On Susan Rosenberg and Black Lives Matter

          Since the uprisings against police state violence following a spate of recorded instances of brutality, there has been an unrelenting effort by far right and pro-establishment critics to tarnish organizations like Black Lives Matter. Not surprising for anyone who has studied US civil rights history. The American government has long sought to demonize anyone who dissents from their repression and violence. The latest effort has been to link BLM to terrorism.
          Susan Rosenberg, who apparently is on the board of directors of BLM, has become the latest victim of this old smear. According to Wikipedia:
“Rosenberg was charged with a role in the 1983 bombing of the United States Capitol Building, the U.S. National War College and the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, but the charges were dropped as part of a plea deal by other members of her group. After living as a fugitive for two years, she was arrested in 1984 with an accomplice, Timothy Blunk, while unloading 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons from a car into a storage locker in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Convicted of explosives possession, she received a 58-year-sentence, which was sixteen times the national average sentence for such offenses. Her lawyers contend that, had the case not been politically charged, Rosenberg would have received a five-year sentence.”
          After her release from prison, she was also made communications director of the American Jewish World Service, yet there was little said to denounce that organization or accuse it of being violent when this happened. So we should all understand that the basis of this is simple racism and suppression of dissent to state violence.
          Rosenberg became an activist at a time when the US was carpet bombing south Asian countries, napalming children, and spraying rain forests with Agent Orange. The FBI, who had just tried to convince Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide prior to his assassination, was also running the infamous COINTELPRO program which infiltrated and sought to discredit a wide spectrum of political organizations they saw as subversive. And scores of anti-racist activists were being targeted for non-violent protest. Rosenburg’s alleged crimes didn’t target innocent people and no lives were lost. One cannot say the same in regard to the millions lost around the world by US wars and state violence.
          Rosenberg spent her time in prison as an advocate for prisoner rights and for people with AIDS. Since then, she has devoted her life to activism on behalf of the poorest and the most vulnerable, both in prison and out, and of the global south which continues to suffer at the hands of American imperialism. That she has been chosen to serve on the board of directors for Black Lives Matter should not be seen as troubling in the least. On the contrary, as one of the most important mass movements of our time, it is absolutely where she belongs.
Kenn Orphan  July 2020

Elijah’s Life Mattered, Black Lives Matter

Elijah McClain taught himself how to play the violin which he would play to soothe stray kittens at the local shelter on his lunch break. He was a massage therapist, a vegetarian, a self described pacifist, and was described by all who knew him as a quirky and gentle soul.

On the night of August 24th, 2019, Elijah was walking home from the store in his neighborhood in Aurora, Colorado. He wore a ski mask as he had anemia and would get cold very easily. That night the Aurora Police Department received a call about a “suspicious person” walking and waving their arms. This call, like so many used against Black and Brown people, was a death sentence.

When the police arrived they assaulted Elijah, putting him in a choke hold. In a video clip of the incident McClain could be heard politely reasoning with officers: “I’m an introvert, please respect my boundaries that I am speaking.” A plea that would go ignored. His last words underscored the generous compassion and humanity of this young man:

“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”

Elijah had no weapon, only a can of ice tea he had bought for his brother. After passing out from the choke hold, a medic injected him with ketamine before he was taken to a local hospital. Just days later he was taken off life support after he was declared brain dead. He was only 23 years old.

Tonight, in Colorado, scores of violinists have flown in to honor Elijah. Because his life mattered. Just like George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and too many others to list here.

Elijah’s life mattered. Black lives matter.

Kenn Orphan   June 2020

Remembering Paulinho Paiakan

“The forest is one big thing; it has people, animals, and plants. There is no point saving the animals if the forest is burned down; there is no point saving the forest if the people and animals who live in it are killed or driven away. The groups trying to save the races of animals cannot win if the people trying to save the forest lose; the people trying to save the Indians cannot win if either of the others lose; the Indians cannot win without the support of these groups; but the groups cannot win either without the support of the Indians, who know the forest and the animals and can tell what is happening to them. No one of us is strong enough to win alone; together, we can be strong enough to win.” – Paulinho Paiakan, Chief of the Amazonian Kayapo tribe

 

Paiakan is being remembered today for his tireless fight to save the Amazon rainforest from destruction. For decades, the Brazilian government has failed the people of the Amazon and its unique and fragile biosphere by capitulating to logging, mining and ranching interests.

Under the far right government of Jair Bolsonaro, the onslaught has only accelerated. This, along with climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, presents an existential threat to indigenous people in the region as well as the precious forest they depend upon, as well as protect.

