Learning from Ferguson: “non-violence” as a response to systemic injustice

(by Peter Gelderloos, via Counterpunch)

[…] There is a widely held belief, among white people anyways, that history has already spoken, and that the only effective and ethical response to systemic injustice, and especially racism, is meek nonviolence, because, well, you know, “Martin Luther King.”

Beyond this discursive chokehold lies a very complex history that has been, in large part, falsified, and a problematic relationship between white people and people of color that seems to be repeating itself, revealing tragic parallels between white people’s involvement in the Civil Rights struggle and white people’s involvement in the unfolding movement against police violence today, even as many of those same white people cite a distorted version of the earlier struggle’s history, stripped down to exclude all the failings and all the lessons that might be learned.

I could start by pointing out how the form of nonviolence that is pedaled by the mostly white progressive Left today is a pathetically watered-down, superficial, meek comfort-zone politics compared to what was being used during the Civil Rights movement, but I will leave that to the pacifists. It’s not my responsibility to get nonviolence back into fighting shape, since I don’t believe in it anyways, given that it has always been complicit with state power, it has always been parasitical and authoritarian towards other currents in the social movements it joins, and it has always tended to water itself down over time.

Instead I will start with the argument made by the protester in black, that “Martin Luther King had armed bodyguards at his events.” Such a comment will be perplexing to most white people, but in fact it is historically accurate. Coincidentally, it has only been in the past year that a certain fact has been rescued from the memory hole: that the Civil Rights movement was an armed movement and that nonviolence was a minoritarian exception—some might say aberration—within that movement, as well as in the lineage of movements against slavery and white supremacy going back centuries. Previously, only radical historians, ex-Panthers, anarchists, and followers of C.L.R. James dealt with those forgotten episodes of history, but recently the memo has even gotten to NPR with the publication of books like This Nonviolence Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr. or the forthcoming Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South.

In a summary of the former, we can read: “Visiting Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, journalist William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol. “Just for self defense,” King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose; one of his advisors remembered the reverend’s Montgomery, Alabama home as “an arsenal.” ”

For a long time these have been forbidden histories, and I believe they were intentionally silenced, and largely by white people. Not only those working for the same power structures that have been trying to disarm people of color for centuries, but also those who hold power in social movements, who since the repression and the defeats of the ’60s have preferred a progressively more comfortable vision of “change”. It is unfortunate for the authorities that these forbidden histories are being resuscitated now, just in time for a post-Ferguson society, but we still face an uphill battle to return this historical memory to the collective consciousness. (Most protesters in the streets, for example, are still unaware). And one of the chief obstacles—perhaps executioner would be a more accurate term, since they hardly play a passive role—to the dissemination of this knowledge are the same progressive whites who are always ready to whip out a pithy “Martin Luther King!” faster than a cop can draw his handgun.

So far, the histories that have hit the mainstream still maintain the myth of the dominant character of nonviolence in the movements of yesteryear. In Cobb’s book, valuable as it is, armed self-defense is still auxiliary to a movement of civil disobedience. And while proponents of nonviolence should know that civil disobedience has never worked against a murderous enemy—like the Klan or the cops—without making recourse to armed self-defense or falling into a symbiotic relationship with a combative wing of the same movement, that is ultimately their problem. I would not be worried about nonviolence having fallen to such an absurd level of patent ineffectiveness if they didn’t try to extinguish the struggles of people who actually believe in fighting back against oppression, rather than negotiating with it. Or staging ritualistic die-ins in front of it, or better yet, working for it (see the relationship between Gene Sharp‘s protégé Otpor and global intelligence company Stratfor).

There was an underlying tension throughout the Civil Rights movement between nonviolence (albeit an armed nonviolence) and paths of struggle that foregrounded self-defense and did not seek compromise with the existing power structures. After all, the nonviolent practice that emerged in the movement at the end of the 50s and early 60s was largely imposed by the SCLC, the SNCC (in its first incarnation), and the white New England liberals who provided most of their funding.

Beyond the Deacons of Defense, who organized armed protection to many desegregation campaigns throughout the South in the 1960s, there is the example of Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, one of the few chapters of the national organization that was predominantly working class. Having fought in World War II, Williams led his local chapter in advocating armed self-defense after a nonviolent campaign for local desegregation failed. In his book, Negroes With Guns, he describes one occasion when he had to protect himself from a lynch mob.

As the mob is shouting for gasoline to be poured on Williams and his friends, and begins to throw stones, Williams steps out of the car with an Italian carbine in hand:

“All this time three policemen had been standing about fifty feet away from us while we kept waiting in the car for them to come and rescue us. Then when they saw that we were armed and the mob couldn’t take us, two of the policemen started running. One ran straight to me, grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Surrender your weapon! Surrender your weapon!’ I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face, and told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was seventeen years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back in the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.

There was a very old man, an old white man out in the crowd, and he started screaming and crying like a baby, and he kept crying, and he said, ‘God damn, God damn, what is this God damn country coming to that the n*****s have got guns, the n*****s are armed and the police can’t even arrest them!’ He kept crying and somebody led him away through the crowd.”

When Williams was expelled from the NAACP for his militant views, the local chapter simply elected Mabel Williams as their new president, and continued their practice of armed self-defense. Highlighting the importance of economic injustice, both Williams developed a socialist politics and lived in exile in Cuba after fleeing the country to evade trumped up kidnapping charges.

The Black Panther Party, which was demonized in the media at the time of its existence, is obviously well known, for it plays a different function within the process of historical amnesia. The BPP has become a symbol for all forms of black militancy in the ’60s, even though there were hundreds of different strains and currents of revolutionary thought and practice in the movement. And what is remembered about the Panthers is little more than their style. Their program, their splits and conflicts, their relations with other groups and movements at the time, their eventual evolution into the Black Liberation Army, and all the lessons that can be gleaned from this knowledge, has been consigned to the memory hole. They were merely the ones with the afros, the berets, and the rifles, who met with a tragic end, reconfirming the pacifist contention about the futility of violence.

The Panthers are either romanticized or vilified. To me, they were an authoritarian and macho organization (though no more authoritarian and macho than King’s SCLC) composed of many intelligent, brave, radical individuals trying to take an important step forward in the struggle, achieving some accomplishments and committing some errors.

More interesting to me are the nameless ones, the people who did not participate in any formal organization, yet who played a critical role in the few gains the Civil Rights movement achieved. More disparaged even than the BPP, these individuals have been consigned by the dominant historiography to the mob. Just like the rioters of Ferguson, whom we all have to thank for keeping Michael Brown’s memory alive, without whom this conversation would not even be possible, those who were assigned mob-status in what are portrayed as the darker moments of the Civil Rights movement are presented as cruel, unthinking, self-destructive, and demonic.

In fact, the mob member is nothing more and nothing less than the archetype for a person of color, in the white supremacist imagination. It was this same archetype that was drawn on to create the concept of race, primarily in the Virginia colony, as transplanted aristocrats had to divide and conquer an unruly labor force of exiled Irish, kidnapped poor from the English cities, Africans stolen from their homes, and enslaved Natives. In the early years, these enslaved underclasses often ran away together to the mountains or the swamps, and from time to time they rebelled together, killing their masters and breaking their chains. It is this image that is preserved in the figure of the mob, and this elite fear that we reproduce when we also spurn, disparage, or avoid such a formation.

I do not believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but I do believe that my enemy’s nightmare can serve as a figure of hope or beauty. Colonial society’s obsession with law and order, its fear of the dark Other, which coalesce in its absolute condemnation of the mob, illuminate another way forward.

In the Civil Rights movement, the story of Birmingham provides a perfect example of the intelligence and effectiveness of this acephalous, decentralized formation of resistance, a true hydra, to refer to the writings of ex-Panther and prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz or historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.

Most people only know half the story. In 1963, a civil disobedience campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the bastion of segregation in the South, forced the desegregation of the city and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act, which was the major victory of the Civil Rights movement, as far as legislation is concerned.

What fewer people know is that the Birmingham campaign was a repeat of SCLC’s 1961 campaign in Albany, Georgia, which turned out a complete failure. King was banking on being able to fill up the jails and still have recruits willing to engage in civil disobedience, shutting the system down, but the authorities simply made their jails “bottomless” by shipping detainees elsewhere. A couple years later, black residents of Albany rioted, suggesting what they thought about their experience with nonviolence (these riots are not mentioned in most chronologies of the movement).

In Birmingham, the 1963 campaign was unfolding the same way, and King was running out of recruits willing to offer themselves up for arrest. Then the riots started. Thousands of locals fought with police, injuring many of them, burned the very white businesses that were refusing to desegregate, and took over a large part of downtown, holding it for days. By fighting back directly, they instantly made a desegregated, cop-free zone in the center of their city. Anxious to keep other people from learning the same lesson, Birmingham business leaders and politicians immediately agreed to legislate the desegregation that rioters had already accomplished (in fact they had won something even more potent: not only could blacks enter white businesses, but they didn’t have to pay for anything). President Kennedy finally started paying attention and urged Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was the rioters who won civil rights.

Some veterans of the SNCC write about the decreasing effectiveness of civil disobedience in those years:

“The philosophy of nonviolence hit shakier ground when SNCC began its period of community organization in the South, having to face continual threats of perhaps deadly violence from whites. [… ]As a result, once strict guidelines of nonviolence were relaxed and members were unofficially permitted to carry guns for self defense. […] Eventually whites began to understand the tactic, and nonviolence became less powerful. […] If there was no more public violence for SNCC to rise above, SNCC’s message would be weakened. Thus, protesters were no longer beaten publicly. Instead they were attacked and beaten behind closed doors where newspaper reporters and television cameras could not reach. As southern whites intended, discrete violent oppression began to destroy the image of martyr that SNCC had carefully constructed through nonviolent protest. […] Soon after, the Harlem Riots took place. It was the first urban race riot, and brought the topic of black-initiated violence into public debate. Such actions were no longer assumed to be counter productive. This event, and eventually the rise of black power, led to the fall of nonviolence in SNCC.”

