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Thumbs Up at Falling Statues


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Statue of former U.S. president William McKinley (with thumb intact) in Arcata, California

Incidents of deadly racist violence in the United States — the neo-fascist demonstration in August in Charlottesville, Virginia and the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting of 2015, to name just a couple — have helped to raise public awareness and reignite public protests over the existence of Confederate statues, monuments and memorials throughout the American South that have long been despised symbols of the legacy of racism, slavery and the oppression of African-American citizens.

There are
more than 1,500 symbols of various sorts honoring Confederate leaders, soldiers or the Confederate States of America in general throughout the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a public-interest law firm that specializes in fighting civil rights cases and documenting the activities of hate groups in American society. Of those, more than 700 are Confederate statues and monuments on public property in mostly southern states.

And the public outrage over such symbols hasn’t stopped there.

Statues of Cristoforo Colombo (better known as Christopher Columbus), the Italian explorer who is mythologized in U.S. history books as having “discovered America” in the year 1492 AD, have also been under recent attack in cities such as
Buffalo, New York and Baltimore, Maryland.

In
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a statue erected in honor of the late Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner and mayor of the city long associated with racism and police brutality toward the city’s Black populace, has also become a target of public wrath. “Take the Rizzo statue down”, demands Helen Gym, a Korean-American member of Philadelphia’s city council.

And in the college town of Arcata, Humboldt County on the far northern coast of California, where I used to live, the hot issue has been whether to remove or to keep a statue of
William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, in the town’s square. Protesters over the years have cited his legacy as a right-wing, war-mongering leader in the late 1800s/early 1900s as standing in stark contrast to the town’s proudly liberal image and ideals of today.

Tasting Empire

Smack-dab in the center of this old timber-producing town of Arcata
[“ar KAY ta”] — now dominated by a public institution of higher learning, Humboldt State University, and its legions of mostly white, liberal students — stands a nine-foot-tall, bronze statue of McKinley (see photo above).

The statue watches over the Arcata Plaza, a public square around which some of the city’s leading businesses are located. The Plaza is the main meeting place for residents of the city, a place where yearly festivals, a weekly farmer’s market and the occasional anti-war demonstration bring people of the community together. Among the regular visitors to the Plaza to share in that feeling of community were my family and I in the early 2000s, when we lived for a short time in Arcata.

But that good feeling, for me and for others in the city, was often offset by the
existence of the statue of McKinley there in the Arcata Plaza — or to be more precise: the imperialist legacy of McKinley as a U.S. president.

A veteran of the American Civil War (he fought on the Union side of the North) and a lawyer by profession, McKinley served as Republican governor of the mid-western state of Ohio and as member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the late 1800s. He was elected the 25th president of the United States in 1896, with support from Big Business and the major news media companies.

President McKinley took the U.S. into the Spanish-American war in Cuba two years later in 1898, against Spain and on the side of the Cuban rebels, more for the future economic possibilities in Cuba than anything else. And for good measure, he ordered the invasion of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico as well. That same year, the United States “annexed” (read: stole outright) the Hawaiian Islands from the indigenous people, as a way to keep the land and its rich resources within U.S. corporate hands. The following year in 1899, McKinley started the Philippine-American war.

“The taste of empire was on the lips of [U.S.] politicians and business interests throughout the country now,” as the late historian Howard Zinn chronicled that period in his classic work
A People’s History of the United States. “Racism, paternalism, and talk of money mingled with talk of destiny and civilization.” By the time all the dust raised by McKinley had settled a few years later, the USA had become the de facto owner and occupier of all these nations and territories — politico-economic slavery by another name, but undeniably, slavery all the same.

Far from being universally respected as a great statesman, McKinley was despised in some parts of the world at the time as a bloodthirsty Yankee capitalist who represented America’s elite robber-baron class. In 1901, six months into McKinley’s second term as U.S. president, he was shot to death in Buffalo, New York by a Polish immigrant anarchist, a steelworker, who claimed that McKinley was “the enemy of the good people — the good working people”.

And here’s where the statue on the Plaza comes in: Following McKinley’s assassination, a local businessman in Arcata commissioned the creation of a statue of the late U.S. president by Haig Patigian, an Armenian immigrant artist in San Francisco, in honor of McKinley. The statue was shipped up to the North Coast and erected on the Arcata Plaza on Independence Day, 4 July 1906.

It is safe to say that the McKinley statue at the Arcata Plaza hasn’t seen much peace during the past 111 years that it has been standing there. The statue has been the victim of spray-painted graffiti, assorted costume and wardrobe changes by pranksters, and defilements of many sorts — some politically motivated, others motivated by
less lofty aims like partying until you drop.

The Great Missing Thumb Caper

But no disrespect of the McKinley statue seemed to raise the ire of the local populace more than that memorable day in May 2003 when an unknown person vandalized the statue by sawing off, then stealing, the bronze thumb on McKinley’s extended right hand, and disappearing into the night with the metal prize in pocket.

Members of the local white liberal establishment of Arcata, as I recall, nearly lost their minds over this. Never mind that Arcata was generating national and international headlines at that very moment for being the first city in the USA to legally
refuse to cooperate with the administration of then-president George W. Bush in carrying out the USA Patriot Act and its various invasions into U.S. citizens’ rights.

Arcata was also pushing to vote for Bush to be impeached as president. I attended one of those heated town hall meetings in which the impeachment of Bush was on the public agenda. It was a great time to be living in Arcata, and to see all the attention that the city was generating for its opposition to Bush and his newly declared “war on terrorism”. Arcata was not the place I was born or raised, but at that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder of the progressive people of that town where we were living.

On the other hand, for many white liberals of Arcata at that critical moment, the bigger issue seemed to be finding the perpetrator of that heinous crime of stealing the McKinley statue’s thumb and getting the thumb back once and for all to its rightful owner. And no local liberal figure stood out more on that score than Mayor Bob.

That was Bob Ornelas, mayor of Arcata at the time — the first mayor of the Green Party to serve in public office in California and a
real progressive pioneer in that sense. A self-described “Humboldt Hippie”, Ornelas owned a local beer micro-brewery at the time. It was not uncommon back then to see Mayor Bob out and about the town on his official duties, easily identifiable by an overgrown, cheesy-looking mustache, by his long pony-tailed hair, and his choice of very casual clothing and sandals during official working hours at Arcata City Hall.

As mayor of the city, he was mighty upset at what the unknown vandal had done to McKinley’s thumb on the Arcata Plaza. Mayor Bob offered a reward of $500 of his own money, right out of his pocket, for the return of the missing digit. “I just think it was a stupid, selfish, unjustifiable act,” Mayor Bob told the local press. “It’s public property. I don’t care if you don’t think it was art. Get drunk and pierce your nose, but leave McKinley’s statue alone.”

I ran the whole controversy through my mind at that time and kept coming to the same conclusion:
What’s wrong with this picture? The contradictions abounded: Mayor Bob = Green Party, hippie, progressive, left wing — very good. William McKinley = Republican, imperialist, extreme capitalist, right wing — very bad. Green Party progressive mayor fights for arch-conservative Republican harder than Republicans (or Democrats) fight for him themselves. Reward offered by living Green Party mayor so as to save the legacy of long-dead Republican U.S. president. What, indeed, was wrong with this picture?

Well, about a month later, Mayor Bob got his wish: The whereabouts of the McKinley statue thumb were soon determined, the perpetrator voluntarily turned in the stolen thumb to the local police, a welder in the community surgically reattached McKinley’s severed thumb to its hand, and the mayor’s $500 reward was given to an honest local citizen for helping to solve the great caper.

Mayor Bob even got his picture taken by the local newspaper at the police station with the recovered McKinley thumb, a smile spreading across his face as he flashed a victorious thumb’s-up gesture to the camera. As a parting shot, he reminded the public that Arcata had succeeded where even the U.S. government under Bush had failed. “They couldn’t find [Osama] bin Laden; they couldn’t find weapons of mass destruction,” Mayor Bob told the local press. But: “We found McKinley’s thumb.”

And with that, everyone lived peacefully ever after.

Descendants of War

Or so they thought. Bush’s “war on terrorism” from 2001 onward, a direct descendant of McKinley’s imperialist wars of the late 1800s/early 1900s, became Obama’s war and now becomes Trump’s war. Thousands, possibly millions, of innocent people overseas have died in this so-called war, and countless more have become refugees in their own lands. The tragedy goes on. We need to remember that the real significance of McKinley’s legacy as president lies in his role in the empire-building of the USA at an important moment in history: The geopolitical realities that McKinley helped to define through warfare, conquest, and economic domination and exploitation are still very much with us today on the maps of the world and in the news.

In 2005, some local people in Arcata, citing that imperialist legacy of McKinley, got together
a petition to remove the statue, though apparently, nothing ever came of it.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the current city government of Arcata under Mayor Ornelas — no, not ol’ Mayor Bob of Green Party fame, but his wife, Mayor Susan Ornelas, a Democrat — is resisting the removal of the McKinley statue from the city’s downtown plaza as being too expensive an undertaking. They have a point there. And besides, the local argument goes, the statue has become an important part of local tradition. But what “tradition” is that? William McKinley never had anything to do with the city of Arcata in his lifetime, as far as we know. And if the U.S. government can remove McKinley’s name from the highest peak in North America (formerly known as Mount McKinley in Alaska) —
as U.S. president Obama did in 2015 — then surely the liberal city of Arcata could do the same with a statue that most folks don’t seem to care about anyway.

Some people in Arcata, such as local newspaper editor Kevin Hoover, are proposing a
public vote to decide once and for all to resolve the question: Does the William McKinley statue stay where it is, or does it go? “The solution is simple: put the statue removal to a vote of the people via the initiative process,” Hoover told me recently in an interview with LifeTimes. “That way, we’d have a vivid public conversation, we’d possibly clarify the historical claims, and an incontestable decision that represents the will of the people could be made. In fact, I’m guessing that that’s the only way it will ever happen.”

I would have to agree. That kind of referendum seems to be a reasonable solution. It would work in cities like Arcata, California or
New Orleans, Louisiana that are open to change.

But then again, in other locales around the United States where the institution of slavery was once firmly entrenched and where the white power structure would still not go for such a “reasonable” resolution today, would people then be justified in bringing the Confederate monuments to the ground, as
they have done in some places?

At press time, the protests show no signs of slowing down or running out of steam, at least not yet: Some residents of Memphis, Tennessee — the city where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 — are
demanding the removal of a statue honoring the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). New York has recently seen the “beheading” of a statue of Christopher Columbus. And in California, the city council of Los Angeles, a major American metropolis, has voted to remove Columbus Day from the official city calendar and replace it with Indigenous People’s Day.

My final vote in all of this controversy? In the true non-spirit of ol’ Mayor Bob of Arcata, I give
two thumbs down for all the statues and memorials left standing, in the South and elsewhere across the USA, that glorify white supremacy and manifest destiny, and are still being allowed to serve as public symbols of a truly shameful past. As the law of moral gravity dictates, what goes up insensitively and without thought for the past or the future is eventually bound to come down. The sooner, the better.

And on the other side:
Two thumbs up by me at the sight of all the falling statues across the USA and to all the genuinely concerned citizens who refuse to let this issue rest until more people in society have been informed, woken up and made to directly face the ugly parts of America The Beautiful’s reflection in the mirror of history. There is still much work to be done, and we all need to be part of that public discussion and historical debate in the months and years to come.

Remembering Judi Bari


judi_bari


Most people in the United States and around the world, it is fair to say, have probably never heard of Judi Bari — or if they have, they may just barely recall a news story about some crazy domestic American eco-terrorists blowing themselves up in a car.

But if such people had ever spent any time on the far northern coast of California in the U.S., they would need no introduction or explanation as to who Bari was. They would already know.

A few weeks ago, March 2, marked exactly 20 years since the death of Judi Bari. In the era of Trump and the elite one-percenters who now occupy the White House and seem intent on reducing Planet Earth to a pile of rubble, Bari’s life and legacy as an environmental activist, feminist and advocate for working people still have much to teach us today — both the rewards and risks of standing up to the forces of authority in the USA.

From the 1980s onward, Bari was active in protecting the old-growth, ancient redwood forests of primarily Mendocino and Humboldt counties on California’s North Coast from being destroyed by logging companies. These are lush rainforests with gigantic redwood trees that date up to centuries old, and are every bit as important to the ecological balance of the planet as the Amazon rainforests of South America.

