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Twenty-five years ago today, I brought a copy of the paper to a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Illinois. I was 12, this was summer camp, and the news was not good. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down a civilian airliner. As Wikipedia now remembers the event:
Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from Tehran, Iran, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down by United States missiles fired by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished.
As best I recall, there was not the slightest acknowledgment during the festivities of the attack on the commercial jet. President Reagan expressed “regret” on that July 3. No US president has ever apologized.
Before that time, I had innocently wondered why it was that the news habitually announced the death toll from lethal events overseas, followed by “including X Americans.” I remember my parents’ explanation being unsatisfying. On July 3, 1988, no Americans were killed.
Nor was a single soldier killed. Just civilians crossing to or from a neighboring country. While US ships operated in the waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, it was our government who notified theirs that “any approach to an American warship would be dangerous unless the intent was clearly peaceful.” I can only imagine the Airbus pilot’s—his name was Mohsen Rezaian—steely terror as he maintained course during the planned 28-minute flight that morning.
I remember little of the parade or even my feelings during it. What I would remember for years is four tween boys sitting on the grassy roof of the student center waiting for the fireworks to begin that night. As one kid closed his eyes, the other three of us “brainwashed” him, chanting the government slogans from George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. … Freedom is slavery. … Ignorance is strength.” We were at an age when play and reality were not fully distinct, when not a one of us had a basis to imagine what brainwashing would actually look like. Our play was more novice hypnotism than The Manchurian Candidate, but the twelve-year-old me (who had never heard of the Manchurian Candidate, but knew all about the prospect of dying in a nuclear war) wondered if it was working.
Our brainwashed friend improvised the part perfectly. Rousing himself, as if from a long sleep, he conveyed confusion and grogginess. His first words were tentative and out of sorts. He ventured slowly, “Daddy … daddy … Are nuclear weapons bad, daddy?” The fireworks must have began soon thereafter.
As it happened (as the news from the Gulf told our unlistening ears), our peace was war. The mourning we ought to have had was a celebration. Children—us—were properly disturbed by all of this; adults were impervious.
To be good American adults, we would be obliged to learn to feign a continuous innocence. To imagine that our missiles did not lead to their graves, that our government’s intentions were noble, that (US) American lives were more deserving of mourning.
In the end I could not make this transition.
A good US American could never compare July 3, 1988, to the bad downing of civilian jetliners that have so terrorized Americans and their allies in recent decades. Such terrorist acts are meant to be unforgivable, while there is endless time to analyze the thoughts and empathize with the fears of men like Captain William C. Rogers, the officer who gave the order to fire.
Perhaps he did not mean to shoot down a civilian jet. Perhaps he valued Iranian lives as much as his own family’s lives. In the end there was little need to inquire into his motives. He shot down one airplane. US government policy prolonged the Iran–Iraq War for years, providing arms and intelligence to both sides, led by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranians and Iraqis buried hundreds of thousands of young soldiers each, and over a hundred thousand civilians. The US goal was simple: “We wanted to avoid victory by both sides,” a senior State Department official told Seymour Hersh in 1992. Shooting down an airliner looks like terrorism. Planning for the pointless deaths of thousands upon thousands is terrorism.
There was a long gap between my disillusionment at twelve years old, and the college years I spent reading quotes like that from US officials and American papers. The disconnect between the image of American benevolence and five decades of history grew clearer with each thread I followed and pulled at. It would take nearly a decade of tracing, pulling, and following before I would stop being surprised, shocked, and sickened, rather than just saddened. Nearly a decade before I would start to assemble an understanding of the United States as an empire like any other. And by that time, through that process, it could no longer feel like mine.
It’s 19° here in DC this morning, where I will be joining some six or seven digit number of people outside for the inauguration. Washington is an old hometown to me, but it does have a different feel when it’s claimed as a front yard by people from across the country. Walking around last night, I saw more people on the street than I ever have, black folks selling “I was there” sweatshirts, and other black folks dressed to the nines out partying, a big time reception or three in different night spots, people dressed to be dropped off in limos (and clearly used to that too) walking through the cold because of the security perimeter, and a cleared out and brightly lit Pennsylvania Ave. surrounded by security fencing but nonetheless open to the public.
And in the past month, I’ve seen a disastrous war, bought, paid for, armed, and endorsed by my country but carried out in Gaza. I’ve called my black, Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, Ed Towns, only to hear the exact Israeli line from his legislative aide, calling the deadliest assault in Palestine in three decades an act of “self defense.” Now over 1300 people are dead, and 50,000 are homeless.