Paiakan died on the 16th of this month after being hospitalized from complications related to Covid-19. May he rest in peace and in power, and may we continue to champion his struggle to protect our fragile biosphere.

Kenn Orphan   June 2020

Aunt Jemima and the Poison she Peddled

Apparently, there are whole bunch of middle aged, middle class white folks losing their minds over the end of “Aunt Jemima.” The brand capitalized on the “mammy” stereotype, a vestige of slavery that portrayed older black women in a cartoonish manner. For over a century following the Civil War many white Americans used the avatar on the plastic bottle as a surrogate for a real mammy. It is one of many racist, demeaning and dehumanizing caricatures that have a long legacy in the US.
There is even a myth going around social media that the inspiration for Aunt Jemima “died a millionaire.” Nancy Green was indeed born into slavery, and she was hired to promote the brand. But the stories she told to largely white audiences were all fabrications with the intent of romanticizing slavery to sell a product in an era of Jim Crow segregation and lynching of black and brown people. Green did become an activist against poverty and for racial justice, but she worked as a housekeeper up to a few years before her death. There is no indication that she had any fortune to draw upon.
The end of one stereotype is a good thing. But before anyone is inclined to praise Quaker Oats or its parent company PepsiCo, we should understand that corporations have no interest in justice. Their sole concern is the bottom line, and that is impacted by public opinion. It is quite simple, the demographic audience has shifted, and middle aged, middle class white folks aren’t quite as important to it as they used to be. It is quite ironic that the so-called “free market” that they have constantly praised is, at least in this case, working against their prejudices.
And we should not lose sight of the fact that the product itself hasn’t changed a bit. Indeed, the poisons peddled by the food industry are more egregious than the branding. After all, the ingredients of this “syrup” are, first and foremost, high fructose corn syrup and water with cellulose gum and “FDA recognized chemical preservatives” like sodium benzoate and sodium hexametaphosphate. The pancake mix includes bleached flour, sodium aluminum phosphate and “traces of milk.”  Yum!
So maybe, along with jettisoning demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes we should also jettison a “food” industry which has poisoned people for profit for decades.
*Title photo is an earlier “Aunt Jemima” compared with the brand in 2020.
Kenn Orphan  June 2020

Old Sins Cast Long Shadows

On this day in 1944, 14 year old George Stinney, Jr. was executed by electric chair in South Carolina for allegedly killing two young white girls. He was the youngest person to be executed in the United States. 70 years later he was exonerated of the crime.
In a courtroom packed with around 1000 people, where black people were prohibited, George was convicted by an all white jury in less than 10 minutes in a trial that lasted a mere two and a half hours. He had no attorney representation prior to the trial, a practice which was legal at the time. There was no evidence provided against him except the testimony of three white police officers, and his defense attorney called no witnesses, did no cross-examinations, and refused to appeal the conviction. George’s parents were not permitted to see him prior to trial, and were only allowed one visit before execution. They were forced to go into hiding due to mass lynching of black and indigenous peoples at the time.
George’s execution was nothing less than a barbaric feat of gruesome cruelty. The 5 foot, 1 inch tall, 90 lb boy had to have a bible placed under him because he did not fit the electric chair. He sobbed as he was strapped into the chair and looked toward his father who was allowed to be there. Because of his size, the adult face mask did not fit and fell off during the execution revealing the horror to all those present. His torturous execution lasted an agonizing 8 minutes.
George Stinney, Jr. was executed at time of Jim Crow segregation, where thousands of black, brown and indigenous people were being lynched. Yet it would be far too easy to relegate this tragedy to society’s sins of the past. It has been seventy-six years since this particular act of barbarity and we are still seeing the ripples of systemic racism persist. Amidst unprecedented protests against systemic, racist police brutality, scores of non-violent people have been injured or killed by the police or others. Thousands have been tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, and beaten. At least five black men have been found hanged outside public buildings across the country. All have been ruled suicides almost immediately by authorities, despite glaring discrepancies. And a sitting president continues to stoke the fears of racist animus among his feckless fans. All of this speaks to this unfinished chapter of history that the powerful ignore to the detriment of justice for everyone else. And if we allow cynical misanthropy, repression, and self interest continue to cast its shadow over our world, all to preserve a status quo rooted in inequality, we will have only ourselves to blame for the fire next time.
Kenn Orphan   June 2020
Photo is of George Stinney, Jr.