A radical environmental group by the name of
Earth First! was Bari’s home base as an activist. The group’s slogan was “No Compromise in the Defense of Mother Earth” and it rejected the milder protest tactics of other liberal-run, mainstream environmental organizations. Local branches of Earth First! sprang up around the western United States, with one central goal: putting a stop to the human destruction of nature by any means necessary.

What Bari brought to Earth First! was women’s voices and active participation in what was up to then a mostly White male-dominated hierarchy. Bari also insisted that some of the more dangerous practices of Earth First!, such as tree-spiking (driving long metal spikes into redwood trees as a deterrent to the loggers’ chainsaws) be stopped. She promoted a code of nonviolent protest and demonstration as a means to ending the cycle of human violence that was destroying the ancient forests in the first place.

Bari, by all accounts, was a dynamic speaker and effective grassroots organizer and could move large groups of people to follow her. She was a carpenter by trade, a labor union member, feminist, a single mother of two children, and a musician who sang and played a mean violin at the forest-protection rallies that she helped organize. She often used humor as a political weapon, but pulled no punches when it came to vilifying the logging companies that were razing the redwood forests and leaving such complex ecosystems in ruins.

If you have ever seen, like I have, a California redwood forest that has been clear-cut by a logging company — that is, completely leveled to the ground — you would never forget it. All that remains of a clear-cut forest are huge, flattened redwood tree stumps, and shredded tree bark and sawdust scattered everywhere on the ground. There are no wild animals to be found and no birds flying anywhere nearby. It is completely silent, the sound of death in nature. The silent air reeks of the smell of grease and oil, lingering long after the chainsaws and logging trucks have gone.

Timber wars

In summer 1990, Bari and other activists organized a protest campaign called “Redwood Summer” that would significantly raise the stakes in what were being called the “timber wars” of northern California and other western U.S. states.

Bari got the name and inspiration for “Redwood Summer” from
“Freedom Summer”, a 1964 mass-volunteer effort organized by African American civil rights groups in Mississippi to help get Black citizens registered to vote amid White racist violence. Just as Freedom Summer had done in defense of Black civil rights, Redwood Summer, under Bari and fellow organizers, sent out a call for concerned people across the country to come out to California in large numbers and join them in nonviolent resistance to the help save the last of the redwood forests — and to add an extra layer of protection from White redneck violence against environmental activists.

It was on 24 May 1990, in the city of Oakland, California, when the violence surrounding the timber wars of northern California came to a head. As Bari was driving with her partner, Darryl Cherney, a fellow Earth First! activist, to a local gig in support of Redwood Summer, a bomb exploded in her car and severely injured them both.

The Oakland police as well as agents from the local FBI office were at the scene of the car bombing within minutes, and at the hospital, they informed the wounded Bari and Cherney that they were under arrest and being charged with knowingly transporting a homemade bomb in the car. They were being treated as eco-terrorists, and that was how the American news media played up the story at the time. Bari and Cherney, on the other hand, strongly believed that the car bombing was the work of the timber companies in an effort to stop the Redwood Summer campaign from going forward as planned.

A couple months later, the FBI and Oakland police dropped all charges against the two activists due to lack of evidence. Yet Bari and her partner were still publicly tainted with that “eco-terrorist” image, despite their innocence. In 1991 she and Cherney
filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police, citing false arrest and a violation of their civil rights. The FBI, in the meantime, was making little effort to find out the true identity of the bomber(s) of the two environmental activists.

The reason for the FBI’s lack of interest in this car bombing on American soil in broad daylight soon became apparent. It was found during the trial process that the
FBI had organized a “bomb school” just a month before the actual car bombing of Bari happened. The bomb school was organized by an FBI agent, Frank Doyle, and offered as a community college course at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California in Humboldt County, an area that was ground zero of the timber wars in the region at the time. Among the students attending the FBI bomb school classes were officers with the Oakland police department. The bomb school site was located on land that had already been clear-cut by the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, one of the major timber companies in northern California.

And what did they do at this FBI bomb school? They practiced blowing up a car and then responding to the crime scene. What kind of car was it? A Subaru — the exact same make and model of car that Judi Bari had been driving at the time. And a few weeks later, when a bomb exploded in Bari’s car in Oakland, who showed up at the actual crime scene within minutes? You guessed it: The FBI’s bomb school instructor, Frank Doyle, and some of his earlier bomb school “students” with the Oakland police department. So, it appeared that the FBI was linked somehow to the car bombing itself; no wonder the agency was in no great hurry to investigate the crime.

In any case, Bari always considered the car bombing to be what she called an “assassination attempt”. This was no mere warning to some loudmouthed environmentalist to get her to shut up. She was not meant to survive the bombing; she was meant to be eliminated from the scene altogether.

Bari miraculously recovered from her severe wounds, but the deep bodily injuries she sustained in the bomb blast took their toll. A few years later, she was diagnosed with cancer.
She died in her cabin in rural Mendocino County, California, on 2 March 1997, two decades ago this month.

Among those who spoke at Bari’s memorial service and gave moving tributes to her work on behalf of the redwood forests — and the deeper spiritual meaning behind the struggle — was
John Trudell, a Native American activist who had had his own experiences with persecution by the FBI.

Bari had wanted the federal lawsuit against the FBI and Oakland police to continue even after her passing, and it was indeed carried on. In 2002, Bari, in death, got the last word. The
court verdict in her lawsuit came out favorably, and the FBI was ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. My family and I were living temporarily on the North Coast of California at that time (in Arcata), and I can still remember how excited local people were to hear the news about the late Bari’s legal victory against the FBI and how widely the local press covered the story.

Dangerous times

Looking back now, 20 years after Judi Bari’s death, we can only ask: What made her a target of the timber companies and the FBI? How could she have been considered such a threat to the status quo that she needed to be “neutralized”?

There are a few reasons. As mentioned earlier, she was an effective organizer and could move large groups of people toward a common goal. But Bari not only organized White environmental activist tree-huggers. She also worked actively to bring the timber employees and the forest protectors together. She understood that the same big American timber corporations that were screwing their own logging employees with low wages and little job security were, in fact, the same corporate criminals that were raping the land and robbing the Earth of precious natural resources for the future.

She recognized that the fight of the environmental activists and the logging company workers were one and the same. She tried to get the two sides talking to each other and even supporting each other. To some degree, she succeeded in that — which must have scared the hell out of the corporate powers-that-be in America. That alone would have been reason enough to want to eliminate her.

But there is another reason that is seldom talked about, which I think is deserving of mention here: Bari, as a White activist, took up the causes of people of color in the United States and followed in their footsteps. It is one thing for Whites to make a lot of noise amongst themselves about saving nature. But it’s quite another thing to have such Whites crossing U.S. society’s racial barriers and standing in solidarity, as Judi did, with the Black civil rights struggle and with radicals of color such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement (AIM), all of which had been targets of FBI spying, harassment and/or political assassination in the past under its
Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

Bari was an activist who knew her American history well, but even she seemed to have underestimated the lengths to which the FBI and other such government agencies, in support of powerful U.S. corporate interests, would go to bring the hammer down on Whites who dared to reach out and stand together with people of color in their own struggles. But it’s a reality that many today understand much more clearly, in the wake of Judi’s life and death.

And the car bombing of 1990 that went on to claim her life? The identity of the person(s) who planted the bomb under the driver’s seat in Bari’s car that day has never been found, though the
search for truth in the case goes on. The question remains unanswered: Who bombed Judi Bari? A recently released documentary film asks that very question; this important movie can now be viewed in its entirety on the Web.

So, here we are in 2017, two decades after Judi has been gone, with a corporate CEO by the name of Trump and his cronies sitting comfortably in the White House. The state of the planet’s ecological balance has reached a critical level, and people of color across the board are being targeted more than ever before. U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights have been steadily eroding and law enforcement agencies, armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry, often seem out of control. Things look much worse today than when Judi was alive.

Yet if the situation looks increasingly dire, it is also true that we have more choices as well in how we can deal with it. We can do what Bari did — strategize and organize across barriers of gender, race, occupation — and work to unite people instead of dividing them. We can stand up and speak out in ever greater numbers, find common (sacred) ground with each other, and move together toward a common goal. We can keep our eyes open to the rising risks involved, but also to the many long-term rewards in overcoming dangerous or even deadly obstacles.

We can
remember Judi Bari.

A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 1)


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Coming out against the Vietnam war: Martin Luther King Jr.
at Riverside Church, New York City, 4 April 1967


Today, 16 January, the people of the United States of America will recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday. And just as they have for most of the 31 years that the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a nationally observed holiday, the American news media will basically get the story wrong.

Every year around this time, the storyline of the U.S. press goes
something like this:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: brief excerpts of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: brief excerpts of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more brief scenes of police violence against Black marchers]. And finally, in 1968 King was killed by the single bullet of a lone, crazed assassin, ending King’s dream forever [cue up: brief scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

That’s how the American media version of Dr. King’s life has gone for most of the past 49 years since his death: with the sad tale of a nonviolent, naïve dreamer who stood up for the rights of his people but who died never having achieved his dream of racial harmony between black children and white children. Martin Luther King Jr. — the harmless, hopeless dreamer.

But King’s own actions during the last full year of his life tell us a much different story, one that the U.S. press establishment has never been comfortable with reporting in detail, in part because the press played a direct role in knocking King down at the time. Here are parts of the U.S. media’s yearly storyline on Martin Luther King Jr. and the national holiday in his name that have been all but erased from history and public memory:

• Vietnam war awakening — Rev. King, by his own account and that of others who knew him, was shown the January 1967 edition of Ramparts, a leftist political/literary magazine based in San Francisco, California, just after the magazine had come out. That issue of Ramparts featured a lengthy article by U.S. educator and activist William Pepper titled “The Children of Vietnam”, based on evidence he gathered during a trip to Vietnam. The report by Pepper featured shocking photos of innocent Vietnamese children who had been maimed or severely burned by napalm (jellied gasoline) used by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Rev. King would later say that once he saw on those pages of Ramparts the truth of what his own government was doing to innocent civilians in Vietnam, he knew he could never remain silent about the Vietnam war again, as he had been in the past.

• Coming out against war — From the pulpit of the interdenominational Riverside Church in downtown New York City (a church financed and built decades earlier by the wealthy Rockefeller family), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives one of the most important speeches of his life — if not the most important one. In “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, co-written with historian Vincent Harding, King speaks for about an hour and announces for the first time his opposition to the U.S. war of aggression on the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos [of America] without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those [Black] boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent,” King declares.

King points out the cruel irony of young African American men being drafted in disproportionately high numbers to fight side by side with young white American men in Vietnam, burning down the villages of Vietnamese peasants together, while back at home in the USA those same young men of different races might not even be able to attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods.

The U.S. war on the people of Vietnam was a symptom of something deeper and more sinister, King says, than just a matter of simply fighting against communism abroad: The real enemy is capitalism at home in the USA, which had turned the nation into a “thing-oriented society”. King points out how the USA is increasingly on the wrong side of struggles for freedom around the world, and that it is time to look beyond the U.S. war in Vietnam to the real causes of war, poverty and racism. He calls for a “true revolution of values” in the USA, and quoting the Christian bible, urges America to support such a revolution: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’. We in the West must support these revolutions.”

King encourages young people in the USA to refuse to fight in the Vietnam war by becoming conscientious objectors. King is instantly welcomed into the broad anti-war movement in the USA, but is immediately ostracized and isolated among those, both Black and white, who think the “civil rights” struggle should be kept separate from the anti-Vietnam war movement. King’s direct access to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who had worked with Black leaders for civil rights in the past and who also dramatically escalated the U.S. war on Vietnam, is now gone forever.

King chose the language of nonviolent revolution, strong and clear, to make his case for coming out against the war. The date of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was 4 April 1967 — a date that would figure significantly in his remaining life.

• Condemned by the press — The influential U.S. news media establishment reacted swiftly and strongly against King following his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post publishes an editorial that ends on a merciless note with these words: “Dr. King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies in a great struggle to remove ancient abuses from our public life; and he has done an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy” {*1}.

