Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar

Following the 1967 wave of urban uprisings in Black communities, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” As part of the relatively small field of social science on rioting, it is best known for its alarming statement that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” a dire prospect for a country that had dismantled the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” just a dozen years before.

Less often quoted is the Commission’s in-depth study of the nature and process of rioting. Altogether, Malcolm McLaughlin records in a recent book (Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America), in the first nine months of 1967, “almost 170 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia had experienced an uprising of some sort, and almost 40 communities had more than one. Few corners of urban America were left untouched.” In its effort to document and understand the riots, Kerner Commission reached the following conclusions, many of which seem very descriptive of the past year’s flashpoints of unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland.

The “typical” riot did not take place. The disorders of 1967 were unusual, irregular, complex and unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they did not unfold in an orderly sequence. However, an analysis of our survey information leads to some conclusions about the riot process.

In general:

The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods—rather than against white persons.Read More »

Alan García: Mining opponents must be educated out of their “absurd, pantheist ideologies”

While outgoing Peruvian President Alan García’s government negotiated major concessions to Aymara and Quechua protesters who led a 50-day regional strike against polluting mines, he didn’t back down in his rhetoric attacking the value they place on the land. Here’s an English translation of a widely circulating video of García accusing mining opponents of being absurd, uneducated, and backward:

And thirdly, to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god. In the end, to return to such primitive forms of religiosity where one is told, “don’t touch this hill because it is an Apu and is filled with millennia-old spirit,” and who knows what else. Well, if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining. Don’t touch those fish because they are creatures of god and expressions of the god Poseidon. We would return to this, let’s say, primitive animism. Right? I think that we need more education [of these people], but that is long-term work that just can’t be fixed right away.

You can go to whatever place where the population in good faith and in accordance with their education says “No! Don’t touch this here which is our sanctuary,” and one asks of what is this sanctuary, right? If it’s a sanctuary for the environment, fine and good! If it’s a sanctuary because here are the souls of the ancestors, watch out! The souls of the ancestors are surely in paradise; they’re not here! And let them allow you who are alive today to feed yourself and have work through the investment in those hills.

Bolivia’s anti-racism law at the center of face-off with corporate press

Since August, one issue has generated more headlines here in Bolivia than any other: The Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which was debated and passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (aka, the parliament) in late September.

The remarkably short Law 045 is the Bolivian equivalent of more than a generation of civil rights law in the United States. It bans discrimination by public officials and private businessmen, criminalizes verbal and physical aggressions, charters educational efforts on discrimination, creates a national commission on issues of discrimination, and imposes sanctions on the media for circulating “racist ideas.” The scope of the law is broad, including discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, age, sexual orientation, disability, and pregnancy, among other statuses. A such, it is parallel to American laws from the 1948 integration of the Armed Forces to the 1965 Civil Rights Act to the yet-to-be-passed Employment Non-Discrimination.

So, it would not be shocking if wide range of controversies had emerged over the manifold implications of the law. But this has not occurred. One single controversy, however, has risen to national prominence.

Two articles of the proposed legislation, Articles 16 and 23, have been roundly criticized by the mainstream, privately-owned press. Article 16 makes publications subject to economic fines and even closure for circulating racist ideas. And Article 23 removes any special immunity for members of the press from prosecution under the law. The mainstream press has characterized the articles as the rebirth of a 1980s proposal for prior press censorship, known as the Ley de Mordaza (the Jaws Law, for its ability to crush the press). They led marches across the country as the law was being considered, and coordinated a nationwide protest by in which newspaper covers all read only: “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy.”

As an (US) American, of course, these provisions are shocking. Our Voltaire (“I detest what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it”)-to-American Civil Liberties Union tradition of free speech is, however, a globally extremely tolerant position. (I’ve written before about how our notion of the freedom of the press is, on the other hand, a highly restricted vision of public access to the media, essentially limited by press ownership.) Following the nightmares of World War II, the global human rights regime initiated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drew the line on free expression at racism and incitement to war, which it said should be prohibited. International conventions follow these lines by banning “racist incitement.” Germany bans Nazi parties, advocacy of and apology for genocide, and rallies by the racist right. Several other Latin American countries have restrictions on racist media which include prison terms, unlike the Bolivian law. Both the OAS president and the UN human rights representative who have visited in recent weeks have emphasized that the law is appropriate, although the line between racist incitement and free expression must be scrupulously drawn. They’ve also urged the private press to end their boycott of the rule-making process on the legislation.

