Abolitionist spirit: the role of outside agitators

An anecdote that may help stir your thoughts about what has been happening in Ferguson:

Saturday afternoon I attended a political meeting, held weekly. The planned roundtable was scrapped. M., the original presenter, instead traced the history that has led to Ferguson. It was an incredible journey, encompassing mob violence, Jim Crow, the Red Summer of 1919, deindustralization. On first glance it was incredible that our presenter could have put this together on short notice. However, as a black woman, her life has been affected deeply by these historical tendrils. White Americans have their own historical path that is second nature, but it’s radically different.

Subsequent discussion had many different threads, but the recurring one was the presence of “outside agitators” in Ferguson. I referenced an article published in Jacobin about the origin of the term, going back to how it was used to describe the Freedom Riders and those northerners who came to register voters and protest segregation.

There were some splits in opinion. I simply pointed out that a race-class struggle should not be confined to a small Missouri town, where the authorities have state and federal backing but the protestors do not. Our political group debated the usefulness and place of white anarchists, and groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who have been operating during the unrest. Do you criticize the moral stances of these groups, or just disagree about their tactics?

After a long back-and-forth among the members, M. got to close the discussion. What she said surprised me, and her point was powerfully made. This was a conviction.

Looking at the history of black people in the United States, one could say that outside agitators have been crucial to progress and freedom. In fact, she said that they were “the best thing to happen to black people.”

Oldest known portrait of John Brown, 1846 or 1847.

By far, the most deified group of Americans are the Founding Fathers. American mythology paints them as selfless, defenders of abstract ideas and promoters of radical concepts of freedom and equality.

Of course, that’s not true, and there are plenty of selfish reasons that these strata of people had for revolution. What M. said is that a much better embodiment of that commitment were the abolitionists in that period of 1820 to after the Civil War.

They too had selfish reasons for their actions, but when one looks at someone like Garrison or John Brown, you see the outside agitator in its full form. As Professor David Blight of Yale bluntly puts in in his (freely available) course on the Civil War era, John Brown was a white person who killed whites to free black slaves. The Founding Fathers never killed anyone to free blacks, but rather give them more personal power over slave policy. That has happened again and again, and let’s not just paint it as whites taking pity on blacks. It was people of all races, but outsiders none the less- be it a class difference, a political difference, or jut a geographic difference. Brown, for all his atrocities and personal faults, most likely accelerated the end of slavery. He agitated. He was an outsider. Someones you need a person to stir the pot.

Of course, M.’s opinion is her own, and that doesn’t mean it’s a popular one. The example of abolitionists is electrifying for me. It is a unique way of defending the outside agitator.

The controversy with calling everything a controversy

I generally don’t like the phrase ‘controversial’ as its used to describe conduct by politicians or celebrities.

A controversy involves a fundamental disagreement that two or more parties have for an extended period of time. In the context of politics, controversial is often used to describe remarks that are either:

a) clearly racist or prejudiced, which is almost always followed by some manner of apology (or dedicated non-apology), or
b) factually incorrect. It’s not ‘controversial’ to claim that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, it’s wrong.

The word seems to end up everywhere. Jonah Hill saying some bigoted shit a couple days ago is controversial. So is abortion policy. And the status of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. If most celebrities apologize for their behavior when confronted, there really isn’t some protracted disagreement. Perhaps the grave Alec Baldwin has been digging for a while might qualify, but that’s a rare instance. It’s not controversial, it’s cringe-worthy. Or just simply dumb.

From Conservative to UKIP, from Lib Dem to Labour.


English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23
English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23

So there is a massive election going on throughout Europe for the European Parliament, with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom voting Thursday, and the bulk of the continent following on Saturday. The election dynamic is an interesting one – historically the Parliament has been without much authority and thus most elections have had very low turnout. Two dynamics are at play that makes this one a bit different. The first is that since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU bodies have been gaining more authority. Thus these elections are gaining some importance, at least in terms of party prestige.

The second is that in the past few years there has been a sharp increase in eurosceptic parties – a generic term for any party that opposes their country’s inclusion in the European Union. These parties are on balance, though not exclusively, conservative to far-right.

Projections indicate a rise for a coalition headed by the UK Independence Party (‘UKIP’, which is said as a word) and increasing seats for parties to the right of UKIP, like the National Front in France. The influence of these parties is also creeping into other groups. The UK Conservatives are being hounded towards a referendum on Britain in the EU, and the Greens support a referendum out of the necessity of getting it over with and focusing on other policy issues.

What I’ve posted up are the current local election results for councils in England, which were held the same day. EU results will not be posted until Sunday (after all the other countries have voted), so this is the data we have to look at now. It is interesting because British political news has been dominated by three questions:

1) Is UKIP racist? The answer to this, at least from my perspective, is “at the very least, unintentionally.”
2) How big will UKIP’s win be, and will they win the European Parliament elections in the UK?
3) Where is UKIP getting all this support from?