The New York Times publishes an editorial, titled “Dr. King’s Error”, in which it chastises King for trying to link together the fight for civil rights of Black people at home in the USA with the anti-war movement spreading across the nation, which the Times called “two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” {*2}. A comparison by King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech between the USA and Nazi Germany draws a swift rebuke from America’s newspaper of record: “…Dr. King can only antagonize public opinion in this country by recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis testing ‘new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe’. The facts are harsh, but they do not justify such slander.”

In severely criticizing King and his new anti-war stance, the big American media companies were essentially trying to put King in his place and strip him of his credibility among the public. But one thing that the
Washington Post and New York Times never bothered to tell the public at the time back in 1967 is that these two newspapers (and several other U.S. major news media outlets as well) had been maintaining close ties at the highest levels of their news companies to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the most powerful spy agency within the U.S. government, as this writer and others have documented {*3}. Such news organizations were far from being objective, neutral sources of reporting on King and his activities.

• Challenging press hypocrisy — A few weeks later, on 30 April 1967, Rev. King reconfirms his stance against the Vietnam war during a Sunday sermon that he preaches at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (text link here), King reiterates much of his earlier speech at the Riverside Church in New York, but with an important addition: He takes the American press to task for its hypocrisy in the way that news media companies reported on him both before and after he came out against the Vietnam war:

“There’s been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They’ve applauded our total movement and they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery [Alabama in 1956], when I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, ‘We can’t do it this way’. They applauded us in the sit-in movement when we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor’, when I was saying ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’ [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff]. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark’, but will curse and damn you when you say ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children’. There’s something wrong with that press!”
[applause]

“Three Evils” speech — Rev. King is the keynote speaker of a political gathering he helped organize in Chicago on 31 August and 1 September 1967 by the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP), a group of prominent intellectuals and activists on the political left who wanted to directly challenge the pro-war policies of both the Republican and Democratic parties. In this memorable but long-forgotten speech, King attacks what he calls the “three evils” of contemporary American society: racism, militarism and excessive materialism (speech transcript here). King, in putting his support behind the NCNP, saw much potential common ground to be tapped between the civil rights movement, with its focus on Black equality, and the broad anti-war movement of mostly white young people.

The NCNP conference this Labor Day weekend includes laying the groundwork for fielding an independent presidential candidate in the upcoming 1968 election. The presidential candidate nominated at the NCNP conference? Martin Luther King Jr. himself, with pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock nominated as King’s vice presidential running mate. (This first annual meeting of the NCNP turned out to be its last, due to the presence of
agents provocateurs and U.S. government infiltrators in the audience who managed to sabotage the group’s activities.)

• Poor people’s campaign — Rev. King ends the year 1967 by announcing on 4 December his next big campaign: taking the model of local marches against poverty in the U.S. South to the major cities of the North, and expanding them greatly in scale. The first target of this massive Poor People’s March: Washington DC, in spring of the coming year, to be followed by a series of major marches on other big northern U.S. cities as well.

“This will be no mere one-day march in Washington,” King says, but rather “a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” People will flood into Washington DC in their thousands, pitch tents, and lay claim to the financial resources and governmental policy priorities that are rightfully theirs as U.S. citizens, he states: “We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds”
{*4}.

King says this new anti-poverty campaign will involve a base of about 3,000 African American volunteers, and other volunteers across the racial spectrum, from at least 10 major northern U.S. cities, and grow from there. The human resources and networks of the anti-war/peace movement in the U.S. will be used to help carry out the poor people’s campaign at the grassroots level, he said, and all participants in the Poor People’s March are to be trained in nonviolent tactics of resistance. King emphasizes that this sustained, nonviolent campaign against poverty and war in the United States is a preferred alternative to the violent, destructive riots that are sure to engulf U.S. cities in the near future.

• Olympic boycott — Ten days later, on 14 December 1967, Rev. King enters a raging controversy in international sports when he announces his public support for Black American athletes who are threatening to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City the following year, refusing to playing as part of the U.S. team. This Olympic boycott, King says, is “a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice” toward Black athletes and other athletes who were being discriminated against {*5}.

(continued in part 2)

A New Media Storyline for MLK (pt. 2)


Cartoon_Shreveport Times_1967
Editorial cartoon, Shreveport Times
(Shreveport, LA), 13 Dec. 1967


(continued from part 1)


• 1968 — The new year of 1968 begins on a turbulent note with a severe routing of U.S. forces in South Vietnam as part of the successful “Tet offensive” of the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters, exposing the lies of U.S. military commanders and President Johnson himself that the USA was winning the war in Vietnam. U.S. public opinion against the war rises steadily from this point onward. Rev. King, at this critical time, stands at the forefront of the nation’s anti-war movement. And, as the above editorial cartoon shows, King is being increasingly viewed by white America as a rabble-rouser and a "troublemaker" who needed to be dealt with; U.S. government agencies such as the FBI are treating King as public enemy No. 1.

• Shanty towns in Washington — Rev. King announces on 2 February 1968 that the ongoing plans for the kickoff of the massive Poor People’s March in Washington DC, scheduled for a few months later in April, are basically to occupy Washington. This will include the erecting of makeshift shantytowns by thousands of poor people in the nation’s capital as a symbol of the USA’s deep poverty problems. In doing so, he says, the poor people of America hope to provoke some drastic policy changes from the U.S. Congress and also appeal to the conscience of the nation.

King says that poor children joining the march, who are in dire need of medical treatment, will occupy the hospitals of Washington DC until they get treated, while other demonstrators will take their protest directly to their members of Congress, and still others will “descend upon government offices in waves”. King is seeking a reaction from the U.S. government: “We plan on staying [in Washington DC] until we get a response. If a response is not coming, we will escalate our methods. Disruptive measures will be used only as a last resort”
{*6}.

A few days later, on 8 February, Rev. King gives the U.S. government a price tag of at least $10 billion as the amount the government needs to urgently set aside in its fiscal budget to meet the job and income needs of the thousands of African Americans who will be joining the Poor People’s March in Washington DC a few months later. At a time when the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on a losing war in Vietnam, King says, allocating $10 billion for the needs of poor Black people at home in the USA should not be hard to do
{*7}.

• “Unfulfilled Dreams” speech — On 3 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday sermon in Atlanta, Georgia at his home church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, on the theme of “Unfulfilled Dreams”. Speaking mostly in Biblical terms, King delivers a personal reflection and confession of sorts on his successes and failures. King was a man who always chose his words carefully, and the deeper meaning behind his words are hard to miss: Long gone are his optimistic “I Have a Dream” sentiments of racial harmony from five years before at the big March on Washington. That dream had not been fulfilled; the reality of racist violence and social upheaval still confronted his country. King speaks powerfully and prophetically to his congregation this morning, almost as if sensing he does not have much time left.

• Peace efforts in Africa — A few days later, it is confirmed that Rev. King will be joining a delegation of four other well-known African American leaders on a peacemaking mission to the African nation of Nigeria starting 15 April {*8}. The purpose of the mission is to help mediate between the two sides in the country’s civil war, which had begun the year before: the heavy-handed military government of Nigeria on one side, versus the Biafra region of the country that had seceded and declared itself an independent state on the other side. The underlying cause of the civil war was the supply of oil in the region. Millions of civilians in the Biafra region were reported to be starving to death due to a blockade by the Nigerian government, and relief efforts for Biafra were springing up all over the world.

While the U.S. government claims to be neutral in the conflict and thus offers no help to the millions of starving Nigerians, the U.S. is giving military assistance to the Nigerian government. American companies are heavily invested in the oil-rich region as well. By going to Nigeria as a peace broker, Martin Luther King Jr. is standing in direct contradiction to U.S. government policy in the Biafran war. But, it is reported, King will be back in the United States in time for the start of his massive Poor People’s March on Washington DC, which is moving ahead as scheduled for 22 April 1968.

• National Cathedral address — At the end of that month, on 31 March 1968, Rev. King preaches a Sunday morning sermon to an overflowing crowd of hundreds at the prestigious Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC, titling his talk “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. He had given variations of this same sermon several times in the past, but this day it takes on a whole new meaning: His planned Poor People’s March on Washington DC is now just a few weeks away, and there is indeed a sense of revolution in the air.

King had evolved and come full circle since his “I Have a Dream” speech in this same city just five years before at the big March on Washington. This time, at the National Cathedral, he uses the metaphor of “being awake” as a sort of counterpoint to the dreaming of the past. Delivering this sermon was a masterful orator at work, crystalizing everything he had worked for up to this point. His eyes are wide open now to what he calls the “difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace”. But, he says, “I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

In a press conference following his sermon, King confirms that the Poor People’s March will begin in Washington DC on 22 April as planned, followed later in the week by 3,000 to 4,000 selected demonstrators who will build shantytowns at a site within the city, symbolizing the need for the government to deal with poverty. That, in turn, will be followed by a much larger demonstration of hundreds of thousands of people coming to Washington DC on 15 June.

If that does not get any meaningful results from the U.S. government, King hints, then the Democratic Party’s upcoming 1968 election convention later that summer in Chicago might also be targeted for nonviolent protests — the Democrats “will have a real awakening”, he says — along with the Republican Party’s planned convention in Miami Beach, Florida
{*9}. King is turning up the heat as high as it could go on the political powers that be in America.

That heat was no doubt felt all the way across town at the White House, where, that very same evening of 31 March, President Lyndon Johnson announces in a televised address to the nation that he will not be running for re-election in the next presidential campaign. Johnson is a defeated president by then, having gone up against public opinion in escalating the war and losing that public support in the process. And it surely did not help Johnson to have Martin Luther King Jr. publicly opposing him and his policies, both domestic and foreign. King’s address at the National Cathedral that Sunday morning would be the last major speech of his life.

• Assassination — Rev. King’s planned trip to Africa as a diplomat for peace at the international level never took place. King is killed by the single bullet of an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. That date is significant: It was exactly one year to the day since King had first come out against the Vietnam war in his speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.

The Poor People’s March on Washington went ahead in the wake of King’s killing that spring, however, with a few thousand volunteers setting up a tent camp called “Resurrection City”. A few months later, the police forcibly removed the volunteers and cleared the area. Without King to lead it, the poor people’s campaign all but withered and dried up, receiving few if any meaningful concessions from the U.S. government in addressing the problem of poverty throughout the nation. The American war in Vietnam would go on for another five years or so.

• “Lone crazed assassin” theory — Part of the U.S. news media storyline every year in commemorating the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the tale of James Earl Ray, a petty criminal who had been in and out of jail, as the man who relentlessly stalks Rev. King during his final days out of racial animosity and finally catches up with him that day in Memphis when King steps out of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel and Ray shoots him to death.

But there is one big problem with the U.S. media’s reporting on James Ray as the killer of Rev. King: It never actually happened. The lone, crazed assassin theory is merely that — an official theory, and not a well-constructed one at that, as to how King was assassinated. The true facts of the killing of King, which have come out in bits and pieces in the decades since his death, provide us with a much different and more disturbing conclusion.

Ray fought for years from inside of prison, with the strong support of the surviving family members of Martin Luther King Jr. and some of King’s closest associates, to clear his own name in the notorious murder, and in demanding the public trial he had been denied from the beginning
{*10}.

Ray, the accused assassin, at one point retained as his attorney William Pepper, a former friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr. It was Pepper, remember, who had published the shocking report for
Ramparts magazine back in 1967, “The Children of Vietnam”, that had been shown to King, eventually leading King to come out against the war in Vietnam in the first place.

Nobody has done more than attorney William Pepper, in fact, in establishing the closest thing to the truth regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper has published several books over the years on the King assassination
{*11}. In his research and investigation for those books, Pepper presents chilling evidence of King being under military surveillance and followed in his final weeks by a U.S. army special forces sniper team — right up to the moment King was killed.

And it was Pepper, as an attorney for the King family, who helped bring to trial the only court case ever held in relation to the death of Rev. King. In that case,
Coretta Scott King, et al, vs. Loyd Jowers, et al, the jury decided on 8 December 1999 that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed on 4 April 1968 as a result of a conspiracy that involved Loyd Jowers, a local Memphis restaurant owner, and also a conspiracy involving U.S. “governmental agencies”.

And the actual shooter of Martin Luther King Jr.? The shooter has been identified as Frank Strausser, a police officer with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and a highly skilled marksman back in 1967. The MPD shooter fired the single, lethal shot at King from behind bushes just across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King and his entourage were staying. The ensuing cover-up at various levels kept the MPD’s role in the assassination secret for years.