So whenever somebody says “Martin Luther King,” the message should be, “We know, we know, nonviolence doesn’t work.” Even King was moving away from a strict attachment to nonviolence, speaking in favor of rioters and the armed Vietnamese, before they killed him. This was after 1963, years in which he doesn’t appear in the official histories, when he was doing things and saying things that white progressives never refer to.

For example, King told Alex Haley in 1965: “Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates” [those who consider themselves “enlightened” and “sympathize with our goals but cannot condone our methods of direct action”]. I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.”

This quote raises an interesting question. What was the role of white people in the Civil Rights movement? They seem to be absent from the stories above, as well as the best known episodes of the movement. The only real exceptions are Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white New Yorkers killed in Mississippi alongside James Chaney.

In fact, a large number of white people participated in the movement, working alongside King in the SCLC, taking part in other organizations like CORE, going on Freedom Rides, and above all, helping fund the movement and putting pressure on media and politicians. There were also mostly white organizations like SDS and Weatherman that formed a part of the larger constellation of social struggles that were influenced by the Civil Rights movement and fed back into the continuing battle against racial oppression. Weatherman, for example, maintained ties with the Black Panthers.

And though many white people did go to prison, only a few faced the level of repression the FBI brought down on the black liberation movement (and usually it was white people who had engaged in armed struggle, like David Gilbert or Harold Thompson). In other words, many more white people survived the struggle intact; what’s more, they were able to become influential academics, politicians, or business leaders. The implication is that they are the ones, above all, who have written the official history of that era, a history that has been amputated, distorted, and falsified. And while they may have been radicals in their youth, they and the generations they have influenced have become increasingly like the “enlightened” moderates King warned about.

Mumia abu-Jamal writes about how Dr. King was “calming” for the white pysche, whereas the Panthers were frightening. And in many ways, the white middle class was the audience that a large part of the movement was performing for. They constituted, and they still constitute today, a virtual public, mobilized by the media, that lays down the norms for acceptable civic behavior. They determine whether a dissident social group is granted some legitimacy, or whether the police will be justified in annihilating them.

The same dynamic is reproduced today as white progressives essentially audit the rebellions that are sparked by the inevitable casualties of heavyhanded policing in poor neighborhoods primarily inhabited by people of color. They can refuse to see those rebellions as acts of resistance, instead fearfully dismissing them as senseless race riots, as was generally the case with the L.A. Riots of 1992. Or they can participate, in order to tame them, to make them more comfortable for the typical white person who does not have to put up with daily police violence.

I am absolutely not saying that nonviolence is a white thing and violence is what people of color use. I don’t believe that race predetermines people’s opinions or experiences, though it does generate patterns in terms of what people are subjected to by a racialized society. I know that within black communities of resistance, to name one example, there are still debates on what lessons to draw from the Civil Rights and black liberation movement. I personally take inspiration from the thinking of certain ex-Panthers, like Ashanti Alston, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, and Lorenzo Komboa Ervin. There are also veterans of the more militant wing of the struggle who still believe in a hierarchical, Maoist-inspired method, and there are still those who believe in nonviolence.

While I do think that an honest reading of history disproves the commonplace that “nonviolence worked,” which is basically what white people mean when they exclaim, “Martin Luther King!”, I don’t think that history is univocal, that it leads to any single, correct answers regarding how to create a better world. What’s more, how could there be one answer? Every individual and every community has different needs, and everyone faces different consequences when they go up against this system.

A person of color is going to face a higher risk of injury or imprisonment if they fight back than I would. This means that I cannot make tactical decisions for anyone else. But in the hands of many white progressives, this fact turns into the argument that fighting back is “privileged,” something only white people can do. This assertion is as patronizing as it is inaccurate. While the “Black Bloc” method of rioting is still carried out mostly by white people—after all, it was imported from Germany—this is only one of many ways that people choose to fight back. In fact, a politics of comfort, the ability to dissent without being punished, is one of the defining privileges of whiteness, though white people have to play by certain rules to enjoy it. And peacefulness is chief among those rules.

When something like Ferguson happens, people of color will suddenly appear in the media in greater quantity, urging nonviolence. White progressives take this as confirmation that their stance is not inflected by race, and in fact their comfort politics is just a way for them to be good allies following the leadership of people of color. But that is exactly how they are supposed to react. The legitimization of nonviolence is nothing but a spectacle, and they are the intended audience.

I don’t know if the activists, ministers, and scholars cast in the role of “community leaders” by the media engage in fair debates within their communities, if they’re making good tactical decisions in their circumstances, or if they even believe what they are saying. It isn’t my place to say. Regardless, they are used as figureheads by white media to deliver a reassuring message to a white audience. The same activists, with the same credentials, would not be given any air time by the big media corporations or the big NGOs and protest organizations, mostly reliant on white philanthropy, if they questioned the validity of nonviolence. Like consumers with a big budget, white progressives are determining the kind of products that are being sold to them without ever being aware of the marketing. Whether it’s designer shoes or protest strategies, the dynamics are the same, and above all they reinforce the worldview where buying and selling are normal activities and the market is understood as a natural force.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to view these opinions as products, at least when they are being packaged by the media. At every level of the spectacular treatment of this conflict, property relations are asserting themselves over and against human life. When kids are getting shot down in the streets, some vigilantes are taking up arms not against the police but against the looters, to defend “property rights”. By other means, proponents of nonviolence are doing the same thing, since a condemnation of the riots is above all support for the sanctity of property over life.

I think it can be a good thing that more white people are finally reacting to police violence and taking to the streets, but not if they participate in the unfolding movement in the same way as they participated in the Civil Rights movement.

After all, the current movement is in many ways a continuation of Civil Rights. And the latter was just one manifestation of the centuries-old fight against oppression and domination, which in this country has largely been about race, due to the way North America was colonized. There is a strong argument for the assertion that the Civil Rights movement neither won nor ended. If the shared goal of the movement was to end racial inequality and oppression, it was principally the legal-minded, college-educated portions of the movement who were asserting that the focus of that goal should be change at an institutional, legislative level. Their assertions have proven false. Perhaps the only concrete victories of the movement were to end Jim Crow segregation, institute a legal basis for racial equality, and substantially increase the percentage of registered black voters. At least as far as statistical evidence is concerned, these changes have not been accompanied by an increase in the quality of life for black people and other people of color, nor a substantial decrease in the disproportions between white people and people of color in any significant criterion from income to incarceration and police killings.

Jim Crow segregation is over, but a subtler form of segregation that had already been developed in northern cities from New York to Chicago by the time of the Civil Rights movement is the law of the land. As city administrators smelled the changing winds in the ’50s and ’60s, they applied for federal “urban renewal” grants and demolished thriving black neighborhoods across the South, from places like small, rural Harrisonburg, where I used to live, to southern Harlems, cultural centers like Richmond and Miami. In their places they built highways and incinerators, or they constructed new buildings for white businesses, and located new housing projects for the displaced black residents in less desirable neighborhoods. Housing and Urban Development proved to be a much more potent weapon than the Ku Klux Klan for the maintenance of a white supremacist system. And who needs the Ku Klux Klan when you have Google? Even more efficient than a powerful government bureaucracy, tech companies like Google or Microsoft are rapidly gentrifying historically black and latino neighborhoods from San Francisco to Seattle.

If you consider that the outer boundary of San Francisco’s gentrification is Oakland, these two beachheads of the new style of gentrification line up with sites of some of the fiercer and more innovative battles against police killings in the last five years: the cases of Oscar Grant and John T. Williams.

This is not a coincidence. Policing is crucial to the gentrification of a neighborhood, as well as to the maintenance of slum status in poor neighborhoods like Ferguson that the system intentionally neglects. And while many aspects of police strategies in these two kinds of neighborhoods differ—“broken windows” theory and hyperaggressive policing against quality of life offenses in the former, military-style operations, denial of services, and even complicity in the drug trade in the latter—both strategies result in the killings of people of color.

Though the media and the other institutions that educate us have cut us off from our histories and achieved a widespread social amnesia, we are affected by the past, and we continue to play out dynamics that began a long time ago. Whether we reference dominant histories or subversive histories—people’s histories—determines whether we learn from past mistakes or repeat them.

Nonviolence has the dubious honor of narrating people’s histories that are almost identical to the official history. Nonviolence worked, the Civil Rights movement won, and so on. In the Ferguson solidarity protest I attended, a young black person, before urging us to “burn everything,” said “this has been going on since Emmett Till.” He was referencing a much different history than the white person who tried to stop a few vandals by spouting “Martin Luther King!”

Many people in Ferguson and greater St. Louis have decided to take up arms against the police, first in August after Michael Brown was killed, and again in November after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson was announced. Both the proponents of nonviolence and the media have been downplaying the use of weapons by protesters, but the gunfire, aimed in the air or directly at police, has been a transformative characteristic, setting Ferguson apart from previous responses to police killings, and presenting a real danger, and therefore a limit, for the cops, as well as a danger for the protesters (several of whom were injured by friendly fire). Rather than shy away from the danger, shouldn’t we at least be talking about whether it is preferable to the one-sided war that police, in times of social peace, are continously waging against some of us?

Leave it to Fox News to denounce those who take up weapons as mindless thugs or demons. I think people who live on the frontline of the war being waged by police know exactly what they’re about. I also think we should grant them the respect of placing them in the same tradition as Robert Williams and the Monroe NAACP, the Panthers, and militias of freed slaves a century before that.

There are also plenty of black people in Ferguson or beyond who have chosen to respond peacefully. Some have the very real fear of being shot by police. Others are careerists, or belong to vanguardist organizations like the New Black Panther Party (pretty uniformly denounced by members of the original Panthers). Some want to make a nonviolent strategy work in the present circumstances. Others wanted to give the courts a chance to right the wrong of Michael Brown’s murder, and have since given up on a peaceful response.

