By Chris Hedges, weekly column on Truthdig, published on May 14, 2017
Forget the firing of James Comey. Forget the paralysis in Congress. Forget the idiocy of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president and the idiots that surround him. Forget the noise. The crisis we face is not embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. The crisis we face is the result of a four-decade-long, slow-motion corporate coup that has rendered the citizen impotent, left us without any authentic democratic institutions and allowed corporate and military power to become omnipotent. This crisis has spawned a corrupt electoral system of legalized bribery and empowered those public figures that master the arts of entertainment and artifice. And if we do not overthrow the neoliberal, corporate forces that have destroyed our democracy we will continue to vomit up more monstrosities as dangerous as Donald Trump. Trump is the symptom, not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. It began with the creation of corporate-funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of our horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights—privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close Trump adviser, to create negative political advertisements and false narratives to deceive the public, turning political debate into burlesque. On all these fronts we have lost. We are trapped like rats in a cage. A narcissist and imbecile may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state, and unless we dismantle that, we are doomed.
“What’s necessary for the state is the illusion of normality, of regularity,” America’s best-known political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, told me last week by phone from the prison where he is incarcerated in Frackville, Pa. “… In Rome, what the emperors needed was bread and circuses. In America, what we need is ‘Housewives of Atlanta.’ We need sports. The moral stories of good cops and evil people. Because you have that …. there is no critical thinking in America during this period. You have emotion [only]. When I look at someone who is demonized, I can do anything [to him or her]. I can do anything. That’s how the state works, by demonizing people and putting them in places where they’re virtually invisible.”
“Here’s the reality,” he went on. “America has never come to grips with what a lot of scholars and thinkers call the Original Sin. That’s because it never stopped happening. This country brags about being founded on freedom. It was founded on slavery. It was founded on holocaust. It was founded on genocide. After slavery ended, after the Constitution was rewritten and amended, we have the Reconstruction amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. But what did the South do? They ignored it for a century.”
“It isn’t until the ’60s that you see this deep, rich emergence of people fighting for rights that were enshrined in the Constitution a century before [between 1865 and 1870],” he said. “That’s because every state in the South and many states in the North were allowed to make exceptions to the Constitution when it came to black people. We learned that’s not just a Southern reality. You can’t talk about AEDPA, the so-called Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty [Act of 1996] unless you have the same mindset that makes the Constitution an exceptional document.”
Racist, violent and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape and have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. The corporate elites, however, frightened by what the political scientist Samuel Huntington called an “excess of democracy” that originated in the 1960s, methodically destroyed the democratic edifice. They locked the citizens out of government. And by doing so they made sure that power shifted into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots, cranks, conspiracy theorists, con artists, generals, billionaires and proto-fascists fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority. This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy and the former Yugoslavia.
Trump, an acute embarrassment to the corporate state and the organs of internal security, may be removed from the presidency, but such a palace coup would only further consolidate the power of the deep state and intensify internal measures of repression. Millions of people, including the undocumented, those who have felony convictions, those locked in cages and poor people of color, have already been stripped of their rights, and some have been indiscriminately murdered by police. These minorities’ reality of daily state terror, unless this process of corporate pillage is halted, will spread and become normal with or without Trump.
In Abu-Jamal’s book “Live From Death Row,” he recounts his protest at a 1968 rally in Philadelphia held by the segregationist George Wallace during one of the Alabama governor’s runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. It is a reminder that Trump’s racism and lust for violence have long been part of the American character.
Abu-Jamal writes of attending the rally with three other black teenagers:
We must’ve been insane. We strolled into the stadium, four lanky dark string beans in a pot of white, steaming limas. The bank played “Dixie.” We shouted, “Black Power, Ungowa, black power!” They shouted, “Wallace for president! White power!” and “Send those niggers back to Africa! We shouted, “Black power, Ungowa!” (Don’t ask what “Ungowa” means. We didn’t know. All we knew was that it had a helluva ring to it.) “Black power!” They hissed and booed. We stood up in our seats and proudly gave the black power salute. In answer, we received dubious gifts of spittle from those seated above. Patriots tore American flags from their standards and hurled the bare sticks at us. Wallace, wrapped in roars of approval, waxed eloquent. “When I become president, these dirty, unwashed radicals will have to move to the Sov-ee-yet Union! You know, all throughout this campaign these radicals have been demonstrating against George Corley Wallace. Well, I hope they have the guts to lay down in front of my car. I’ll drive right over ’em!” The crowd went wild.