I’ve also seen on video a black man shot in the back in Oakland, while waiting to be cuffed by BART police. And Oakland was my city, and New Year’s is my holiday in the Bay, and I had helped break up a fight earlier in the week, so I can sure imagine being swept up when the cops arrived. Oscar Grant could have been me.
These causes for despair can be healed, but it will be us, our actions that heal them by standing up and challenging injustice. I’m proud of so many people for standing up to these two in recent weeks (on Gaza | on Oscar Grant). They are what I have to celebrate today.
A couple months ago, I signed on to a call for a Bloc to be present at today’s inauguration called “Celebrate People’s History, Build Popular Power.” Given today’s mega-concert like feel, it might not be the action with the greatest impact. But I’m grateful for a way to set myself a bit apart today, to say the words “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” in a way that can never be the same as listening to the same words. To make the future we want, we all need to produce rather than consume our politics. See you in the streets, celebrating and fighting.
Responding to an open call circulating in the city, some 300 protesters against the bailout plan gathered in New York’s financial district and marched to the New York Stock Exchange at Wall St. and Broad yesterday afternoon. The crowd was loud, diverse and fed up. Video coverage of the rally is part of today’s Democracy Now! The Indypendent has a live blog archive of the protest. Click on the picture below for more Indymedia photos.
Being on the streets, there was a happy thrill to be back in force, in a protest taking over Wall Street for my first time since the J18 protest against the G8,* when a Reclaim the Streets protest flooded that intersection for nearly an hour. Of course, this time, our connection to most Americans was much more organic, as everyone from New York anarchists to Montana’s governor are raising big questions about this handover of government loans for junk securities.
What was strange, though, was to look so many Wall Street traders in the eyes. While many waded into the crowd to snap photos with their IPhones, others were visibly unnerved at the display of public opposition. And is the unfortunate nature of public protests we weren’t being the most articulate in our chants (see Tom Tomorrow from 1992 below), even if we were some times hillarious saying things like: “You break it, you bought it” and “You fucked up. Suck it up.” Above all, we needed to be loud and unequivocal in just the right physical space. Thankfully the media was the outlet for my desire to be articulate, and apparently for others desire if you listen to Democracy Now!
*Some of you may remember I worked on another more recent protest there, but I spent the morning working phones off-site.
SHUTDOWN: The Rise & Fall of Direct Action to Stop the War is an in-depth documentary exploration of a piece of the continuous struggle towards
social justice. Using the March 20, 2003 occupation and disruption of the San Francisco Financial District as a case study, the film casts a thoughtful eye on one of the most successful actions of the current anti-war movement, facilitated by Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW). Created to gain insight, inspire, and draw lessons the movie tells the story of how social justice organizers and everyday people came together to plan and shut down the financial district of a major US city.
Created by people directly involved with the organizing, SHUTDOWN utilizes on-the-street footage, news clips and interviews with 17 key participants. It is a people’s history made in support of the movement against war and
empire, aiming to galvanize resistance and further critical analysis in cities and towns throughout the country.
Join the film makers for a presentation & discussion on the future of mass direct action strategies to end the war.
**Upcoming East Coast Screenings**
Wednesday, July 09 7:00 PM
Bluestockings Booikstore, NYC
172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington
Thursday, July 10 7:00PM
St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, Rochester
402 South Ave.
Saturday, July 12 7:30PM
Wooden Shoe Bookstore, Philadelphia
508 s. 5th street
Monday, July 14 6:00 – 9:00 PM
For a promotional flyer, preview, and more
check out the website at www.shutdownthemovie.com.
For more info or questions please send an email to email@example.com
[Full disclosure: I'm one of the "17 key participants" interviewed in the film]
More background on the SF antiwar movement in 2003-04: From Piece Movement to Peace Movement: San Francisco Self-Organizes to Implode Empire by Patrick Reinsborough
In the big news, definitely the headline: ACI candidate Savina Cuellar defeats MAS candidate Walter Valda. The final vote: 51.5% to 41.2%, far closer than the initial margin that reached the early national and international press. As expected, Sucre went for her heavily (67,38% to 26,57%), but the mostly rural provinces backed Valda in a big way. Final details en español.
So on to the experiences of the day. First the “act of good government” made for a silent city for much of the day: no vehicles on the streets except for the occasional motorbike and those cars granted a permit by electoral officials. Certain Bolivian election norms are better than the American ones: a period of reflection with no advertising before the vote, free transport for elderly voters, and an election held on a day when no one has to work. And with no one having to work, all the shops and restaurants were closed, save a small few servicing visiting gringos (which means all folks from the global North in Bolivia) and internet cafes connecting the less resourced reporters with the ‘Net.
