Archive | June 29th, 2020

Dams, Deaths Squads and the Murder of Berta Cáceres


Photograph Source: Comisión Interamericana de – CC BY 2.0

“They build dams and kill people.” These words, spoken by a witness when the murderers of environmental defender Berta Cáceres were brought to trial in Honduras, describe Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company whose dam project Berta opposed. DESA was created in May 2009 solely to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric scheme, using the waters of the Gualcarque River, regarded as sacred by the Lenca communities who live on its banks. As Nina Lakhani makes clear in her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres?,[1] DESA was one of many companies to benefit from the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, when the left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya was deposed and replaced by a sequence of corrupt administrations. The president of DESA and its head of security were both US-trained former Honduran military officers, schooled in counterinsurgency. By 2010, despite having no track record of building dams, DESA had already obtained the permits it needed to produce and sell electricity, and by 2011, with no local consultation, it had received its environmental licence.

Much of Honduras’s corruption derives from the drug trade, leading last year to  being labelled a narco-state[2]in which (according to the prosecution in a US court case against the current president’s brother) drug traffickers “infiltrated the Honduran government and they controlled it.”[3] But equally devastating for many rural communities has been the government’s embrace of extractivism – an economic model that sees the future of countries like Honduras (and the future wealth of their elites) in the plundering and export of its natural resources.[4] Mega-projects that produce energy, mine gold and other minerals, or convert forests to palm-oil plantations, are being opposed by activists who, like Cáceres, have been killed or are under threat. Lakhani quotes a high-ranking judge she spoke to, sacked for denouncing the 2009 coup, as saying that Zelaya was deposed precisely because he stood in the way of this economic model and the roll-out of extractive industries that it required.

The coup “unleashed a tsunami of environmentally destructive ‘development’ projects as the new regime set about seizing resource-rich territories.”[5] After the post-coup elections, the then president Porfirio Lobo declared Honduras open for business, aiming to “relaunch Honduras as the most attractive investment destination in Latin America.” [6] Over eight years, almost 200 mining projects were approved. Cáceres received a leaked list of rivers, including the Gualcarque, that were to be secretly “sold off” to produce hydroelectricity. The Honduran congress went on to approve dozens of such projects without any consultation with affected communities. Berta’s campaign to defend the rivers began on July 26, 2011 when she led the Lenca-based COPINH (“Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras”) in a march on the presidential palace. As a result, Lobo met Cáceres and promised there would be consultations before projects began – a promise he never kept.

Lakhani’s book gives us an insight into the personal history that brought Berta Cáceres to this point. She came from a family of political activists. As a teenager she read books on Marxism and the Cuban revolution. But Honduras is unlike its three neighbouring countries where there were strong revolutionary movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The US had already been granted free rein in Honduras in exchange for “dollars, training in torture-based interrogation methods, and silence.”[7] It was a country the US could count on, having used it in the 1980s as the base for its “Contra” war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Its elite governing class, dominated by rich families from Eastern Europe and the Middle East,  was also unusual. One, the Atala Zablah family, became the financial backers of the dam; others, such as Miguel Facussé Barjum, with his palm oil plantations in the Bajo Aguán, backed other exploitative projects.

At the age of only 18, looking for political inspiration and action, Berta left Honduras and went with her future husband Salvador Zúñiga to neighbouring El Salvador. She joined the FMLN guerrilla movement and spent months fighting against the US-supported right-wing government. Zúñiga describes her as having been “strong and fearless” even when the unit they were in came under attack. But in an important sense, her strong political convictions were tempered by the fighting: she resolved that “whatever we did in Honduras, it would be without guns.”[8]

Inspired also by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and by Guatemala’s feminist leader Rigoberta Menchú, Berta and Salvador created COPINH in 1993 to demand indigenous rights for the Lenca people, organising their first march on the capital Tegucigalpa in 1994. From this point Berta began to learn of the experiences of Honduras’s other indigenous groups, especially the Garífuna on its northern coast, and saw how they fitted within a pattern repeated across Latin America. As Lakhani says, “she always understood local struggles in political and geopolitical terms.”[9] By 2001 she was speaking at international conferences challenging the neo-liberal economic model, basing her arguments on the exploitation experienced by the Honduran communities she now knew well. She warned of an impending “death sentence” for the Lenca people, tragically foreseeing the fate of herself and other Lenca leaders. Mexican activist Gustavo Castro, later to be targeted alongside her, said “Berta helped make Honduras visible. Until then, its social movement, political struggles and resistance were largely unknown to the rest of the region.”[10]

In Río Blanco, where the Lenca community voted 401 to 7 against the dam, COPINH’s struggle continued. By 2013, the community seemed close to winning, at the cost of activists being killed or injured by soldiers guarding the construction. They had blocked the access road to the site for a whole year and the Chinese engineering firm had given up its contract. The World Bank allegedly pulled its funding, although Lakhani shows that its money later went back into the project via a bank owned by the Atala Faraj family. In April 2015 Berta was awarded the Goldman Prize[11] for her “grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.”[12]

Then in July 2015, DESA decided to go ahead by itself. Peaceful protests were met by violent repression and bulldozers demolished settlements. Threats against the leaders, and Berta in particular, increased. Protective measures granted to her by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights were never properly implemented. On February 20 2016, a peaceful march was stopped and 100 protesters were detained by DESA guards. On February 25, 50 families had to watch the demolition of their houses in the community of La Jarcia.

The horrific events on the night of Wednesday March 2 are retold by Nina Lakhani. Armed men burst through the back door of Berta’s house and shot her. They also injured Gustavo Castro, who was visiting Berta; he waited until the men had left, found her, and she died in his arms. Early the following morning, police and army officers arrived, dealing aggressively with the family and community members who were waiting to speak to them. Attempted robbery, a jilted lover and rivalry within COPINH were all considered as motives for the crime. Eventually, investigators turned their attention to those who had threatened to kill her in the preceding months. By the first anniversary of Berta’s death the stuttering investigation had led to eight arrests, but the people who ordered the murder were still enjoying impunity. Some of the accused were connected to the military, which was not surprising since Lakhani later revealed in a report for The Guardian that she had uncovered a military hit list with Berta’s name on it.[13] In the book she reports that the ex-soldier who told her about it is still in hiding: he had seen not only the list but also one of the secret torture centers maintained by the military.

Nina Lakhani is a brave reporter. She had to be. Since the coup in Honduras, 83 journalists have been killed; 21 were thrown in prison during the period when Lakhani was writing her book.[14] She poses the question “would we ever know who killed Berta Cáceres?” and sets out to answer it. Despite her diligent and often risky investigation, she can only give a partial answer. Those arrested and since convicted almost certainly include the hitmen who carried out the murder, but it is far from the clear that the intellectual authors of the crime have been caught. In 2017 Lakhani interviewed or attempted to interview all eight of those imprisoned and awaiting trial, casting a sometimes-sympathetic light on their likely involvement and why they took part.

It took almost two years before one of the crime’s likely instigators, David Castillo, the president of DESA, was arrested. Lakhani heads back to prison to interview him, too, and finds that Castillo disquietingly thinks she is the reason he’s in prison. “There is no way I am ever sitting down to talk to her,” he says to the guard.[15]Nevertheless they talk, with Castillo both denying his involvement in the murder and accusing Lakhani of implicating him. Afterwards she takes “a big breath” and writes down what he’s said.

In September 2018, the murder case finally went to trial, and Lakhani is at court to hear it, but the hearing is suspended. On the same day she starts to receive threats, reported in London’s Press Gazette[16] and duly receiving international attention. Not surprisingly she sees this as an attempt to intimidate her into not covering the trial. Nevertheless, when it reopens on October 25, she is there.

The trial reveals a weird mix of diligent police work and careful forensic evidence, together with the investigation’s obvious gaps. Not the least of these was the absence of Gustavo Castro, the only witness, whose return to Honduras was obstructed by the attorney general’s office. Castillo, though by then charged with masterminding the murder, was not part of the trial. Most of the evidence was not made public or even revealed to the accused. The Cáceres family’s lawyers were denied a part in the trial.

“The who did what, why and how was missing,” says Lakhani, “until we got the phone evidence which was the game changer.”[17] The phone evidence benefitted from an expert witness who explained in detail how it implicated the accused. She revealed that an earlier plan to carry out the murder in February was postponed. She showed the positions of the accused on the night in the following month when Berta was killed. She also made clear that members of the Atala family were involved.

