July 8 marks the anniversary of the Israeli-Gazan conflict, one of the subjects that concerns Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press. She has acquired The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire by Atef Abu Saif, a writer and teacher from Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Due out next year in time for the second anniversary of the conflict, Saif’s book offers a rare glimpse into the ongoing war for Western readers. Here, Amy talks about acquiring the book and what attracted her to Saif’s story. A preview from the book follows.
I was curious and interested immediately because I’d done a certain amount of publishing about issues I find troubling as someone of Jewish descent among Jews in America. Things that I find troubling are what seem to be growing racist attitudes and a right-wing hardening of politics in Israel and America. We’d recently published Alan Wolfe’s At Home in Exile, which argues that Jews are now at home in exile, that living in multicultural environments has been good for Jewish people. Of course, the ongoing tensions and war between Israel and Palestinians are on my list of topics that I’m concerned about and want to publish. But it’s hard to think about how to do it well and what needs to be done. So when editor Ra Page at Comma Press in the UK sent me an email about The Drone Eats with Me, I told him I’d love to take a look at it.
This piece was originally delivered as a sermon and appeared previously in Sojourners.
During my meditation on the messages being sent out from South Carolina this week, three scriptures came to me:
Jeremiah 31:15: This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
John 8:32: Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Isaiah 58:1-3: Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse Friday morning, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke solemnly of the nine Black churchgoers who were shot to death less than a month ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We have all been struck by what was a tragedy we didn't think we would ever encounter,” Haley said of the horrifying massacre. Before signing the bill with nine pens that will go to the families of the victims, she called those who were murdered during Bible Study at the historic church, “Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history.”
The Governor referenced the “grace” shown by the nine families, when they forgave the white gunman. She said their grace helped usher the state toward this long overdue decision.
It’s been so long since we’ve caught up with Atticus Finch—a little more than half a century if you count the time between books. It is now the 1950s, twenty years later, and his daughter Jean Louise—Scout—twenty-six years old and living in New York City, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit.
And despite the passage of time he really hasn’t changed at all. Despite what some sensation-seeking book reviewers, shocked readers, and disoriented English teachers will tell you, he’s pretty much the same man he always was. We finally have his backstory in print.
He’s older, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is grooming a successor to his legal practice. Atticus Finch hasn’t morphed from a champion of racial justice to a racist. That he’d long made a comfortable peace with white supremacy was there from the moment Lee’s now classic To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. Despite defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, against a false accusation of rape made by a white woman, he was at home with structural Jim Crow. This was never stated but permeated the story without being critically noted by the author—or countless readers—in any obvious way.
This blog post is one of two about the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Stay tuned next week for Kay Whitlock's follow-up on the conversation.
American readers love stories of political uplift and inspiration rather than forthright, bluntly honest accounts of unpalatable truths and realities. They especially love them when they are spoken by innocent young girls.
After just over half a century, Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has released Go Set a Watchman, her eagerly awaited second novel. But, with a novelist’s twist, Watchman is, in reality, her first novel, an earlier version of Mockingbird’s characters, but set later in their lives.
Lee submitted Watchman in 1957 to Tay Hohuff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott and Co., who felt the manuscript—in which Jean Louise Finch confronts the racism her of father Atticus, her potential lover Henry, and her beloved town—needed considerable work. Hohuff worked with the thirty-one-year-old first-time novelist to rewrite the story from the perspective of a younger version of the narrator, two decades earlier. That version, in which Atticus’s overt racism is erased or obscured, became To Kill a Mockingbird.
First announced in February 2014, the publication of Watchman has been a publicist’s dream. After its release in 1960, Mockingbird became an instant classic and a staple of high school reading lists. (The 1962 film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus.) But after Mockingbird, Lee became reclusive, never publishing another novel. Two years ago, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carte, claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box and it was quickly—allegedly with the eighty-nine-year-old Lee’s permission (some friends question her current state of mental competency)—snapped up by HarperCollins. Excitement for the new work was palpable and Watchman became the most pre-ordered book in history with over two million copies printed. (Mockingbird has sold forty million.)