Raise the Flag for Sarah

I am so saddened to hear of the death of Sarah Hegazy. She was a courageous anti-capitalist Queer activist who was imprisoned in Egypt in 2017 following a music event in Cairo. Her supposed “crime” was the simple gesture of raising a rainbow flag at the concert. She endured terrible abuse in prison and had to flee to Canada following her release for her own safety. While she was in exile, her mother died, and she was unable to say goodbye. Yesterday, she took her own life.

As LGBTQ people, we often face prejudice, discrimination, alienation and violence from our own communities. The toll on our mental and emotional health can be overwhelming and for many the pain often feels like too much to bear. But for those in deeply conservative societies, it can be even more excruciating. Queer folks face terror and brutality all around the world. But Egypt, in particular, has been extraordinarily repressive and brutal in this way.

Under the corrupt leadership of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military junta rules the country which has waged war on any kind of dissent, political or otherwise. Imprisonments, beatings, torture, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and sexual violence against critics are routine. And this has only emboldened the most ultra-conservative and fascistic elements of the society. For instance, Muslim clerics and Christian priests have been relentless in their persecution of the LGBTQ community, as well as women and non-conforming people. So Sarah’s courage in the midst of this was something incredibly formidable.

These words are the last ones Sarah wrote:

“To my siblings,
I tried to survive but I failed; forgive me.
To my friends,
The journey was cruel and I am too weak to resist; forgive me.
To the world,
You were cruel to a great extent; but I forgive you.”

Rest in peace and in power, dear Sarah. You did not fail and there is nothing to forgive. No human being should endure what you endured. But you will not be forgotten. People of conscience will carry your light forward, and it is something that we will never allow to be extinguished by hate.

Sarah Hegazy, Presente!

#RaiseTheFlagForSarah 🏳️‍🌈

 

Kenn Orphan  June 2020

On Casting Shadows

In the wake of George Floyd’s horrendous lynching by cops caught on film, there are some equally horrendous things being said about his character. Candace Owens, the darling of the hate-filled far right among others, began disparaging him before his body was even cold. Owens is a talentless hack who merely provides a convenient black face for modern white supremacy, and she gets paid well for doing so. But white supremacists and apologists for police brutality have been working tirelessly to sling mud on Floyd’s character in an effort to disparage the justified rage and protests against state violence and institutional racism, and the ruthless response to them.

 

Some are focusing more on Floyd’s alleged crime of trying to use a $20 counterfeit bill than the murder itself, a risible obsession in a society where banks and corporations get billions in bailouts. There have even been a few saying he did drugs and appeared in a porn flick, as if they are justifications for what happened to him. Others are trying to play both sides saying, “well I don’t agree with what the officers did, but Floyd was not a good person either.” Such mealy-mouthed appeals to power are just as loathsome.  All of this reminds me of when people attack a rape victim because she or he or they supposedly committed a petty crime, or because they “slept around,” or they were into BDSM, or they were a sex worker, or they were “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” or they were wearing provocative clothing. In another words, “they deserved what they got.”

 

First off, the “war on drugs” has always been a vile construct that was designed to crush communities of color, the working poor and marginalized people. It holds absolutely no moral currency. All of this is observable in its uneven metric. Black communities face far harsher punishment for the same “crimes” as their white peers. Second, the accusation of sexual impropriety has been used by the powerful for centuries as a moral bludgeon against anyone seeking justice, especially against Black people, women and LGBTQ people. Simplistic stereotypes abound as a means of justifying state violence against the bodies of those who are dehumanized. And as we can see, this vile legacy continues today.

 

Seeing all of this should enrage anyone with a conscience, but it most certainly enrages me. I’ve done a hell of a lot (and still do) that many would not approve of. Many would be shocked by some or a lot of it. In fact, if the police killed me today I know it would only be a short time before there would be allegations or photos and all sorts of mud slung the direction of my corpse. The point is to strip a person of their humanity. This is what power does to anyone who opposes it. It is what it has always done.

 

We should have no patience with the smothering, sanctimonious and sexually repressive legacy of white American puritanism. Its scratchy robes of suffocating conformity and piety are repulsive, and it has always been used as a vehicle for oppression. In every case, we should side with the witches, not those who burned or hanged them. We should not countenance anyone judging our worth or the worth of those who have been historically marginalized. And there is a greater solidarity that is achieved from jettisoning the constraints of a repressive society. Often it means people will part from you. Often it means you will lose status or standing in certain communities. But when you grow into your personhood and step out of the shell that a repressive society has hemmed you into, you must expect, and even welcome, the exit from your life those people who cannot walk with you on your journey as equals.