Strangely, however, the American standard is irrelevant to the debate here. In three months, I have not heard or read a single defense of free *speech* as opposed to free *press* on these issues. No one is suggesting that criminalizing calling someone an “Indio de mierda” (“shitty Indian”) to their face is inappropriate. (Doing so in the United States would of course ignite a national firestorm over “thought police” and be overturned in short order by any competent Federal Court.) There has been a great deal of concern about whether the a TV station filming and disseminating that act would be liable to prosecution (the government regulations proposed on the issue now make it clear that such reporting of others’ speech will not be subject to sanction).

Aside from marches, the press and many media workers’ unions have used a one-day strike, hunger strikes in Santa Cruz, and an immense petition campaign to oppose the law, which sailed through the MAS-controlled parliament. On November 26, they submitted a sample selection of signatures to Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The press claims to have gathered one million signatures, although they are still being sent to a single place to be verified, and the eight books they handed over only come to some 32 thousand. Which brings us to the current impasse: while the new Constitution permits citizen initiatives as part Bolivian democracy, there is no enabling legislation yet to regulate the process. The press is depending on the moral weight of its gathered signatures (one million is a substantial portion of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants) to kickstart the initiative process. So far, the government seems resistant. And so, a policy controversy seems about to cross over to a crisis of democracy.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is not the only voice on this issue. During the debate, a book was published on racism by the press over the last century in Bolivia. This racism runs up through the media’s overt collaboration with (really, rallying for) attacks on indigenous protesters in Cochabamba in January 2007 and Sucre in 2006, 2007, and 2008. The cocalero movement has declared itself on alert in defense of the law, and marched here in Cochabamba. And a stream of “alternative media” which includes indigenous radio producers, radical working-class publications, and (strangely given the name) workers in the government-owned media, has taken a distinct position calling for professional standards and arguing that racism and free expression are fundamentally different. They’ve also used the anti-racism law as an opportunity to argue for systematic coverage of indigenous issues and use of indigenous languages in the media.

For me, this storyline is a fascinating instance of public debate in the process of rights-making, an opportunity to see the shape of the Bolivian legislating process (very little of which takes place inside the walls of the Legislative Assembly), and another turn in the kaleidoscope of political alliances here in Bolivia. It’s also forcing me to reconsider (although not yet change) my ideas of what free expression is. I’ve conducted some interesting brief interviews with the alternative press on this, and hope to delve more as the story develops.

Sucre’s political elite faces prosecution for May 2008 humiliations

The Bolivian government will be seeking to hold the political leadership of Sucre’s Inter-Institutional Committee responsible for the their role in coordinating the horrifying events of May 24, 2008. On Saturday, the Prosecutor’s Office issued its long anticipated indictments on the day of racist violence, street clashes, and public humiliation. Its conclusions were backed up by reports from the Defensoría del Pueblo and the Legislature’s Human Rights Commission. The allegations, which will serve as the basis for prosecutions of many members of Sucre’s right-wing political elite, ratify the assessment of responsibility put forward by Cesar Brie’s June 2008 documentary Humiliados y Ofendidos. [Background on this blog about that day and its aftermath: 1 | 2 | 3 ].

Peasants forced to kneel in Sucre
Captured peasants are forced to kneel by civic protesters in Sucre's central square. They were required to strip to the waist, hold the Chuquisaca flag, watch as the indigenous wiphala was burned, and shout political slogans as press cameras filmed.

The accused include:

  • Savina Cuéllar, Prefect of Chuquisaca from June 2008 to May 2010
  • Jaime Barrón Poveda, former rector of the Universidad San Francisco Xavier, and Mayor Elect of Sucre
  • Aydée Nava, former Mayor of Sucre.
  • Fidel Herrera, former council member of Sucre.
  • John Cava, expresident of the Comité Cívico and recent unsuccessful candidate for governor of Chuquisaca.
  • Epifania Terrazas, member of the the Constituent Assembly

The formal accusation will suspend Barrón from taking office as Mayor.

The MAS/State newspaper Cambio editorialized about the case on Monday under the headline “Racism out of time“:

The indignation of people who have arrived in the 21st century with the mentality of this new century will not accept racist acts like those that took place in the capital of the Plurinational State. … We are sure that the Prosecutor’s Office will fulfill its duty to put Bolivia back in tune with the times.

Cambio also noted the prominence of indigenous individuals among the actors on May 24:

Racism has been and is one of the practices upon which colonialism bases its power. Many times, like in Sucre in 2008, violent actions taken against the racil condition of its victims are carried out by those who share the victim’s blood, an old practice well known among the sepoys of English colonialism in India, the caporales, blacks who managed black slaves, and the so-called kapos, Jews who managed the Jews who would be killed in Hitler’s death camps. […]

What leads these people to act against their own origins? Perhaps, like the sepoys, caporales and kapos, to enjoy a rise in social and economic status, to be Mayor or Prefect, must imply a new social relationship with the representatives of the old regime that still has so much power in colonial cities like Sucre.