When the verdict was delivered on November 29 2018, seven of the eight accused were found guilty, but it wasn’t until December 2019 that they were given long sentences. That’s where Nina Lakhani’s story ends. By then Honduras had endured a fraudulent election, its president’s brother had been found guilty of drug running in the US, and tens of thousands of Hondurans were heading north in migrant caravans. David Castillo hasn’t yet been brought to trial, and last year was accused by the School of Americas Watch of involvement in a wider range of crimes.[18] Lakhani revealed in The Guardian that he owns a luxury home in Texas.[19] He’s in preventative detention, but according to COPINH enjoys “VIP” conditions and may well be released because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of those already imprisoned may also be released. Daniel Atala Midence, accused by COPINH of being a key intellectual author of the crime as DESA’s chief financial officer, has never been indicted.[20]

The Agua Zarca dam project has not been officially cancelled although DESA’s phone number and email address are no longer in service.[21] Other environmentally disastrous projects continue to face opposition by COPINH and its sister organisations representing different Honduran communities. And a full answer to the question “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” is still awaited.


[1] Lakhani, N. (2020) Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet. London: Verso.

[2] “The Hernández Brothers,”

[3] “Honduran President’s Brother Is Found Guilty of Drug Trafficking,”

[4] “Murder in Honduras,”

[5] Lakhani, op.cit., p.89.

[6] “Honduras, open for business,”

[7] Lakhani, op.cit., p.24.

[8] Quoted by Lakhani, op.cit., p.35.

[9] Lakhani, op.cit., p.44.

[10] Lakhani, op.cit., p.56.

[11] The Goldman Prize is sometimes described as the “Nobel Prize” for environmental and human rights defenders. See

[12] “Introducing the 2015 Goldman Prize Winners,”

[13] “Berta Cáceres’s name was on Honduran military hitlist, says former soldier,”

[14] “Entre balas y cárcel: 35 periodistas exiliados en tres años,”

[15] Lakhani, op.cit., p.219.

[16] “Guardian stringer covering notorious Honduras murder trial shares safety fears amid online smear campaign,”

[17] Lakhani, op.cit., p.252.

[18] “Violence, Corruption & Impunity in the Honduran Energy Industry: A profile of Roberto David Castillo Mejía,”

[19] “Family of slain Honduran activist appeal to US court for help in her murder trial,”

[20] See COPINH’s web page on the aftermath of the Berta Cáceres trial,; see also “Indígenas piden acusación penal contra Daniel Atala como supuesto «asesino intelectual» de Berta Cáceres,”

[21] “Inside the Plot to Murder Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres,”

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Barbarism on the Rise: Hunting Mama Wolves and Bears and Their Cubs in Alaska


Arctic wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

When I was in elementary school, I had a slingshot for hunting birds. To this day, I find it impossible to explain why I indulged in such unsavory behavior.

However, since those youthful days, I never hunted again with either a slingshot or a gun.

I abhor the killing of wild and domesticated animals. They have as much right as we do to exist without fearing hunters may kill them.

I know humans have hunted and killed animals for food. Such open season lasted for millennia. Hunting of wildlife for food is probably still alive in some form or another in most countries of the world.

Hunting for sport is another, even more vicious, kind of killing of wild animals. Affluent European hunters decimated Africa’s wildlife in the nineteenth century.

Hunting for sport is probably just as ancient as killing wild animals for food. Members of the ruling classes in the past and now convince themselves they have divine rights to target wildlife at their convenience and pleasure.

This cruel and perverse habit is especially strong in affluent societies, where people with money and guns give license to their pathological instincts in killing wolves, bears, lions, tigers and other wild animals.

Human footprints

This killing, especially of important large carnivorous animals, adds more unnecessary instability in an already destabilized natural world.

Humans have been leaving their bloody and destructive footprints everywhere in the planet for a very long time.

Their industrialized farming has been producing unhealthy food while generating climate change. The effects are thoroughly unpleasant: insects, birds and small animals are steadily being driven towards extinction.

The logging of the world’s forests, no less than factory farming, disrupts and breaks down ecosystems, all but eliminating biological diversity and degrading land and life.

The damming of wild rivers unsettles water life and pushes countless species over the cliff.

As if these terrible practices, which “civilized” people do routinely, did not produce enough disruption and violence in the natural world, humans have been ravaging the land for petroleum, natural gas, coal, gold, silver, and other minerals.

War against the natural world in Alaska

It’s this political madness and ecological tsunami, the horror humans have been sowing in every wild land of the world, including the forests, rivers, and lands of the United States, that sets the stage for an additional and unusually horrific practice about to start in the parks of Alaska.

The Secretary of the US Department of the Interior, a Trump appointee by the name of David Bernhardt, signed a final rule June 11, 2020, that allows a dark age killing of bears, wolves and their cubs.

This is barbarism triumphant under the guise of restoring the authority of Alaska to do as it pleases with our national treasure of wildlife.

Hunters will be filling buckets with bait to attract bears in order to shoot them.

This reminds me of a story a friend told me of a similar barbaric practice in Michigan. Owners of gasoline stations attract deer with large carrots. Drivers buying gasoline shoot the deer from the comfort of their cars.

Listening to this story I thought he was making things up. But, no, he assured me, he witnessed such shameful affair. This put me in a bad mood.

How could these people be so cruel, so stone-dead in their feelings and emotions? Where did they grow up?

The evolving cruelty in Alaska confirms my friend’s story. The roots of violence against wildlife are deep and widespread.

Local and tourist hunters will soon be killing bears, wolves and their offspring in the vast national parks of Alaska.

This is a gift of the Trump administration, which made it legal to hunt these persecuted animals during the denning season.

Imagine TV-like explorers-hunters loaded with war pistols and guns and high tech flashlights entering holes in the ground or caves to shoot mama wolves and bears and their cubs.

What a tragedy, a charade, and paradigmatic act of utter stupidity. Could we say this is hidden hatred of compromised armed people for the animal emblems of wild freedom? Are these hunters hunting their nightmares or civilization itself?

Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, criticized the Trump administration, but she failed to express the anger of a person dedicated to protecting the threated animals. She was too diplomatic in describing the extraordinary vicious turn of policy:

“Amid the global pandemic, the Trump administration is declaring open season on bears and wolves, through their sport hunting rule on national parklands in Alaska….

“National preserve lands at Denali, Katmai, Gates of the Arctic… [in Alaska] are the very places where people travel from around the world, in hopes of seeing these iconic animals, alive in their natural habitat. Through this administration’s rule, [officials of] such treasured lands will now allow sport hunters to lure bears with greased donut bait piles to kill them, or crawl into hibernating bear dens to shoot bears and cubs.”

Trump above all  

This shameful and uncivilized behavior does fit the pattern of Trump, his administration, and his Republican Party and evangelical supporters. They are operating as if in a conquered territory.

Like the French monarch Louis XIV, Trump said I am the state. I can do anything I want. There’s no climate change. Corporations are right about the environment and pollution. I will follow their guidance.

In about 3.5 years, he reversed the modicum of theoretical and real environmental and public health protection Americans enjoyed.

He put this national dangerous policy into effect in the glare of television and lots of additional publicity. Most large media gloated over the tragic spectacle of a president ordering the demise of America. Yet, for the most part, these national televisions and newspapers have been treating him like a king.

I did not see demonstrations by either environmentalists or public health experts or citizens concerned with the rising pandemics of cancer, neurological disease, and the extinction of species. Climate change, the giant among environmental threats, did bring thousands in the streets of Europe and fewer in America.

This means TV advertisements, business practices and propaganda, and poisons in the food, drinking water, and air have diminished the intelligence of Americans – and people throughout the world. Otherwise, it’s impossible to explain these suicidal tendencies.

I consider the threats to our health and the health of the natural world the highest priorities of any civilized society. And yet, in the US House of Representatives “impeachment” of Trump, these existential threats directly linked to the Trump administration were ignored.

This undemocratic politics explains why Trump feels at home with both the virus pandemic and, potentially, ordering the military to take over the country. Like any other billionaire, Trump feels contempt for democracy.

As long as soldiers are in their barracks, Trump wants to be reelected. He is pleasing trophy hunters and Alaska elites that aspire to the total control of public wealth.

It is possible, though hard to document, that the projected visit of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to Alaska for hunting mother grizzly bears and wolves and their cubs had something to do with the demolition of the slight protection these vulnerable animals enjoyed under previous administrations.

Trump’s son goes out of his way to kill wild animals. He even went to Mongolia where he hunted an endangered sheep.

The meaning of vicious hunting

The spectacle of the US government encouraging outrageous attacks on wildlife in Alaska tells us much more than the perverted habits of trophy hunters and the myopic and self-destructive politics of Alaska.

Killing animal mothers and cubs is an act of desperation. The killers have lost their humanity and a sense of living among other citizens under the rule of law. They have become what the Greeks defined as barbarians: people of incomprehensible speech and alien to civilization.

I like to think that Americans will have at least the sense of electing Joe Biden as our next president. His work will be much more difficult than I ever thought. He will be governing a country nearly unhinged by the Republicans, evangelicals, and their commander-in-chief, Trump.