Questions have swirled around Lee’s career and life for decades, and Watchman has only added to them. Why had she never published another novel? Why did she remain out of the limelight for half a century? If Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, why was it only recently discovered? Did Lee actually consent to the publication of this early work? Some of these questions may have answers, some may not, and frankly, some of them are no one’s business. Certainly, since Watchman’s publication on July 14, the most urgent question for the media and a multitude of readers is: how has one of the most beloved characters in modern American fiction become, overnight—and in an earlier version of the story—not only a racist, but a member of the Ku Klux Klan and active in the leadership of the local version of the notorious White Citizens Council?
Much of the power of Mockingbird comes from the narrative voice of six-year-old Scout Finch detailing her small Alabama town and her father’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Intimate and heart-warming, the book became emblematic of the white liberal race politics of Kennedy’s Camelot, with rational, just, and courageous Atticus—his name means “citizen of Athens”—as the mythical great white savior. Mockingbird appeared after the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education and before the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington. Atticus, in book and film, became a touchstone for many white readers and viewers who identified with his integrity and vision of justice in a world wracked with racial turmoil and strife.
Tay Hohuff, by all accounts a brilliant editor, understood that a mid-late 1950s readership (the final draft of Mockingbird had to have been submitted at least a year before publication) would have responded strongly to a heartwarming bildungsroman of a young girl with an idealistic father. In many ways, Mockingbird is the sentimental version of Carson McCullers’ emotionally harsher girlhood coming-of-age stories such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946). Watchman may have been too blatantly political coming from a young, white, Southern woman writer at the time.
Each book gives us a political vision of race relations in America written closely together, but published half a century apart, that is a reflection of the presumed reader’s emotional and political response. Mockingbird represents the perhaps naïve, white liberal hopes and desires for justice in 1959 America, and Watchman, with its harsher explorations of racism, painfully resonates and intersects perfectly with our own political culture in which #BlackLivesMatter and controversies over the Confederate Flag are paramount in the news.
But there is a larger question here: when is a society ready to understand the harsh political truths an author might bring them? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in Dutch in 1947. In three years, it went through six editions, and in 1950s was translated into English and other languages. During the editing process, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, removed various diary entries that reflected on Anne’s emerging sexuality, her highly conflicted relationship to her mother, and thorny family matters; these deletions remained in all editions until 1989 when they were restored.
In the 1950s, American novelist Meyer Levin, forty-four, after having read the French Le Journal de Anne Frank, wrote a theatrical version he felt profoundly portrayed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the very specific Jewish qualities and character of the Frank family. After a series of protracted, painful negotiations with Otto Frank, who had been persuaded to give the rights over to a non-Jewish writing team in an attempt to make the play “more universal” and, for Levin, less Jewish, Levin was forced to give up the project. Even worse, the new writers took out many of Anne’s political observations and her anger. Levin, who was deeply committed to his truth of the story, eventually, in 1973, wrote The Obsession, his version of how the play betrayed the material. Frank’s Diary and the plays and film made from it are all modern classics, even as the last two—Levin was right—avoid the harsher truth of history to sentimentally engage without challenging the audience.
Even the published Diary has been subject to expurgation in the public imagination. The most quoted line from Frank’s book is “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Yet in the context of the Diary, it is: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.”
Novelist Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank,” speculates a “salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made it of all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” There is a very real chance that if the Diary had been published unexpurgated or the play and film really reflected Frank’s original they would never have had the impact that they did.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. To reach an audience it needs to be published, sold, bought and read. Mockingbird was the perfect book for the early 1960s. Watchman, despite its literary imperfections and adult Scout’s ultimate decision to accommodate herself to mainstream racism in her hometown, may well be a book more suited to our time, not the imagined, more sentimental world of Mockingbird. Time will tell if Watchman speaks to readers today, and if the adult Jean Louise has the power to be heard as much as her younger self Scout.