As a white person, I have to ask myself how to relate to this struggle. White proponents of nonviolence will typically try to cast other whites who engage in riskier and more combative tactics as privileged and racist, while they cast themselves as “allies” following the lead of people of color. However, those they tokenistically claim to follow are the ones the media have given the loudest voice, and those who are preaching the exact form of peaceful protest they already have a preference for, that won’t require them to go out of their comfort zone or face a level of confrontation with police that their privilege usually protects them from.

Clearly, people on the ground in Ferguson have responded with a variety of forms of resistance. It turns my stomach when outsiders basically go shopping and choose the form that fits their preconceived preferences and notions of resistance, and then claim they’re in solidarity with “Ferguson,” as though that were some homogenous body.

I think true solidarity can only exist between people or groups that have their own autonomous struggles. And while white people will never know what it is like for people of color in this society, I don’t think I can trust a white person who does not have their own reasons for hating police. If they make all the right choices that white people are taught to make—go to university, get a high-paying job, be a good citizen, and if you must protest, do it peacefully, if you must riot, do it at a sports match—they may not have had any experience with a cop worse than an argument over a speeding ticket (although I think a certain dogmatic view of white privilege erases the experiences of poor whites or whites with mental health problems, who often have demeaning run-ins with cops, and who are frequently attracted by right-wing discourses, perhaps because only the Right will grant them victim status).

But if they do not make the normalized choices, if they do not accept the limits of what is supposed to pass for freedom under democratic capitalism, they will learn firsthand, either in their own bodies or watching it happen to loved ones, about prison, police torture and beatings, surveillance, repression, and the presumption of guilt. In other words, they will learn the nature of police.

Once I understand the nature of the police, it makes sense to me to respond every time the cops kill someone. Solidarity means that I seek out others who are facing the same problem, albeit inevitably from a different perspective. Naturally, those who prefer peaceful methods will link up with others with the same preferences, just as those who prefer combative methods will find each other. It makes for a more robust struggle if people with different methods also form relationships and learn how to complement rather than denounce one another; however the historical lesson that reformists and those who seek institutional dialogue and advancement will inevitably sell out the grassroots and the more radical currents, could help avoid major betrayals during the process of forming relationships across difference.

At a minimum, solidarity in this current struggle dictates that we do not constrain the choices of those who are most affected by police killings (though I think the label of “most affected” in this case excludes not only whites but also economically mobile activists of color who fly in from across the country). One way that white people might fail at that is by starting a riot every time locals were trying to organize a vigil. That didn’t happen in Ferguson. What did happen was that progressive whites, together with professional activists of various races, tried to criminalize and prevent non-peaceful responses. They faced an uphill battle in Ferguson, but they succeeded in pacifying solidarity events around the country, preventing protesters from taking the lead of folks in Ferguson, experiencing rage at the same level, or engaging in the same bold process of taking over space and learning how to fight back.

It’s a shame that this happened, because a multiracial crowd can accomplish things that other crowds cannot. I have mentioned how police in Ferguson and St. Louis were uncharacteristically restrained, and did not open fire on rioters and looters the way they did in L.A. in ’92 or New Orleans in ’05. Perhaps they held back this time because there were more white people in the streets, or because they feared a wider insurrection, or both. In any case, if more white people took part in fierce, combative responses to police killings rather than constraining those responses, the State would either have to step back as crowds pushed cops out of entire neighborhoods, allowing communities to experiment with police-free zones and other forms of autonomy, or they would have to start shooting more white people, which would drastically undermine one of the most important hierarchies for upholding State power in this country.

An honest conversation about tactics and strategies in the streets is sorely needed, and at a broader scale than has happened in the past. A long list of manipulations and clichés makes that conversation impossible, aided by the fact that many people still trust the media as a forum for a social conversation, or they don’t notice when discourses crafted in and for the media (often by academics and NGO activists who are seduced by the power of a sound byte) infiltrate their own thinking. The media weigh in heavily on the side of nonviolence, finding purchase in the common misconception that nonviolence has worked in the past.

If we can resurrect subversive, or even just factually vigorous, histories of the Civil Rights movement and other struggles, and rediscover the thread of continuity from those times to the ones we currently inhabit, we can lay the groundwork for a much more intelligent discussion of how to move forward.

But moving forward requires us to think about where we are going, and the artificial consensus on nonviolence pales in comparison to the consensus that has been manufactured around the police; good or bad, they are necessary, and at the very most they must be reformed.

The rocks on which the present movement will founder and break apart, or which it will climb to finally leave behind the cesspool of problems that have cycled and recycled for centuries, is the question of a world without police.

If we can effectively engage with this question, we might be able to surpass the miseries of reformism that devoured the Civil Rights movement and left us with the problem of police killings that haunts us today.

—-

This is an excerpt from Gelderloos, Peter “Learning from Ferguson“. Counterpunch, December 19-21, 2014.

 

The metamorphosis of society toward military dictatorship …

“The metamorphosis of society toward military dictatorship, whether in countries accustomed to democratic institutions, such as Chile and Uruguay, or in ones familiar with the dynamics of military rule, like Argentina, is typically a period of confusion and disorientation. Only with hindsight can one say without a doubt that in such-and-such moment, the signs were incontrovertible. For a time, the contradictions in external reality, where the apparently reliable continuation of normal, everyday life is ominously punctuated by hints of profound disruption, dovetail with psychic defenses of denial and disavowal.”

— Nancy C. Hollander (Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas, p. 92)

Afghan Opium Production Hits All-Time High, Thanks to US Occupation

US soldiers patrolling in an opium poppy field in Afghanistan

US soldiers patrolling in an opium poppy field in Afghanistan (source)

(via Counterpunch)

“2014 was a banner year for Afghanistan’s booming opium industry. According to a United Nations annual survey released on Wednesday, opium cultivation set a record in 2014, increasing by an impressive 7 percent year-over-year and up nearly 50 percent from 2012. Afghanistan presently produces 80 percent of the world’s heroin which provides billions of dollars in illicit profits for the powerful drug Mafia. Heroin trafficking and production have flourished under US military occupation and transformed Afghanistan into a dysfunctional narco-colony.

Readers who follow events in Afghanistan will recall that the Taliban had virtually eradicated poppy production before Bush and Cheney launched their war in 2001. The Pentagon reversed that achievement by installing the same bloodthirsty warlords who had been in power before the Taliban. Naturally, this collection of psychopaths–who the western media lauded as the “Northern Alliance”–picked up where they left off and resumed their drug operations boosting their own wealth and power by many orders of magnitude while meeting the near-insatiable demand for heroin in capitals across Europe and America. […]”

Read full article: Whitney, Mike “Afghan Opium Production Hits All-Time High“, Counterpunch, November 14-16, 2014

 

 

US prisoner Albert Woodfox has conviction overturned after 42 years locked in solitary confinement

(By Ed Pilkington, via The Guardian)

Albert Woodfox, right, and Herman Wallace in Angola prison, in Louisiana.

Albert Woodfox, right, and Herman Wallace in Angola prison, in Louisiana. Woodfox’s 1972 murder conviction was overturned when a US appeals court ruled his conviction was secured through racially discriminatory means. (Photograph: Amnesty USA)

When Albert Woodfox, the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the US who has been in isolation almost without pause for more than 42 years, was told on Thursday his conviction had been overturned, he had difficulty reading the court ruling. Prison guards refused to unshackle him, to free his hands.

“The guards wouldn’t release even one shackle from his hand so that he could turn the pages. I had to turn them for him,” said his lawyer, Carine Williams.

The 37-page ruling from the US court of appeals for the fifth circuit gives Woodfox, 67, the only member of the “Angola Three” still imprisoned, his greatest hope yet of release. He has been held in a 6x8ft cell, enduring the psychological impact of isolation exacerbated by chronic claustrophobia, for all but three years since he was put in “closed cell restriction” in 1972.

Woodfox was convicted of the murder that year of a guard in Angola prison, in Louisiana, where he was serving time for armed robbery. He has always protested his innocence, insisting that he and his Angola Three fellows were victims of a political vendetta because of their then membership in the Black Panther party.

The fifth circuit judges upheld a lower court’s opinion that Woodfox’s conviction was secured through racially discriminatory means. In 1993 he was reindicted for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller – after an earlier court ruling had overturned the sentence – by a grand jury led by a white foreperson.

The court found unanimously that the selection of the foreperson formed part of a discriminatory pattern in that part of Louisiana. Concluding that it amounted to a violation of the US constitution, the judges struck down Woodfox’s conviction.

Williams, an attorney with the New York firm Squire Patton Boggs, said Woodfox was numb when she told him his conviction had been overturned. “He was shocked. He’s been so close before, only to have it taken away from him.”

The prisoner said he wished he could have shared the news with Herman Wallace, another member of the Angola Three. Wallace was released in October 2013, when in the terminal stages of liver cancer and at the end of a bitter struggle with the Louisiana authorities. He died two days later.

In the course of almost 43 years in solitary confinement, Woodfox has only had one period, of about three years, among the general prison population. The rest of the time he has been alone, spending 23 hours a day in his cell and one hour, also in isolation, in a concrete exercise yard.

The ordeal of prolonged solitary confinement, which has been likened by international bodies to a form of torture, is amplified in his case by his claustrophobia. Legal documents give clues to the intensity of his torment.

In one such document, from 2008, he describes an attack of claustrophobia: “I feel like I am being smothered, it is very difficult to breathe, and I sweat profusely. It seems like the cell walls close in and are just inches from my face. I try to cope by pacing, or by closing my eyes and rocking myself.”

The appeal court ruling is not the end of Woodfox’s travails. He must now wait to hear what the state of Louisiana intends to do – whether it will follow the tough approach it has taken for the past 42 years and subject him to a third trial for the 1972 murder, or whether it will admit defeat and release him.

