Sunday, May 18, 2014

Civil rights in the age of Obama

The Obama administration's foreign policy has become increasingly dependent on lies and distortions. Officials lambaste other states who refuse to accept the neoliberal order dictated by multinational corporations without any evidence or consistency. Their word is supposed to be taken at face value without any debate, as if they deserve the benefit of the doubt. After  the State Department recently warned the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of protesters and ensure due process of the law, a bill passed the Senate to impose sanctions on the oil-rich nation. We are supposed to believe that Venezuelans are lucky their protectors in the North care enough about them to save them from the government they freely elected. The U.S. government protects its own residents at home, and will do the same for those living under less fortunate regimes.

This imperialist worldview peddled since the Monroe Doctrine to justify the brutality and viciousness of colonialism has survived despite any evidence the people either overseas or at home benefit from the coercion and military force used to ensure the free flow of capital and open markets.

We are told over and over about "American exceptionalism", as Obama likes to say. It is taken for granted that "we" are good and "they" are bad. We are constantly reminded that we are free, democratic, and so selfless that we will stop at nothing to ensure our values are extended to people in every corner of the globe.

It is pure coincidence that those governments who don't share our values and respect for rights have chosen other socioeconomic systems. It has nothing to do with the fact they have decided the resources like oil reserves in Venezuela belong to the citizens of that nation, not corporations who can exploit those resources for a profit.

No, it is because of lack of respect for democracy and freedom that the U.S. government and the multinational corporations who provide the funds that enable its politicians to win election to their office are so insistent on being the ultimate arbiter of what is best for the population of Venezuela.

"The government’s arbitrary detention and excessive use of force against protesters and journalists, lack of due process, and the shutdown of foreign media and Internet, endanger human rights," said State Department official Scott Busby in a statement. This comes several months after John Kerry accused the Venezuelan government of carrying out a "terror campaign" against its own citizens. 

The U.S. government doesn't mention that the violent protesters have been responsible for at least 20 deaths, including motorcyclists who have been decapitated by barbed wire strung in the streets. Protesters are now several months into their campaign to overthrow the legitimately elected President of the country, who belongs to the party who has won 17 out of the last 18 elections. They have caused millions of dollars in damage to city buses, universities and administrative buildings with Molotov cocktails and deliberate fires. 

You have to ask yourself: Would the U.S. government sit back and allow that to happen? If Washington was under siege, would U.S.  officials calmly declare their respect for "free speech" and "freedom of assembly" while people died and the city burned? 

We don't have to look very far back in time for the answer. Police brutality and violent law enforcement crack downs on peaceful protesters were hallmarks of the nationwide Occupy protests. The difference between Occupy and "The Exit" in Venezuela is that Occupy was never about overthrowing the government, but rather an attempt to gain more democratic participation and social justice for people who feel their voice has been overpowered by wealthy corporations and individual campaign donors.

How did the government react? By arresting nearly 8,000 people and criminally prosecuting many of them.

Earlier this month, Cecily McMillan was handed a felony assault conviction stemming from an Occupy protest in 2012. The 25-year-old student claims she was sexually assaulted by a police officer who viciously grabbed her breast. She says she then reacted instinctively to the assault, elbowing the officer in the eye. This led to the assault charge against her.

"The decision highlights the workings of a criminal justice system bent on chilling dissent and defending the status quo," writes Natasha Lennard in Vice News. "McMillan's conviction offers an unambiguous answer to that popular and rhetorical chant levied at police lines during Occupy protests: 'Who do you protect? Who do you serve?' The court's reply is clear: systems of power and their NYPD guardians will be coddled with impunity, while protesters will be beaten, broken and jailed." 

Recently a New York Times investigation discovered that during a nearly 20-year period, F.B.I. agents were found to be justified in each of the 150 shootings they were involved in. The investigation was launched in the wake of what evidence suggests was a possible execution style killing of Ibragim Todashev, who was shot repeatedly in the back. The official F.B.I. account was changed multiple times before the shooting was deemed justified.

Similar incidents of local law enforcement acting with impunity have occurred repeatedly - in Oakland,  New Mexico, Jersey City and New York City to name a few. 

This seems to be a symptom of the almost complete discretion granted to law enforcement in the U.S., expanded and amplified since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the early 1980s. There has been an almost complete shredding of the 4th amendment "right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." This right now seems to be no more than a fantasy, the new law of the land being anything goes for police. 