Biden will have to tone down the Wall Street ideology of “me” for “us,” and, no less significant, embrace the environment and wildlife as foundations of our civilization.

Fight climate change and ban killings of mama wolves, grizzly bears and their cubs.

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Trump Hammers Cuba While Cuba Cures the Sick


A team of 85 Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Peru on June 3 to help the Andean nation tackle the coronavirus pandemic. That same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced another tightening of the sanctions screws. This time he targeted seven Cuban entities, including Fincimex, one of the principal financial institutions handling remittances to the country. Also targeted was Marriott International, which was ordered to cease operations in Cuba, and other companies in the tourism sector, an industry that constitutes 10 percent of Cuba’s GDP and has been devastated globally by the pandemic.

It seems that the more Cuba helps the world, the more it gets hammered by the Trump administration. While Cuba has endured a U.S. embargo for nearly 60 years, Trump has revved up the stakes with a “maximum pressure” strategy that includes more than 90 economic measures placed against the nation since January 2019. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, called the measures “unprecedented in their level of aggression and scope” and designed to “deprive the country of income for the development of the economy.” Since its inception, the embargo has cost Cuba well over $130 billion dollars, according to a 2018 estimate. In 2018-2019 alone, the economic impact was $4 billion, a figure that does not include the impact of a June 2019 Trump administration travel ban aimed at harming the tourist industry.

While the embargo is supposed to have humanitarian exemptions, the health sector has not been spared. Cuba is known worldwide for its universal public healthcare system, but the embargo has led to shortages of medicines and medical supplies, particularly for patients with AIDS and cancer. Doctors at Cuba’s National Institute of Oncology have had to amputate the lower limbs of children with cancer because the American companies that have a monopoly on the technology can’t sell it to Cuba. In the midst of the pandemic, the U.S. blocked a donation of facemasks and COVID-19 diagnostic kits from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

Not content to sabotage Cuba’s domestic health sector, the Trump administration has been attacking Cuba’s international medical assistance, from the teams fighting coronavirus today to those who have travelled all over the world since the 1960’s providing services to underserved communities in 164 countries. The U.S. goal is to cut the island’s income now that the provision of these services has surpassed tourism as Cuba’s number one source of revenue. Labeling these volunteer medical teams “victims of human trafficking” because part of their salaries goes to pay for Cuba’s healthcare system, the Trump administration convinced Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil to end their cooperation agreements with Cuban doctors. Pompeo then applauded the leaders of these countries for refusing “to turn a blind eye” to Cuba’s alleged abuses. The triumphalism was short lived: a month after that quote, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil begged Cuba to resend its doctors amid the pandemic. U.S. allies all over the world, including in Qatar, Kuwait, South Africa, Italy, Honduras and Peru have gratefully accepted this Cuban aid. So great is the admiration for Cuban doctors that a global campaign has sprung up to award them the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Trump administration is not just libelling doctors, but the whole country.  In May, the State Department named Cuba as one of five countries “not cooperating fully” in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The main pretext was the nation’s hosting of members of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN). Yet even the State Department’s own press release notes that ELN members are in Cuba as a result of “peace negotiation protocols.” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez called the charges dishonest and “facilitated by the ungrateful attitude of the Colombian government” that broke off talks with the ELN in 2019. It should also be noted that Ecuador was the original host of the ELN-Colombia talks, but Cuba was asked to step in after the Moreno government abdicated its responsibilities in 2018.

The classification of Cuba as “not cooperating” with counterterrorism could lead to Cuba being placed on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which carries tougher penalties. This idea was floated by a senior Trump administration official to Reuters last month. Cuba had been on this list from 1982 to 2015, despite that fact that, according to former State Department official Jason Blazakis, “it was legally determined that Cuba was not actively engaged in violence that could be defined as terrorism under any credible definition of the word.”

Of course, the United States is in no position to claim that other countries do not cooperate in counterterrorism. For years, the U.S. harbored Luis Posada Carriles, mastermind of the bombing of a Cuban civilian airplane in 1976 that killed 73 people. More recently, the U.S. has yet to even comment on the April 30 attack on the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., when a man fired on the building with an automatic rifle.

While there are certainly right-wing ideologues like Secretary Pompeo and Senator Rubio orchestrating Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, for Trump himself, Cuba is all about the U.S. elections. His hard line against the tiny island nation may have helped swing the Florida gubernatorial campaign during the midterm elections, yet it’s not clear that this will serve him well in a presidential year. According to conventional wisdom and polls, younger Cuban-Americans – who like most young people, don’t tend to vote in midterms – are increasingly skeptical of the U.S. embargo, and overall, Cuba isn’t the overriding issue for Cuban-Americans. Trump won the Cuban-American vote in 2016, but Hillary Clinton took between 41 and 47% percent of that electorate, significantly higher than any Democrat in decades.

As an electoral strategy, these are signs that Trump’s aggression towards Cuba may not pay off. Of course, the strategy might not be just about votes but also about financing and ensuring that the Cuban-American political machinery is firmly behind Trump.

The strategy has certainly not paid off when it comes to achieving the goal of regime change. The Trump administration is arguably farther from achieving regime change in Cuba now than the U.S. has ever been in over 60 years of intervention. During Trump’s tenure, Cuba calmly transitioned from the presidency of Raul Castro to that of Miguel Díaz-Canel. In 2019, Cuban voters overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution. These aren’t signs of a country on the brink of collapse.

All Trump has achieved is making life more difficult for the island’s 11 million inhabitants, who, like people all over the world, have been battered by the economic impact from coronavirus. Tourism has collapsed. Income from remittances has tanked (both because of new U.S. restrictions and less income in the hands of the Cuban diaspora). Venezuela, once a major benefactor, is mired in its own crisis. But Cuba’s economy, which was forecast to contract by 3.7% before the pandemic hit, has been through worse, particularly during the 1991 to 2000 economic crisis known as the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A change in the White House would bring some relief, although Joe Biden has staked a rather ambivalent position, saying he would restore relations as President Obama did, but adding that he was open to using sanctions as punishment for Cuba’s support to the Venezuelan government.

It’s clear that from now until November, and perhaps for four more years, the Trump administration will pummel its island neighbor. Cuba will continue to seek global condemnation on the blockade (the 2019 UN vote was 187 against vs 3 in favor—the U.S., Brazil and Israel) and continue to show what a good neighbor looks like. It responded to these latest provocations in the way that only Cuba does: with more global solidarity, sending Covid-19 healing brigades to Guinea and Kuwait a day after the June 3 round of sanctions. A total of 26 countries now have Cuban medical personnel caring for their sick.

That is the kind of goodwill that money just can’t buy and it greatly presents a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s shameful behavior during the pandemic. Back in March, as Cuban doctors arrived in Italy, former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa tweeted: “One day we will tell our children that, after decades of movies and propaganda, at the moment of truth, when humanity needed help at a time when the great powers were in hiding, Cuban doctors began to arrive, without asking anything in return.”

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White Privilege: the Psychic Wage, Mass Incarceration and Class Solidarity


White Skin Privilege

White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with. The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university professors. In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.

Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965, Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on white skin privilege. Then in 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”

According to Jeffrey B. Perry,

Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1

In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to whites that were simultaneously denied Blacks.

We can track that presumption of liberty straight to the great 2020 uprising against police violence. We are all supposed to enjoy the “presumption of innocence” but that is systematically denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people, and those that do not conform to gender or sexual norms. On-the-spot executions deprive people of color the right to be “innocent until proven guilty” and to enjoy the equal protection of the law. As “guilty until proven innocent” became the new normal it affected everyone including the white working class.

Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege used to quiet dissent, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.

In 1969 Allen wrote:

The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]

To this day, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…” Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.

Mass Incarceration

Allen’s reference to prison is not just a metaphor. Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study  2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher than for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet, white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.

The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater than every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races, and genders. And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand.  The average rate for the European Union was 135 in 2006. US white women, for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races and genders of 20 European counties.

The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell. “You got more than the Blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom or democracy would demand.

Yet our relative privilege allowed whites to consent to the war on drugs and vote for “get tough on crime” politicians like Joe Biden. They aimed at Blacks first but ultimately created a police state that punishes protest with violence and aims to make the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on working-class whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.

The Psychic Wage

The privilege harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism is what W.E.B Dubois called the “psychological wage.“3  The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.

This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working-class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working-class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.

James Baldwin, the black writer, and visionary, put it this way:

[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]

Whiteness and privilege distance us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton for an Obama, or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.

Horizontal or Vertical Solidarity? Class Solidarity or Class Collaboration?

Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, povertythe long term decline of wages, poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them. Perhaps most of all, that the forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.

The fact that tens of thousands of white people — often from small towns — have joined the Uprising is evidence that the white privilege system is weakening.

These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose. Cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.

In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating a crisis in privilege as a form of social control. If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe, and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology, and peace.

