“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Lenin
Between 1973 and 1990 scores of people were disappeared by the US supported fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. They were incarcerated, tortured and thousands were murdered. In fact, the official total of those killed by the regime is just over 40,000. But some critics suggest it was much higher. Pinochet was able to do all of this with the blessing of the CIA who assisted him in the coup against the elected President, Salvador Allende, and in his reign of terror afterward in Chile. The painful lessons of the Pinochet years has often been obscured under neoliberal historical revisionism, but with what is currently unfolding in cities like Portland, Oregon, it is urgent to revisit them.
When Donald Trump’s federal agents rolled into Portland last week, they began to employ classic police state tactics of intimidation. Tear gas was employed, “non-lethal” munitions, and the psychological terror of unmarked vans snatching protesters, and even those simply standing by, off the streets without arrest warrants and whisked off to undisclosed locations. The use of forced disappearance should not be underestimated because it is, perhaps, the most effective tactic at crushing dissent and eliminating political rivals.
Under the fist of General Pinochet, the state became a ruthless force of terror. In September of 1973, at least 10,000 people, many of them students, activists and political dissidents, were rounded up by the military shortly after he took the office of the presidency by a US supported and orchestrated coup.They were taken to the National Soccer Stadium in Santiago where they were subjected to torture or were massacred outright. Thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves. Thousands were never recovered as they were discarded in rivers and even in the Pacific Ocean. Even today, families await justice and the chance to bury their loved ones.
Forced disappearances are a crime against humanity according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And there is no statute of limitations on this crime. But, as we have seen over the past few decades, the US government and military cares little for the international rule of law. Indeed, it has enjoyed impunity for its atrocities while those who violate these statutes in the Global South are often brought to trial and punished severely. The US invasion of Iraq, along with the occupation and atrocities are clear examples of this. And under Trump, the American Empire has divorced itself even more from international bodies that seek at least some regulation of state excesses or the management of crises. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his recent withdrawal from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic point to a brazen disinterest in engaging with the international community.
Pinochet’s Chile was not alone in its use of forced disappearances. During the Dirty War in Argentina at least 30,000 people were disappeared and murdered by the US backed, rightwing military junta. In fact, under the US implemented and CIA backed and assisted “Operation Condor,” which targeted leftist or socialist political activists, student organizers, and academicians, the entire South American continent became a killing field from the 1970s well into the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, the genocidaire Henry Kissinger was deeply involved in these atrocities in much the same way as he was in Southeast Asia and on the African continent. And he assisted in marrying federal agencies, surveillance and state police, and paramilitary mercenaries and death squads to one another in order to carry out the crimes successfully.
It is not hyperbolic for there to be great alarm over Trump’s use of forced disappearances. Although there have been no deaths because of it, his flouting of the rule of law and use of this tactic of terror is not an accident. And the people under him have proven time and time again that they are ever willing to carry out his orders. As the election looms in November, we should not underestimate the timing of this either. Across the nation protests have arisen to confront the long legacy and continuing ruthlessness of racist, police state violence. The rage has been simmering for a long time, and the murder of George Floyd ignited and galvanized millions to take a stand. To Trump, who is one of the most overtly racist presidents to have taken office since Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, this represents the greatest threat to his legitimacy.
The US is now leading the world in cases of Covid-19 with over 140,000 deaths. Indeed, the pandemic is currently wreaking havoc on an American healthcare system which was already suffering from disorganization and beholden to the whims and will of merciless capitalist predation. When Trump came in, he literally threw out the handbook on how to deal with global pandemics, so the ongoing protests to police brutality provide him a perfect distraction from his colossal blundering and incompetence.
And of course, there are other ingredients to this recipe for disaster. Trump faces a weak candidate in Joe Biden, who cannot seem to form a coherent opposition to his blatant fascist impulses. If there is no meaningful alternative that represents real change in ordinary people’s lives then, like it or not, the people will not bother to vote. There is also the precarious economic situation, the elephant in the room that few wish to acknowledge. With millions unemployed and facing eviction or foreclosure, the elements of fascism may be coalesced even further. God help us if a climate change fueled catastrophe comes this summer or in the fall, because it will be the perfect storm for him to pull whatever levers necessary for him to quell dissent and remain in power. He has such mechanisms at his disposal thanks to the Patriot Act and the NDAA. He can detain any US citizen indefinitely by merely calling them a terrorist, thanks to legislation designed and endorsed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And he has already begun branding anyone who opposes his tyranny, like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, with that spurious charge.
The uprisings taking place across the US are the stirrings of a global mass movement that shows great promise. That they are taking place in the most wealthy and powerful empire on the planet is an indication that this empire itself is beginning to unravel under the weight of its hubris and a long legacy of cruelty, racism and brutality. But no one should underestimate the tremendous pain a wounded giant can inflict as it falls. Its violence is unoriginal, but it will use the only tactics it knows. And we should remember that it is very familiar with atrocities, because it has visited them frequently on the Global South for decades. Portland is a portent. And, as Lenin inferred in the quote above, things can happen rapidly and in a short span of time. We would be wise to heed these urgent lessons before it is too late.