It had taken more than three decades for the truth to rise again about Rev. King’s death in the trial brought by Pepper and the King family, but it was now out. “This verdict is not only a great victory for my family, but also a great victory for America. It is a great victory for truth itself,” Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain leader,
said afterward.

And where was the American watchdog press during this trial of the century? Fast asleep as usual or busy chasing down other more titillating stories around that time, such as a presidential sex scandal and yet another U.S.-led war overseas. The 1999 conspiracy trial of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared nowhere on the
list of the top reported news stories of that year or, indeed, of that whole decade.

The wrap-up: Such media treatment should come as little surprise now in 2017, considering that while Rev. King was alive and pushing ahead with his activities for social and economic justice in the richest country on the planet, he was often vilified by the press in the U.S., from the local level up to the national level. In some cases, we now know, members of the news media even cooperated with U.S. government agencies such as the FBI to smear, discredit and otherwise distort King’s message and work. And yet the myth of a free, unfettered American press persists.

Today, 49 years after King’s death and 31 years since his birthday became a nationally observed holiday in the USA, the public still receives a media-washed version of King’s life that comes nowhere near to being complete or even correct on many counts. As we approach the half-century mark of King’s demise next year, it is more important than ever that people insist that Rev. King in death be reported on more accurately and fully as the social revolutionary he was in life — not as some mere harmless, hopeless dreamer, but rather someone who posed a real threat to the existing structures of political and economic power in the USA.

We will know we have succeeded in our insistence when a new U.S. media storyline of the observance Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, exactly a half-century after Rev. King’s death, is something more along these truthful lines:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for which today’s national holiday is named, battled racial segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 [cue up: extended footage of violent police scenes against Black marchers], followed by a heartwarming speech later that year during a big public demonstration at the U.S. capital of Washington DC in which he shared his dream of future racial harmony in the USA [cue up: footage of “I Have a Dream” speech]. In 1965 King marched in Selma, Alabama for voting rights for African American citizens [cue up: more extended footage of police violence against Black marchers], and was instrumental in getting a historic voting rights bill passed into law that year.

In 1967, King spoke out for the first time against the U.S. war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam and the many civilian deaths that war was causing [cue up: news footage of dead Vietnamese families killed by U.S. soldiers + King’s speech at Riverside Church]. He was attacked in the U.S. press after his “Beyond Vietnam” speech [cue up: close-up shots of critical newspaper articles]. In the last year of King’s life, he increasingly spoke of “revolution” and of waking up from the dream [cue up: audio/video of King’s National Cathedral speech]. King was organizing a series of massive Poor People’s Marches, starting with one on Washington DC planned for the spring of 1968, demanding that poverty be addressed in the United States, when he was cut down by a single bullet from an assassin [cue up: scene of a fatally injured King lying flat on his back on a second-floor motel walkway].

The initial suspect, James Earl Ray, was imprisoned for the shooting. Ray long maintained his innocence in the killing, and was even supported in his quest for a public trial by the King family itself. Ray eventually died in prison without ever getting his full trial. The real killer of Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, has been identified since then as a Memphis Police Department sharpshooter, officer Frank Strausser.

A historic civil lawsuit was brought in 1999 by the King family [cue up: footage of Coretta Scott King giving testimony at the trial]. The final jury verdict in that trial was that U.S. “governmental agencies” had been involved in a “conspiracy” to assassinate Dr. King. But why would the U.S. government want King dead?

That question remains unanswered today. Perhaps it had something to do with Dr. King being seen as a very real threat to the government and to the favored status of major corporations in American society in his demands for an end to war, racism and militarism — and for more U.S. tax money to be spent on the millions of Americans who lived, and continue to live, below the poverty line in our country. After all, just a few months before his death, he was laying the groundwork for standing as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1968 presidential election. In the last one year of his life, especially, King was becoming more radicalized in his political views and actions, thus becoming a thorn in the side of the political and corporate powers-that-be in the United States. He had to be removed, permanently, from the scene.

This year marks 50 years since Dr. King’s death, and today’s national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a day of reflection and action for a man many consider to be one of the most remarkable public figures of the last century: a Baptist preacher by profession, a revolutionary thinker and nonviolent social activist for peace, a tireless advocate for racial equality and economic justice in the USA. Has his dream been achieved? Will it ever be achieved?

That, of course, will be up to us.

___________________

{*1} “A Tragedy” (editorial), Washington Post, 6 April 1967, p. A20.

{*2} “Dr. King’s Error” (editorial), New York Times, 7 April 1967, p. 36.

{*3} Brian Covert, “Played by the Mighty Wurlitzer: The Press, the CIA, and the Subversion of Truth”, in Censored 2017 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2016), pp. 251-284.

{*4} United Press International (UPI), “King Vows Capital Marches”, Chicago Tribune, 5 December 1967, p. 1A-9, and Associated Press (AP), “King Plans March of Poor on Washington”, Danville Register (Danville, VA), 5 December 1967, p. 8-B.

{*5} Associated Press, “Dr. King Backs Negro Boycott”, Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM), 15 December 1967, p. D-1.

{*6} Associated Press, “Shanties in Capital Planned by King for Poor People’s March”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 February 1968, p. 8.

{*7} Associated Press, “Key to Job Demands”, Kansas City Times (Kansas City, MO), 8 February 1968. p. 16C.

{*8} Associated Press, “Martin Luther King Plans Nigerian Visit”, Kane Republican (Kane, PA), 9 March 1968, p. 3.

{*9} Associated Press, “Dr. King Threatens Convention Protests”, The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 1 April 1968, p. 12.

{*10} See James Earl Ray, Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin (Washington DC: National Press Books, 1992). Foreword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a former close associate of King.

{*11} See William F. Pepper, Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1995), and William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (London/New York: Verso, 2008). Pepper’s latest book is The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016).

When Johnny Went Marching Home Again

The recent decision by the U.S. government to put aside for now the plans to build the $3 billion Dakota Access pipeline near the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux nation was a tremendous People’s Victory — a good example of how the forces of nonviolence and “prayerful” spirit-power can stand up to the economic and political bullying of the mightiest nation on Earth, and win.

What brought about such an unlikely victory? It may be a good time to study and reflect on that very question, for it will surely come up again in the future somewhere, someday in the USA. But without out a doubt we can chalk up the immediate victory over the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) construction to the dedication and commitment of the proud, courageous self-dubbed “water protectors” of the Sioux and other Native nations of North America. Without them, the pipeline would already be going under the Missouri River and getting ever closer to completion.

But one factor we must not overlook is the urgency that many former U.S. military veterans — Native American and non-Native veterans alike — brought to this fight over the building of the pipeline. Without them, too, there might well have been a bloodier and more tragic confrontation at Standing Rock by now. Before Johnny decided to come marching home again to rural North Dakota, the authorities responded the way they always had to Native peoples: with warnings to get out of Dodge before sundown
or else….

22 August 2016 — Construction sites of the Dakota Access pipeline are blocked at Cannon Ball, North Dakota by water protectors and their allies from Indian Country and beyond. A state of emergency has recently been declared by the governor.

3 September — On the anniversary of the infamous Whitestone massacre of 3 September 1863, in which more than 300 members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation were killed by the U.S. Army, private security guards for the Dakota Access pipeline spray the demonstrators with pepper spray and set guard dogs upon them, causing several injuries. Comparisons are made to the use of attack dogs by the police on unarmed crowds during the U.S. civil rights (read: human rights) era of the 1950s and 1960s.

27 October — Nearly 150 water protectors are arrested in escalating clashes with police, who fire upon the unarmed crowds with bean-bag grenades, douse them with pepper spray and blast them with a sound cannon. The number of arrests since the anti-pipeline actions rises to about 400.

20 November — In scenes that were witnessed around the world via social media, police fire water cannons at the protectors in sub-freezing weather and shoot at them with grenades and rubber bullets. Police deny having taken such brutal action against the protectors.

25 November — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is attached to the U.S. military, issues a deadline: All water protectors have until 5 December to vacate the areas where thousands are camped out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux against the building of the pipeline, or face arrest. There is talk among the water protectors of a massacre approaching — one of many such atrocities committed against Native peoples throughout American history. The water protectors, risking serious injury or death, refuse to leave.

28 November — Tensions rise as the governor of North Dakota orders the “mandatory evacuation” of the base camps of thousands of water protectors, effective immediately. The water protectors still refuse to leave.

In the meantime, a group of U.S. military veterans, under the banner of “Veterans for Standing Rock”, watch the growing anti-pipeline tensions with concern and start “calling for our fellow veterans to assemble as a peaceful, unarmed militia at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation” to “defend the water protectors from assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force and DAPL security”. More than 2,000 U.S. veterans reportedly respond to the call.

2 December — Braving the snow and freezing temperatures, the veterans begin trickling in to the site of the demonstrations at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. One 32-year-old former U.S. Navy serviceman says the veterans showing up to join the water protectors in their fight against the pipeline are “standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. and [Mahatma] Gandhi”.

4 DecemberIn an emotionally moving scene, a leader of the veterans group approaches Native elders at Standing Rock and asks for forgiveness for the past genocide of Native peoples at the hands of the U.S. military. It is one day before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ own deadline for the protectors to leave the base camps. Before the day is out, however, the Corps announces that it is denying the pipeline company’s request for an easement to run the line under nearby Lake Oahe, sparking a celebration among the water protectors. They have won — for now.

What the U.S. government most likely feared, we can see in hindsight, was the possibility of images being broadcast around the world of U.S. military veterans getting beaten up, injured, shot at, arrested and possibly even killed at Standing Rock — in others words, being treated like foreign terrorists — for the simple “crime” of wanting to protect those who defend water as a source of life. And this, of course, at a time when the U.S. military is expanding on a daily basis its so-called “war on terrorism” abroad.

The U.S. government has never cared much about Native Americans being abused and mistreated, but how would it look, on the other hand, for “patriotic” U.S. police forces to be beating up a bunch of their own country’s military veterans? No, that would not look good at all. It would show the world what a moral hypocrite the USA really was as a nation. But in the end, the plug was pulled, the big showdown in Indian Country was averted, and the Obama administration in particular saved a lot of face.

We can confirm from this experience, moreover, that nonviolent U.S. military veterans have an active role to play in such future conflicts as well. A number of veterans gathered at Standing Rock then moved on to another place plagued with water problems — the city of Flint, Michigan — to stand up with the local people there too in their own fight for clean water.

I have made the bold prediction that a kind of Second Civil War in a deeply divided United States will be the result of a Trump presidency. I honestly hope such a war does not come to pass. But if it does, it’s good to know that we’ve got brothers and sisters from the former ranks of the U.S. military to back us up in our nonviolent struggles. There’s nothing like the sight of Johnny marching back home again, without weapons and in massive numbers, to put a little humility, respect and, yes, even fear, into the hearts of those in positions of influence over our lives.

Dakota Pipeline: Prelude to a Land Grab

High tensions over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in the USA have subsided for the moment, with the recent announcement by the administration of U.S. president Barack Obama and a federal appeals court ruling that temporarily suspended the building of the 1,825-kilometer (1,135-mile) long pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.

You have to hand it to the U.S. government for the clever way it handled the crisis. The last thing Obama needed in the last few months of his presidency was another Wounded Knee-type showdown before the eyes of the world in the heart of America’s Indian Country, pitting the
Standing Rock Sioux nation and its many allies against a Dallas, Texas-based gas and oil pipeline operator and its many allies (the U.S. government being one of them). The postponement of construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline was a victory, albeit a limited one, for First Nations peoples of North America and the protection of sacred lands.

But the conflict over the Dakota Access pipeline — with pepper spray and attack dogs shamefully used at one point against those who tried to block the construction — is merely a prelude to even bigger troubles to come for such lands, and soon: the biggest act of government theft of Native American territory in more than a century that is now in the making.

A bill is currently being pushed through the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow the western state of Utah to outright claim 100,000 acres of land belonging to the indigenous Ute tribe in the name of progress and development (in other words, potential oil profits) by the state of Utah. Yes, you read that right: 100,000 acres of Native American lands. The state of Utah wants to put these tribal “reservation” lands under its own management, as stipulated by the
Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, which was introduced a few months ago in July as House Resolution 5780. (A related bill, the Scofield Land Transfer Act, or Senate bill 14, is also making its way at the same time through the U.S. Congress.)

