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? 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Oscar López Rivera: The Invisible Man and His Invisible Nation

Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.”
President Barack Obama

"But one prisoner remains, now a vivid reminder of the ongoing inequality that colonialism and empire building inevitably bring forth. After more than thirty years, Oscar López Rivera is imprisoned for the 'crime' of seditious conspiracy: conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice.”

If you ask any American what is the first thing they think of when they hear the term "political prisoner," almost everyone will say Nelson Mandela. To the millions who witnessed Mandela leading the South African liberation struggle and those who were born in its aftermath, Mandela has become a symbol of resistance to the worst form of political repression. The 27 years he spent imprisoned in Robben Island are an almost unimaginable punishment to people in the West, who like to think that nothing remotely similar could happen at home. Meanwhile, in a prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana, out of the media spotlight and the history books, Oscar López Rivera today, May 29, marks his 33rd year spent behind bars (12 in solitary confinement) as a political prisoner of the U.S. government for a nearly identical "crime" and a nearly identical cause.

López holds the distinction of being the longest-serving Puerto Rican political prisoner ever. He has already served 6 more years than Mandela. At 71 years old, he is not scheduled to be released for another 10 years. Convicted of "seditious conspiracy," trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force, López was imprisoned for the same charge as Mandela. Although the government implied he was part of FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña), a Puerto Rico nationalist organization, he was never accused of any acts of violence that killed or injured anyone.

The 55 year prison sentence handed down to López was egregiously excessive. For comparison, in the mid '90s, the average time spent in prison by people convicted of violent felonies was four years; for those convicted of murder or manslaughter it was 10 years.

To Puerto Ricans and those who belong to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the States, the cause of justice for Oscar López has become a nearly unanimous and ubiquitous pursuit. Tens of thousands gathered in San Juan to demand López's release in November. Marches now take place weekly all over the island. There have been popular demonstrations that included musicians, athletes and politicians engaging in a symbolic lock up to bring attention to López's cause. Ricky Martin made a public plea at the Latin Grammy's and boxer Felix Verdejo did the same before his latest fight. Popular recording artist Rene Perez, better known as Calle 13, has been vocal in his support for López's cause.

President Obama has recently received letters appealing for him to pardon López from fellow Nobel Peace Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Máiread Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel; from Pedro Pierluisi, the sole Puerto Rican (non-voting) member of Congress and from Puerto Rican governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla.  Florida Representative Alan Grayson, spurred on by public outrage among the Puerto Rican community in his district, petitioned Obama for López's release in January. Earlier this month José "Pepe" Mujica, President of Uruguay, called on Obama to free López during their meeting at the White House. 

Yet in the States it is as if López does not even exist. Obama has never publicly responded to the pleas from human rights activists, politicians, celebrities, or the hundreds of thousands of average citizens who have made their voice heard on the streets and on social media.  While Arab Spring protests were national news, an equally large movement of U.S. citizens is invisible to the rest of the U.S. population. 

When he gave his eulogy for Mandela, Obama proclaimed that, "We, too, must act on behalf of justice." Presented with an opportunity to fulfill his pledge, Obama has instead chosen the convenience of indifference. What matters is not how Mandela was eulogized, but how he was judged in the moment. It is easy to talk about justice in a case that history has already decided long ago.

"I wonder if you would be interested in imbuing your presidency with historical significance in the form of a direct action to assuage this injustice perpetrated by the American government," writes Guillermo Rebollo-Gil in 80grados. "Students at the march [in San Juan] were chanting in unison: 'Obama can’t talk about freedom, if he keeps brother Oscar incarcerated.' Thousands upon thousands agreed. And now I am tempted to ask, can you?"

Everyone now accepts that South Africa was an apartheid state. Whites created a racial caste system that denied blacks political and social rights while institutionalizing economic oppression. South Africa of the 1950's in many ways resembled the U.S. South at the same time. In both cases, white supremacy was defended hysterically, above all other political considerations. 

Up until the bitter end, the United States government defended the apartheid regime in South Africa. Ronald Reagan, who declared Mandela's African National Congress a terrorist organization, called South Africa "a country that is strategically essential to the free world" in 1981. Previous administrations backed the white South African army as they invaded neighboring Angola to suppress that nation's liberation movement to achieve freedom from colonial rule. While apartheid now is universally accepted as an atrocity and a crime against humanity, it is important to remember that was not always the case.

The measure of a leader's courage is whether he fights for social justice when he can make a difference, not what he says in hindsight decades later. If President Obama were the judge who Mandela stood before in Rivonia, would Obama have dared to reject the accepted legitimacy of South Africa's political system, as he might like to believe, or would he, like Reagan, dismiss Mandela as a "terrorist"? Based on his actions as President, it is hard to believe that Obama would have had the courage to see Mandela's struggle as the fight for justice we all now recognize that it was. 

When it comes to Puerto Rico, Obama has not even bothered to acknowledge the monumental referendum in which the Puerto Rican people decisively rejected the current colonial status they have been subjected to for 115 years. The most Obama has done is include a few million dollars in his budget for the Puerto Rican electoral commission to hold another non-binding vote. He has not spoken at all about ensuring Puerto Rico's will is carried out by achieving first-class status, either as its own nation or as part of the United States.

Residents of Puerto Rico and the other U.S. colonies (Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands) have no vote in Presidential elections, nor any representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. They have no voice in making the policies they are subjected to under Article 6 of the Constitution, which they never agreed to. Economically, Puerto Rico is completely dependent on the United States. Puerto Rico imports 85% of its foodstuffs. To this day, efforts to create self-sufficiency are being undermined by U.S. laws imposed on Puerto Rico without their consent.

The result is what Judge Juan Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has called "political apartheid, which continues in full vigor." Torruella, a Puerto Rican native and Reagan appointee, writes eloquently of the similarities between the "Separate but Equal" status endorsed in Plessy vs. Ferguson  and the "Separate and Unequal" status endorsed in the Insular Cases.

If there is any doubt how Puerto Rico has fared as a colony, one simple statistic illustrates the point: the average income in Puerto Rico ($18,660) is 50% less than the poorest state (Mississippi), and 65% less than the national average. In many ways, there is little difference - either politically or economically - between Puerto Ricans today and black South Africans until the end of apartheid.

When it concerned another government, somewhere else, Obama could praise Mandela for challenging the oppressive system he faced, saying Mandela turned his trial into "an indictment of apartheid." Just like Mandela, López made a similar argument in his own defense, admitting his fight against the structure of the colonial system oppressing Puerto Rico. 

"The United States government will not say that international organizations have determined that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and that, according to international law, they are committing a crime against my country," López said. 

This appears to be a crime Obama is not willing to admit, much less challenge. The longer Obama maintains his silence, the larger the calls for justice for López grow. Puerto Ricans who oppose colonialism but have historically disagreed politically otherwise have found common cause in demanding López's freedom. And this movement may serve as a catalyst to achieve the political change López has sacrificed 33 years of his life for: ending apartheid in Puerto Rico. 

In the end Obama's legacy will be not as the transformational political leader he promised to be, but rather as the President who pretended to support social  justice while working behind the scenes to ensure it was never achieved.

Someday if Oscar López's nation of Puerto Rico achieves liberation, López may wind up becoming the symbol of struggle against injustice that Mandela is today. The United States under Barack Obama, like South Africa decades earlier, will be the symbol of political repression.