classified policy of targeted killing. Questions to which the president provided no definitive answers.

From the BXP photo archive: David Duke, white supremacist/GOP office holder, July 4, 1991

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Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is "The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater." New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is “The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater.” New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

I’d already been thinking a lot about the Ku Klux Klan when the publication of Anthony Karen’s new photo book, White Pride, was announced. When slavery and the Civil War ended, the Klan swept in to preserve the South’s social, political, and economic order by terrorizing the newly freed, who might have been tempted to exercise their new rights. Karen’s gentle comments to an interviewer about the “pro-America” folks who flock to the group and its white supremacist brother/sister organizations struck—actually hammered—a nerve.

I remember photographing “Dukefest” in 1991, on the Fourth of July no less, in New Orleans. Louisiana state legislator David Duke—also founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for White People—was firing up a campaign for governor. The shape-shifting Duke was as slick as goose excrement, playing up his equal-rights-for-downtrodden-whites rhetoric and downplaying his Nazi uniform-wearing and Klan-klothed days. Some of Duke’s adherents, however, didn’t get the play-nice-for-the-camera memo. They did what they could to jostle the out-of-town reporters, spill beer on us. Thankfully, the cops knew the drill and prevented anything untoward from happening. They made it safe enough for Danny Schecter, me, and other non-Aryans to document the scene: a crowd of white folks barbecuing and gamboling at the center of City Park in one of the blackest (as in African Americanest) cities in the U.S.

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Duke was a manipulator, if not the most masterful one. He wasn’t urbane (or smart) enough to sanitize himself so he could slide into the mainstream of the Republican party. (There’s only so much scrubbing you can do to get rid of the stink of fascism.)

Duke appealed to a swath of disaffected, poor white folks who believed that affirmative action and other programs designed (sometimes poorly) to mitigate discriminatory practices and policies were the stake in the heart of their dreams.

But it would be condescending, one might say racist, to assume that Duke’s stalwart supporters didn’t know of his fascist roots. There were (and still are) plenty of conservative groups that don’t wave the flag of racism and anti-semitism. So one might assume that a fair portion of Duke’s followers were attracted to these very things in his barely concealed past.

I’m looking forward to seeing Karen’s book. I want to know if the photographer sees and works both compassionately and critically. I have no doubt that his subjects’ individuality and the circumstances of their lives may be interesting, even compelling. But a book focused on members of America’s oldest terrorist organization must also explore its subjects’ relationship to the Klan’s legacy of hate, brutality, and murder—a legacy they have chosen to embrace. Otherwise, it’s simply environmental portraiture—or propaganda.