Representatives of the Native American community are calling this the most blatant act of official Yankee land grabbing and violating of Native American sovereignty rights since the late 1800s, and there is
growing opposition to the plan. “We were shocked to learn that the bill proposes to take more than 100,000 acres of our reservation lands for the state of Utah,” announced officials of the Ute tribal nation. “This modern-day Indian land grab cannot be allowed to stand.”

If this does indeed go through, it would make projects like the Dakota Access pipeline look like a harmless Saturday night Bingo game at the local YMCA in comparison. So, where is the national news media coverage of this historical act of land theft? You will not find the substantial coverage it deserves by the U.S. corporate press, much as in the case of the Dakota Access project and other such development schemes that threaten to destroy natural ecosystems on Native lands for generations to come.

Native American leader Dennis Banks, co-founder in the 1960s of the American Indian Movement (AIM),
described the situation well in an interview I did with him more than two decades ago here in Japan:

“The attitude of the [U.S.] government has changed from one of covert activities to one of overt activities,” Banks said. “They’re still trying to swindle Native people out of their land. They’re still trying to support Corporate America, and Corporate America has a lot of
hands on Indian lands. So their attitude, as I said, is one of covert to overt business. I will never trust the policies that come out of Washington — ever. Individually, the Congress people, I’m sure, are good persons. But something happens to them when they become a collective body. They corrupt themselves, as honest as they are individually.”

In the case of the two Republican congressional sponsors in Utah of the land-grab bill, there can be no doubt about where their dishonorable priorities lie. U.S. representative Rob Bishop,
known around Washington DC for his fashionable three-piece suits, has pushed for environmental regulations to be loosened in U.S. national parks to allow for more private use of public lands. The other sponsor, U.S. representative Jason Chaffetz, is known for his antipathy to laws that would protect wild animals facing extinction, saying, in one memorable quote: “The only good place for a sage grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro. It does not deserve federal protection, period.”

In other words, in the 21st century, it is business as usual when it comes to the treatment of First Nations peoples and the stealing of lands inhabited by their ancestors for thousands of years before this curious thing called the “United States of America” ever came into existence.

The good news is that the controversy over the start of the Dakota Access pipeline construction has led to more and more Native people across the continent joining hands and standing up to the corporate and governmental defiling of sacred Native lands. More than 50 tribal nations in Canada and the northern United States
recently formed a treaty alliance vowing to “come together in unity and solidarity to protect our territory from the predations of big oil interests, industry, and everything that represents”.

In the meantime, the struggle continues. Big Money never sleeps. The company constructing the Dakota Access pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, has already
bought up parcels of sacred Sioux lands that it intends to develop as the Dakota Access pipeline construction progresses. The Standing Rock Sioux promise us that the pipeline project definitely will be stopped in its tracks, and the tribe is fighting toward that end on all fronts: in the courts, in the media, at the United Nations, and right on the ground in North Dakota.

President Obama wisely stopped the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline for now, just long enough for him to slide out of office and pass the problem on to his successor in the White House. Whoever becomes the next U.S. president, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, we can be sure that such big gas and oil development projects will continue to be approved and supported at the highest levels under the staunchly pro-corporate policies of both candidates.

The issues of Native sovereignty rights and sacred land protection, in North America and beyond, are bound to rise in the years to come as the confrontations and conflicts grow in intensity. And as they rise, we would all do well to remember that these many Native battles to protect the land are our fights too. We need to support them wherever and whenever we can.

As for me, I know clearly where I stand: right alongside our Native brothers and sisters, wherever in the world they may be — not just to “protest” something, but rather to
protect everything that has a right to life on this Earth, the common mother of us all. There can be no higher purpose to our own lives than that.

Time to Reject the Politics of Fear

It was an amazing transformation to see: Here were all these hard-core, politically progressive persons steadfastly maintaining that Bernie Sanders was the best and only viable candidate in the United States presidential election of 2016. And for good reason. He was promising them a revolution, and it looked like he was indeed taking the masses city by city up to the gates of the towering castle, at which point the masses would barge in and seize power from the crooked kings and queens. A new day was indeed coming in which the American people would rule.

And then, suddenly, faced with the prospect of becoming a political “spoiler”, Sanders did a dirty thing, in the eyes of many of his own supporters: He left them standing outside the castle gates in the cold, while he went inside and joined the Democratic Party establishment for tea and cakes. When he came back outside, he had changed his mind. His supporters must now vote for Hillary Clinton as the next U.S. president, he told them. His campaign from that point on welcomed and endorsed Clinton at every turn.

Many of Sanders’ ardent supporters turned and left him behind, disgusted, and went over to the Green Party and elsewhere to help them continue the march up to the castle walls again. But many other Sanders supporters did as they were told, and in a single day, many of them who had been vilifying Hillary Clinton for months were now ready to support her. I watched on Facebook as otherwise intelligent, politically conscious, liberal-minded friends of mine now turned to Hillary Clinton as the only real choice for the next U.S. president. But what could account for that dramatic turnaround? Why had Public Enemy No. 1 in the Democratic Party now suddenly become hip, in vogue, the only candidate of choice for American liberal voters?

Fear. Raw fear. Fear at the thought of a Republican Party monster (the latest one in a long line of them) occupying the president’s chair in the White House in Washington DC.

And not only were your liberal friends deathly afraid, they wanted
you to be afraid too of Donald Trump as a possible successor to Barack Obama. And if you weren’t afraid, then you personally would be held responsible by Hillary Clinton’s flock of supporters the day after the elections for being the ones who let Trump take power. Yes, fear is in the air, and the fearmongering has been flying wildly from both the left and the right this campaign season.

Most citizens of the United States, according to public opinion surveys, do not really trust either Trump or Clinton. That alone says tons about who both candidates are and what they represent: the elite 1 percent of U.S. society and the interests of Wall Street. Republicans at least are honest about being bought off; Democrats, on the other hand, have been in a state of psychological denial about it for decades (if not longer). But the truth is that the political party machinery of both parties is corrupt and has been so for a long time, as history books teach us.

Is this what the mighty American democracy has come to in the 21st century — voting for a candidate because you’re so afraid that the other person might win instead? What happened to freedom of choice? Do Americans go shopping for homes, cars, TVs, cereal, toilet paper or what have you, and buy something only because they’re scared to death that the other products won’t work right? Do they marry someone because the other possible choices for a life-partner frighten them out of their wits? No, of course not. They choose based on what they like, trust or respect about a product or a person. This is human nature.

But then a U.S. presidential election comes along, and we’re supposed to throw all human nature out of the window and vote out of pure fear instead?
But this is the way things work in the USA — we have a political duopoly, I hear some American liberals saying. We have to deal with the system we have, with reality.

Ah, reality. Such a fickle thing to define. Well, all I can say in response to those liberals about reality is that this may be the way it is in the USA, but that’s sure not the way it is in many other countries. The Green Party is well represented in the parliaments of several nations. Here in Japan, in addition to the two major political parties that resemble the Republican and Democratic parties of the USA, we also have represented in parliament members of the socialist party (shudder!) and the communist party (shock!), not to mention the political wing of the Soka Gakkai religious organization (read: cult). And the grand irony is that this Japanese political diversity is due in part to the “reforms” pushed on Japan by the U.S. government during the American occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952. Now, if Americans can give the gift of political diversity to a country like Japan, a former enemy in war, then why can’t they demand such political diversity for themselves at home? Think on that one for a while.

There is a lot of talk these days about the need for a third party in the U.S., since the country only has a two-party system at present. But that too is not quite correct. What the people of the United States have, in reality, is one party with two factions. Call it the “Demopublican Party” or the “Republocratic Party”, if you like, but the fact is that Americans essentially have a one-party, two-faction political system in place. One party, two factions. What they really need now is a viable
second party that stands independently from both the Democrats and Republicans, and offers some real choices.

The season of fear that we are seeing now in the United States takes me back to another time in U.S. history — to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan ran for president twice on the Republican Party ticket and won by a large margin both times. Democratic Party voters in large numbers tripped and trampled over each other on the way to the polls to vote for this war-mongering, air-headed, ex-actor Republican in order to get him into the White House. Never mind that people like me were warning of the dire economic consequences of a Reagan presidency on the majority of working people throughout the country.

More than three decades later, we still feel the harsh effects of those Reagan-era policies. And now, in 2016, Democrats want all of us to give them our support so they can put another representative of the 1 percent in office?
As this recent news report shows, Hillary Clinton, not Trump, is now the candidate of choice among the wealthy class of U.S. citizens. How can either one of them even remotely deal with the problems facing most working Americans?

The last time I voted for a Democratic Party candidate was in those same 1980s, when I voted for Rev. Jesse Jackson for U.S. president. Jesse was a lot less conservative in those days than he is now, and really promised to shake up the U.S. political establishment. But then I watched as the Democrats (yes, including Bill Clinton) moved to the right and increasingly betrayed every single bloc of voters who put them into office: Blacks, Latinos, women, working people of all backgrounds. It sickened me. I haven’t voted Democrat since then, and I’m not about to restart now.

Presidential elections in the U.S. these days bring to mind for me the words of the late African American leader Malcolm X. When he was alive, Malcolm characterized the Republican and Democratic parties as a wolf and a fox, respectively. One of those parties, the wolf, will make no pretenses about eating you alive on the spot, Malcolm noted. The other party, the fox, will lure you alone deep into the forest with a sly grin and promises of security, then eat you alive. Whichever party you turn to, Malcolm said, you’re dealing with a breed of dirty dog. He was obviously referring to the two parties in relation to Black folks and the prevalence of racism in U.S. society, but as the years go on, I can’t help but see the wisdom in Malcolm X’s political analysis for us all.

I’ve only started voting again in recent years in U.S. elections, which I admit was a mistake. I should have never dropped out. But the rise of other parties — the Green Party on the left and Libertarian Party on the right, among several others on the political landscape — has given me reason to get back into the game again. And it appears there are many, many other people out there who have felt the same way I have about the whole thing.

And if fear hasn’t been a bad enough problem in this U.S. presidential election campaign this year, President Obama recently inserted a healthy dose of guilt as well into the minds of the electorate when he said in a speech that he would take it as a personal “insult” if Black folks in the U.S. did not show their support for him and his presidential legacy by voting for Hillary Clinton in the coming election. So, now we have
fear and guilt as the two prime motivations for voting for Clinton. But fear and guilt are negatives, and many people, myself included, want to vote for someone instead of against someone. Being offered the choice between voting for a forest fire or a flash flood still leaves you, in the end, with a disaster waiting to happen. So it is with Trump and Clinton.

So, the next time one of your “liberal” friends comes up to you and wants to lay a guilt trip on you and put you into Fear Mode with the mere thought of Donald Trump becoming the next American president, straighten them out and tell it like it is. No reasonable-minded human being wants to see Trump take office and divide the country, as he promises to do if he gets elected. I know I don’t want to see it. A Second Civil War in the USA is what I envision under the administration of a possible President Trump. But the truth is that Hillary Clinton, a wealthy, hawkish politician, is not the cure for Mad Trump Disease. Only a healthy democracy can cure that, and at this stage, the USA is still far from being either healthy or a democracy in the truest sense of the words. The problem is the corrupt electoral system itself, and that’s what we have to deal with immediately.

Donald Trump fancies himself as another Richard Nixon, nostalgic for the law-and-order days of the Vietnam war of the 1960s. So, the Muskrat wants Nixon? We’ll give him the Nixon treatment, all right. We all know how Tricky Dick’s story turned out, and we can give Trump the same treatment if he becomes president and abuses his power and U.S. government policies. The people are not helpless, and we can take Trump on in the courthouses, in the court of public opinion, and yes, even in the streets if need be. The point is that we should not be afraid to deal with whichever of these two supremely lame candidates, Trump or Clinton, becomes U.S. president.

Vote your conscience on election day. Whichever way you decide to vote, it is time to reject the politics of fear that both political parties are bludgeoning us over the head with at the moment (with lots of help from the U.S. corporate-dominated news media). Inform yourself, get involved, vote — and
then get down to serious work once the election is over on really upturning this dirty U.S. political system so that in 2020 and beyond, the politics of fear is removed from the U.S. national election process. The last thing we need is Trump and Clinton or any of their ilk reappearing before us again in four more years, with their greasy palms open, asking for more of our votes cast out of dread and fear.