In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer “testified” before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The highlight of her remarks was when she exclaimed “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” In so doing, the impoverished Mississippi Delta sharecropper secured her place as a leading light in the Civil Rights movement. Describing her home state as the antithesis of “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she rebelled against that definition by calling it out as “the land of the tree and the home of the grave.”
So, here we are in 2015. As yet another round of racial animus erupts and national political conventions loom, I am compelled to echo Mrs. Hamer’s lament. I cannot even begin to tell you how sick and tired I am. It’s the same shit, albeit a different century.
On June 17, a white man named Dylan Roof invaded Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and massacred nine people engaged in studying the bible. Roof’s online manifesto “criticized blacks as being inferior while lamenting the cowardice of white flight.” It was illustrated with photographs, many of them showcasing him with a Confederate flag. I don’t know what chapter and verse the bible study group was concentrating on when Roof opened fire, but he obviously did not heed the sixth commandment that exhorts the moral imperative of “thou shall not kill.”
Early in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 2015, ten days following a mass killing in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a young Black artist and activist, refused demands from law enforcement authorities to come down from the flagpole she was climbing near the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.
Instead, she continued to the top of the pole to take down the "Stars and Bars" or "Southern Cross," a potent symbol of the Confederacy carried as a battle flag by Robert E. Lee. It was the only way to take down the flag at this particular site; it cannot be raised or lowered by the usual cord and pulley mechanism. The flag flies until two-thirds of the predominantly white state legislature votes otherwise.
Once Newsome was down, arrested, and charged (not ironically) with defacing a public monument, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle publicly expressed concern that she was making it harder for them to remove the flag. “Citizens please engage legally, or we lose!” a Charleston Democratic state representative tweeted.
But Newsome’s carefully planned direct action captivated the public imagination.
The media characterized her action as a protest against “hate.” Newsome herself was precise: her act of civil disobedience signaled the urgent, imperative need to dismantle white supremacy.
Hate. White supremacy. Is there really any difference? Does it matter what we call it?
Yes. If #BlackLivesMatter, and they must, it matters profoundly.
One prominent theme of the oral arguments on April 28 in the Supreme Court marriage equality cases (Obgerfell v. Hodges) was the justices’ fear that recognizing same-sex marriage would lead to child marriage, incest, and polygamy. “Slippery slope” is the phrase we use in law-school classrooms to describe a trajectory, or “parade of horribles.”
As we wait for the decision, it’s worth asking how slippery this slope is. Is it like a forested hillside or more like a playground slide? If the legal and social context is like a forest, then a person skidding from the top of a hill would be blocked by the trees. But if it’s more like a slide, she would almost inevitably reach the bottom. The answers are different for child marriage, incest, and polygamy.
Before getting into specifics, I should say a few words about how I see marriage, since the institution has meant so many things in different times and places. As a contracts professor, I focus on its contractual aspects. (If you, too, like the idea of consent and reciprocity in relationships, check out my new bookLove’s Promises: How Formal & Informal Agreements Shape All Kinds of Families.) Linking love and contracts has a long history. Since the founding, US law has seen marriage as a mix of status and contract, in different proportions at different times. Generally speaking, a status relationship is forever; while contractual relationships usually can be dissolved by the parties according to the contract’s terms.
As feminist reforms such as married women’s rights to hold property and make contracts took root in the mid-nineteenth century, Sir Henry Maine famously observed in Ancient Law that the trend in progressive societies has been from status to contract.
Training a contractual lens on the slippery slope reveals that marriage equality for gay people is unlikely to lead to child marriage or incest. Polygamy, though, is a different story. For a decade now, the movement for marriage equality and gay rights litigation more generally has inspired fundamentalist Mormons to seek to decriminalize their sacred institution, and if that succeeds they may well seek marriage equality for themselves.
Think of it as instructive as well as tragic public spectacle, the bizarre eruption of violence between police and members of biker gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco, Texas on May 17, 2015 that produced a wide swath of casualties—all of them bikers.