The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class, or national origins. 5

Privilege, vertical solidarity, and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire abroad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit-making that has become our way of life.

Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege.  For that, we need to organize the white working class.

It’s Not Academic.

Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometimes human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary, and parochial.

But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.


1/ The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy. p 8-9

2/Ted Allen, Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized p. 175

3/ W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.

4/An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis

5/ For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.

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Why and How to Defund the Police


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The vague and easily misinterpreted call to Defund the Police has been spreading quickly across the USA. Some may have a knee-jerk reaction to “just say no” to this call, but polls show a vast majority of Americans are concerned about improving the lives of people of color across the country. Reforms such as teaching police to de-escalate conflicts and enforcement of body camera use have support of about 90% of Americans. So, what could solutions to the current situation look like, how could they be paid for, and should relative costs realistically be coming out of police budgets?

Local politicians must rethink what win-win solutions could look like

My experience sharing oversight of a police budget as a City Councillor and Vice Mayor for four years gave me valuable insights to be able to propose concrete solutions. When I decided to run for a seat on the Council in the City of Arcata, California, the City was in the midst of a very expensive (and failing) effort to crack down on a group of people serving food to homeless people on the town square. The effort over just a few months cost the small City of 17,000 people around $35,000 in legal costs, not to mention policing costs.

I was incensed at this waste of public money, especially since the liberal City Council had kept saying they cared about the homeless, but was providing inadequate services, and no warm meals to local people in need. Running on a campaign calling for collectively solving the problem of feeding hungry people, I was elected in a landslide. My election began a communication process whereby the City officials and the volunteer group, Food Not Bombs, sat down and figured out a way where food could be legally cooked in a clean permitted kitchen at the City Community Center, and people could be fed.

Instead of wasting public money on lawyers and police, the same City money was now being spent on reusable plates, cutlery, and a bike trailer to successfully meet the needs our City had a responsibility to provide. Looking back, I wish I had cut the wasted legal and policing expenditures in future years’ budgets, but clearly there was a savings landing in the City legal, courts, policing and jail budgets as a result of this win-win cooperative solution.

Courage to confront costly backward laws and systems

In 1996 I was elected Vice Mayor, and Arcata voters massively supported a California initiative to legalise medical marijuana. Although California voters statewide also supported the initiative, California leaders were afraid to oppose federal laws banning marijuana. Our Arcata City Council saw the issue differently, and voted 5-0 to become the first City in the USA to legalise medical marijuana, which we saw as a common sense solution, which would also save money for our police budget.

We directed our City Attorney and Police Chief to draw up a plan so people could get a note from a doctor, and go get a medical marijuana card from our local Police Station. This allowed them to legally grow and consume small quantities of medical marijuana. Many people had already been doing this non-harmful activity illegally before, leading to wasted expenditures of police, court and jail times if they got caught.

At first our Attorney and Police Chief were hesitant to take action since our local laws now opposed State and Federal law, but when they made national news, and our Chief was interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine, they started to become more supportive. On the economic end, medical marijuana businesses opened up (which opened large tax revenue opportunities for the City), and policing staff time could be reduced as no longer did they need to ticket or jail ill people for partaking of medicine prescribed by doctors.

Strictly from an economic perspective, this small example of benefits of decriminalisation of a non-violent activity calls into question the entire issue of all failed public policy related to public budgets. It’s time to discontinue with failed public policies whose time should have been up decades ago.

US Cities now looking at concrete figures for reallocating police funds

As of this writing the Los Angeles Mayor has promised to reduce $150 million from the LAPD $3.14 billion annual budget, and multiple groups are already making concrete proposals how to better provide security in areas that would reduce the need for police, such as investments in housing, youth jobs, health initiatives, and will allow those who have suffered discrimination to collect damages.

Seattle has been having a hotly discussed dialogue on the topic of Defunding the Police, especially since angry community reaction to police brutality recently led to the creation of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, and occupation of a SPD police station. Locals now insist the police station should be turned into a community center, and police funding should be cut by 50%. Even SPD Police Chief Carmen Best stated “we had 16,000 bonafide crisis” emergency calls which were actually about issues of mental health, and not police related. So simple logic follows, that such mental health needs should be fully funded, with money coming out of police budgets, since police would no longer be called to provide a service for which they actually have no training or useful capacity.

Savings galore if we rethink the war on drugs and rehabilitation

Any police officer will agree that since Nixon started this failed effort in the late 1960s, illegalized drug consumption levels have largely remained the same. The main outcomes of this war have only been to create massive profits for gangs across the USA (with even worse effects in places like Mexico , El Salvador or Columbia).

Massive public costs from enforcing laws against low level and non-violent crime, like drug use, consume budgets of not only police, but courts, jails, and much more. The Center for American Progress says, “The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015.” Black people are four times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges, which no longer exist in many states, resulting in billions of dollars in increased revenues for state coffers. Almost 2.3 million Americans are now in prison, at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $75,000 per year, more than sending them to a year at Harvard. Almost half a million are serving time for a drug charge, and another 1.15 million people are on probation and parole for drug-related offences.

The USA needs to learn lessons from places that treat drug consumption as a health problem, and not a legal problem, such as Portugal. Since decriminalizing, depenalizing, and legalizing drugs, Portugal’s heroin addiction rates fell to only 5% of what they had been before new legislation came in. There was a massive reduction in crime and drug related deaths, since users no longer took illegally made drugs smuggled from gangs and mafia’s, but were often taking over the counter properly regulated drugs, with supervision from medical experts. Portugal now has one of the lowest drug related death rates in the world, and estimates say that if the USA followed suit, it would save millions of dollars.

The idea that sending people to prison will somehow cure them and make them productive members of society is one of the most harmful false myths out there, and the “tough on crime” empty rhetoric of many politicians leads only to a financial horror show for public (and policing) budgets. Over a 10 year cycle after release from state prisons, the US Dept. of Justice estimates that over 80% of prisoners will return to prison. Prisons are more like a university of crime maintained by the state, where as one prisoner stated, “crime, corruption and cold-blooded murder is often encouraged, praised and applauded.” One study using US Government data proved that “spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings; a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison.”


My four years of responsibility for a City and Police Budget, and subsequent time studying public policy in USA and across Europe, have convinced me beyond a doubt that we can do better. Over time, police and related budgets have continued to grow, while services that lead to a healthy society where less police are needed have been slashed. Moreover, the growth in police budgets has only made problems worse, as masses of evidence prove that politicians have not acted in the interests of solving problems for either people of color, or the American taxpayer on the whole.

If people in the USA want to support people of color, to create a more just and peaceful country, or just to save wasted taxpayer dollars, they need to actively be backing growing calls to Defund the Police, and to explain to public fund managers what can mean.

How do we make this happen?

There has never been a better time to spend one’s energy on these topics. Here are some steps you can take to make a difference:

educate yourself about public budgets, and how they can be improved
find out where and when relevant decisions are made, go there and be vocal
influence the media by writing to the press, being active on social media
mobilize your family and friends to take action with you
ensure that alternative solutions are created, proposed, and heard

Lastly, I submit a suggestion I was given long ago before becoming a City Council candidate. If elected officials are not doing the right thing, and your community has better solutions, then take action yourself to remove those people from office. Find ways to replace those abusing their power by taking back the power yourself for your community. The time to do this has arrived.

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Inside CHAZ: An “Autonomous” Three Block-Long Seattle Street Threatens America, What?


Photograph Source: Alex Glidewell – CC BY-SA 4.0

President Donald Trump from his New Jersey private golf club tweeted this past Friday morning June 12, that “The terrorists burn and pillage our cities.” He was referring to demonstrators occupying three blocks along a single street, in Seattle’s most culturally active neighborhood. Trump demanded that the mayor and governor, “Must end this Seattle takeover now!” Or else he would call in the army.

What was he talking about?

This national threat began on Sunday, June 7, when a small section of the Capitol Hill’s business district (known as the Pike-Pine Corridor) saw demonstrations outside one of Seattle’s five precinct stations. Like other demonstrations held around the nation for over a week, people of all ages and races were in the streets supporting Black Lives Matter’s demand to erase racist policing, opening up the move to either defund or reduce police departments’ budgets.

That Sunday the police said on Twitter that some people had thrown projectiles and fireworks at officers, although they did not provide any evidence beyond one what appeared to be a single candle. Accordingly, they responded with pepper spray, blast balls and tear gas, which the mayor had previously promised to not use for the next 30 days. But protecting themselves from thrown projectiles triggered an exclusion to that prohibition.

Councilmembers who had attended as witnesses told me that there did not appear to be any threat to the police officers’ safety and the police over-reacted to the chants from the crowd, who did not wish to be pushed away from the East Precinct police station.