 

We will never curry favor, as Candace Owens seeks to do, from the powerful. Those who are eager to dehumanize or demonize the oppressed. Nor should we try. After all, they are a rather pitiful lot who live in ivory towers composed of endless corridors of closets, ones which are packed with dried skeletons. Their only concern is holding tight to their ill-gotten privilege, and they live in constant fear that their judgmental peers will discover them. It is nothing to envy. When they cast their shadow, they are merely attempting to deflect the light from their own deadened souls. So be careful not to emulate them. Because the shadow they project on others is the one that will inevitably, some day, fall back on them.

 

Kenn Orphan   June 2020

 

Lead photo by Kenn Orphan.

It Can Happen Here

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” — Vladimir Lenin

With a global pandemic where over 100,000 Americans are dead, staggering unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, the ever present and unfolding threat of climate change fueled catastrophes, white supremacist agitators, the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth today is facing the perfect storm. Quite possibly, its quietus. At the center of this firestorm, an unhinged emperor is fanning the flames.

Donald Trump is that emperor, and regardless of what some might say about the limits on the executive branch, the president has sweeping powers to use the military and to detain anyone, including American citizens, indefinitely. Given the track record of this one, there is no reason to think he will not use every power he has been granted. And it is all legal thanks to the Patriot Act and provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). He also has power under the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy the military domestically. This law was originally created to prevent so-called “hostile incursions of the Indians.” It it any surprise that Trump would look to a tool of racist colonial oppression as a solution?

That Trump has declared Antifa a terrorist organization also has frightening implications. Although he has no legal power to do this, his words alone have power. Already, US Attorney General William Barr has said that he will treat protesters as domestic terrorists and has blamed all of the violence on “far left extremists” without any evidence whatsoever. There was no mention of white supremacist groups who have been active throughout the protests. Prior to this, he requested “emergency powers” from congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Antifa is not an organization, it is an umbrella term for anti-fascist protesters who are autonomous. Therefore, any protester against fascism can be labeled under this broad term if it suits them to do so for the purpose of crushing dissent.

No empire has ever gone down peacefully. And there is usually a long timeline of decay. We have witnessed much of this decline over the last few decades. But events are not always evenly paced.  Sometimes major shifts or shocks can occur within days or weeks, and such things can inflict terrible pain for many. We must not assume that “it can’t happen here.” Because, in truth, “it” already has. Over and over and over again. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century.

On a much more personal note, I want to urge my friends, family and comrades in the States to be alert and careful. This is not to make anyone fearful of dissent, organizing, or protesting injustice.  We need to stand in solidarity against racism, brutality and fascism. But the US has always been a dangerous place, especially for people of color, Native Americans, Latinx, women, the poor, LGBTQ, marginalized communities, immigrants, and political dissenters, and I fear that there is something very different unfolding now. Something quite ominous. I sincerely hope I am wrong. But anyone taking a stand needs to understand the risks involved. Standing united in solidarity is the only way to weather what lies ahead.

Stay alert, stay safe, stand in solidarity and stand for justice.

 

Kenn Orphan   June 2020

Preaching Non-Violence from a Legacy of Violence

          This weekend is the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” but I know too many white Americans who have never even heard of it. White mobs took to the streets and even to the air to firebomb the most financially successful Black community in the US. Thirty-five city blocks were burned to ash. Hundreds of Black residents were killed and at least 800 injured. Thousands of people lost their homes and their livelihoods. Most never recovered a single dollar of what was robbed of them by those raging mobs.

Also Today, I have seen several white folks chiding people of color for alleged vandalism and looting following protests for the police murder of George Floyd. Apart from the fact that many of those doing the damage are agents provocateurs (people purposely doing damage to change public opinion against protesters, who may also be white supremacists or even undercover police), or that police response to peaceful protests have been aggressive (tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray), and that Black activists have been assisting in clean up efforts, we white folks have no position of moral agency to scold anyone.

Human life supersedes property. And after centuries of ethnic cleansing, genocide, the African slave trade, massacres, Jim Crow, anti-Chinese immigrant laws, lynching, internment of Japanese citizens in concentration camps, residential schools, segregation, redlining, grossly unequal justice systems, crime bills that target Black and Brown youth for minor offenses, police brutality, “Stop and Frisk” harassment, caging Latin American immigrant children, and continued systemic and cultural discrimination, white people should be the last ones to lecture any person of color about the virtues of non-violence.

          Kenn Orphan   May 2020 

*Photo is the aftermath of the Black neighborhood of Tulsa in 1921.