Nine people were killed by gunshot, 18 people were sent to hospitals, and approximately 170 were thrown into the clink on felony charges related to the commission of organized criminal activity, with absurd bail set of $1,000,000 per person.
This unusual armed confrontation among predominantly white participants produced competing (and ludicrous) storylines—about victimization, persecution, danger, and safety—that drove the sensational media story. In largely unexamined ways, the Waco debacle also illuminates the dynamics and public discourse that keep the dominant American imagination stuck in the mire of false assumptions about violence (and who perpetrates it) and public safety.
We might well regard the lethal Waco events, the politics, and the mass media discourse surrounding the violence as a house of mirrors.
It’s heartbreaking when we lose such a visionary in politics and social justice. Jean Hardisty, political scientist and activist, died this year on March 16 after battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She founded Midwest Research in Chicago in 1981, which became Political Research Associates (PRA) in 1987 when it relocated to Boston.
Hardisty founded PRA to produce investigative research and analysis on right-wing movements to support social justice advocates and defend human rights. It specializes in reproductive justice, civil liberties, economic justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial/immigrant justice. Social change activists, in fact, knew Jean as a public intellectual concerned with feminist and lesbian issues. In order to understand conservative leaders’ influence on voters, Hadisty sought to learn what made right-wing supporters click rather than demonize or scapegoat them. It was her goal to expose the leaders of the Right.
She found the Left’s response to the rise of the New Right during the Reagan presidency inadequate and misguided. During her tenure as Executive Director of PRA, she taught Left activists not to underestimate the clout, finances, and the unifying vision of the Right. Patiently, she led her staff through analyses of elections, events and incidents on the local, state, and national level, and the work of the Right. Although the historical perspective she brought could be challenging, it was always reassuring. She matched the rigor of her research with the compassion, mentorship, and sense of humor her friends and colleagues cherish to this day. Those whose lives she touched will miss her dearly.
To commemorate May Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Bill Fletcher, Jr. Fletcher has been involved with the labor movement since he worked as a welder in a Massachusetts shipyard after graduating from Harvard in 1976. He moved on thereafter to become a labor activist and organizer. With hands-on experience from the bottom up, Fletcher is in the prime position to bust the myths bent on dismantling unions. Watch him bust ten in “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.
MYTH 1 Workers are forced to join unions.
Fact: Unions are created when a majority of the workers in a workplace either vote for a union or sign cards to join the union, and are recognized by the employer. Whether one must become a member of a union depends on (a) a negotiated agreement between the workers and their employer that all union members can ratify and (b) state law.
MYTH 2 Unions are destroying the economy.
Fact: Problems with the U.S. economy have little to do with labor unions but instead stem from a global capitalist economy and polices that perpetuate inequality. Labor unions seek to more fairly distribute the results of labor.
MYTH 3 Unions are run by labor bosses.
Fact: Leadership is chosen through an electoral process. Local union leaders are elected by individual members, while delegates sent from local unions then choose national union officers, including a president and an executive board.
MYTH 4 Unions are always on strike.
Fact: The number of strikes, a nonviolent tactic for asserting worker needs, has declined from an average of 352 per year in the 1950s to 21 in the last ten years.
Several rapidly shifting and competing storylines embedded in the recent furor over passage (and subsequent amendment) of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) have produced a great deal of noise but little clarity.
Who actually “won” this battle? Forget mass media narratives. The real answer depends on how closely we’re willing to sift and sort through the civic rubble and rhetorical chaos of this mess.
In the post–Hobby Lobby era, the original Indiana RFRA bill—one of a growing number of states that have some kind of law modeled on the 1993 federal RFRA—departed from the federal template in significant ways. (The immediate impetus for the federal RFRA was protection of the religious rights of Native Americans.) The Hoosier state explicitly recognized the “free exercise” rights of for-profit businesses on an equal basis with that of individuals and faith communities. Indiana’s law even went further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Moreover, the Indiana statute made this right a defense against private lawsuits brought by individuals—not only against actions brought by government.
The United States is one step from bringing trade sanctions against China for its domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn.