“Louisiana has fought hard, and they have lost at every turn,” said Williams. “I am hoping that they are sobered by this unanimous court decision and instead of being aggressive and going forward with a retrial they will stop and reflect on what they have done.”

Robert King, the third member of the Angola Three, was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary. He told the Guardian “this is what we have been waiting for, for so long”, and added: “We’re now back at the point where it’s in the hands of the state.”

Tory Pegram, of the campaigning group the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, said: “We strongly believe this is an opportunity for the state of Louisiana to stop wasting taxpayer money and do the right thing by this man who has experienced the very worst, most horrific and broken parts of the criminal justice system in America.”

Revolution is brewing from Ferguson to Ayotzinapa … Billionaires, generals, cops, and other swine: your days are numbered.

Tens of thousands of protestors in Mexico city surround a burning effigy of President Enrique Peña Nieto, in protest of the narco-state he oversees, and the recent police murder of 43 radical students in Ayotzinapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero (Thursday, November 20, 2014)

Tens of thousands of protestors outside the National Palace in Mexico City surround a burning effigy of President Enrique Peña Nieto, in response to the Mexican narco-state he oversees murdering 43 radical students in Ayotzinapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero (Thursday, November 20, 2014)

Assata: Revolutionary Relatability

(via Dissident Voice / Red Wedge Magazine)

If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what is happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.” — Assata, page 207

Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur

Thirty-four years ago this November 2, in 1980, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, with the help of comrades wielding .45 caliber pistols. Successfully avoiding a national “manhunt,” Shakur ultimately fled to Cuba, resurfacing there in 1984. Condemned by US authorities and mainstream media as a “cop killer” for her alleged role in a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike,1 Assata was granted political asylum by the socialist Castro government, in light of extensive evidence that the former Black Panther Party member (like many activists in the age of COINTELPRO) faced unjust and racist persecution in the United States, and was being targeted for her revolutionary politics. Assata remains in Cuba to this day, where she has long maintained her innocence of any crime but that of seeking to overthrow the racist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist system. For that “crime,” Shakur proudly pleads guilty.2

In May 2013, the FBI, without charging any additional wrong-doing, added “Joanne Chesimard”3 to their top ten “Most Wanted” list of “Terrorists,” placing her alongside the likes of accused World Trade Center and Pan Am flight 103 bombers and Al Queda leaders.4 She is the first woman to make the list — and the only “domestic terrorist” currently listed in the “Top Ten.” Accordingly, the bounty on her head was raised from $1 to $2 million.

Shakur has not set foot in the United States for decades — and has issued only a handful of public statements from Cuba — yet her presence continues to be felt today, in part through the narrative she wrote in exile. Assata: An Autobiography (1987) offers us a vivid, accessible, personal, and yet theoretically astute narrative of one woman’s oppression, exploitation, alienation, and resistance, as well as a relatable account of explicitly revolutionary (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) consciousness in the making, and a damning exposure of police terror, courtroom corruption, and state repression. Nearly three decades later, Assata still poses a stark challenge to hegemonic institutions that sustain oppression in the US and across the world. Moreover, Assata does all this in ways that are accessible and emotionally compelling to readers, including those not previously familiar with or inclined toward such perspectives. I believe that contemporary radical educators and organizers have much to learn from this remarkable text, in terms of both its content and its method of presentation.

Teaching Assata

Cover of Assata Shakur's autobiography "Assata"I had the chance to teach Assata: An Autobiography in 2013, in a course on “Memoir and Autobiography,” at a university serving a diverse and largely working-class student population from the Greater Boston area.5 I found the book to be one of the most thought-provoking works that I have ever taught. Most importantly, it engaged students as effectively as any avowedly left-wing work that I have used, winning students to sympathy and opening them to frank and nuanced discussions of advanced social and political issues. Assata is on some level a strikingly didactic, and ‘in your face’ work—as the opening epigraph to this essay suggests — engaging very abstract ideas as well as more immediate and ‘concrete’ situations, even directly exhorting the reader at various points. Yet despite (and perhaps in part because of) this motley mix — Assata: An Autobiography was, hands-down, the class’s favorite work of the semester.6 What was it about Assata that enabled its radical resonance?

For starters, students were just blown away by the history here — that there had ever been such a (bold, revolutionary, popular) organization as the Black Panther Party in the US, that “violent” participants in that movement could be as eloquent and reflective as Shakur, that the US government had rained down such vicious repression on them, right here ‘at home.’ Being confronted with such a spectacular, shared, historical blind-spot helped students begin a sustained discussion of the political and social role that official schooling and dominant history has played in US society, and in their own lives, a topic that Shakur herselfdirectly engages through her narrative.

Students generally were struck by how Assata (and the Black Panther Party as depicted in the text) wasn’t advocating violence or “hate” against white people, as they had been taught to expect, but rather targeted their antagonism much more narrowly — and politically — against the structures and agents of oppression and exploitation. One white working-class student from South Boston expressed pleasure and surprise that he could identify with much of the struggle that Assata relates, as well as with her broader criticism of US social institutions, history, and ideology. Indeed, many students reported that they could relate personally to Assata’s criticisms of workplace, neighborhood, and school struggles, despite their varied historical, cultural vantage points. Her critique of financial exclusions, petty corruptions, and bureaucratic alienation resonated powerfully. One student volunteered that he felt inspired by Assata to return to radical politics, something he had been exposed to and interested in, but not involved in lately.

Students unanimously reported having a much more favorable response to Assata, this work by a “Top Ten Terrorist,” than to the acclaimed memoir of current US President, Barack Obama, whose Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press 1995, 2004) most students found to flop by comparison, both politically and stylistically.7 (We read this text immediately after Assata.) It’s an interesting moment when a class comes to the collective realization that they find the life story and the expressed views of an unreconstructed revolutionary socialist — an “anti-Amerikan” activist and accused “terrorist” fugitive — to be more compelling, relatable, truthful, and admirable than those of the current Commander-in-Chief.

But of course, as fascinating and shocking as the content of the book was and is, the text’s form played a crucial role in shaping student responses to that ‘content.’ It was not just the radical ideas to which they responded so positively, but the particular presentation of those ideas in and through Shakur’s text. Several students emphasized how the very structure of Assata functioned as rhetorical strategy, drawing readers into a serious and sympathetic consideration of radical and revolutionary ideas that they might not otherwise have taken to heart.

The structure of the text

In a sense, Assata’s structure juxtaposes a narrative of Incarceration, focusing on the years 1973-1987, with a narrative of Education, focusing on the years 1947-1977 — what we might call a “struggle for freedom” set against a “struggle for consciousness,” though of course the two struggles are deeply interrelated. Opening with the immediate aftermath of her shooting, capture, and brutal hospital interrogation by New Jersey State Police in 1973, the Incarceration narrative follows Shakur’s legal struggles, as well as her confrontation with jail and prison conditions, police terror, and a series of biased “kourt” cases and judges.8 The intervening chapters follow her life, from birth9 through early childhood, elementary and high school, through various jobs and through (sometimes humorous, sometimes death-defying) explorations of the street life of New York City, with a consistent focus on her education, understood in the broadest terms.

The two narratives effectively merge near book’s end, as Shakur’s account of her education turns to an account of increasingly revolutionary activism in and around the Black Panther Party. This then turns to an account of her life underground, after police violence against the Party escalates, bringing us up to the present of her capture, imprisonment, trial(s), and eventual conviction.10 While necessarily leaving undisclosed the details of her escape, the book ends with a moving account of Assata’s daughter (whom Shakur conceived and gave birth to while incarcerated) and her own mother joining her in Cuba, after years of forced separation. In a Postscript, Shakur reflects on her experience in socialist Cuba, and on the current prospects for world revolution from the sober standpoint of the mid-1980s.

Students found that the stark violence and injustice to which Shakur is subjected in the Incarceration sections inclined them towards a more sympathetic and attentive engagement with her life story, including her turn to radical politics, in the Education sections. At the same time, the coming-of-age story, by relating the struggles and development of an inquisitive and strong-willed child coming up against a racist, sexist, and class-stratified America, inclined them to be (even) more sympathetic to the grown rebel woman, as she is subjected to egregious abuse in courtrooms and prison cells. At the same time, we explored how the different sections do not merely contrast but connect on deeper levels; Assata’s struggle against the state echoes her struggles in the streets—just as her education continues behind bars, through conversations with fellow prisoners.11

Conversely, the text reveals how Incarceration in “Amerika” extends well beyond the prison walls; indeed the schools she attends operate in a highly racist and punitive manner, foreshadowing penitentiaries. As Assata’s fellow prisoner, Eva (honored by Shakur in a poem as “the rhinoceros woman”), puts it, for black people in the US, to be on the street is still not to be “free.” Eva tells Shakur: “You’ll be in jail wherever you go” (59), prompting Assata to reflect that she “has a point”:

The only difference between here [the Middlesex county workhouse] and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards control here. I don’t have the faintest idea what it feels like to be free.… We aren’t free politically, economically, or socially. We have very little power over what happens in our lives. (60)

The split form of the narrative then, while introducing a jarring dramatic effect between the present fixity of incarceration and persecution and the past freedom of education and development, ultimately works to complicate this opposition, towards an enriched, and collective, sense of the meaning of both Imprisonment and Freedom. That is to say, the more the younger Joanne/Assata learns about the world through her (comparatively) free explorations of it, and the more she grows connected to others through her investigations, the more she sees the constraints on both her own freedom and that of so many others, the more she learns about the historical and structural barriers to achieving freedom for these others…and for herself, insofar as she now feels connected to them. Insofar as her sense of self comes to include the situation of others, she realizes that she cannot get free alone, but only through participation in a collective (self) liberation. As she puts it on the cusp of her radical commitment, “I want to help free the ghetto, not run away from it, leaving my people behind” (154).