Shortly after the State Department's condemnation of the Venezuelan government, Israeli occupation forces killed two Palestinian teens marching in the West Bank to demonstrate on the anniversary of the Nakba, the campaign of terror and violence by Zionist militias that drove 750,000 indigenous Arabs from their homes and their land in 1948.

There was no official statement condemning this - much less the illegal occupation itself, where Palestinians have been subjected to military law since 1967. If the U.S. government does truly care about the civil  rights of people across the globe, why are all foreign government not held equally accountable?

One can't help but wonder if it is not really the conduct itself that bothers the U.S. government, but their political relationship with the country in question. Are governments who challenge U.S. hegemony singled out? Are accusations leveled to give opposition protesters within these countries implicit backing, encouraging them to go further, in the hopes of inciting a forceful government response the U.S. government can then condemn?

Obama campaigned promising a break from the past, pledging to "strengthen civil rights." He framed the struggle for justice as a continuation of the struggle culminating in the Civil Rights Act, and promised that "we have more work to do." Voters who backed Obama took his words at face value, and thought he might actually lead the country in a new direction.

When Obama came to office, he inherited a civil rights disaster. He was not responsible for 7.5 million people - the vast majority minorities - in the U.S. corrections system, or 4 million second-class citizens in the U.S. colonies. He didn't start the un-winnable wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the wars against terrorism or drugs. He didn't open the concentration camp on stolen land in Cuba or start warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. 

But for someone who promised change from the broken policies so many people were eager to leave behind, five years should be enough time to start seeing evidence of a new era. But this has not materialized.

The Obama administration has used the full force of the criminal justice system against political opponents, imprisoning human rights lawyers like Lynne Stewartwhistle blowers like Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond; journalists like Barrett Brown; non-profits like the Holy Land Foundation; and peaceful political activists like Cecily McMillan.

Dozens more have been threatened with prosecution for reporting on and bringing to light government abuses, especially Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Journalist James Risen has been threatened with jail time unless he reveals a confidential source, and Glenn Greenwald has been slandered and smeared as a criminal "accomplice" and worse. 

Meanwhile, administration officials who commit felonies by lying to Congress and selectively leaking classified information go free. As long as officials stick to the party line when leaking information to the press, it seems they have no need to fear prosecution. 

But to prevent legitimate political debate, the most redacted administration in history continues to crack down and take secrecy to new levels.

"By criminalizing free speech and turning dissidents into felons, they achieve exactly that which the First Amendment, above all else, was designed to prohibit," writes Glenn Greenwald.

Illegal surveillance and law enforcement activity has been common at least since J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI. The massive Operation COINTELPRO, which targeted anti-war, civil rights, came to light during the Church Committee hearings. The FBI promised to stop such practices and prevent them from happening again. But what really happened is the same mindset persisted while the techniques evolved.

They are still present today in secret programs like the NYPD's "Demographics Unit", whose task was spying on Muslims. Thousands of officers and millions of dollars were wasted on an operation based on no threat that did not lead to a single terrorism investigation

The principle is the same. Criminal activity is defined by a person's race, religion, or political affiliation, not by crime itself. Black people are drug criminals by definition, as Michelle Alexander explains in her groundbreaking book "The New Jim Crow." 

The War on Drugs is enforced almost entirely against African Americans, despite the fact that their drug use occurs at a nearly identical rate as whites. Discriminatory policies lead to blacks being jailed in record numbers, which is then used as evidence of their criminality. It is a Catch-22.

In the same way, Muslims are terrorists. Progressives are dangerous subversives. When the facts don't cooperate with reality, you make them.

Rick Perlstein describes the tactic of entrapping people and presenting them as dangerous terrorists because it was decided their ideas were too radical and outside mainstream political discourse.

"They are arrogating to themselves a downright Orwellian power – the power to deploy the might of the State to shape a fundamental narrative about which ideas Americans must be most scared of, and which ones they should not fear much at all, independent of the relative objective dangerousness of the people who hold those ideas," Perlstein writes.

Meanwhile the Obama administration projects onto its political enemies the same things that it refuses to see - or chooses to ignore - in itself. Somehow "we" are the guardians of "American values" and freedom, while "they" - in Venezuela, Cuba, or Russia - are nothing more than thugs and criminals who have no respect for rights or the rule of law. 

The Obama administration would do well to recognize the President's campaign promises to strengthen civil rights and its failure to meaningfully deliver on them. Until they do, why should their statements on civil rights in Venezuela or anywhere else have any credibility?