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (3)

High up in a skyscraper overlooking the port of San Francisco, California, Coral Talavera Baca began telling the story of “Dark Alliance” that no one in the USA had yet heard. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, 15 February 1997, and a TV documentary program crew from Japan (for which I served as coordinator) had her wired for sound and the video camera rolling. It was all going on the record — her first public comments ever in regard to the controversial “Dark Alliance” investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb that was published the year before.

A former gymnast with short brown hair and dressed in a dark-blue pant suit, Talavera Baca sat somewhat nervously at a long conference table in a meeting room of a San Francisco law firm, where she was employed as a legal worker. She told us how U.S. government involvement in drug trafficking wasn’t some sort of “conspiracy theory”. It was fact. Her boyfriend, Rafael Corñejo, a Nicaraguan national, was then still in prison in California in connection with cocaine trafficking in the Bay Area, and she had long moved in family circles that allowed her to know firsthand of such U.S. government links to the illicit cocaine trade.

She recalled visits to a small, secluded island in the Bahamas some years before that was owned by Carlos Lehder (she used the pseudonym “Carlos Perez”), a Colombian drug lord and co-founder of the infamous Medellín drug-trafficking cartel. People who she came to understand were working for Lt. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staff member under former president Ronald Reagan, would fly cocaine shipments from South America and “stop off at his [Lehder’s] island usually and refuel, and then fly back to the United States”. Talavera Baca characterized North as “the biggest drug trafficker in the United States’ history” despite North’s repeated denials over the years of having anything at all to do with such criminal activities.

It was through fighting her boyfriend’s court case that she first reached out to
San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in 1995. Actually, she had contacted reporters from three other major newspapers as well — the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner — but none of them seemed “too smart” when it came to understanding the complex issues of drugs in society. She decided to open all her files exclusively to Gary Webb instead, which led to “Dark Alliance” eventually getting published, and she was sure now that she had made the right choice.

“When Gary started looking in all these boxes, I think he was pretty much blown away. I think he planned to come in and peruse them and make lunch in the city and what have you,” she said. “He was at that office the whole day, and at the end of the day, he says, ‘Can I take these boxes with me?’. And there was just a chemistry there, you know? From the first time, he was a great guy. He was a professional in every sense of the word. …I made a really, really good choice because he’s done a great job on this”.

“He documented everything [in ‘Dark Alliance’] beautifully,” she added.

Contrary to the portrayal of Webb by the big media companies as something of a journalistic loose cannon who was sloppy in reporting facts in “Dark Alliance”, Talavera Baca had found Webb to be just the opposite: a bit too cautious and even naïve about high U.S. government involvement in the cocaine trade . “His story very clearly implicates the United States government,” she said. “And I don’t think Gary went far enough. Gary just takes it to the CIA. I think he needed to take it and go right up to the steps of the White House. And he didn’t like me saying that to him. However, I got a phone call recently from [Webb] and he says, ‘Wow, you were right. It led all the way to Oliver North’”.

We asked Talavera Baca if she thought her life might be in any danger, now that she was going public on "Dark Alliance" through our interview. She put on a brave face and shrugged it off, making an oblique reference to the assassination of the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy. “No one has ever made threats,” she said. “But you know, it’s like, if they really want you taken out, they’ll just take you out. And if they can get to a president, they surely can get to me”.

Much of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca, the prime source for Webb in the “Dark Alliance” investigation, turned out to be a bit rambling and anecdotal, but there was enough information there to mold into a solid story. After the interview she saw us all off to the elevator, where we shook hands and said goodbye. As soon as the doors slid shut and the elevator started descending with all five of us and our gear crammed inside, I and Scott Gorman, our U.S. coordinator and interviewer, gave each other some triumphant high-fives. “Can you believe that?” “We got it!”

The other three Japanese members of our film crew looked on, a bit puzzled, at my and Gorman’s elation. I explained over lunch later to the Japanese crew members the gist of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca and Gary Webb, and how important they were. This could be the centerpiece of our documentary film — a real scoop, I said, that no journalist in the U.S. has yet gotten. I explained to them in Japanese all about the CIA and drugs and the
contras. “Contras?” came the reply, with blank looks. I explained: “Yeah, you know, the right-wing terrorist army run by the CIA in Nicaragua back in the 1980s”. More blank looks: “Nicaragua?” Me again: “Nicaragua, yeah. You know, the country in Central America?” Still more blank looks. They did not seem to have the slightest idea where Nicaragua was geographically, let alone the historical significance of all this information we had gathered over the past few days concerning “Dark Alliance”.

It was at that point, for the first time in our 10 days of filming in the U.S. for a Japanese TV program on the so-called global “drug scourge”, that I realized we might be in trouble.

The Wrap-Up

From there, the five of us headed up north to Washington state, where Scott Gorman had lined up for us some more good interviews with struggling drug addicts, drug treatment counselors, methadone center staff and others. Together with all the footage we had shot over a week and a half in New York City, San Francisco, Sacramento, and now Seattle and surrounding environs, we had what I considered to be the makings of one hell of an exposé on the state of America’s drug problems to be included as part of the Japanese TV program.

I was the one entrusted to hand-carry all the video footage in a locked aluminum briefcase with me from California back to Tokyo, while the other Japanese crew members continued on to Europe to get more drug-related footage for our planned documentary.

Two months later, with great anticipation, I sat before my family’s living room television in Japan and tuned into TV Tokyo during the evening prime-time hours of Tuesday, 1 April 1997 — April Fools’ Day, appropriately — for the broadcast of our two-hour program on drugs. By the second half of the program, I was still waiting for the part about “Dark Alliance” to come on. With each passing minute of the program, my heart sank lower and lower. With about 10 minutes left in the program, I had given up all hope, and it was all I could do just to keep the TV on through the closing credits.

There was no “Dark Alliance” in it. No Gary Webb. No Coral Talavera Baca. And very little of the best footage we had shot over 10 days of filming in the States. Instead, the TV program focused on some of the more sensational scenes of drug addicts getting high, scary background music, sloppily shot footage from Europe, and even some episodes that, to my trained journalist’s eye, appeared to be what Japanese media critics call
yarase (faked scenes). Even the facts were screwed up: Seattle, for example, was referred to in the documentary as “America’s third largest city”, a major mistake. And in fact, I now realized that it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, per se, at all. It was conceived as just the typical kind of low-quality tripe that is so pervasive on the so-called “wide shows” of all the corporate TV networks in Japan, and that is what it finally delivered.

So much for the perfect alignment of the stars….

Picking Up the Pieces

I should have seen it all coming, back when the film crew members expressed puzzlement about Nicaragua that time in San Francisco. But looking back then, I couldn’t say I was totally surprised. There were lots of tense moments throughout our 10 days of filming between the Japanese and American team members. The three Japanese members were younger than us and had no journalism qualifications whatsoever; they were just employees of some Tokyo production company, not reporters. Scott Gorman and I had had more seniority, both age-wise and in the news field, and we did use that seniority often during our shooting schedule to keep things journalistically honest, which no doubt went unappreciated among our less-experienced brethren from Japan.

(And in the interest of public disclosure 20 years later, toward the end of our filming leg in the USA, Gorman and I did conspire among ourselves on how we might liberate and rescue all the “Dark Alliance”-related video footage we’d shot from a possible editorial death on the cutting room floor in Tokyo, and maybe use that footage instead to make a hard-hitting documentary film of our own on the issue in the States. But that conspiracy, dear readers, is another story for another time.)

In May 1997, just one month after our TV program on drugs bombed out in Japan, the hammer fell at the
San Jose Mercury News in California. The newspaper abandoned the “Dark Alliance” investigation and essentially hung its star reporter, Gary Webb, out to dry. The “Dark Alliance” website itself was pulled down not long afterward. It was all over. Webb left his news company in disgust by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Scott Gorman, back in Washington state, had become managing editor of an online news magazine called
REALNews. Gorman kindly offered to help salvage something of our “Dark Alliance”-related interviews by publishing our joint analysis of “Dark Alliance” and its significance to journalism in the new age of the Internet. REALNews later went defunct, but that analysis survives today as one of the first of its kind to recognize the long-term importance of “Dark Alliance” in the digital age of journalism.

I still had Gary Webb’s business card, though, and I kept in touch with him by e-mail, offering whatever long-distance sympathy and support I could as a fellow journalist in the ranks of the newly independent, for what it was worth. I told Webb that if he could somehow pay his own way over to Japan, I would try to use my connections over here to help set up a paid speaking tour for him in Japan concerning his “Dark Alliance” investigation and make sure his accommodations were taken care of while he was in the country. Webb thanked me in reply but politely declined my offer, saying that under his new job as investigative writer with the California state government, he was not allowed to accept outside remuneration. In hindsight, I should have realized the real reason — that Webb was going broke at the time and had no extra money to be flying anywhere.

It was encouraging, though, to hear a year later that Webb got full his “Dark Alliance” investigation published in book form by the New York-based Seven Stories Press. Of course, I ordered a copy of it here in Japan and devoured every word.

The last time I ever heard from Webb personally was some time in 1999, when he let me know in an e-mail that Seven Stories Press was coming out with a paperback version of his book
Dark Alliance, and that I might want to pick up a copy, since it contained a lot of new information. And with the future looking bright once again for the journalist that the U.S. media establishment had tried so hard to discredit, I moved on and mentally wished him all the best.

POSTSCRIPT

Five years later in 2004, I happened across a news article on the Internet that referred to Gary Webb in the past tense, as “was”. No, I thought, it can’t be. But it was true, and Webb was found dead at age 49 of two gunshot wounds to the head in his Sacramento, California home. The date of his departure: 10 December 2004 — seven years to the day after he had left the
San Jose Mercury News.

Like many of his colleagues in journalism I felt devastated, and overwhelmed by a personal and professional sense of loss. I still do. And the real loss, of course, is as much for the public as it is for the journalism community.

I can’t say that Gary Webb was a close friend. I can’t say I knew him well or that we worked closely together. And I can only imagine the deep despair he found himself in, a few years after enduring the sustained assault on his credentials by those in a profession to which he devoted his life. But as one who has worked in the media field for some years, I do know a very important news story when I see one and I do recognize a damn good journalist when I meet one. And Gary Webb was the best journalist I’ve had the honor to personally know in my lifetime.

Webb’s seminal work, the “Dark Alliance” investigation, has stood, and will continue to stand for many years, the test of time as a classic, high-quality work of journalism. And in a way that I wish could have turned out so differently, Webb and his laudable work will have the last word on it all. Of that much, I am certain.

In the post-“Dark Alliance” world of corporate-created news cycles, pompous press personalities and media self-censorship in the United States, the challenges remain as daunting as ever for those among us who still feel some sense of responsibility to the higher purposes of journalism and to take the kind of risks Gary Webb took in getting the facts and the truth out to the people. Twenty years after “Dark Alliance”, the real work, in many ways, begins now.

webb-meishi

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (2)

There is nothing like a little police harassment to lend an air of authenticity to producing a TV documentary on the so-called “drug scourge”, and that, appropriately enough, is just what I and a couple other Japanese members of a video production team first experienced upon our landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, 9 February 1997.

The three of us were getting our suitcases together when, suddenly, a big German shepherd dog appeared out of nowhere and was in front of me, aggressively sniffing at my ankles (apparently in search of some drug stash hidden in the socks, the oldest trick in the book).

I love dogs, but the sight of this unfamiliar canine blocking my way visibly startled me. The plainclothes agent holding the dog’s leash said something like, “Don’t worry, he’s just smelling you”, but I was still frozen momentarily in fear. The dog checked our bags and we got a pass from the drug agents, who disappeared as quickly as they had come. Man, I thought, they really
are paranoid about drugs in this country. I also wondered at the time if the drug agent, a Caucasian, would have tried to reassure me like he did had my skin color been a darker shade of brown.

Our next big surprise was just outside the terminal doors at JFK Airport. There, we were met by Scott Gorman, a big, bearded bear of a guy who was living and working in Washington state as an independent journalist. I had invited him on to our project as the paid guide, driver and overall Stateside coordinator for the 10-day filming excursion of a planned Japanese TV documentary on the issue of drugs for our five-member Japanese/American team.