Poetry and revolution

Students were further moved by the way Assata uses poetry throughout the book, framing or interrupting the movement of her narrative. Significantly, these interruptive texts present Shakur to us as not only a “militant” activist, and not only a victim of state violence, but as a writer, and not just as a critic or polemicist, but as a lyricist: a creature of human emotion, imagination, and love, as well as intellect and organizational commitment. From within a situation where there is often painfully little that she can control, writing gives Shakur a means of imposing her ideas and will on the madness around her, while keeping that madness from wrecking her own mind.12

“Affirmation,” the poem which opens Assata, provides a powerful example of how imaginative writing usefully frames Shakur’s narrative for readers, establishing empathy while foregrounding key themes. I quote the poem here in full:

“Affirmation”

I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
Of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
Tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
I believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
March through the torso of the earth,
Sculpting mud bodies in its path.
I have seen the destruction of the daylight,
And seen bloodthirsty maggots
Prayed to and saluted.

I have seen the kind become the blind
And the blind become the bind
In one easy lesson.
I have walked on cut glass.
I have eaten crow and blunder bread
And breathed the stench of indifference.

I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if I know any thing at all,
It’s that a wall is just a wall
And nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.

I believe in living.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
And in the fire of truth.

And I believe that a lost ship,
Steered by tired, seasick sailors,
Can still be guided home
To port.

This moving poem gives us a useful map of some of Assata’s major themes. Indeed, the very fact that Shakur opens with a poem – celebrating a belief in and a love of life – is significant; my students said they felt immediately pulled in by the emotional quality of the poem; it wasn’t what most expected from a “militant black revolutionary” let alone an accused murderer or “terrorist.” “Affirmation” immediately prompted them to read Assata’s radical political trajectory as a product of emotional experience, as well as intellectual argument, an expression of love, hope, and affirmative belief, not only of hate or criticism (though her book, justifiably, contains plenty of both).

“Affirmation” also charts what we could call a dialectics of Oppression and Liberation — a key nexus that lays the basis for Assata’s remarkable revolutionary optimism. As she writes, “I have seen the kind become the blind, and the blind become the bind,” lines which are soon followed by the supplementary statement: “if I know anything at all, // it’s that a wall is just a wall // and nothing more at all. // It can be broken down.” Here, Assata calls attention to the (dialectical) fact that the ultimate basis of what appears to be solid and perhaps immovable “objective reality” (“just the way it is”) is in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than the product of human consciousness and feeling, as embodied in the practices this consciousness and feeling sustains (or disrupts). She asks us to reflect on the way that people give up their own human vision and sympathy, making themselves into—or allowing themselves to be made into—objects, stripped of meaningful will or subjectivity. Not only does she speak of the “bind[s]” that hold people and systems of oppression in place as ultimately constituted by the “blind” — that is, those who are unable to (or who refuse to) “see” — but she marks how many of the “blind” were themselves previously “kind.” Oppressors are not oppressors by fate, by nature, nor by “race,” but by training, through the “lessons” they learn (and fail to unlearn). The flip side of this dialectical insight, of course, is that, given the correct transformation of consciousness and human feeling—a return to kindness from blindness, so to speak—the “binds” and with them the “walls” can be broken down, dissolved, and the people trapped by them, set free. (Shakur’s own life trajectory as a prison escapee speaks powerfully to the concrete possibilities of such freedom.)

Assata’s depiction of the state, including the “kourt” system and the police as well as other ideological state apparatuses, is radically critical and even shockingly blunt — she refers to cops as “pigs” routinely and unapologetically, likening state police to fascists, even outright Nazis in some cases. And yet she also calls attention throughout her narrative to various cracks and openings in the would-be totalitarian “pig” system, highlighting moments where an element of humanity manages to slip through, where the kindness, solidarity, or just plain decency of a person, even one who may technically be working for the “other side,” plays a crucial role in sustaining Assata’s spirit, even saving her life.13 Unredeemable systems of oppression exist, but so do small acts of human kindness, and these small acts matter.

For example, in the first narrative chapter, while Assata lies handcuffed to a hospital bed, shot through the chest and the shoulder by police, without access to a lawyer, yet subject to interrogation and outright torture, a man whom she initially identifies as a “black pig” turns out to be “not a cop but a hospital security guard…not at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign.” Assata adds, “That man will never know how much better he made me feel at that moment” (6). Later in that same opening scene, at a moment of deep desperation, Shakur is able to persuade a nurse—again a state employee—to disobey her superiors and get word out to Shakur’s lawyer and family, an act that may have saved her life. Assata is peppered with such small and often surprising acts of human solidarity.14

To underline the point: Insofar as the “walls” and “binds” are constituted by human beings (who are often facing some sort of oppression and exploitation of their own), Assata reminds us, there remains the potential for “kindness” and thus for solidarity to burst the binds, to bring down the walls.15 Thus, though Assata ultimately affirms the necessity for serious revolutionaries to take a sharp and unsentimental view of the enemy, cultivating the social, political, and, yes, the military basis foran (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) Liberation Army, and thus points clearly to her belief that the repressive apparatus in the United States cannot ultimately be defeated by peaceful means alone, her sharp antagonism towards the systems of oppression, and towards those “pigs” who actively operate positions of power within those systems, does not rule out the continued possibility (and perhaps even necessity) for the “un-binding” of those who constitute that system, through the clearing of vision and the rekindling of kindness. Assata’s assertion of the need for violent revolution does not bar but rather necessitates her openness to the potential of human transformation.

In this spirit, the wall-breaking, bar-bursting “violent” actions of a guerrilla insurgency, such as the Black Liberation Army aspired to ignite, may be seen as not primarily military, aiming at impairing the enemy apparatus and liberating particular forces or territories (though that is one important aspect), but as deeply symbolic, signaling and reminding those looking on that, in fact, “a wall is just a wall, nothing more at all. It can be broken down.” The goal of “violent” action would ultimately be to anchor, amplify, and sustain symbolic resonance among the people, which then may provoke and inspire proliferating thought and action, of various kinds. The function of revolutionary violence here—as opposed to what we might call ‘terrorist violence’—is thus not to render the world more polarized and fixed, but more porous, partisan, and change-able, precisely by shaking the ideological “walls” that act as a barrier to human thought and solidarity. Such “violence” ought not to aim to simply divide the world into “us” (the People and the Revolutionaries) and “them” (the “Pigs” and Reactionaries), but to divide the “them, opening up new fronts within the repressive apparatus, as the previously inert “binds” are summoned back to conscious life (to sight and to kindness). In this sense, at least in theory, revolutionary violence can, when sharply focused against enemy institutions as embodiments of oppressive ideologies, open rather than close down space for human subjectivity, for thought and freedom, on both sides of the walls.

Revolutionary hopefulness…and humility

Alongside this striking revolutionary optimism — some might call it voluntarism16Assata’s opening “Affirmation” frames for readers another key theme that impressed my students: Shakur’s humility, her willingness to engage in self-criticism and to dramatize her own moments of ignorance, insensitivity, embarrassment, and shame as she struggles toward a revolutionary road. “I have eaten crow and blunder bread, and breathed the stench of indifference,” she writes, lines which admit that she has not only been the victim or the virtuous antagonist of systems of oppression, but has been subject to their influence as well. “Breathing the stench of indifference” goes in both directions here. It is not that Shakur has been able—through luck, enlightened leadership, the proper reading, or a superior nature—to avoid social contradiction, human failing, or toxic ideology (from internalized racism, to worker false consciousness, from historical ignorance and naïve patriotism, to consumerism, knee-jerk anti-communism, and, later, what she will call “revolutionary romanticism”). Rather, what distinguishes Assata’s revolutionary trajectory, and part of what made her so approachable for students, I think, is her willingness to admit mistakes, to recognize her own human ignorance and “blundering,” admittedly often only after others force it into her consciousness, and then to work to overcome these socially imbibed, inherited weaknesses, in theory and in practice. The starting point for revolutionary practice here is not a matter of achieving a standpoint of purity or perfection, a blueprint of what is to be done, or some Archimedean point above the fray, but a willingness to admit and to work through contradictions, with others, in light of a growing, if uneven awareness of a common history, a common goal, and a common enemy. It is an expression of critical love that begins with a deep belief that one is not fundamentally better or different (or separate) from the people one sets out to organize and to liberate.

Several students were moved by this depiction of Shakur’s own learning process, how her account is as much about the process of learning and self-transformation as it is about the particular content of lessons that result from it. Assata depicts revolutionary consciousness not just as a set of properly radical verdicts, but as an endlessly critical and self-critical advance in awareness, a matter of experimentation and experience, and of reflection on that experience, a matter of listening to others and learning lessons, negative and positive, from failure as well as success.

In a final paper, one student discussed eloquently how Assata models for readers this often- difficult process of working through the shame and “cognitive dissonance” that radical critique can provoke in those who ‘ought’ to be open to it. When confronted with a radically new and paradigm-shifting idea about the world—even an idea that seems intellectually convincing and ethically compelling—many people will suppress rather than respond positively to that idea, paralyzed by a sense of shame that they remain at some level attached to the very practices, institutions, and notions that they would now have to denounce.17 Without an avenue to work through this shame and dissonance — feeling in a sense judged rather than liberated by the new notion — the subject may lapse into paralysis and cynical resignation, failing to pursue the opening into new theory and practice.

Students attested that they found Assata’s approach to resonate with what they themselves have experienced when they have been confronted with radical criticism of dominant ideologies and institutions — ideologies and institutions which they have spent much of their lives being taught to identify with. They found that Assata, rather than preaching at them, was working through these ideologies and attitudes with them. The difference was crucial.