The Sadism of American Power

It was just a couple of weeks ago that President Trump was both inciting and praising anti-lockdown protesters around the country. These included armed white militia men who stormed state capitol buildings demanding an end to public health measures to curb the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus. Many of them were filmed harassing nurses and blocking ambulances from reaching hospitals, but to Trump they were all just “good people.” He did this all while the deaths in the US from the pandemic lurched toward the 100,000 mark, the highest recorded death toll for any nation on the planet.

But in just the span of a few days Trump’s rhetoric shifted. After the sadistic murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, he labeled the protesters against police brutality “thugs” and tweeted “once the looting starts the shooting starts.” A clear call for state violence. Floyd was a Black man who was accused of using a $20 counterfeit bill. For this he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by several white officers. One of them, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for an agonizing 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as he gasped for air, begged for his life, and called out for his late mother. At no time did Floyd appear to be resisting and bystanders pleaded with the officers to stop their assault. Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck for 2 minutes and 53 seconds after he lost consciousness.

 

Trump’s shift in tone regarding the protests of this horrific act of brutality shouldn’t come as any surprise. One of his most consistent traits has been to incite violence. At his rallies he has reveled in ridiculing the most vulnerable and has encouraged his feckless fans to “beat the crap” out of those who oppose him. “The man who once said that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” was not kidding. More recently, Trump threatened protesters against police brutality outside the White House:

 

“The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic. Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. ‘We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and … good practice.”

 

But Trump is the odious symptom of a grave disease. One which has inflicted far more damage than any virus. The systemic violence of the American project has always been rooted in sadistic racism. For instance, the demonstrations that formed after the footage of George Floyd’s killing was released were largely non-violent. Despite this, they have been met with the full force of state violence. Police used tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and rubber bullets, not only at protesters but also members of the press. One Black reporter for CNN was arrested while his white colleagues were not despite them being together. There were also many credible reports of agents provocateurs among the protesters. One video shows a white man in a gas mask smashing windows. The US Customs and Border Patrol even flew one of its predator drones around Minneapolis amidst the protests. Like the tanks used at Standing Rock, this is an ominous sign that America’s war machine, that has made life a misery for millions abroad, is being turned inward.

There were no such police responses to the anti-lockdown protests which were composed mostly of white people. On the contrary, multiple videos show cops gently dealing with unruly white protesters despite many of them wielding assault rifles. It is a textbook example of structural racism at work. Given the armed nature of these demonstrations, one would guess that had there been a forceful approach by the police they would have been far more destruction than the “I Can’t Breathe” protests in Minneapolis and other US cities.

 

Trump’s blatant racism and belligerence are not anomalies to American culture. And those tempted to say “this is not us,” yet again, should pause before doing so. At a certain point there must be a reckoning to what America started out as and what it has become. The United States was founded upon white supremacy and violence. And it is not something of the distant past. Its tendrils reach deep into the very fabric of American society today.

Like all colonial empires, sadism has always been the driving force of American power. Not freedom. Not liberty. From genocide of the native population to centuries of slavery, from Jim Crow and the internment of Japanese citizens, from the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to drone strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia, from Wounded Knee, to the Trail of Tears, to the Tulsa Massacre, to My Lai, to Abu Ghraib, to Guantanamo, the message has always been one of coercion through sadistic cruelty and violence. It explains how 48% of Americans can justify torture. It explains how so many Americans can easily forgive their war criminals. It explains how the US military could use Agent Orange, and white phosphorus, and depleted uranium in its warfare. It explains how immigrant children can be separated from their parents with nearly 70,000 of them held in squalid detention camps. And it has always thrived on supremacy. This is demonstrable in its abysmal response to the pandemic. Most of the victims in the US are people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, and the poor. It is no accident that they are being forced back to work in many states and abandoned to die should they become ill.

 

The knee that mercilessly crushed the neck of George Floyd is the same knee that has crushed the global south everywhere, both in the US and abroad. The US is not alone in this, but it surpasses every one else in terms of capital and brute strength. To think that Trump is some kind of glitch is both ahistorical and ludicrous. Indeed, there have been scores of Trumps throughout the bloody history of the US and before. There are scores of them now, and many in positions of power, from the military, to ICE, to the CBP, to the judiciary, to the police, to correctional officers, to corporate executives. Trump has definitely emboldened them. But, in truth, they do not need much encouragement to begin with, because there is a long legacy of barbarism for any of them to draw from.

 

Kenn Orphan  May 2020