Gorman opted for making a big opening splash and, to our surprise, he had reserved a long, white limousine during our two days of filming in New York. So, we headed off on the expressway into Manhattan in style — the first and last time I had the pleasure of riding in a limo.

Through the Camera Eye

Our very first destination for filming the next day: a walk-in drug recovery clinic at 23 St. Marks Place in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. There, we filmed heartbreaking stories of otherwise decent people from all backgrounds who were strung out on one narcotic substance or another and just in off the street, looking for a place to “dry out” before they could move on to a formal drug treatment program. These people’s wrecked lives struck me as the undeniable evidence of the failure of America’s so-called “war on drugs”.

This building with the drug clinic also happened to be a piece of countercultural history: It was once the home, back in the late 1960s to early 1970s, of the “Electric Circus”, a nightclub and multimedia event space where all the big names of American underground music and art hung out and performed. As we trudged up and down the faded psychedelia-colored stairway inside the old building, I had the distinctly eerie feeling of music, people, lights filling the now-deserted rooms. There were some old ghosts still lingering in that building, to be sure. By the time we got there in 1997 to film for our Japanese TV documentary, however, the old Electric Circus building was a near-forgotten relic of the past that was being used in part as a drug recovery clinic.

A few days later on Wednesday, 12 February, we were in downtown San Francisco, California, filming at the Cannabis Cultivator’s Club on Market Street. The issue of medical marijuana was a hot one at the time, and the U.S. government was coming down hard on doctors, patients and anybody else, including in “liberal” California, who went afoul of strict federal U.S. drug laws in daring to use marijuana even for healing purposes. We got a lot of great footage at the smoke-filled Cannabis Club of people legally toking up and buying plastic baggies of weed over the counter, just like you would at a drugstore.

Dark Alliance’

By noon that day, we were set up in a classroom across town at City College of San Francisco, where we were going to film a quite different angle of the so-called drug problem: a special guest lecture by Gary Webb, the
San Jose Mercury News reporter. At long last, I was going to see him in person. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series on the CIA-contra-crack cocaine connections had been out six months by this time, yet the public outrage had still not died down. The Big Three newspapers — the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times — had already trashed the “Dark Alliance” series and run defense for the CIA, taking great pains to try and destroy Webb’s credibility as an investigative journalist in the process.

But as we soon found out for ourselves, half a year after “Dark Alliance” had been published, crowds of people were still gathering to hear Webb speak and were still angry at the prospect of the U.S. government having had a hand in the crack cocaine outbreak of the 1980s. And they were also angry about the way the U.S. corporate media had treated Webb and his big story. The classroom at CCSF that day was filled to capacity with 100 or more students, and even though it was a beautiful, sunny day outside and it was noontime, the students opted to skip lunch and stay indoors to hear what Webb had to say. There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd as the students waited for Webb’s arrival.

We had a camera and sound machine set up in the back row of the classroom by the main doors, and soon in walked Gary Webb with Juan Gonzales, head of the CCSF journalism department. Looking every bit the image of the overworked journalist, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his necktie loosened at the collar, Webb was introduced to me. He expressed some surprise at my having come all the way from Japan, smiling as we shook hands.

Webb
spent the hour or so with CCSF students that day walking through the “Dark Alliance” story, how he chased it down and where things stood at that point, then taking questions from the audience. There was a lively exchange of opinion, and Webb was warmly received by the audience. At the end, we interviewed some of the students as they filed out of the classroom. African American students were particularly incensed over the “Dark Alliance” controversy, as well they should have been, since it was their communities that were hardest hit by all the crack cocaine that had inexplicably flooded into cities across the United States a decade before.

The next day, 13 February, we drove up north to interview Gary Webb face to face at his
Mercury News Sacramento bureau office, located in the press building just across the street from the state capitol complex. Webb kept us waiting for a while, and when he finally did show up, he came in casually attired in faded blue jeans, a tieless shirt with rolled-up sleeves and in tennis shoes, as if he had just gotten up (which he probably had). I have to confess: I wondered at that point if we would get a usable interview from him. But any doubts I may have harbored were soon dispelled as the camera rolled and Webb took all our questions in stride. And they were not all softball questions, either. Our coordinator, Scott Gorman, who did the interviewing, occasionally put Webb in defensive mode. But Webb handled all the questions forthrightly and directly, and gave us what I thought was a great interview.

Gorman, in fact, had put it plainly to me at one point during our filming trip in the U.S. that he was “not as enamored” with the whole “Dark Alliance” affair as I was. It was a hard sell, even among our film crew: I wasn’t “enamored” with anything, I had to explain. I just felt strongly that if we were going to be doing a serious documentary on the so-called drug problem, then at some point we would have to include U.S. government complicity in the global drug trade as part of our report. And Gary Webb had documented precisely that kind of complicity in his “Dark Alliance” series. As far as I was concerned, Webb’s story had to be a vital part of our planned documentary — or any documentary on the subject of drugs, for that matter.

We ended the interview with Webb that afternoon by asking him about what was next for “Dark Alliance”. He answered that there was “a
lot more information” about the CIA-contra-crack connection to be reported and that his newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was planning to run two additional follow-up stories that he had already written. Webb would go on to do a total of four follow-up stories to the initial three-day “Dark Alliance” series.

After the formal interview with Webb that day in his cluttered
Mercury News office, we invited him out to lunch with us. I was dying for some good homemade Mexican food at this point (having been deprived of such pleasures while living in Japan), but knowing that the Japanese palate was often too tender for such spicy and heavy cuisine as Mexicana, we took the three other Japanese crew members to a nearby Chinese restaurant instead. There, Gorman and I continued to talk with Webb in a more relaxed and open way about the “Dark Alliance” investigation. It was a rare treat for us. On less serious topics, like music, Webb talked about rock musician Frank Zappa, whose music he apparently dug.

After lunch, we all walked across the street to the state capitol complex and filmed some final scenes of Webb conducting his research on a microfiche machine in the state capitol library. We said our goodbyes there, and as the five members of our Japanese/American team headed back toward our rental car through the tree-lined lanes of the state capitol grounds in Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the worst was yet to come for Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” investigation. To this day I can’t explain why it all hit me that way, but as events later played out, my gut instinct was proven right.

Straight to the Source

Before we left Sacramento that evening, however, at my request we contacted Webb for one more favor — a big favor that I knew he was likely to turn down: We asked him to let us talk directly to his prime source in the “Dark Alliance” story, Coral Talavera Baca. She was the one who had first tipped Webb off to the U.S. government connections to the Nicaraguan drug dealers who had, in turn, helped fuel the crack cocaine outbreak in inner-city Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Webb said he would run our request past Talavera Baca, and get back to us.

The reply soon came. To my great surprise, they said yes. I guessed that at that point, having endured the American corporate media onslaught against “Dark Alliance” and all the U.S. government denials about the CIA and crack cocaine, Webb and Talavera Baca probably felt they had nothing left to lose by sharing their story with a TV film crew from faraway Japan. Whatever their reasons were for accepting our request, I knew that we were getting access into the inner sanctum of the “Dark Alliance” story that no other press company, certainly not in the USA, was getting at the time. This was indeed an exclusive — the first public interview that Coral Talavera Baca would do in relation to “Dark Alliance”.

I also knew that Webb was also violating the unspoken rule in the news business of never sharing your prime sources with other journalists. It was a universal thing in the news business: When you had a big story, you kept your sources close to you and usually did not go around sharing them with other reporters. I myself had refused to share sources in Japan in the past when I worked for Japanese newspapers. The magnanimity of Webb’s gesture in our case was not lost on me, at least, and my professional respect for him rose a notch higher.

What kind of interview would we get from the woman who had lit the fuse that led to the national and international firestorm that was “Dark Alliance”? We headed early the next morning back down to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we would soon find out.

(continued in part 3)

Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (1)

It was late in the afternoon on a September day in 1996, when my wife and I and our young son, then just a couple years old, visited a small retail store in West Los Angeles that U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee had recently opened to promote merchandise from his various films. Being a fan of Lee’s work at the time, I knew his store, “Spike’s West”, was one of the places we had to visit during our brief vacation in L.A. before we returned home to Japan.

As we walked into the store that late afternoon, my eye caught a set of free newspapers sitting on a small vertical rack on the sidewalk just outside the shop. I paused to browse through them. They were local African American community newspapers, and a front-page story on one of them immediately pulled me in.

It was a story about a recently held town hall meeting organized in Los Angeles by Ms. Maxine Waters, a representative of the U.S. Congress whose district covered this part of the city. She had brought a special guest to speak directly to her constituency: a reporter I had never heard of, Gary Webb, who worked for a newspaper I knew well, the
San Jose Mercury News of northern California.

I read on, literally glued to the spot, and waved my wife and son on into the store ahead of me. As I stood in front of the store reading the article, everything around me was tuned out, even the noise of traffic on busy Melrose Avenue and passersby on the sidewalk. The newspaper article reported about how the journalist, Gary Webb, had published just the month before a three-part series in the
Mercury News that linked the crack cocaine outbreak in the United States with the contras, a right-wing paramilitary force in Nicaragua sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s, back when actor-in-chief Ronald Reagan was president of the USA.

The CIA and crack cocaine? How come I never heard of this? I wondered. I had left the corporate newspaper business in Japan for good the previous year in 1995 and was admittedly out of the loop on things, but this seemed like a major issue. Why hadn’t I ever heard anything about it in the Japanese press — or even in the American press, for that matter?

Before I realized it, the sun was slowing sinking and lights were starting to come on. I put the newspaper back in the rack and made a mental note to myself to pick it up again when we left the store. And that’s just what I did. Later that evening, when I had time to sit down and read through the whole story, the sense of shock sank in even more deeply.

It was shock not so much at the thought of the CIA being linked to drugs — there was a documented history of that, after all — but more like shock over a U.S. government connection to a major social problem that had literally devastated Black communities all across America, as the outbreak of crack cocaine use and abuse had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the powerful truth was finally starting to come out.

And that’s how I first encountered “Dark Alliance”, one of the most important news stories in decades: not from the big U.S. corporate press companies (which were mostly ignoring the story at that early stage), but by Black news media across the U.S., which were all over “Dark Alliance” from the beginning. It was really due to them that I had come across this story at all.

Today, 18 August, and the next two days, arrive exactly 20 years on the calendar since Gary Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series was published in the
San Jose Mercury News, leaving its indelible mark on the world. Many things have happened since then, and at this point in time it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on all the events of two decades ago, and to share a few insights from my own humble place in the broader “Dark Alliance” saga.

I’ve gone on to write quite a lot about “Dark Alliance” and Gary Webb over the years, but this time, in commemorating both the story and the journalist at the 20-year mark, I’d like do something I’ve never done before and write about it more from the personal side: the impressions, thoughts, feelings I had about covering “the story about the story”, what it all meant to me personally and professionally, and why it remains so relevant to me and a lot of other people all these years later.

Getting on the Case

Once my family and I returned from our vacation to Japan later in September 1996, I kept my eye out for any word in the news about that story, “Dark Alliance”, and its author, Gary Webb. Not a thing about it appeared in the press here in Japan.

Then, a couple of months or so after we got back home, a door opened. I was asked by a Japanese photojournalist friend of mine, who was then working for a television production company in Tokyo, to join in the making of a planned TV documentary about the “drug scourge” in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The documentary was to be broadcast on TV Tokyo, one of the major television networks in Japan, during prime time. I jumped at the chance, and knew right away what story I would push for as part of that documentary: the “Dark Alliance” investigation that I remembered reading about in front of Spike Lee’s store back in L.A only a few months earlier.

I then contacted Scott Gorman, an independent journalist based in Anacortes, Washington state, to be the Man Friday — the person on the ground back in the U.S. who would help us put it all together. I had recalled briefly meeting Gorman a couple years earlier in Osaka, Japan, when he was visiting on some kind of foundation-sponsored trip, and sent him an e-mail. In my pitch to him about the planned Japanese TV documentary project, I wrote:

One off-the-wall idea…is interviewing Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, the intrepid reporter who recently exposed the CIA-contra-crack connection, to get his version of the sordid tale. My reasoning is that since politics and narcotics are so hard to separate these days, it is essential for a serious documentary on drugs to cover a government’s role in such a mess.