The only terror activity that occurred was when a civilian driver headed his car into the demonstrators. An unarmed twenty-seven-year-old Black man reached into the open window of the car as it was passing, grabbed the steering wheel, and halted it from hitting people. The driver pulled out a gun, shot and wounded the man as the car came to a stop. The driver then left the car with a gun in hand, walked over to a line of police standing nearby, surrendered himself, and was arrested.

The next day, on Monday, June 8, the police emptied the police station of guns, files, and critical equipment as they prepared to no longer defend the building. They apparently thought it would be destroyed by the demonstrators, who were mostly residents of the East Precinct, some of whom live in multi-million-dollar mansions as well as in low-income social housing projects. The precinct also has the highest concentration of apartments and small independent retail businesses in Seattle. Historically it has been the city’s most liberal council district; and since 2013 has repeatedly elected a Socialist Alternative Party member to the City Council, over the opposition of much better-funded business-community candidates.

By Tuesday, June 9, a loose conglomeration of demonstrators came together to use the former police street barricades to close off Pine street for a length of three blocks. Although Trump tweeted: “These people are not going to occupy a major portion of a great city,” it is not even part of downtown. It is a two-lane road lined with small neighborhood businesses and a park. The area came to be called by the occupants as CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and they put up a website.

However, the local conservative radio host Jason Rantz, interviewed by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson on Thursday, June 11, said it was a violent place. And that similar occupations to the one taking place in Seattle could happen in cities across the U.S. if the authorities allow it.

Although Carlson began the interview saying that Rantz was one of the few people he knew who had visited CHAZ, Rantz basically admitted that he had not been inside when he replied to Carlson’s question of what he saw inside CHAZ, he said, “Right now, it’s too violent for us to go in.” He provided no examples of what kind of violence he was referring to.

The next day, Friday, June 12, having been a prior resident for decades in that neighborhood, I went to see what dangers lurked in a community without police patrols.

I casually walked pass by the CHAZ street barrier and the three community sentries, who sat off a ways behind it, talking to each other. No conversation or ID needed. It was a wide-open passage, where I discovered that CHAZ had become a bit of a tourist destination for curious Seattle residents taking photos of all the posters, graffiti and the one-block colorful mural painted on Pine Street spelling out BLACK LIVES MATTER.

The businesses on the street were still open as was the park when I visited. There was no sign of smashed windows or burnt buildings. There had been no looting and there was no violence of any sort occurring.

There was a “No Cop Co-Op” covered stand offering free fruit, vegetables, snacks, umbrellas, hand sanitizer and water set up in the middle of their occupied territory. There was also a covered truck converted into a People’s Community Clinic with its own emergency medical team. There were many memorials to victims of police violence, along with were other little touches of an emerging community; an open-air conversation café with sofas, a small basketball court, an improvised smoking corner, and a private food stall, the Dirty Dog hotdog stand, among other things.

One of the most ambitious undertakings was begun by Marcus Henderson, who helped create the community gardens that occupy part of the adjacent Cal Anderson Park. Henderson is typical of educated citizens who understand that disruptive moments like CHAZ offer a positive opportunity. He had the knowledge for sustainable gardening from obtaining an Energy Resources Engineering degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree in Sustainability in the Urban Environment.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan visited the gardens and met with Henderson the day after Trump had tweeted “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.” In response, Durkan accused Trump of purposefully distorting the activities in CHAZ to fit his tough law and order mantra.

Trump may have also been watching Fox News, which was engaged in the same practice. Thanks to an article by Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner, it came to light that Fox ran digitally altered images in coverage of CHAZ. Three separate photos were photo-shopped to create an image of a heavily armed man guarding the entrance to the zone. Another image, with a caption of CRAZY TOWN blazoned over a portion of it, showed huge flames pouring out of a building with a demonstrator running away. But it was not Seattle, the photo was from a May 30 protest in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Fox and other outlets also jumped on a comment by a Seattle police commander suggesting protesters were extorting payments from businesses within CHAZ. Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best had to refute that statement, saying that it was based on rumor and social media. “We haven’t had any formal reports of this occurring,” she said.

Best also said that she did not want to abandon the precinct station but had to because of pressure. However, she did not say the order came from Mayor Durkan, who did not say she made the decision. I got the impression that internal pressure came from the police union’s members to leave the precinct. This was particularly true when some councilmembers asked that the hard surface street barriers be removed that the police had set up to separate the demonstrators from standing on the street next to their police station.

The police attitude that their station might be torched and that chaos and disorder would follow in the neighborhood by allowing protestors to peacefully demonstrate so close to them, was bolstered not only by the unsubstantiated comment from the police commander but also from comments made by a local police officer and the union’s president.

A resident of one of the nearby apartment buildings, whom I know very well, told me of her interactions with a police officer. She was standing in front of her building on Monday, June 8 at noon asking people what was going on. A police officer came by and announced, “We are all pulling out, and you’re all going to be on your own. We are not coming back in and you are not going to get help and bad elements will come in.” Then he added, “And who would want to work in Seattle [as police]?”

On the same day, June 12, that I visited CHAZ, Michael Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, told Fox News “This is the closest I’ve ever seen our country, let alone the city here, to becoming a lawless state.” It would lead one to believe that the police union had lost faith in receiving political cover for their use of excessive force, if the city council and mayor were to allow protestors so close to their precinct station.

Police officers in Seattle are not allowed to strike, but they may have actually adopted an old fashion factory “walk-out” by letting the police chief know that they could no longer execute their usual police practices if they remained there.

The most recent turn of events came in an interview on Saturday, June 13, when a person who represented the Seattle Black Lives Matter group said that the area popularized by the title CHAZ was not what their group was using to describe the street space that has been controlled by demonstrators since the police left their precinct station.

The Seattle BLM did not know who came up with that name and had not met anyone representing them. That unknown group declared the name CHAZ and then spray painted the CHAZ slogans all around the area. Instead, BLM is calling this zone CHOP — Capitol Hill Organizing Project. They posted a tweet: Black Lives Matter @djbsqrd “WE ARE #CHOP, not #CHAZ stop spilling lies and spreading this narrative of being autonomous.”

The future of this urban resistance project, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement, still has to be played out. Organizers continue to push for their objectives, which are posted on the CHAZ website. Talks and open-mike discussions occur regularly in large outside public forums on the purpose of this unique effort.

Overall, observers and participants will need to continue thinking about how claiming a portion of public space for an underserved and discriminated community can initiate effective social and political change, and not perpetuate the status quo or ignite a right-wing backlash that pursues further repressive policies.

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Get Rid of the Presidency


Photograph Source: Rob Young from United Kingdom – CC BY 2.0

If the prospect of the Trump – Biden presidential election fills you with horror and despair, you might give some thought to not just replacing both candidates but the presidency as well, at least as we now conceive it.

For some time now, but maybe since the Kennedy administration (which ended in a hail of voter-suppressed gunfire), I have been thinking that one of the biggest problems with American democracy is the presidency itself, the idea that the chief magistrate of the country should be one person elected every four years by a few swing voters in Ohio, North Carolina, or Florida.

What good can be said of an office that regularly is awarded to the likes of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush, and that this year, for its finalists, has Donald Trump and Joe Biden, men who otherwise would not be eligible to coach Little League teams or lead Scout troops (pussy grabbers and hair sniffers need not apply).

Instead, every four years, because of a document drawn up more than two hundred years ago, the United States puts into its highest office men of stunning incompetence (think of W’s facial expression while reading The Pet Goat on 9/11) and low cunning (“Ike likes Nixon and we do too…”), who over time have managed to turn the office of the presidency into what it is today—a violent reality show that has brought you Vietnam, Watergate, the USA Patriot Act, and Barack Obama’s “necessary war” in Afghanistan.


According to James Madison’s notes from the 1789 constitutional convention, the job of the American president was to “execute” the laws that Congress passed. In times of war, the president was to serve as the commander-in-chief of the state’s militias—to exercise civilian control over the military.

At the Philadelphia constitutional convention, the dispute about the presidency concerned which model to follow in creating a template of the chief executive.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton aspired to create a constitutional monarchy of sorts, with their favorite aristocrat, George Washington, on the throne.

At the very least they were in favor of a strong, lone-wolf executive with centralized powers, while Benjamin Franklin (with the emotional support of Thomas Jefferson from Paris) and others favored a federal council, something closer to the Swiss model, in which the powers of the chief magistrate would be devolved to a committee, not on one person.

James Madison, who had loyalties in both camps and a heavy hand in drafting the new constitution, came up the compromise and helped to shape the American presidency that we know today—that of an elected monarch.

In Philadelphia in 1789, the constitutional framers had hoped they were creating an office-holder along the lines of an auditor-in-chief, someone who would make sure that the Congress (notably the House of Representatives) spent the people’s money wisely and kept the trade lines flowing through (tariff-free) interstate commerce.