As early reports from the city’s ballot boxes came in, Savina’s supporters gathered in the main square and rallied. Some of their chants reflected the months before, notably “Sucre de pie, Evo de rodillas! [Sucre on the march, Evo on his knees!]” Others talked of becoming the national capital and winning autonomy for the department.
Chatting with MAS election observers (each party is entitled to a representative in each precinct), it’s clear there was a legitimate ACI victory, although it was clouded by extra “observers” for the ACI in some precincts who belong to confrontation groups (read, street fighters).
The story of May 24 remains untold in Sucre’s mainstream media despite at least two attempts to show Cesar Brie’s documentary on TV. Both were interrupted by covert means–once the cable
company switched off the local channel showing it, and the other time, (and no, I’m not making this up), unknown parties pushed eucalyptus trees into the power lines that feed local broadcast transmitters.
If in the atmosphere of Sucre I’ve felt very partisan in my descriptions of what’s going on, which is quite frighteningly hostile to open organizing by the MAS, the left, etc., my personal feelings there were in fact very liberal. In the older sense of the word. While I know that the different performance of the parties contending for government will make a big difference to many in the department, probably a difference of life or death to those who depend on public services (Cesar Brie told me that infant mortality has been halved in the past few years), I couldn’t stop focusing on the absence of the ability organize openly, to do things like open an office.
I’m trying to collate all my thoughts on/experiences of the election, its national significance, and some photos. So stay tuned.
[Saturday, June 28] Walther Valda, the candidate for prefect from Evo Morales’ party, the MAS (Movement towards Socialism), in Sunday’s election in the Department of Chuquisaca, has been forced to run a largely word-of-mouth campaign in the city of Sucre. No campaign headquarters can announce itself in the all the usual ways you might expect.
So, as candidate Valdas described in yesterday’s paper, the campaign has gone underground, rooted itself in word of mouth campaigning and going door-to-door. Walking around one sees wheatpasted posters and graffiti for both candidates, but only the ACI has flags flying from windows. Those flying flags of the MAS, I was told last night, have faced attacks on their property and their person. This is an election in which one side has to campaign clandestinely.
This is not just a matter of excess precaution, or a careful reaction to the one day of violence on May 24. In fact, each of the two days before that, horrible violence was visited on supporters of the MAS as
they respectively opened a campaign office and held a fundraiser at a prominent officials home. The election is being held in the first place because the former prefect, David Sanchez, survived having his home looted and burned, and fled to Peru. A leading member of the party was attacked downtown.
Things are entirely different, of course, outside the city, although there’s no sign of similar violence in the reverse direction. The ACI-supporting paper quoted thier candidate, Savina Cuellar, as complaining about an incident in which several drunken MAS supporters in an outlying town stole stacks of posters from an office and burned them in the streeet. The perpetrators turned themselves in.
I had a long talk with one Valda supporter, who radiated seriousness but also optimism. He views the urban support for the ACI as a matter primarily of misinformation, and had all the conviction of a canvasser that reaching people directly will sway the outcome.
Monday night, I went to the well known scholars group Comuna on their biweekly meeting/event in La Paz. Instead of the usual talk though, they were hosting a video screening of a new documentary (by Cesar Brie–his poorly translated take on the events) rushed to production on the events of late May in Sucre…
To take a step back, the rapid advance of a largely indigenous grassroots left in Bolivia has been met by a polarizing of the politics here. Region (the highland west/center vs. the lowland east “the Media Luna”), race (native vs. mestizo-white), and divisions that capture both (Kolla vs. Camba) have been key dividing lines that are suddenly more visible. This is in part a reaction to the biggest line crossing of all, the presence of an indigenous peasant union leader, Evo Morales, in the presidency, but it goes beyond that.
In the east, particularly Santa Cruz, the white opposition has cottoned on to a long-running aspiration to autonomy for the department (think state in the US or province in Canada; provinces here are smaller divisions). This separatism has a youth wing, whose focus goes beyond separation to attacking and intimidating indigenous leaders and offices of the MAS party in national government. This wing, often with broader collaboration from the white opposition parties, have been threatening and carrying violence to disrupt what might otherwise be run-of-the-mill state functions involving Morales. This has reached the point where the President has been avoiding certain cities because regional governments are not guaranteeing his security.