“Some police and other security came,” Abu-Jamal told me about the incident. “They escorted us out. We thought hey, we had a little fun. Our voices were heard. We went to the bus stop. And two or three of us were on the bus. A young guy named Alvin and a young guy named Eddie. I was usually the slowest, so I was behind them. A guy walked up and hit me with a blackjack. Knocked me down. Pulled Eddie and Alvin off the bus. We were getting our asses kicked. It never dawned on us these were cops. They can’t just walk up to us and beat us up [I thought].”
“I remember seeing a cop’s leg walk by,” he said. “I shouted help! Help, police! The guy looked at me. Looked down at me. He walked over and kicked me right in the face. Then it dawned on me all of these guys were cops. That was a little taste of [what would happen later in] Philadelphia. An introduction to trauma. We see it today. I can hear Trump saying, ‘Beat the hell out of them.’ It’s like the old days. Those weren’t good days. Those were ugly days. And the ugly day is today.”
“I have been thankful to that faceless cop ever since,” Abu-Jamal writes of the assault, “for he kicked me straight into the Black Panther Party.”
Abu-Jamal’s experience embodies the endemic racism and collapse of the American court system that railroad young black men and women into prison and onto death row. The Federal Bureau of Investigation placed him under surveillance when he was 15 years old. His FBI file swelled to 700 pages. His crime was to be a dissident. He was followed, hauled in for questioning at random and threatened.
“While walking to work one day,” he writes, “I passed in front of an idling cop car. I glanced at the driver—white, with brown hair, and wearing dark shades. He ‘smiled,’ put his hand out the car window, and pointed a finger at me, his thumb cocked back like the hammer of a gun: bang—bang—bang—the finger jerked, as if from the recoil, and the cop gave it a cowboyish blast of breath before returning it to an imaginary holster. He and his pal laugh. Car rolls.”
The 1960s and 1970s saw a war on black radicals, which included FBI assassinations of leaders such as Fred Hampton. This war against radicals, President Nixon’s so-called battle for “law and order,” put the police, the FBI and other organs of internal security beyond the reach of the law. This power has only expanded since. We are all under state surveillance. And we can all become victims if the state deems us to be a threat. The loss of civilian oversight, along with the lack of transparency, is ominous.
Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of Daniel Faulkner, a white Philadelphia police officer. His trial was a sham. It included tainted evidence, suppressed defense witnesses, prosecution witnesses that contradicted their earlier testimony, a court-appointed lawyer, like most within the system, who was allotted few resources and had little inclination to defend his client, and a series of unconstitutional legal rulings by a judge out to convict the defendant. Terri Maurer-Carter, the stenographer at the trial, later signed an affidavit stating that during the trial she overheard the judge, Albert F. Sabo, say of Abu-Jamal, “Yeah and I’m gonna help ’em fry the nigger.” Sabo during his time on the bench sent 31 people to death row, more than any other judge in Pennsylvania. Abu-Jamal, who grew up in the housing projects of north Philadelphia, is imprisoned for our sins.
By 1977, Abu-Jamal, distressed by the internal feuding that tore apart the Black Panthers, had developed a close relationship with members of the Philadelphia MOVE organization. MOVE members lived communally, preached Third World radicalism, ate natural foods and denounced the established black leaders as puppets of the white, capitalist ruling elites.
The Philadelphia police, who constantly harassed the group, besieged the MOVE compound starting in late 1977. On Aug. 7, 1978, a gun battle erupted between people in the compound and police outside. A police officer was killed. Delbert Africa, a MOVE member, was savagely beaten in front of television cameras. Nine MOVE members would be charged with murder. The trial, like the one held four years later for Abu-Jamal, was a farce. It was clear, Abu-Jamal wrote of the legal lynching of the MOVE members, that “the law did not matter.” Two of the nine, Merle and Phil Africa, have died in prison. The seven other MOVE members remain, like Abu-Jamal, locked away and denied freedom by parole boards. Abu-Jamal was given life without parole after being taken off death row by the courts.