It never occurred to any of them that they were creating a monster along the lines of a political Frankenstein who might someday, as if with bolts protruding from his neck and an awkward square haircut, stump his way though Lafayette Square and hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.


Another problem with the original intent of the presidency in the U.S. Constitution is that it was a laissez-passer for slaveholders in southern states (not to mention their cotton brokers in New York City) to do pretty much as they pleased in terms of exploiting the means of production.

Until the corporate railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln came along, American presidents functioned as trustees for slaveowners, and nearly all (in the manner of James Buchanan during the era of Dred Scott, the runaway slave of Supreme Court fame) bent over backwards to insure that indentured service remained an unenumerated right of the moneyed classes.

A few presidents, Andrew Jackson being one of them during the 1832 Nullification Crisis, pushed back against the notion of states’ rights, but Jackson—himself a slave owner—made up for the hurt Southern feelings by ethnically cleansing Florida and Georgia of the Cherokee Nation, and turning over the rich soil of its land to his slave-holding brethren.

Only Lincoln decided that the constitution (tolerating the slave trade until 1808 and otherwise silent on the question of human bondage) was a document inconsistent with the ideals of American liberty, and he waged a brutal civil war to amend the constitution.

An unintended consequence of that war, however, which broke the power of individual states to operate farms as prison labor camps, was to concentrate in Washington and in the office of the presidency a host of powers (over the budget and the military, especially) that the founding fathers had never intended to confer on one person.

I am not blaming Lincoln alone for the rise of the imperious presidency. Many others—Woodrow Wilson included—can share that poisoned chalice.

In particular, American wars (from Mexico in 1846 through to Iraq and Afghanistan) have remade the presidency into what it is today, a caricature of democracy dressed up in the raiments of a mail-order autocrat.


When it came to defining the presidency, the constitution got more wrong than it did right.

The vote wasn’t given to the citizenry but to electors, wise men in the provinces who would gather (in early December) every four years and pick a president. (Golf club membership committees work the same way.) But the way electors have been chosen over time has been a political variation of blind man’s buff.

What went wrong almost immediately were the so-called presidential elections, which since 1792 have been rigged, fixed, finagled, gerrymandered, massaged, bought, and sold—yet another cornered commodity market, although this one trading only in political influence.

Despite what you read about democracy-in-action in your high school civics classes, most accessions to presidential power have come as a result of a deal, bullets, blackmail, or fatal illnesses.

Yet this is the ritual held up to the rest of world, when someone in Washington is delivering one of those hectoring speeches about American exceptionalism.

Only in a handful of presidential elections has a candidate actually taken office after securing more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Even in the last election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million but Trump was installed in office, for corralling more electoral votes.

Here’s a short list of brokered, anointed, non-elected, or somehow accidental American presidents: George Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, and George W. Bush.

Mind you, not all of these presidents were bad. As was said of Hayes: “He did such a good job I almost wish he had been elected.”

And here’s a list of some presidents who took office by the grace of providence or its fix-it men: Abraham Lincoln (four candidates were running and he got only 39.8% of the vote), Benjamin Harrison (Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888), William McKinley (Mark Hanna sold him in 1896 as if he were a new line of soap and then bought some extra votes, just to be sure), John F. Kennedy (dead men voting in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Cook County), Bill Clinton (he can thank Ross Perot), and Donald Trump (he lost the popular vote but won the Russian caucus).

My point is that the words “American democracy” and “ the presidency” have very little in common. Most elections in U.S. history are variations on the Supreme Court in 2000 giving the job to George W. Bush much as he was tapped at Yale for Skull and Bones.

Unless I miss my mark, 2020 will be a rerun of many earlier contested elections, with voter suppression, lost and shredded ballots, foreign interference, broken voting machines, absent absentee ballots, and hacked computers defining a dubious outcome.


How then to remake the presidency so that the office adds up to something more than a cereal-box kingdom?

Adopting Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Swiss federal council model might go a long way toward restoring trust in government, and it would work as follows.

Instead of the president being one person, the chief executive of the country would be a duly constituted collective body—say of seven individuals—that as a group would share the burdens and responsibilities of the highest office.

In Switzerland (where I live), while there is a person with the ceremonial title of president, it is only the Federal Council as a body that can make executive decisions.

Does it work? Swiss democracy and its Federal Charter have been around since 1291, so something about the consensus of a council at the head of government must function well.

More applicable to the United States: in 1848 the Swiss adopted a constitution largely based on the American model; the only exception is that they made the chief executive a committee, not one person.

The Federal Assembly—both branches of the Swiss parliament—elects the members of the Federal Council every four years in December. (If that sounds familiar, it should. The Federal Assembly is the electoral college of the Swiss system.)

Generally in Switzerland the federal council is a blend of the left, right, and center, and it also has geographic diversity.

Nor does Switzerland tear itself apart every four years with a presidential election that costs more than $1 billion and only gives the illusion of self-government.

Instead, Swiss voters cast about thirty to forty votes a year (in person, by mail, or on the internet, and it all works seamlessly; no one stands in eight-hour lines), on a host of questions, initiatives, and referenda. Every Swiss citizen, in effect, is a parliamentarian.

Only periodically do Swiss voters choose actual candidates; most of the time they are supporting one of the country’s many political parties or voting yes/no on specific questions.

The advantage of a federal council in the United States is that it would introduce into the government a coalition executive that would make decisions consistent with the views of the major political parties and hence (we hope) the electorate at large.

And the idea would be faithful to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution—that of having electors decide on the chief executive.


During 2020 I was thinking about a federal council when I followed the presidential campaign trails through Iowa and New Hampshire.

Over several weeks, I saw all of the candidates in person (including the carnival-barking Trump at one of his rallies), and I listened to most of them give more than one speech or interview.

Listening to the candidates speak, I found few of them (Biden in particular) to be persuasive as individuals, but it was easy to imagine that some of the candidates could be stronger if brought together as members of a governing body.

So here’s my federal council from the candidates in the 2020 election:

In no particular order, the most articulate candidates that I heard in 2020 were Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, William Weld (he ran against Trump in the Republican primaries), Deval Patrick (former governor of Massachusetts), Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Walsh (a Republican – Libertarian former Congressman who also opposed Trump).

Could those seven persons run the executive branch of the United States? I think they could. They would represent the left, right, and center; they would have ethnic and gender diversity; and they would speak for a wide variety of constituencies within the country. Plus there would be collective strength in numbers.

On his own as president Bernie Sanders might be little more than a left-wing version of Donald Trump, someone given to sweeping pronouncements (although in a more dignified manner and without the company of porn stars).

On a federal council, however, Bernie’s passion for social justice, education, climate initiatives, and a limited foreign policy might even find allies among conservatives Weld and Walsh, provided he was willing to compromise on monetary and fiscal restraints.

So too would a council be the obvious instrument to rein in some of Warren’s exuberance and professorial hectoring, but still allow her to bring to the government her commitment to economic fairness and health-care reform.

Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Patrick are centrists who speak well for various constituencies, and all three would be valuable team members.

The way the council operates in Switzerland is that each member is responsible for certain ministries (education, foreign affairs, treasury, etc.) for a year’s term, and then they rotate jobs (including that of president), which means that council members become well-versed in various government issues.

For what it’s worth, in Switzerland Covid infections are down to about ten new cases a day, and there are only 18 persons with the virus in intensive care around the country, although in the early days infection rates were similar to those of the United States.

Yes, nominally, there is a Swiss president (in recent years very often a woman—there have been six in the country’s recent history), who is trotted out to meet world leaders and to represent Switzerland at forums. But executive authority rests in collective decision. On her or his own, the Swiss president cannot do very much.


For a variety of reasons most recent American presidencies have ended in failure. Lyndon Johnson saddled the country with the Vietnam War. Nixon went down over Watergate, clearly nothing a committee would have tolerated.

Carter, although a decent man, was over his head with inflation and Iran, and could have used some adults (more than Jody and Ham) in the room. Reagan was a part-time president and had little interest in the details of government, other than to pay off his friends and large companies.

George Herbert Walker Bush, in effect, served Reagan’s third term but found himself squeezed from the left and right, not to mention by his own incompetence. Clinton’s personal failings would have mattered less if he had been one of seven governing the executive branch.

Both George W. Bush and Obama were symbolic presidents, each representing some lost ideal of their parties, but neither had much to offer in terms of management capability, and each blundered into ruinous foreign wars.

On his own as the American chief executive, the narcissistic sociopath Trump is a train wreck, for the presidency and the country. Even if elected, Biden will be a lame, if not a dead, duck, his presidency over before it starts.

Do we need more examples, especially during a financial and health crisis, that the office is failing us?

I cannot promise that a presidential federal council would not make mistakes, but at least such a body would be aligned with the parties and political interests in the House and Senate, and most Americans would feel that there was at least someone at the executive level who was speaking for their interests. (Look through the list of my federal council, and you will find someone on it you admire and respect.)