So, back to the video. On May 24 in Sucre, Evo was set to preside over the awarding of ambulances to each province across the department of Chuquisaca, whose capital is Sucre. Right-wing youth and the anti-Morales mayor’s Inter-insitutional Committee urged Evo not to come, and threatened a confrontation. With local leaders from the countryside already on their way in, Evo backed down from attending. The rightists turned on the indigenous leaders, attacking with sticks and rocks. Several dozen fled to a house on the outskirts of town, only to be surrounded there.
They were escorted forcibly from there to Sucre’s main square, where a spectacle of public humiliation unfolded over the afternoon. Stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, they had to endure insults, punches, and watch as their banners and the indigenous flag (or wiphala) was burned. The spectacle, captured by the mainstream media, continued for quite a long time.
In the judgment of the documentarian, the withdrawal of national police on the day happened because of a strategic decision to face and reveal what the rightists would do, rather than to confront them with force. If so, the price involved was paid by the indigenous leaders, whose pained after-the-fact interviews formed a key part of the documentary.
It was a hard film to watch, and left me in a pretty pensive mood Monday night. I had known that one in a series of racist outrages had happened in Sucre in May, and that the Women’s Summit would feature a public act dis-agression (desagravio) to repudiate it. But this was the first I had seen what was actually involved.
The whole situation strongly evokes what I’ve heard of the (US) Southern response to the Civil Rights Movement. How on front lawns, in jails, and with gunshots, the ugliest parts of a history of racism were revived to terrorize people organizing for equality.
As it happened, today’s desagravio was a complete success. Leaving from the ministadium where the summit is happening, a march of over 1,000 people traversed all over Sucre, including the plaza where local leaders were humiliated. As women filed through Sucre’s streets, wiphala and Bolivian flags in hand, shouting slogans for unity and against racism, scores of people came out in the streets: a few hostile but calmed by our numbers, and many visibly relieved and excited to have the march there–applauding as the march went past.
The act was a defiance of fear. For me, a little, and for the movement a great deal. It’s hoped that it can change the dynamic in the streets and in this department. The section I marched with had a frequent chant: “Viva la esperanza. Basta de racismo. [Long live hope. Enough of racism.]” For now, I just want to convey that it happened, and happened in peace and providing some inspiration.
[June 12] It snowed yesterday in El Alto. Not what I expected when I took the microbus (read: minivan with signs) up to the University there. Verdict: winter is real.
The event that the snow and bad directions made me miss was held again down here in La Paz around dinner time… A professor and a Vice-Minister of Justice talking about redefining policies of criminalization in a plurinational society. The first talk was very provocative–lots about how criminal law (and incarceration) are a last resort for resolving conflict, and we need to think first about the mechanisms creating for mediating conflict. Also, a question I’ve never heard asked before in such a forum: how do we solve the problem of those in prison always, under any type of government, consisting almost entirely of the poor.
There’s a lot of through-the-looking-glass style experiences of ideas you’d never expect to come out of an official’s mouth.
And then there’s the altitude (which has slowed me down, but hasn’t thrown me for a loop yet), the sudden lack of daylight hours, and being in a very different city. But I’m well, and housed for the next week or so here in La Paz (two floors above the crazily beautiful but excessively spacious place I looked at a couple days ago).
I’ll be in Bolivia for at least the next four weeks, and Ecuador after that. I’m flying to the Andes to get an up-close look at the very remarkable social changes that have been going down here since 2000. I’m feeling very curious and optimistic, and here’s a bit of why…
In January 2000, with many of us freshly back from the WTO protests in Seattle, we were still thinking in terms of cracks in a monolith of corporate-backed power. A “Washington Consensus” imposed policies on Latin America that would be unthinkable in the U.S.–rolling back guaranteed social services, accelerating the growing extraction of oil, gas and timber, privatizing resources like water, and assigning the costs largely to the poor. It was called structural adjustment, because it was negotiated to make the debts owed by the countries of the South payable, but with everyone selling off their country at lower and lower bids, it never even balanced the books.
Ecuador’s January 2000 national uprising was the first of many to topple a neoliberal government, even if only for a few days. It wouldn’t be the last time mass unarmed movements succeeded in doing so. A few months later, tens of thousands in Cochabamba, Bolivia occupied the center of their own town in the culmination of a months-long conflict with Aguas de Tunari (owned by San Francisco’s Bechtel), who had assumed private control over the cities water supplies and proceeded to double (or more) the bill. The privatization was reversed and the city’s water system is now a massive experiment in a community controlled utility.
Life in both countries has simply gotten a lot more interesting each year since. Stay tuned for the latest.