The fact is the US has been one step away since 1993, thanks to a legal petition filed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) with the Clinton administration. They did so under the Pelly Amendment of the Fisherman’s Protection Act, which gives the US mandate to punish countries whose nationals undermine international protections for endangered species. Not long after China’s State Council banned domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, President Clinton put the sanctions on hold, where they remain today.
In July 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asked the Obama administration to revisit them, providing lengthy documentation to show that China continues to ignore international agreements aimed at stopping tiger trade and allows legal trade in tiger products from tiger farms. The US Department of Interior confirmed it is reviewing EIA’s request.
In an excerpt from At Home in Exile, historian and scholar Alan Wolfe warns that, although the kind of Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism behind the Charlie Hebdo–linked attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris is real, it is important not to let these actions overshadow “ongoing efforts at cooperation between the two faiths.”
“How did the Jews get back at Hitler?” run the words of what one presumes to be a joke. “They sent him back the gas bill.” So spoke a British Muslim cleric, Abdullah al-Faisal, to appreciative laughter at a 2001 event in the English city of Luton. One of his listeners then posed some questions: “Should we hate Jews, and when we see them on the street, should we beat them up?” To which the good cleric replied, “You have no choice but to hate them. How do you fight the Jews? You kill the Jews.” These horrific sentiments are cited by Anthony Julius toward the end of Trials of the Diaspora. If Christian anti-Semitism is no longer as powerful as it once was, and if Jewish anti-Semitism is a far-fetched charge, then the most important source of diasporic anti-Semitism may well be the rancid language and all-too-frequent violent deeds emanating from the world’s ever-growing Muslim community, especially, as the Luton story suggests, in Europe, where tensions between these two faiths have been palpable. In a 2008 report, the highly reputable Pew Research Center found disturbing trends in xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout much of the European continent. Not all such Jew hatred originates with Muslims. Neo-Nazi and ultranationalist parties, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and Svodoba in the Ukraine, while clearly anti-Semitic, contain more than their fair share of native-born Europeans who in all likelihood hate Muslims as well as Jews. But all too much of it does. France in particular has witnessed serious Islamic-based violence against Jewish targets. Toulouse, for example, was not only where four Jews, including three children, were killed by a French Muslim in 2012, but it has also been the scene of repeated anti-Semitic vandalism since. Saudi-run schools in Great Britain, according to the BBC program Panorama, rely on textbooks filled with anti-Semitic words and pictures, including descriptions of Jews as “monkeys and pigs.” Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, which has one of the largest percentages of Muslims anywhere on the continent and whose mayor once suggested that Jews bring hatred on themselves, has experienced record-breaking numbers of attacks, including an explosive placed in front of a Jewish Community Center. A survey conducted by the Belgian sociologist Mark Elchardus found that half of the Muslim schoolchildren in Brussels hold anti-Semitic views. One can argue about why these things are happening. But that they are indeed happening is obvious. Had large numbers of Muslims not made Europe their home over the past decades, anti-Semitism would no doubt still exist there. That so many have only adds to a potentially combustible mix.
A bullet hole is pictured in the window of a prayer room at a mosque in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans, western France, on January 8, 2015, after shots were fired and three blank grenades were thrown at the mosque shortly after midnight, leaving no casualties.
The outpouring of outrage and concern following the lethal shooting of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine is understandable.
Many people want to express their shock and grief. They want to stand against the censoring, repressive, and violent impulses represented—symbolically and actually—by the gunmen.
There is no ethical justification for the killings. None. No one “deserved to die.”
Yet the reaction to these tragic killings seamlessly moves forward within an easily manipulated narrative. This story is compellingly shaped by the twin themes of terrorism and destruction of freedom of speech. Because this narrative is framed by the politics of fear, resentment, and vengeance, it has become as volatile and potentially incendiary as the actions that produced it.