Arguably, the paralyzing effect of such shame-inducing cognitive dissonance may reach its pinnacle in a country like today’s USA, where capitalist penetration of public and private life — politics, culture, consciousness, intimate relations — has reached unprecedented levels, only dreamed of in the 1960s. Mental prisons have proliferated alongside the literal ones. Who among us today can claim to be beyond the psychological reach of myriad fantasies constructed by capital, though we aspire to the mantle of ‘anti-capitalism’? To what extent have most young people (or for that matter, their would-be teachers) incorporated capitalist commodity culture into their very identities and life-goals? How could people not? Assata confronts and yet transcends the often-paralyzing discourse of ‘complicity’ with the dominant culture by at once acknowledging — and dramatizing — Shakur’s own embeddedness in various backward ideologies and destructive practices, but also foregrounding her self-transformative efforts to overcome them, as part of a larger working through of a contradictory historical inheritance. Shakur’s emphasis on her own self-activity—both her mistakes and her breakthroughs — played an important role in getting students to see this revolutionary neither as a “victim,” nor as some “hero-saint” to be put on a pedestal, but as a complex human being, not fundamentally different from themselves. This point further helped discussion of the text to move beyond an identity-politics frame, allowing students to connect personally with the types of “Amerikan” problems that Shakur parses across her own life, while acknowledging important differences in historical experience as well.

 


This article was first published at Red Wedge Magazine, this is the first part of a longer essay that will appear in full in the November issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, an issue devoted to the topic of Mass Incarceration.

 

  1. The gunfight left Assata’s comrade, Zayd Shakur, as well as State Trooper Werner Foerster dead. Assata herself was seriously wounded during the attack, having been shot in the back. []
  2. Assata has made several public statements from exile in Cuba, including a 1997 Letter to Pope John Paul II, issued following reports that the FBI had pressured the church leader to petition Fidel Castro to expedite Shakur to the US. This letter can be found online, including at Democracy Now, where it was first broadcast. []
  3. This is Shakur’s legal name—she refers to it as her “slave name.” []
  4. See the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list. []
  5. The class met once per week, for three hours in the evenings 6-9pm—many of the students having put in full days at work before attending. []
  6. I base this assessment on the quality and enthusiasm of class discussions (lecture-guided and spontaneous peer-to-peer responses), on the quality and content of the students’ writing on the text (both weekly response papers and final, formal essays), and on an end-of-semester poll. Of the ten students in the class, half picked Assata as their “favorite” of the semester, while the other half all placed Assata in the top two or three works (of ten) that we read together. Fully half of the students elected to do their final critical essay on Assata. []
  7. Unlike my students, mainstream critics have lavished praise on Obama’s Dreams from My Father. For a serious radical critique of Dreams, see Barbara Foley’s essay “Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father” in Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice. The 2014 convention of the Modern Language Association featured an entire panel focused on the literary legacies of Obama’s book. []
  8. Shakur spells the word always with a “k,” as in “kangaroo kourt.” []
  9. As Shakur writes at the start of her second chapter: “The FBI cannot find any evidence that I was born…. Anyway, I was born” (Assata, 18). []
  10. It’s worth underscoring here that all the charges that ostensibly justified Shakur being pursued by New Jersey police on the Turnpike either ended in acquittal or were dropped. The sole charge for which she was ever convicted—a conviction that remains dubious—concerned actions which allegedly transpired following, and were prompted by, this aggressive police pursuit. Shakur maintains her innocence and there was no physical evidence to establish that she fired a shot. []
  11. Similarly, Shakur’s only child is conceived inside a courthouse cell, where she and her lover/co-defendant Kamau are locked alone for verbally protesting abuses in the courtroom to the point that the judge orders them excluded from the scene of their own trial. She gives birth in prison as well, after a protracted struggle to get access to decent medical care. []
  12. Indeed, reading Assata drove home to me how important it could be today, in this age of mass incarceration, to use writing as a means to help imprisoned brothers and sisters keep their minds and hearts alive, through letter writing and inmate book programs… pending a more radical abolition of this “New Jim Crow” system. []
  13. Lest we lapse into romantic fantasy, it’s important to note that such acts, in Assata, are not carried out by any actual police officer, but by personnel such as hospital security guards, nurses, doctors, and others who, though they may be employed and instructed by the systems’ rulers, are not themselves sheer agents of repression. []
  14. These acts of course are in addition to the countless acts of conscious solidarity that constitute the sustained legal and political campaign to free Assata, the efforts of which are discussed at length in the “Incarceration” chapters. The present essay, with my focus on radical pedagogy, will tend to focus on the “Education” chapters. []
  15. Again, the word here is potential, not inevitability. The openness of revolutionary potentiality is not an occasion for confidence, passivity, or spectatorship, but for renewed activism, outreach, and an all-sided seizing of contingent opportunities. []
  16. For a compelling philosophical reconsideration — and defense — of the much derided term voluntarism, see the work Peter Hallward, e.g. his essay. “The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism,” Radical Philosophy 155, May/June 2009. []
  17. To refer back to Shakur’s opening poem: it can be not only radicalizing, but traumatizing and embarrassing to recognize that what you have been “saluting” for most of your life, are little but “maggots.” []

Unredacted COINTELPRO letter that FBI sent to Martin Luther King in attempt to convince him to commit suicide

(via Leaksource / NYTimes)

COINTELPRO Letter sent from FBI to MLK to get him to commit suicide.

FBI agents sent this letter to Martin Luther King in an attempt to convince him to commit suicide. This tactic of using anonymous letters was commonly used in COINTELPRO operations not only against MLK, but also against the Black Panther Party, anti-war activists, and many others.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received this letter, nearly 50 years ago, he quietly informed friends that someone wanted him to kill himself — and he thought he knew who that someone was. Despite its half-baked prose, self-conscious amateurism and other attempts at misdirection, King was certain the letter had come from the F.B.I. Its infamous director, J. Edgar Hoover, made no secret of his desire to see King discredited. A little more than a decade later, the Senate’s Church Committee on intelligence overreach confirmed King’s suspicion (PDF/8MB).

Since then, the so-called “suicide letter” has occupied a unique place in the history of American intelligence — the most notorious and embarrassing example of Hoover’s F.B.I. run amok. For several decades, however, only significantly redacted copies of the letter were available for public scrutiny.

Redacted copy of FBI MLK anonymous letter suicide

Here is the letter that has been publicly available for years, heavily redacted. A journalist working for the NY Times recently uncovered the unredacted copy in a set of FBI director Hoover’s personal files at the National Archive.

Ayotzinapa protests awaken Mexico from a nightmare

(via ROAR Magazine)

Demonstrators march with crosses with writing that reads in Spanish "Narco Cops" in protest for the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. Federal police detained yesterday Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who are accused of ordering the Sept. 26 attacks on teachers' college students that left six dead and 43 still missing.  (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)The political and humanitarian crisis in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero marks a new low in a country marred by corruption and drug violence. More than a month after the disappearances of 43 students there is still no sign of them, while official government search efforts are laced by ambiguities to say the least.

At the same time the disappearances have stirred up a hornet’s nest that has taken the form of an unparalleled and broad social movement in all corners of Mexico.

Mexico, with Guerrero at its epicenter, seems torn between despair and hope. Despair from the horror of the atrocious events in Iguala, and hope from the structural change promised by the societal response. Which social and political processes have erupted, exactly, and what does this mean for the possibilities of social change in Mexico?

 A breeding ground for revolutionaries

The entrance of the Rural Normal school in Ayotzinapa welcomes her students with murals of Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels, and Carlos Marx. The disappeared students come from a school with a history of left politics embedded in a special national education program set up to train primary school teachers. Started in 1920, this program has the express goal of social emancipation of the poor. The school has produced two of Guerrero’s most important guerrilla leaders in the seventies and, unsurprisingly, has gained the reputation of being a breeding ground for radical activism.

Contemporary students are the children of farmers and indigenous families living in the poorest and most marginalized areas of Mexico. The school’s position as a hotbed of activism has not gone unnoticed and has constantly forced students to face state repression in the form of chronic underfunding, police violence and criminalization.

 The disappearances

On September 25, a group of Ayotzinapa students went to the nearby town of Iguala to organize transport to the remembrance protest of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. For lack of money, the students appropriated three buses on the fateful night; in response, the mayor of Iguala gave orders to stop the buses “no matter what.” Enforcing the orders, the local police opened fire on several buses, killing six students and bystanders and leaving 25 wounded. The night deteriorated into a head-hunt for the fleeing students, 43 of whom were eventually abducted in police vehicles never to be heard of since.

The response of the government was riddled with exceptional incompetence, as the following events reveal. The day after the drama, the responsible mayor of Iguala requested a leave of absence and went on the run. Meanwhile, the governor of Guerrero and the president of the republic have been involved in a ping-pong game of finger pointing to avoid responsibility. The respected human rights center Tlachinollan, located in Guerrero, has pointed out the serious deficiencies in the official investigation and the search for the students. Consequently, the parents of the disappeared students have announced to only trust the findings of a foreign team of investigators. Mexicans have lost all trust in the authorities to bring the crisis to a just end.

Graffiti spray-painted on the wall in Mexico-City reading ‘narcoestado’, or narco-state

Graffiti spray-painted on the wall in Mexico-City reading ‘narcoestado’ (“narco-state”)

 A public secret revealed

The Iguala events have irrefutably revealed ties between powerful drug cartels, the local police force and the responsible mayor. The interwoven nature of local governments with organized crime is no secret. But the revelations brought to light by the recent events have forced the government to break with their policy of official denial. As president Peña Nieto stated at a press conference, “the Iguala events have revealed the naked truth.”

Ayotzinapa has become the paragon of institutional ties with drug cartels and represents the sickness that has been ailing Mexican society in the form of corruption, extreme violence and impunity for years.

The movement that has risen in response to the Iguala events breaths a certain sense of relief. A family member of an Ayotzinapa student who disappeared a few years ago, relates how the movement has helped her: “Without Ayotzinapa our voices would still be shrouded in silence.”

Where people used to whisper, they now openly agitate against the narcogobierno [drugs government]. This sea change must not be underestimated in the context of the extreme violence and repression which would normally make a public expression of this nature a dangerous act. Ayotzinapa has finally laid bare this public secret.

Thousands protests in the streets of Acapulco on October 17, 2014

Thousands protests in the streets of Acapulco on October 17, 2014

 The perfect storm?