The Philadelphia police and the FBI were determined to root what remained of MOVE out of the city and do so with enough brutality to discourage any other black radicals from organizing.
“On May 12 [the date the two-day-long attack began], Sunday, Mother’s Day of 1985, our home was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of cops who came out there to kill not because of any complaints from neighbors but because of our unrelenting fight for our MOVE sisters and brothers known as the MOVE 9,” Ramona Africa told me in an interview last week. (Authorities, as one of their supposed justifications for acting against MOVE, cited neighborhood complaints about activities and conditions at the compound.) “We had been attacked and arrested in 1978. Thirty-nine years later, this August, they are still in prison. They became eligible for parole in 2008. The parole board just refuses to parole them.” [Chris Hedges’ interview with Ramona Africa begins at the 11-minute mark—click here for the video.]
“What people really need to understand is they did come out there [in 1985] to kill, not to arrest,” she said. “They could have arrested at any time. They did not come out there for any complaint from neighbors. Those running this country, this entire worldwide system, have never cared about black people complaining about their neighbors. It’s never been an issue. Obviously, it was something other than that. Which was our unrelenting fight for our family members who are still in prison. They shot over 10,000 rounds of bullets in on us within 90 minutes. They dropped a bomb.”
The bomb ignited a fire that burned down a city block containing 61 homes.
“The fire department, who was out there from the very beginning, was immediately aware that there was a fire on our roof,” she said. “A conscious decision was made to not fight the fire. To let it burn. When we realized our home was on fire, we immediately tried to get our children, our animals, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno. The instant we were visible to cops we were met with a barrage of police gunfire aimed at us so that we couldn’t escape that fire. After several attempts to get out, I got out first. I was able to get one of our children, a little boy named Birdie, out. We were immediately snatched into custody. I’m looking for the rest of my family. Trying to see if I could see anyone else. It was a little later after they had taken us into custody that I found out nobody else [in the MOVE group] survived.”
Eleven members of MOVE, including the founder of the group, John Africa, and five children, were killed in the police assault.
“The people who killed my family were never charged, never prosecuted, never imprisoned for anything,” she said. “Meanwhile, my nine MOVE sisters and brothers [convicted in the 1978 shootout], Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier [a Native American activist imprisoned in a South Dakota murder case], all the way down to line, are in prison with the accusation of murder.”
Abu-Jamal wrote, “May 13th, 1985, is more than a day of infamy, when a city waged war on its own alleged citizens, but also when the city committed massacre and did so with perfect impunity, when babies were shot and burned alive with their mothers and fathers, and the killers rewarded with honors and pensions, while politicians talked and the media mediated mass murder. On that day, the city, armed and assisted by the U.S. government, dropped a bomb on a house and called it law. The fire department watched buildings ignite like matches in the desert and cut off water. The courts of the land turned a blind eye, daubed mud in their socket, and prosecuted Ramona Africa for having the nerve to survive an urban holocaust, jailing her for the crime of not burning to death. Eleven men, women and children died, and not one killer was even charged with a misdemeanor.”
Ramona Africa, charged with “rioting,” spent seven years in prison. [For a 69-second video showing the bomb exploding on the Philadelphia compound roof in 1985, click here. For a 56-minute documentary about the assault on the compound and the circumstances surrounding it, click here.]
Our failure to defend those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted. Our failure to demand justice for everyone leaves us all without justice. Our failure to halt the crushing of popular movements that stand unequivocally with the oppressed leaves us all oppressed. Our failure to protect our democracy leaves us without a democracy. The persecution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, MOVE members and all the radicals of four decades ago is not ancient history. It is the genesis of the present. It spawned the corporate coup and the machinery of state terror. We will pay for our complacency.
Chris Hedges hosts ‘On Contact’, the weekly interview program on RT.com. The program of May 14, 2017 features an interview from prison with Mumia Abu-Jamal.