Kenn Orphan July 2020
Lately, there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without another viral video of some white American going ballistic in public. Even before an outright racist was put in the Oval Office, in the age of social media we have been allowed to see countless moments of racist intimidation and threats that, although common, were most often hidden from public view. But the latest spate of outbursts seems to be related to mask wearing in stores and other public spaces to stem the spread of Covid-19. One incident involved a man in a Costco store in Florida who screamed at an elderly woman who asked him to wear a mask. The man yelled: “I feel threatened! Back off! Threaten me again!” as he stepped toward the woman in a threatening manner. This moment of unhinged rage would be like every other if it were not one other glaring characteristic about the man. He was wearing a t-shirt that read: “Running the world since 1776.”
To most Americans there is nothing odd about this t-shirt. I lived most of my life in the States and I understand the mindset. American Exceptionalism is a noxious myth that permeates virtually every aspect of the culture. It is embedded in almost every speech given by politicians from either side of the aisle. There was Ronald Reagan, the man who supported rightwing death squads and genocidaires in Central America, who described the US as being “a shining city upon a hill.” And there was Hillary Clinton who said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that the US is “the indispensable nation.” This was in 2013 after the invasion of Iraq. After Libya. After scores of atrocities committed by the American military and intelligence establishment. She went on to say: “we are a force for progress, prosperity, and peace.” Orwellian doublespeak in real time.
Indeed, Americans are constantly told they “live in the greatest country on earth.” But even prior to the pandemic around 60% of the population was not in possession of a passport. Meaning, most Americans have never been to another country, not even to one neighboring them to the north or south. So how, then, did they know they were the greatest country on earth? The oft used argument is that it is because so many people are clamouring to “get in.” Yet few Americans bother to ask why there are so many immigrants from certain countries as opposed to others. No one dare suggest that decades of belligerent and ruthless American foreign policy against these nations, which has destabilized and made life a misery for millions, might have something to do with this phenomenon. And this indicates how toxically uninterested and myopic the American worldview is.
Most Americans do not see themselves as imperialists. Yet this t-shirt, worn as a testament to ones’ patriotism, is emblematic of this detestable truth. And it belies the murderous foreign policy of the US government which has overseen countless atrocities, from the carpet bombing of South Asian countries, the invasion and bombings of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and beyond, and state-run gulags like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And the way in which America has “run” the world has most often been to suppress democracy and support dictatorships and oppressive governments who favor the interests of corporate capital.
In addition to this, the fact that this man employed the commonly used excuse of feeling threatened, when in fact he was the one making the threats, underscores the contradictory nature of this culture. How many police officers, for instance, have used this same excuse when shooting unarmed Black people or people of color? How often has this excuse been used by politicians and policy makers when justifying yet another military foray against a nation in the Global South?
The American project has always been predicated on two conflicting narratives. One is the supremacist myth of Manifest Destiny, a divine right to ethnically cleanse the land of indigenous peoples and grant it to white European settlers. This myth was built on the slave economy and its violent dominance would inevitably extend well beyond the continent. The other is the myth of the perpetually threatened “white race.” Throughout American history this has influenced and informed every policy and action of the settler state. Not only are non-whites, as well as whites who are non-conforming, to be cast as inferior players on the world stage, they are also to be seen as an existential threat to white people and white culture. They must therefore be subdued, assimilated, and if all this fails, they must be eliminated.
The man in that Florida Costco was asked to wear a mask by several people before he had that public meltdown. And in video after video the same scenario is being played out. Some throwing items of food around supermarkets, others brandishing firearms. All of the videos feature white people exploding in rage for simply being asked to care about the welfare of the most vulnerable people in their society, or to think deeply about the privileged status they have enjoyed thanks to their skin pigment. It is no coincidence that people of color, Indigenous, Latinx, and Black people in the US are the most impacted and devastated by Covid-19. On the contrary, this sad reality aligns perfectly with the precepts of a supremacist culture. Trump has emboldened this sense of white fragility, but a global pandemic has torn the garments of its entrenched conceit to shreds.
The t-shirt the Florida man was wearing was one of the most honest things I have seen emanate from far right, imperialistic, white America. “Running the world since 1776.” Indeed, the American Empire has been running things for that long, and ruining them as well. It has saturated the planet with its noxious ideology of capitalist predation, exported its tactics of political repression to client regimes and “allies,” bullied and brutalized the people of any nation that dared dissent, committed countless atrocities, and has defended corporations and businesses which have polluted vital ecosystems and accelerated climate catastrophe. So it is refreshing, given the current state of the world, that at least one of its subjects would finally take responsibility for its horrendous crimes, abysmal leadership and disastrous legacy.
Kenn Orphan July 2020
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
“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
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!
Kenn Orphan June 2020
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.