Luckily, Gorman took the bait, and we now had a team — and a lot of work to be done under demanding conditions. I thought of it as one of those situations that was almost destined to happen. The stars seemed perfectly aligned. All the connections and chance occurrences of the past few months and years seemed to be falling right into place. After 10 years of working for newspapers in the U.S. and Japan, I had recently quit the corporate news business and was now ready to prove myself as a journalistic free agent. The Japanese TV documentary project came along at the best possible moment, and I was passionate from the outset about getting coverage of “Dark Alliance” into our video report.

So, we started the gears moving on the project and soon were ready to begin our 10 days of traveling and filming in several U.S. cities, both on the east and west coasts, in early February 1997. The night before I was to catch my flight from Tokyo to New York, I got my first-ever view of something called a “website” on the computer of my Japanese photojournalist friend, the only person I knew in Japan who even owned a personal computer equipped with such high-tech functions at the time.

I gave him a website address I had jotted down, and soon saw for the first time what it was that had been causing all the uproar over the CIA and crack cocaine back in the USA. Slowly, as the image rolled down the pitch-black screen from top to bottom, there in all its glory was the stark image of a man smoking crack cocaine behind the official seal of the CIA. “
Dark Alliance — The Story Behind the Crack Explosion” read the dark-red letters in typewriter font. And there was the reporter’s name, Gary Webb, the guy I had read about in that newspaper article in front of that store in L.A. some months before.

I sat there in front of the computer transfixed, as much by the advanced technology of these new things called the “World Wide Web” and the “Internet” as by the realization that I was witnessing the future of journalism right before my eyes. And all the way on the flight from Tokyo to New York, all I could think about was us getting to California in a few more days to interview that newspaper reporter and get his “Dark Alliance” story on tape so that TV audiences in Japan too could be exposed to the latest U.S. government connections to the underworld of international drug trafficking. I took it as something of a personal mission of mine to help get the “Dark Alliance” story out to the Japanese public.

But if I had bothered to look out at the vast night sky on that long overseas flight, I might have noticed just one or two stars that were not quite aligned. Fate, as they say, sometimes makes its own calls despite the best of well-laid plans.

(continued in part 2)

A Pardon for Peltier


peltiers2-175


The Honorable Barack H. Obama II
President, United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500, USA


Dear President Obama:

You have many important domestic and international and issues before you at the moment that require your time and attention, and the fate of a 71-year-old man in failing health who has been in prison on U.S. soil for more than 40 years for a crime that, by all credible accounts, he did not commit is probably not among your highest priorities.

But I am writing you as a United States citizen living overseas — as one voice currently among many thousands of people around the world — to ask you to make this imprisoned man’s life your priority before your term as president ends in just a few more months. I ask you to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier.

As a constitutional law scholar, you are probably familiar by now with Mr. Peltier’s name and his case. As a descendant of the Anishinabe and Lakota indigenous nations of North America, Mr. Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960s and 1970s in standing up for his people’s rights and holding the USA accountable for broken treaties made with First Nations peoples in the past.

Mr. Peltier was with other AIM activists at a spiritual camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota — one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the United States — one day in June 1975, when two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appeared suddenly on the scene without warning. A shootout ensued, and the two FBI agents, Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, as well as a Native American member of AIM, Joseph Stuntz, were killed in the exchange of gunfire.

The FBI put the full weight of its investigative powers into hunting Peltier down and later getting him extradited from Canada, where he had fled following the shootout at Pine Ridge. He has been behind bars ever since in various U.S. prisons; currently he is imprisoned at maximum-security U.S. Penitentiary Coleman I in the state of Florida, serving the remainder of two life sentences.

But from the start, the FBI’s case against Mr. Peltier was flawed, to put it mildly.

Ballistics tests by the FBI have never conclusively linked Mr. Peltier to the killing of the two FBI agents. Tainted evidence and false testimony by alleged witnesses who were pressured by the FBI were used to get Mr. Peltier convicted. Even the U.S. government’s lead prosecutor, Lynn Crooks, admitted in a court session in the 1990s that nobody really knows who shot and killed those FBI agents that day on Pine Ridge back in 1975. A former judge who had presided over Mr. Peltier’s early court cases,
the late Gerald Heaney, went on to insist that Mr. Peltier deserved clemency.

Mr. Peltier, for his part, has confirmed that he was there at the Pine Ridge shootout that day, but has always maintained his innocence in the unfortunate deaths of the two FBI agents.

Among the
many persons around the globe who have called for Leonard Peltier’s release from prison in the USA over the years are two people you deeply respect, President Obama: the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, also of South Africa. Mr. Mandela served 27 years for a crime he did not commit; by comparison, Mr. Peltier is now in his fourth decade of incarceration in the USA for a crime that he too did not commit. Archbishop Tutu has called for Peltier to be granted parole and released due to a “failed” U.S. justice system.

Mr. Peltier’s health is also failing him. He has not received the medical attention he desperately needs, and the prison authorities seem to be in no hurry to allow him to get well soon. His time is running out, and he and his family and supporters are appealing one last time for Mr. Peltier to be released before his health takes a turn for the worse and it becomes too late.

Mr. Peltier
shared these sentiments in a letter he released earlier this year on June 26, which marked 41 years to the day since the shootout at Pine Ridge that later led to his imprisonment: “As the last remaining months of President Obama’s term pass by, my anxiety increases. I believe that this president is my last hope for freedom, and I will surely die here if I am not released by January 20, 2017.”

For First Nations peoples throughout the U.S., Mr. Peltier’s treatment at the hands of the authorities over these past four decades has represented one travesty of justice in a long line of injustices over the past few centuries. President Obama, you have some credibility among Native American communities in the U.S. — please use that credibility and do the right thing. Release Leonard Peltier to his family and his people right away. Let the healing begin to take place that needs to take place.

As you may recall, the last time that a U.S. president grappled with the decision to grant executive clemency to Leonard Peltier was back in late 2000, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office. President Clinton eventually decided to leave Mr. Peltier behind in prison and, instead,
granted a pardon to one of the president’s own wealthy supporters, a billionaire who was then hiding out overseas to escape prosecution for the U.S. federal crime of tax evasion. President Obama, please do not make the same mistake that your predecessor in the White House, Mr. Clinton, did: Release Mr. Peltier unconditionally with a full pardon. Forty years is long enough for anyone to have to wait for justice in the USA. You now have the political authority and the opportunity to make sure that justice is finally done in the case of Mr. Peltier, and by extension, to all of his people.

No doubt you would be roundly condemned by the FBI for daring to call for Mr. Peltier’s release — just as many of Mr. Peltier’s supporters, at home and abroad, have been criticized over the years for daring to stand up and demand that justice be done in the case of Mr. Peltier. But it is a call you must make, President Obama, and soon, before Mr. Peltier’s time truly does run out. In any case, you can rest assured that you would have the support of many, many more people around the world, should you decide that Mr. Peltier is to receive a presidential pardon. History would certainly be on your side for doing the right thing at the end of your presidency.

Let justice take its well-deserved course, and let the long-overdue closure begin with Leonard Peltier’s first steps outside of a prison cell, which he should never have been sent to in the first place. Let Mr. Peltier, now a respected elder, live out the remainder of his days in the care and comfort of his family and community, serving society in ways he sees fit.

Mr. President, I cannot urge you strongly enough to grant a pardon to Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier before you leave office. Please make his release from prison after 40 years a top priority in the months to come.

Respectfully yours,

Brian Ohkubo Covert
Kawanishi, Japan


_________________
For further reference:
International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee
Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (excerpts, 2000) by Leonard Peltier
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (excerpts, 1992 updated edition) by Peter Matthiessen
Warrior — The Life of Leonard Peltier documentary film (1992)
Incident at Oglala documentary film (1992)

American Dream, Chilean Nightmare

Pedro Pablo Barrientos came to the United States in 1990 to make a new start in life. Leaving his native country of Chile in South America and arriving in the U.S. southern state of Florida with little money and a broken marriage behind him, he managed to get a job in landscaping at first, then worked at a few restaurants and eventually ran his own pizza joint — a sure sign that you have made it in the USA.

His most recent job, as a restaurant cook, was one he had held for about a decade. He is retired now, and at age 67, he lives in Deltona, Florida and is still struggling financially. He manages to survive thanks to his social security welfare payments from the U.S. government.

“I came looking for the American dream like everyone else,”
Barrientos reminisces today. “I was not running from anything.”

But something was chasing him just the same: his own sordid past as a military officer and reputed killer. It was a past Barrientos seems to have told few about — not even U.S. immigration officials when he applied for, and received, U.S. citizenship in 2010.

Barrientos’ sordid past finally caught up with him last month when a jury in Florida found him
guilty in a civil lawsuit for the death of a fellow countryman. That countryman was Víctor Jara, the much-loved Chilean singer-songwriter and theater director who was imprisoned, tortured and executed during the Chilean military’s coup of the government of that country on September 11, 1973. That coup led to the ouster, and death, of democratically elected president Salvador Allende of Chile and put the Yankee-supported psychopathic army general Augusto Pinochet in power for the next 17 years.

That day of infamy is still known by the Chilean people as the “first 9-11” terrorist attack — a brutal military takeover of a legitimate government that was sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Jara was just one of thousands of Chilean citizens at the time who got caught up in a bloody rampage by the Chilean military that still stands as one of the worst acts of political repression in modern times.

Víctor Jara was a popular Chilean figure in those days, and the U.S. poodle press likes to call him “The Bob Dylan of Chile”. But that description is nowhere near accurate. Jara was far more revolutionary in his outlook and in his wide body of artistic work than Dylan ever was. Unlike Dylan, Jara was very much a People’s Poet and a champion of the common working person in his country. Jara went down into the Chilean mines (which, by the way, were dominated by U.S. multinational corporations) together with the Chilean miners. Jara wrote songs about love, about life under extreme poverty in a
población (slum), about people joining together in a common struggle for a more equitable society. No disrespect intended at all to Mr. Zimmerman and his many fans in North America, but Bob Dylan’s musical output and social activism simply pale in comparison with that of Víctor Jara. And that’s why Jara was killed by soldiers of his own country during the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile in 1973: He was despised by them and by the elite class of Chilean society.

In the recent trial, Barrientos was accused by some of the former soldiers under his command as being the one who pulled the final trigger and executed Víctor Jara in the inner bowels of the Estadio Chile [Chile Stadium], a multipurpose sports and concert complex in downtown Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Barrientos denies that account and says he knew nothing about Jara’s execution during the 1973 coup — in fact, he says, he didn’t even know what Jara looked like. A dubious claim, to be sure, since Víctor Jara was one of the most recognizable public faces in all of Chile at the time.

The lawsuit was brought against Barrientos by the San Francisco, California-based
Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf Víctor Jara’s surviving family members: wife Joan Jara, a British expatriate in Chile, and their two children Manuela and Amanda. The legal victory is a landmark case and sets a solid legal precedent for bringing well-protected killers to justice many years after the crime has been committed.

But who was Barrientos being protected by? The U.S. government, it would seem, though that protection apparently did not come up as an issue in the recent court case against Barrientos. And it would not be the first time: There have been other known cases of Latin American killers hiding out on U.S. soil with help from the American government and never having to face justice for their crimes, of which
Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles are just two.

So, what happens next? The verdict by a Florida court against Barrientos will probably be appealed, and since it is a civil lawsuit and not a criminal one, there is no rush for the U.S. government to extradite Barrientos, a wanted man, back to Chile, where
he was convicted in absentia four years ago in connection with the death of Víctor Jara. But that is exactly what the Obama administration must do, and soon — extradite Barrientos back to Chile once and for all to face the music.

The music of Víctor Jara, that is, which is as socially relevant and timeless today as it was four decades ago. Let the people of Chile decide how Barrientos and other such cowards in the Chilean military must be dealt with. And if an abrupt extradition back to Chile interrupts Sñr. Barrientos’s “American Dream” in a safe, comfortable Florida suburb, then so be it. True justice is a small price to pay for the nightmare that the people of Chile were put through back in 1973 and which they have been suffering all these years.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for a documentary film in progress titled
The Resurrection of Victor Jara, which will cover his life and work, and show just why he is still so beloved in Chile, throughout Latin America and indeed around the world all these years later. His story continues to be told and his songs are still being sung by people anywhere seeking hope and a way forward in bleak and trying times.

Víctor Jara vive!
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