Yes, for a council to succeed it needs compromise, but think of all the committees in your life that, on balance, function well. They exchange ideas, barter favors, and in the end move forward, generally for the common good. At least most of them don’t storm off in a cloud of tear gas across Lafayette Square, waving a Bible.

If you are interested to figure out where you fit on the Swiss political spectrum, go to SmartVote and answer the questions.

Posted in USAComments Off on Get Rid of the Presidency

Bringing America to the Knee


Art by Evan McCarthy

The knee is the largest and most complex joint in the human body. A flexible hinge connecting thigh and shin bones, a focal point of leverage and stability, it helps carry the weight of the body; it is essential for movement and vulnerable to injury.

Just as the body part itself, kneeling is a complex gesture with a diverse set of connotations based on context:

+ A spiritual person offering prayers—reverence, devotion, plea

+ A suitor proposing with a ring in hand—love, longing, commitment

+ A policeman on the neck of a black man—oppression, corruption, violence

+ A football player during the national anthem—anguish, resistance, courage

When Black Lives Matter protesters join together in Minneapolis, Louisville, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, and take a knee to leverage their despair and outrage in quest for racial justice, to lay bare the instability of a deeply broken system, to take part in a movement, they evoke much of the aforementioned—from reverence and love, to the memories of violence and resistance.

One knee on the ground, backs hunched, shoulders rounded, heads slightly bowed. The bodies beg the nation to adopt a posture of introspection to remember the eight minutes forty-six seconds that George Floyd was pinned under the weight of a police officer and the forty-six years that he was pinned under the weight of white supremacy. Struggling to reason, struggling to speak, struggling to breathe, struggling to stay alive. Until he simply could no longer.

“Before it happened, it had happened and happened,” writes poet Claudia Rankine while reflecting on Rodney King’s beating in Citizen: An American Lyric. “The moment had occurred and occurred again with the deaths, beatings, and imprisonment of other random unarmed black men.” Jordan Russel Davis, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray— she leaves the list incomplete knowing that soon there will be more names to add. Then, on a starkly white blank page, she offers three concise, piercing lines:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

Defunding the police is a step, yet policy changes in a few cities or states alone is not enough to police the white imagination to which Rankine refers. The imagination that identifies some as Other, sees them as inferior, decides their lives are worth a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. The imagination that has been sustaining the everyday structures of racism over centuries.

Slavery. Civil War. Ku Klux Klan. Lynchings, beatings, hangings, burnings. Demands for change, for dignity, met with fists, clubs, tear gas, dogs, water hoses. Assassinations of civil rights leaders. Economic exploitation. Police brutality. Mass incarceration. Systematic discrimination, exclusion, degradation. Denial, denial, denial.

When the weight of this history finally brings America to the knee, to mourn those whose lives have been broken, stolen, lost, there will also be an opportunity to interrogate that white imagination. To recognize the innate violence of its racial projections. To reckon with its unfulfilled ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. To see through its duplicity and self-deceit. To attain humility at last.

Kneeling is also a symbol of humility after all: at an altar or communion rail, it is part of a ritual. And so it is when thousands today solemnly lower themselves down on the streets and sidewalks acknowledging the dirt, debris, and the dead beneath, upon which this country has been built.

Such humility could grant America a new kind of strength, not external as in military dominance or economic superiority, but internal as in honesty, integrity, and hard-earned wisdom. If taking the knee is a ritual that represents this change in posture, may Black Lives Matter protests be a rite of passage for the American nation.

Posted in USA, Human Rights1 Comment

Nonsense About China That “Everybody” Knows


I want to do a bit more beating up on a NYT piece this morning on breaking ties with China. There is a widely held view in policy circles that the pandemic showed that our extensive economic ties with China are a bad thing. I will ask a simple question, how?

First to get over some obvious points, yes, China has an authoritarian government that does not respect basic human rights. That is true, but what exactly do we hope to do about it? If we cut our imports from China by half or even put a complete embargo on them, do we think it will improve their human rights record?

I suppose we could have more impact if we got most of the rest of the world to go along, but apart from a few puppet states, no one would follow the U.S. in banning trade from China. Everyone knows that the U.S. doesn’t give a damn about democracy. Just last year we helped to overthrow a democratically elected government in Bolivia and installed someone who got almost no votes. No one here cared.

So the question is if the U.S. and a few inconsequential puppets stopped buying stuff from China, would it prompt its leadership to show more respect for human rights? Be serious.

Okay, but the pandemic spread from China and this was in part because its government withheld information about the spread of the disease. That’s true and what does it have to do with our ties to China. I suppose if we had no trade and travel with China then we would have had to get the pandemic from somewhere else, which seems to be the case.

Alright, so we would have gotten the pandemic here even if we didn’t rely on China for anything. But when we were first hit with the pandemic we were short of items like face masks and other protective gear, which we were importing from China.

This is a common gotcha for those arguing the case against China reliance. But this actually shows nothing. We had a shortage of protective gear because we had not stockpiled it and saw a sudden surge in demand. The problem was that we had not stockpiled protective gear, not that it was coming from China. Suppose we made all our protective gear in the good old USA, could our factories suddenly ramp up production by a factor of five or ten? Not on this planet they couldn’t. So this argument about reliance on China is an argument about maintaining stockpiles of important medical gear.

What about other items where our supply chain was interrupted because China reduced or stopped production back in January or February? Well, there were some spot shortages of some items, but these were mostly inconveniences. Did people find themselves unable to buy cars, washing machines, iPhones, or anything else during the last five months? (Okay, toilet paper was in short supply, but I don’t think we can blame China.) And, for those folks who may have missed it, we also had some factories shut down here.

There are issues about our trade with China that I, and others, have raised. Most importantly, China has maintained an under-valued currency that allows them to undercut U.S. manufacturers and cost us millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs. For better or worse, this is a historical issue, not a present-day one.

Insofar as we have regained manufacturing jobs in the last decade (before the pandemic hit), they have not been good-paying union jobs.  In fact, they are little better paying than jobs in other sectors. If a new manufacturing job does not pay much more than a job in retail or restaurants, then there is no particular reason to be concerned about manufacturing jobs. In my book, we should want to make all jobs good-paying jobs.

Then we get to the issue about China stealing “our” intellectual property. Well, this is a great concern for the people who want to redistribute even more money upward. The “our” in that story is not the person serving food in a restaurant or cleaning toilets in a hotel. It refers to the privileged group in a position to benefit from stronger and longer patent monopolies, copyright monopolies, and other forms of intellectual property.

For my part, I am happy if China doesn’t respect Microsoft’s copyrights and Pfizer’s patents. That would be great if billions of people in China and elsewhere can get cheaper computers and software and even better if all drugs were sold around the world as cheap generics. I realize that most “liberals” in this country want to protect their incomes and those of their friends, but I care more about the non-rich both here and in the rest of the world. So I won’t be joining the China-bashing on this one.

The long and short is the story that the pandemic taught us some lessons about relying on China is utter nonsense, with no foundation in reality. In this way, it is very similar to the story about how we risked a Second Great Depression in 2008-09 if we didn’t save the banks. In both cases, the story was nearly universally accepted in policy circles, although no one could coherently argue the case. And, in both cases the story advanced the central policy concern of people in Washington, making the rich richer.

Posted in USA, ChinaComments Off on Nonsense About China That “Everybody” Knows

Buffalo Cops—And All the Other Cops


WBFO filmed Buffalo police shove Gugino to the ground (top). When an officer begins to attend to the fallen Gugino, another officer pulls him away (middle) – Fair Use

Buffalo I

Everybody knows about the second of two violent police attacks on peaceful citizens in Buffalo last week.

On June 4, two members of the Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team knocked 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground in front of the city hall steps. They were clearing the area of demonstrators, even though city hall had, at that point, been closed for four hours, there were only a few demonstrators, and they weren’t doing anything but standing there.

When he was shoved to the ground, Gugino was just trying to talk to them. He had a helmet in his left hand, a cell phone in his right. After he hit the ground, with blood streaming from his right ear, a policeman went to help him, but a superior officer pushed him away. The line of police moved on, leaving Gugino unconscious on the sidewalk.

The police department and Mayor Byron Brown’s office issued a statement saying Gugino had tripped and fallen. Old guys do that, dontcha know. Unfortunately for the police department and Mayor Brown, long-time WNED (public radio) reporter Mike Desmond was on the city hall steps documenting the entire incident with his smartphone. His brief video has now been seen more than 70 million times on YouTube and countless times on news broadcasts around the world. The story even made The Onion.

Ironically, WNED got the official press release saying that Gugino had tripped and fallen just as Desmond was getting his video out on Twitter.