The disappearance of the students has mobilized and brought together diverse local groups from all social strata and regions of Mexican society. Committees of support have been set up in the most remote corners of Mexico, the Zapatistas have held a silent march in Chiapas and famous Mexican actors have declared their solidarity. However, the heart of the movement is located in Iguala, in the Asamblea Nacional Popular (ANP) headed by the parents and schoolmates of the disappeared students.

The strength of the Ayotzinapa movement is based in the coalition of student and teachers organizations. This coalition seems to be the recipe for a perfect storm. Both are at the forefront of the struggle and are flooding Mexican streets with staggering numbers, of which the 50.000 strong demonstration on October 22 in Mexico City has been the largest so far.

In Guerrero, epicenter of the struggle, highways are blockaded daily, government buildings are torched and radio stations occupied and taken over. Students and teachers of leading universities have called various strikes, and there is talk of a general strike to come. To top all this off, teachers associations have set themselves the goal of taking over all of Guerrero’s town halls. At the time of writing the count is set at 22 out of a total of 81.

In recent Mexican history, teachers and students have been the vanguard of social struggles, which has given them an important symbolic value. It also provides the current movement with the needed practical experience and organizational structures to build upon.

 Roots of the movement

Mexican universities are well known for their militant and radical student movements. The latest revival took place in the form of a national movement called #YoSoy132 (#IAm132). The movement started during the presidential election campaigns of 2012 when the students agitated for the democratization of the media because of their their partial reporting, which favored erstwhile presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The movement is organized horizontally and made up of 130 local and autonomous assemblies spread all over Mexico, coordinating in its national Interuniversitaria, which has now taken up the cause of the Ayotzinapa students.

Just like #YoSoy132, the radical teachers organizations besmirched the start of the presidential term of Peña Nieto with large-scale protests when he announced controversial neoliberal reforms in education, energy and telecommunications. The democratic section of the national teachers union CNTE, well known for their role in the Oaxaca uprising of 2006, has led the protests against the attempt to privatize Mexican education.

In Guerrero, these militant protests were led by the teachers organization CETEG, which has united the forces of farmers, indigenous people, students and community police, thereby broadening the struggle against the entire neoliberal offensive of the new government. Besides the education reforms, they protested the privatization of the energy sector, destructive mining projects, repression of political activists and the lack of public security.

The Interuniversitaria, CNTE and CETEG are the motor of the current Ayotzinapa movement.

 Banner reading “We are all Ayotzinapa”, “Don’t forgive, or forget”, “Punish those responsible”, “Alive they took them, alive we want them back”

Banner reading “We are all Ayotzinapa”, “Don’t forgive, or forget”, “Punish those responsible”, “Alive they took them, alive we want them back”

 Insecurity unites a diverse movement

“Alive they took them, alive we want them back.” Recurrent in all protests, this slogan expresses the most important demand of the movement: the unharmed return of the students and the punishment of all those responsible for their disappearance. Banners and social media also often show the hash-tag ‘#AyotzinapaSomosTodos’ [#WeAreAllAyotzinapa]. This sends the clear message that this ‘could have happened to anybody in Mexico’. This sad reality of the structural insecurity caused by the deep ties between the corrupt government and organized crime speaks to a diversity of Mexicans and is the glue that binds the Ayotzinapa movement.

A current in the movement articulates Ayotzinapa as a systemic problem. It is mainly the radical teachers organizations which are determined not to settle for the usual course of events in Mexican political crises, namely a reshuffling of the political cards and then back to business as usual. The protesters’ response to the resignation of Guerrero’s governor says it all. “It will not solve anything,” was the loud response after which the mobilization and protests continued with unrelenting zeal. Indeed, the appointment of an interim governor of Guerrero was answered immediately with the demand for his dismissal since he was not chosen by el pueblo, the people, but by the federal government. On their own terms, the Ayotzinapa movement demands the dissolution of the municipal, state and federal governments. As they say in Mexico, “The cob must be stripped of all its corn.”

The broad coalition that makes up the Ayotzinapa movement has its internal complexities and tensions. The issue of insecurity speaks just as well to people who want a properly functioning liberal democracy as to radical groups that would like to see far-reaching political change. This is evident from the following examples.

A few days after the disappearance of the students, shopkeepers and merchants of Guerrero’s capital Chilpancingo joined the protest demanding the resignation of the governor. The extreme violence in the region has been seriously affecting commerce in Chilpancingo, leading to this groups’ participation. Under a similar pretext of insecurity, 200 striking police officers in Acapulco joined the struggle. While the middle classes focus on the issue of insecurity, a group of socialist students of the Ayotzinapa movement choose a more fundamental focus.

The students have decided to temporarily occupy two mega-stores in Chilpancingo to hand out food and basic supplies. Electronics and luxury items remain untouched, which makes it different from ordinary plundering, but rather sends a clear political statement that inequality is at the root of the problems in Mexico. This message also resonates in many of the highway blockades, where the Ayotzinapa movement gives civil vehicles free passage but denies it completely to the trucks of multinationals like Coca Cola and BIMBO, symbols of the inequality of the capitalist system.

The different currents that feed the Ayotzinapa movement are its strength because of the broad support. At the same time, the divergent currents carry with them the risk of fragmentation.

 From de-escalation to militarization

During the first month of protests, the government was surprisingly peaceful in its response. Even when more militant actions occurred, like setting fire to government buildings or occupations of town halls, the authorities did not intervene. The government seemed to be hoping for a fiery but short lived movement that would burn out by itself. Besides, this de-escalation strategy was at the time the only realistic course of action since a new victim of state violence would only have heightened the flames of discontent.

However, the government did employ its usual tactic of discrediting the students and teachers by labeling them as dangerous and radical vandals. More recently they have even stooped to the level of accusing the Ayotzinapa students of being allied to a drug cartel. Strikingly enough, these accusations have not had the sought-after effect on the people.

On October 29, more than a month into the protests, the first violent confrontation with the military police forces took place when teachers of CETEG attempted to occupy the Casa Guerrero, the White House of Guerrero. Meanwhile, the government is taking over control of the cities of Guerrero as well as twelve municipalities. A large-scale militarization of the region is taking place, denounced by the teachers organizations as an attempt to suppress the movement. Now that more and more anger is directed towards the president himself, the chances of a violent intervention are growing by the day.

 Self-organization: leading by example

The long-standing community police forces of Guerrero are an inspiration to the Ayotzinapa movement. When people speak of real solutions to rising insecurity, they are quick to refer to the self-organized community police, “where the people do it themselves.”

Indigenous communities, mostly, have organized their police groups based on their own culture and organizational structures. The police are directly responsive to the community which governs and controls their activities. The areas where the community police is active are seen as the safest places in Guerrero.

UPOEG is one of the community police organizations which has gained a lot of respect by immediately organizing search parties for the disappeared students, coordinating their efforts with the parents. As such, UPOEG is filling the void left by the government and shows the power and possibilities of self-organization. Besides its policing role, UPOEG is also putting forward a plan to create a ‘fourth level of government’ next to the existing federal, state and municipal structure of Mexico. This would take the shape of a ‘council of community leaders’ with the aim of pulling political power to the bottom of Mexican society: the communities.

Self-organization in Guerrero is referred to by the Ayotzinapa movement as an example of what another Mexico might look like.

Satirical version of Time Magazine cover depicting president Peña Nieto as Death, with the accompanying text “Slaying Mexico”

Satirical version of Time Magazine cover depicting president Peña Nieto as Death, with the accompanying text “Slaying Mexico”

 The importance of international pressure

The fear that political instability will disrupt Mexican commercial interests makes the country highly susceptible to international pressure. This was apparent when the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 during the implementation of the NAFTA free trade agreement. The pressure exerted on Mexico as a response to the international solidarity movement was of crucial importance in the course of the Zapatista struggle.

The Mexican government does not want to lose her image as ‘stable’ and ‘open for business’. The protesters in Mexico are well aware of this fact. They have made a satirical version of the cover of the influential Time Magazine and spread it far and wide via social media. The image parodies an edition of Time with Peña Nieto ‘Saving Mexico’ on the front cover. The parody depicts the president as Death with a scythe in his hand, accompanied by the text “Slaying Mexico.” This is a firm call for international pressure.

International intellectuals supported the struggle with a critical open letter to president Peña Nieto signed by Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco and more than two-thousand other academics.

Once more, it is of crucial importance that the eyes of the world are turned to Mexico to restrain its government from using all-out repression against the Ayotzinapa movement. The course of struggle is unclear, and a burst of violence lurks in every corner, just like the possibility for social change. One thing is certain: a diverse group of Mexicans is envisioning Another Mexico, which now more than ever, is possible.

Maggie Blanca is an independent journalist and PhD student in Cultural Anthropology.

Jeremy Crowlesmith is an independent journalist based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, with a background in student organizing and independent media.

“When compared with the suppression of anarchy every other question sinks into insignificance. The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind, and his is a deeper degree of criminality than any other. No immigrant is allowed to come to our shores if he is an anarchist; and no paper published here or abroad should be permitted circulation in this country if it propagates anarchist opinions.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt (April 9, 1908)

The FBI Can Break Encryption

(By Bill Blunden via Dissident Voice)

Slide showing how the NSA performs <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man-in-the-middle_attack">man-in-the-middle attacks</a> on SSL/TLS encrypted web traffic  (Photograph: Guardian)

Leaked slide showing how the NSA performs man-in-the-middle attacks on SSL/TLS encrypted web traffic (click to enlarge)Photo credit: Guardian 

[…] recent history is chock full of instances where the FBI employed malware like Magic Lantern and CIPAV to foil encryption and identify people using encryption-based anonymity software like Tor. If it’s expedient, the FBI will go so far as to impersonate a media outlet to fool suspects into infecting their own machines. It would seem that crooks aren’t the only attackers who wield social engineering techniques.