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back to some of our most popular posts of 2014, as well as some gems you might have overlooked. Consider it a countdown of a different sort, a look back at a year that was both volatile and filled with possibility, with posts that reflected both the intensity and diversity of our readers. And consider it a promise, as well, that our 2015 posts will be filled with the same inquisitive spirit and intellectual curiosity. Happy New Year!
The open air book market in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana (La Habana Vieja).
President Obama’s decision to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba caused me to think about what it might mean for publishers, writers, and readers, and to reawaken hopes I had when I visited Cuba almost twenty years ago.
In February of 1995, I traveled to Havana with a delegation of US publishers, writers, and journalists organized by Association of American Publishers’ International Freedom to Publish Committee, a 40-year-old group that has defended freedom of expression around the world through its missions, exhibits, and lobbying activities. Sixty-three publishers joined in creating a Libros USA exhibit of 6,000 books, all of which were donated to Cuban libraries afterwards. (Or most were: an FSG title I’d sent by dissident writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mea Cuba, never appeared in the display.)
James Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” is a poem of apocalyptic scale, written at a time when the specter of nuclear annihilation hung over the world’s so-called superpowers, held like an axe by the “pink and alabaster pragmatists” of the white power structure, as Baldwin so cuttingly described them. It is a long, furious, and fearless poem, seventeen pages that mix politics with pop culture with black historical and literary references, and snippets of Negro spirituals dripping with venomous irony, all to expose the matrix of colonization and systematic oppression that continued to plague black people in the US—who “don’t own nothing / got no flag,” whose very names remain “hand-me-downs”—well after the civil rights movement was declared victorious, sanctified, then sanitized and anesthetized by those same keepers of red button.
BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.
In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.
In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.
I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.
TEHRAN, IRAN - 01 June 2004: An Iranian couple walk past mural paintings depicting scenes from the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, on a major highway in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Ten years ago, a series of horrific images started streaming across the internet, showing Iraqi internees at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in “various poses of shame and degradation,” as writer and former soldier Aidan Delgado put it, while US soldiers leered in the background. Delgado was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the scandal broke. “I am amazed to see the depravity and variety of the abuse but I am not surprised at all that it happened,” he writes in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, which tells the story of Delgado’s transformation from a young enlistee to conscientious objector after witnessing firsthand the brutality of the Iraq occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib:
Some dark and obscene atmosphere had built inside the prison camp, so much so that it had turned ordinary, decent men into ghoulish caricatures. Sergeant Toro’s prisoner-transport story had reinforced my impressions of the harsh and repressive environment. It was common knowledge that guards would threaten and manhandle the prisoners—such conduct was almost a badge of manhood. Being tough with the detainees was just part of being a “good soldier” and a team player. The way the younger MPs referred to the prisoners and to the Iraqis in general made this no secret. I had heard about the sexual nature of the photographs: the forcible nudity, the simulated homosexual acts, the videotaped sex between guards and prisoners, but I was taken aback by the particular intensity and sadism of the photographs. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hardship, the mortars and attacks, we had become oppressors. We had become sadists. We had become torturers.
A window at Left Bank Books in St. Louis displays titles in their Black Lives Matter Reading List
Before moving to Boston in 2012, I spent several years working for Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s flagship independent bookstore. Founded in 1969, the store has maintained a strong commitment to community, and has gained a reputation as a platform for social and political discussion. Their author event series has hosted the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Madeleine Albright. This week I checked in with one of the store’s co-owners, Jarek Steele, to ask about the bookstore’s response to the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent rallies, protests, and demonstrations.
Daniel Barks: I’ve seen bits and pieces of the store’s (and the staff’s) activities regarding Ferguson since August through social media, but maybe you can give a clearer picture of how the store has responded.
Jarek Steele: Early on we talked about Ferguson in our staff meeting. We talked about how Left Bank Books has always been more than just a bookstore, and that we had the opportunity (and responsibility) to use it to facilitate a public conversation about race, policing, and St. Louis’s history and current practice of segregation. We wanted to celebrate the courage it takes to openly talk about race, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Our staff is about ¼ non-white at the moment and very queer, so this message was not unwelcome.