The second question is outstanding, though polling indicates it’s likely. The third we can start looking at thanks to this local election data.

I’m going to make a theory based on the simplest look at this current data, which has been developing since returns started coming in. An issue with this is that positive results are necessarily good results. One can still underperform. However, it seems UKIP is getting their increased support from Conservatives that are either upset with the current Cameron administration, angry at the European Union, or both. It seems to me that the switch between the Liberal Democrats and Labour may also be a simple swing – people that aren’t Conservatives (which to some is a lifestyle, or a cultural taboo) but are tired of the coalition government are switching to Labour. The big loser is the UK government, the big winner are parties in the opposition. It’s something that looks familiar to any American who’s seen enough midterm elections, though this has the dynamic of a new political force entering and taking support, rather than it falling back to the traditional opposition.

The EU vote will be interesting for me, since the Greens enjoyed a late poll surge and may hit 10%. Local elections are a bit more difficult (the EU is very environmentally-focused, so a Green vote makes sense), but I hope they pick up a bit of support. As an outsider it’s difficult to grasp all the subtleties – much of the UK election has been about immigration, and I’m not part of the American contingent that thinks immigration is bad or dangerous.

At some level elections are always interesting. No matter what political body they are for, they can tell people, locals or foreigners, something about the country in question. Here we see two shifts, one against the incumbent regime, and another against the larger union that the United Kingdom is a key part of. Combined they benefit two different forces, namely the establishment opposition and the anti-EU front.

From the mass incarceration state: San Quentin News

The staff of the San Quentin News and its advisers.

A fascinating feature in the New York Times entitled “Inmates’ Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin’s Walls” shines a light on one of the very few newspapers in the world published by prisoners.

The work they do is fantastic (check out their current issue), and even if you’ve never done time, the focus on the justice system, appeals, parole, and what it’s like to live through American mass incarceration is incredible. They are looking to expand their circulation and allow more inmates to get copies for free. You can donate to them here – $25 gets you a year of the print newspaper, one issue a month.

As someone who runs reddit’s main prison reform community (/r/prisonreform), I was ecstatic to learn about this, and pitched in to help them in their mission. It’s difficult to get one’s head around how strange and twisted the US prison system has becomes, with California constantly fighting off court rulings telling them to address crippling overcrowding and an inadequate health system. The state prison mental and physical healthcare apparatus have been under federal control for almost nine years now, and may never return until the state has less than 137.5% capacity (you think this wouldn’t be hard, but mandatory minimums have made the system burst at the seams).

Give ’em a look.


“I’m not racist…”

Reading through a history of film textbook, the third chapter included something that pops up quite often among white people- and it’s a terrible and invalid excuse when it’s trotted out.

The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent film by D. W. Griffith, is as a historical marker important. Prior cinema tended to be short- less than half an hour, and had a fairly inert camera. Birth introduced film to the scale, length, and cinematography that would define the next hundred years. Children are taught “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” but not shown the Disney film it came from (Song of the South, here’s the song complete with offensive Uncle Tom character). Similarly, Birth is given much space within the book, but would be very difficult to watch. The pro-Ku Klux Klan message and cringe-inducing black caricatures  bury it in cinematic history.

Griffith didn’t understand the hostile reaction to what he had made. It was a huge financial success, yet met an avalanche of criticism from the large amount of the American public that didn’t buy into the Lost Cause mythos. He didn’t think see it as racist, and sunk a huge amount of money into Intolerance, a movie created solely to show how not-racist he was.

It reminds me of the defense made from many people in many places. The UK Independence Party has several recent examples- members say racist things, then dispute that they are racist, or that they don’t “understand” how people would be offended. It’s grouped with a faux-apology- “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” and its ilk.

White people, especially white men, seem to think this sort of dodge is acceptable. Being ignorant of how racism affects other people isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make one’s actions not-racist. Too often those who make a racist comment attempt to explain and justify it. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding. But sometimes it’s a privileged person ignoring public opinion. What people say or what they write and create can be deeply offensive. Just because there isn’t a rigid, natural structure to recognize and understand hate speech doesn’t mean it’s excusable.It’s better to educate yourself out of ignorance than create a fortress and defend the indefensible to the grave.

The truth is far wider than an individual’s perception. Personally each year I learn new things from new people- what offends them, and where does it come from? I don’t show up thinking I know everything about society. If I did, my ignorance would be all the more inexcusable.