In fact, the FBI has gotten so adept at hacking computers, utilizing what are referred to internally as Network Investigative Techniques, that the FBI wants to change the law to reflect this. The Guardian reports on how the FBI is asking the U.S. Advisory Committee on Rules and Criminal Procedure to move the legal goal posts, so to speak:

The amendment [proposed by the FBI] inserts a clause that would allow a judge to issue warrants to gain ‘remote access’ to computers ‘located within or outside that district’ (emphasis added) in cases in which the ‘district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means’. The expanded powers to stray across district boundaries would apply to any criminal investigation, not just to terrorist cases as at present.

In other words the FBI wants to be able to hack into a computer when its exact location is shrouded by anonymity software. Once they compromise the targeted machine it’s pretty straightforward to install a software implant (i.e. malware) and exfiltrate whatever user data they want, including encryption passwords.

If encryption is really the impediment that director Comey makes it out to be, then why is the FBI so keen to amend the rules in a manner which implies that they can sidestep it? In the parlance of poker this is a “tell.”

As a developer who has built malicious software designed to undermine security tools I can attest that there is a whole burgeoning industry which prays on naïve illusions of security. Companies like Hacking Team have found a lucrative niche offering products to the highest bidder that compromise security and… a drumroll please… defeat encryption.

There’s a moral to this story. Cryptome’s John Young prudently observes:

Protections of promises of encryption, proxy use, Tor-like anonymity and ‘military-grade’ comsec technology are magic acts — ELINT, SIGINT and COMINT always prevail over comsec. The most widely trusted and promoted systems are the most likely to be penetrated, exploited, spied upon, successfully attacked, covertly compromised with faults hidden by promoters, operators, competitors, compromisers and attackers all of whom warn against the others while mutually benefiting from continuous alarms about security and privacy.

When someone promises you turnkey anonymity and failsafe protection from spies, make like that guy on The Walking Dead and reach for your crossbow. Mass surveillance is a vivid expression of raw power and control. Hence what ails society is fundamentally a political problem, with economic and technical facets, such that safeguarding civil liberties on the Internet will take a lot more than just the right app.

Read full article here.

43 Missing Students, State Crimes & Resistance in Mexico

(by Dawn Paley, via Media Co-op)

Guerrero's state congress burns during the widespread protests that took place in response to the police kidnapping/murders of the students from Ayotzinapa.  Tuesday, October 13. (Photo: El Universal)

Guerrero’s state congress burns during the widespread protests that took place in response to the police kidnapping/murders of the students from Ayotzinapa.
Tuesday, October 13. (Photo: El Universal)

The story of the 43 young men, students at a teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, who were disappeared in Iguala, Mexico on September 26th is one that isn’t going to go away.

Recall that they were kidnapped by police and nothing has been heard from them since. The Mexican government and mainstream media are relying heavily on the narrative that the responsible party in these crimes is a “drug gang” called Guerreros Unidos. That narrative distorts and distracts from despicable state crimes by pointing to organized crime and corrupt cops as being solely responsible.

This is a short update meant to demystify official claims, which are (as usual) finding great echo in the media, as well as to bring folks up to date on ongoing acts of resistance in Mexico.

On the day the students were detained by police before also being disappeared by them, six people were killed by gunshot wounds when cops opened fire on various vehicles. There are now ample survivors who have bravely told media what took place that day, and they’re not talking about attacks by Guerreros Unidos or some other crime group. They describe how police fired directly on groups clearly identified as students. Here’s a snippet from an excellent piece by Vice Mexico:

“When it started, one of us said, ‘Don’t be afraid, friends, they are firing to the sky’,” Mario went on. “The buses stopped, and that’s when I saw the bullets were coming toward us.”

The young men began panicking. Mario and three other friends got off, each also wearing the red jacket of their Ayotzinapa uniforms. They saw that the gunfire was coming from men inside two municipal police cruisers. Trying to defend himself, Mario threw rocks in their direction.

As bullets kept hitting the buses, they ran to the first bus. “But then we saw that they were ten police cars, surrounding us. We had no where to run and no rocks to defend ourselves,” Mario said.

“One of the bullets hit Aldo, who fell right next to me. I saw how a pool of blood formed. I yelled at them that they already hit one of us, and they began firing more,” he went on. “If you moved, they fired, if you yelled or talked, they fired. They fired so much, from in front, and from behind, that us, the ones who got off, we hid in between the first and second bus.”

mass of riot pigs and angry students who hate killer cops

Anti-riot policemen are on guard as students try to get into Government palace, in Chilpancingo (Photo: Jose Luis de la Cruz)

Yesterday it was revealed that the 9-10 mass graves that were found outside of Iguala almost two weeks ago do not contain the bodies of the 43 missing students. We now know that at least 28 more people were killed around that time, they were tortured, cut into pieces, and burned before being buried outside of Iguala. We must now speak of various massacres in Iguala (not to mention mass graves containing nine bodies found in April and another nine in May of this year on the outskirts of the city).

But the government of Mexico’s involvement in these crimes goes beyond police actions and their collaboration with paramilitary groups in the region. It was reported that authorities also impeded the work of an Argentine Forensic team tasked with identifying the remains in the graves.

“There were two days of agnoy and complications, and on the third day things were normalized,” [according to a lawyer on the scene].

Because of the loss of those initial hours, they arrived at the first five graves–out of which they took 28 bodies–once the exhumations were already done. “They didn’t have the opportunity to participate in that.”

The mayor of Iguala, who belongs to the sham leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), is on the run with his wife. Note that governor of Guerrero is also a member of the PRD.

I guess that’s my lead in to update on the resistance and organization taking place in the face of this massive, ongoing tragedy.

There were marches throughout the country a week ago today, as well as in cities around the world, including Vancouver and Montreal. Coming back to my segue-way, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the so called “moral leader” of the sham-left PRD party, was attacked during the October 8th demo by protestors in Mexico City who threw garbage and yelled at him and his entourage. But the marches were big, and there were lots of them, and the attack on Cárdenas was just a bit of a sideshow that demonstrates how pissed people are at all of the political parties in this country. Of the main protest slogans in the marches is: ¡Vivos los llevaron, vivos los queremos! which translates as: They were taken alive, we want them back alive!

Militant highway blockades have been taking place in various locations. There was one this morning on a major highway in the south of Mexico City.

Also today the National University (UNAM) and various other large universities in Mexico City (UAM, IPN and UACM) entered their second day of a two day student strike, with another two day strike proposed for next week.

Lastly, for the moment, on October 13th the State Congress of Guerrero was burned by protesters. The building will not re-open for some time and government activities have been suspended until an alternative seat of government is found. Chilpancingo’s City Hall was also set on fire.

(An unpleasant endnote, but over the weekend a leader who has been active in resisting a dam in Sinaloa state was killed while he broadcasted live during his weekly radio show. More on that soon.)

The Great Firewall of China and how it blocks Tor traffic

Diagram showing how GFW filters/censors tor traffic

China’s firewall is now able to dynamically recognise Tor usage and block the respective relays and bridges. The diagram above illustrates how this works: 1) the firewall searches for a bunch of bytes which identify a network connection as Tor. If these bytes are found, 2) the firewall initiates a scan of the host which is believed to be a bridge. In particular, 3) the scan is run by seemingly arbitrary Chinese computers which connect to the bridge and try to “speak Tor” to it. If this succeeds, the bridge is blocked.

(via phw’s blog on Tor Project)

Over the last years, we learned a lot about how the Great Firewall of China is blocking Tor. Some questions remained unanswered, however. Roya, Mueen, Jed, and I just published a project which seeks to answer some of these open questions. Being curious as we are, we tried to find answers to the following questions:

  • Is the filtering decentralised (i.e., happening in provinces) or centralised (i.e., happening in Internet exchange points (IXP))?
  • Are there any temporal patterns in the filtering? Or in other words, are there certain times when people are more likely to be able to connect to Tor?
  • Similarly, are there any spatial patterns? Are folks in some special regions of China able to connect to Tor while others cannot?
  • When a computer in China tries to connect to a Tor relay, what part of the TCP handshake is blocked?

It turns out that some of these questions are quite tricky to answer. For example, to find spatial patterns, we need to be able to measure the connectivity between many Tor relays and many clients in China. However, we are not able to control even a single one of these machines. So how do we proceed from here? As so often, side channels come to the rescue! In particular, we made use of two neat network measurement side channels which are the hybrid idle scan and the SYN backlog scan. The backlog scan is a new side channel we discovered and discuss in our paper. Equipped with these two powerful techniques, we were able to infer if there is packet loss between relay A and client B even though we cannot control A and B.

You might notice that our measurement techniques are quite different from most other Internet censorship studies which rely on machines inside the censoring country. While our techniques give us a lot more geographical coverage, they come at a price which is flexibility; we are limited to measuring Internet filtering on the IP layer. More sophisticated filtering techniques such as deep packet inspection remain outside our scope.

Now what we did was to measure the connectivity between several dozen Tor relays and computers in China over four weeks which means that we collected plenty of data points, each of which telling us “was A able to talk to B at time T?”. These data points reveal a number of interesting things:

  • It appears that many IP addresses inside the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) are able to connect to at least our Tor relay.
  • Apart from the CERNET netblock, the filtering seems to be quite effective despite occasional country-wide downtimes.
  • It seems like the filtering is centralised at the IXP level instead of being decentralised at the provincial level. That makes sense from the censor’s point of view because it is cheap, effective, and easy to control.

Now what does all of this mean for Tor users? Our results show that China still has a tight grip on its communication infrastructure, especially on the IP and TCP layer. That is why our circumvention efforts mostly focus on the application layer (with meek being an exception) and pluggable transport protocols such as ScrambleSuit (which is now part of the experimental version of TorBrowser) and obfs4 are specifically designed to thwart the firewall’s active probing attacks.

Check out the comments section of the original blog post at Tor Project for interesting discussion … Also, see “How The Great Firewall of China Is Blocking Tor” (PDF)