That required some backtracking and gibberish by Mayor Brown in several TV interviews the next day. The two cops involved in the incident were suspended, whereupon the head of the police union announced that (a) they were innocent of anything, (b) the union would fully support them, and (c) the union would not fund any lawsuits brought against that squad in the future. All other 57 members of the ERT then announced they were quitting the squad. They weren’t giving up their jobs as Buffalo cops, but if nobody was guaranteeing their legal fees, they weren’t going to be ERT cops. Back to writing parking tickets, or whatever.

It was all an attempt to strongarm the city into backing off disciplining the cops who had injured Gugino. That’s what many police unions do. It’s been a problem in Buffalo for decades. A while back, the very competent head of the homicide squad retired; he was replaced, because of union seniority agreements, by someone whose primary experience was in traffic management. Homicide cops were distraught, but they kept their mouths shut.

This time, the union strong-arming didn’t work. Desmond’s video went viral and it was unambiguous. Both cops were charged with felonious assault. When they came out of court after their arraignment, a large crowd of Buffalo cops greeted them with vigorous applause.

When the riot squad quit, two members told reporters it wasn’t because of the suspension of the two officers who’d assaulted Guigino. It was just about the liability insurance. The vigorous applause pretty much put the lie to that. (It reminded me of the time when the New York City PBA had a grudge against Mayor Bill De Blasio. They turned their backs on him at a police funeral and then, in December 2014, they made two-thirds fewer arrests and wrote 94% fewer tickets than they had the previous December.)

Even Donald Trump got into the act. On June 9 he tweeted: “Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than he was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

Like most of Trump’s slanderous tweets, he is short on declarative statements, long on questions and conditionals: he says things without owning them: he loves “could be” and quotation marks.

Everything Trump said in that tweet was bullshit, except for Martin Gugino’s name and age. He got it from a fringe news agency he loves, which in turn got the story from someone who also writes for Russian propaganda agencies. Because of the “could be” and quotation mark, Twitter refused to take the lying tweet down.

Had it not been for Mike Desmond’s video, the phony story about Martin Gugino getting his head cracked because of his own elderly balance issues would have stuck and there would have been no story.

Imagine the murder of George Floyd without that nine-minute twelve-second video. We wouldn’t even know his name.

Buffalo II

The other Buffalo incident happened a few days before Martin Gugino was knocked to the pavement. There is only a partial video of that. It is a more complex event. There is enough video to have warranted a serious look by the city’s daily newspaper, The Buffalo News, but, except for sports, the paper’s news staff has been sorely cut in recent years, and lately they’ve been furloughing staff on a rotating basis. It was an important story, but there was, apparently, nobody around to go out and do it. Or perhaps the editors didn’t think it interesting.

A group of marchers had gathered at City Hall and walked peacefully toward a police precinct on Bailey Avenue, two miles away. There are photographs along the march by News photographer Sharon Cotillion. The last in her sequence is a policeman in the turret of an armored vehicle; he is holding a huge weapon. The News didn’t assign a report to accompany Cotillion, and none of her published photographs show what I’m going to tell you about now.

Someone on the second floor of a cross-street facing Bailey Avenue made a 28-minute video. (Click here to watch the whole thing.) I don’t know who he is and I cannot understand the language he speaks when he comments to other people near him. In the past decade (until Trump slammed the door) immigrants from several strife-ridden countries have started new lives in Buffalo.

The video shows a line of police along Bailey Avenue. Some are in Buffalo police riot gear; some, probably state police, are in greens. An armored vehicle pulls up behind them. They face a group of benign demonstrators. The demonstrators are holding their arms over their heads, documenting the cops with their smartphones, or taking a knee.

The police precinct where Sharon Cotillion took the photo of the cop in the armored vehicle is around the corner, out of range of the person making the video.

Thirteen minutes and twelve seconds into the video, the police, with snarling dogs, charge the demonstrators and begin clubbing people who, so far as I can tell, were doing nothing other than standing in the street with their arms raised or documenting the moment with their iPhones.

There are popping sounds. Shots? Teargas? Flash grenades? Impossible to tell.

Did something happen down Bailey avenue to the right that invoked the police assault? No video has emerged of that, nor has there been any report of anything happening in front of the police station that might have occasioned that brutal attack.

Then, thirty seconds later, a vehicle enters the frame, coming out of the street where the precinct is. People scatter. Two or three policemen are knocked down or run over by the car.

There are more popping sounds. Police rush down the sidestreet where the video is made with drawn guns and with more snarling dogs.

The Buffalo News would later report that the driver of the car had a bullet wound in her abdomen. The reporter didn’t know if she had been shot before or after the car plowed into the police line. The article also said that a pistol had been found in the car, and since all three occupants of the car had previous felony arrests, they all had been charged with felony possession of a weapon. The article didn’t say whether the driver was attacking the police or fleeing them. At this point, we don’t know what happened around the corner from where that guy on the second floor was making his astonishing 28-minute video. The only local organization with the ability to look into what happened and tell us about it—The Buffalo News—has taken a pass.

All we know is that a line of cops, for no apparent reason, charged a group of apparently peaceful demonstrators and began beating them, after which shots were fired, a car injured three police officers, one seriously, a woman was shot, and three people were arrested.

Someone gave the order to attack, and they did.


That’s two incidents in Buffalo in the space of a few days, both involving citizens not doing much of anything and cops behaving violently.

Both incidents are awful, but, there’s nothing extraordinary about them. In the two weeks since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis we’ve seen

police in Minneapolis shoot reporter with a rubber bullet and then arrest him

police in New York City pull down the mask of someone with his hands up and pepper spray him

a New York cop steps out of marching police line to knock a woman to the ground (here’s that same shot, rotated and slowed down)

LA cops shoot an unarmed homeless man in a wheelchair in the face with a rubber bullet

police in Brooklyn wildly clubbing people

police in Salt Lake City knock over an older man with a cane

a Huston mounted policeman ride over a demonstrator

police in a residential neighborhood in Minneapolis chasing people off their own porches. One cop yells, “Light ‘em up,” and they start shooting paint canisters or gas.

On and on it goes. There’s now a website of people police brutality videos. When I last checked it had footage from Houston, New York City, Las Vegas, Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Denver, Louisville, and Lincoln, Nebraska. There’s probably more now.


The cops who responded to the demonstrations the past two weeks with gratuitous violence consider us all their enemy. So do the commanders who told them such behavior was permissible or who ordered it outright.

How do we explain this behavior?

Part of it is probably the hardware and the uniforms: over the past twenty years, we’ve permitted an absurd militarization of urban police forces. They have weapons and vehicles designed for military combat. If you’re dressed for military combat, armed for military combat, and provided vehicles suited for military combat, you are missing only one thing: the enemy. Those cops who perpetrated all that gratuitous violence the past two weeks found themselves the enemy they’d been trained to encounter and had perhaps been longing for: us, all of us.

That’s part of it, but it’s not sufficient. I looked through my bookshelves from back in the days when I was doing a lot of writing and research on criminal justice. No help there.

The book that, thus far, offers the most useful insight was in another set of shelves: books on the Holocaust: Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992).

The question Browning sets out to answer is, How could a group of 500 policemen, only a few of them Nazis, most of them working stiffs until they were drafted, take part in an operation that resulted in the deaths of at least 83,000 Jews? What transpired between the time when they were ordinary men in every sense of the word, to the time when they were those guys in those uniforms doing those things?

There’s no comparison between what happened in Europe in those years and what is happening here now. I know that. I’m not trivializing the Holocaust or blowing the past two weeks in America out of all proportion.

But the process that allows ordinary people to inflict purposeful harm on other ordinary people, people who are not threatening or harming anyone—that warrants thought.

Walter Reich’s insightful reviews of Browning’s book, published in the April 12, 2012, edition of the New York Times, contains a paragraph that, with only a few changes, could apply to all of the events I just told you about:

Clearly ordinary human beings are capable of following orders of the most terrible kinds. What stands between civilization and genocide is the respect for the rights and lives of all human beings that societies must struggle to protect. Nazi Germany provided the context, ideological as well as psychological, that allowed the policemen’s actions to happen. Only political systems that recognize the worst possibilities in human nature, but that fashion societies that reward the best, can guard the lives and dignity of all their citizens.

We’ve provided our police with arms that dazzle the imagination. And we’ve given them a job wholly beyond their capacity. It’s long past time for demilitarizing them and addressing directly the blights afflicting American society—racism, poverty, urban decay, corruption at the highest levels of government, and all the rest.

You can’t do that with tanks and clubs.

You can’t do that with a police ideology that envisions itself as an occupying military force. You can’t do that by cracking an old man’s head on the pavement.

You can’t do that with unions that seek privilege and immunity at the expense of justice and service.

You can’t do that with an attorney general who orders police to club and gas peaceful, legal demonstrators in the service of a presidential photo-op featuring an unread Bible.

And you can’t do that by bullshitting on Twitter, even if you’re doing it from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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