One square meter of God’s earth

Yesterday I finished the superb documentary Saluteabout the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest of racism, and in solidarity with all black people. Their story is well known- the Olympic establishment reviled them, they were pushed out of the sport, and some purists maintain that by bringing politics into the games they tainted the incredible 200m times that they ran. Their image has been rehabilitated over time, especially as the Civil Rights movement became championed by a larger and larger segment of the American population.

The director, Matt Norman, focuses plenty of attention on the events surrounding the salute, such as the planned boycott by the black athletes, the Tlatelolco massacre that happened just before the games, and the controversial conduct of International Olympic Committee President Avery Brudage.

From left: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos

However, he has another agenda that he weaves in, and gives the documentary some of its most powerful moments. Matt is the nephew of Peter Norman, the white man sitting on the silver medal stand. Having seen this photo, one of those essential and iconic photos that defines the 1960s and the 20th century as a whole, the unanswered questions abound how did he fit into this? Did he know what they were going to do? Was he angry for being overshadowed?

The documentary draws power from two sources. The first is Peter Norman’s recollections, told in a measured Australian accent that give him a sense of presence that many sports documentary subjects lack. The second source is Smith and Carlos digging into the sense of duty and pride they still feel for having never backed down from their statement. All three have grown old and grey (Norman died in 2006, shortly after the documentary was filmed), but when they are together around a table there are fireworks.

Australia in the 1960s had a system of racial separation that would have gotten a huge amount of global scorn had it not been overshadowed by apartheid South Africa. The indigenous people were denied education and work, and most notably the Stolen Generations; Aborigine children were taken from their parents and placed in white-run schools where their original culture was suppressed. At the time of the games, this was still a common phenomenon.

Norman did not buy into the racial supremacy at all. Born into a devoutly Christian family with a history of service in the Salvation Army, he was taught that all people are created equal, regardless of their race. Thus when Carlos and Smith approached him about their plan, Norman not only endorsed it but asked to participate. In the picture all three men wear the white buttons of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a black-led organization dedicated to fighting oppression and racism.

While the discrimination against the two Americans is well-known, Norman’s secondary participation in the salute (and his later criticism of the White Australia policy) led to him being erased from Australian sporting history. Despite running a qualifying time for the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee did not take him. In fact, by doing so they for the first time had no sprinters in the games, which in retrospective is somewhat of an embarrassment. Despite claims that all living Australian Olympians would be at the 2000 Sydney Games, he was not invited. His invite came from a country where he is far more respected:

As soon as the U.S. delegation discovered that Norman wasn’t going to attend, the United States Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation. He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him and declared that Norman was one of his biggest heroes. (source)

As one of the interviewed athletes recalled, Norman did not even need to introduce himself. Johnson knew who he was- not only for his solidarity with the American black community, but because his fantastic 200m run is one of the greatest in history. His time of 20.06 seconds is forty-five years later still the Australian record, and would have won gold at Sydney. The appreciation of Norman as a national hero will likely never come, but last year he was given a posthumous apology- though as an editorial bitterly points out, it came from the political establishment rather than the national Olympic authorities.

The title of this post comes from a statement made by Norman about the experience of being on the podium. Each medalist is given about a square meter of God’s earth, he says, and what he chooses to do with it is their right. They have earned it.

Norman’s last appearance with Carlos and Smith (who he’d become close friends with since the games, with Carlos even calling him his brother) was at the dedication of a massive statute of the salute on the grounds of San Jose State University, which both attended. It is part of the wave of appreciation for how brave the salute was, and how iconic it has become. For both of them, they got their monument.

It’s time for Norman to get his own.

Hate is societal, not genetic

Hate is societal, not genetic

This photo was taken at a Klan rally on September 5th, 1992 in the town of Gainsville, Georgia on September. The rally was the usual fare for modern-day white supremacists- a few people trying to rile the town up, a huge amount of police, and the media looking for a story.

Todd Robertson took the photo, as the backup photographer for the local daily. It was a late addition to section B of the paper, and though it was never published widely, it has endured. The Southern Poverty Law Center resurrected it for a booklet about combating hate, and it’s finally gained currency on the internet. Though it will never the kind of legacy that MLK pulling a burning cross out of his lawn or other iconic photos of the 1960s, it has a clear and immediate visual message.

The young boy, who was “Josh” according to his mother, embodies how hate is passed down through generations of social reinforcement, not a “bigotry gene” or such. A young child is not a racist nor a chauvinist. They are not a Christian nor an atheist nor a Muslim. They are not libertarians nor paleo-conservatives nor communists. These identifiers are formed over the course of a lifetime- by parents, the community, the church, the school. Some are raised by Klan members, others by tolerant and open-minded individuals. The path to being accepting and embracing diversity is not the same for everyone. While some people are raised and educated in a way that makes such behavior natural and easy, others have to break through years of lies and vitriol.

The journey is a park stroll, or a marathon. And where you start is just chance.