The enormously long lapse of time between the events and the beginning of prosecution is not atypical of the Bolivian justice system, especially in political cases. The trial of Leopoldo Fernández, former Prefect of Beni, for the Pando Massacre has yet to begin, and he is jailed awaiting trial (none of the Sucre defendants are currently jailed).  Women jailed at Cochabamba’s San Sebastián began a hunger strike picket against judicial delays on Saturday, according to a report in Tuesday’s La Prensa.

Full story available in Spanish from Los Tiempos.

“Eco” Opponents of Immigration Really Concerned about Brown People, Not Green Issues

Writing in the SF Chronicle (“The changing face of America poses risks”), Californians for Population Stabilization cites recent Census projections on US racial demographics to expose his, the group’s and allegedly white America’s fears about losing control of the country.

the increasingly rapid erosion of the white population in America raises the stakes considerably no matter who wins the White House. The question transcends what the occupant of the Oval Office looks like and becomes whether whites are ready for the accelerating changes that will result in an America that no longer looks like them, sounds like them or necessarily embraces their cultural tastes.

The author, Mark Cromer is a “senior writing fellow” for CPS, a group spun off from Zero Population Growth, and descended from the efforts to use the Sierra Club to oppose immigration to the United States on ecological grounds. Perhaps the Earth isn’t exactly their top priority. With current projections showing the U.S. will no longer have a non-Hispanic white majority in my generation’s lifetime, Cromer is focused on so-called stability of racial divides:

In just over 300 of [3100 U.S. counties], ethnic minorities are now the majority population. The effect has often been the real-world elimination of hard-won racial balances, with traditional working and middle-class black and white communities effectively disappearing. In many places throughout Southern California, the white flight that marked the efforts at integration in the 1960s and early 1970s struck again in the 1990s, turning into a middle-class Anglo exodus from the state in the face of massive immigration from Mexico, helping create the first minority-majority state in the union.

In essence, he’s saying those whites who agreed to “tolerate” a certain level of black faces are not okay with black and brown people together outnumbering. The result he predicts is this…

This demographic upheaval has spawned another phenomena among the white middle class that has become iconic: the gated community.

Knowing the white folks in my own family who fled for the far suburbs when their neighborhood became “too ethnic,” I’m hesitant to dismiss this explanation. Such frankness on the anti-brown-immigrant, pro-white-flight side is very rare. But when it comes to policymaking, Cromer is calling for a racial compromise that means racial planning of immigration policy:

to begin any new round of negotiation on immigration reform with an understanding that any effort to legalize the status of millions of illegal immigrants will be matched with a commensurate reduction in legal immigration into the United States, spread out over years. This would go far in ameliorating the pervasive sense among whites that America is being overrun.

Read that again. More legalization of brown people must be offset less legal immigration of brown people. The presence of people of color feels like “America” is “being overrun.” Of course not all people have this racist perspective, but important thing is to compromise between other values and racism:

Failure to seize the opportunity to build a real national consensus – one that can only be obtained through what surely will be a hard-fought compromise – is to risk further alienating a white majority that will ultimately insist on having its voice heard on these issues, one way or the other.

The question is: do racist fears deserve a seat at the table in planning our cities and policing our borders, or should we act beyond racism and let our neighbors be whoever moves into the houses and apartments next door? Fortunately the answers will come with the free decisions and political lives of my generation. I want to ask my white peers whether this represents you, your friends, or your cousins. I’m really curious, and will strive not to be judgmental:

it’s not the end result that most white Americans probably find troubling today, but rather the factors that are fueling those projections [of a white non-majority], namely unrestrained immigration and the increasingly bitter sense that they’ve had little to no say about this matter.

Oh, and if this doesn’t represent you, consider dropping a line to the writer at Mrcromer@aol.com.

Some English reporting on May 24…

A book on women in Bolivian social movements co-written by Alison Spedding, that I’ve been carrying with me for the last week or so incisively observed (in its opening literature review) that texts on the 2000 to 2003 period written by women tend to describe the specific impact of events on people involved, while those by men tended to assimilate events to their political argument. Unlike Cesar Brie’s documentary, these articles seem to follow the latter trend. Still, I wanted readers to have something other than my description to go by.

 

Wednesday: Anti-racism on the march, at least for a day, in Sucre

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.

Campesinas on the streets of Sucre

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.

Indigenous, Feminist and Campesina Women March through Sucre