Sunday, December 25, 2005

Germany 1939

I'm obsessed with prisons these days.

Especially with Guantanamo Bay, where more than 400 men have been held for almost four years in inhuman conditions – many of them outside, in rain or heat or cold, not able to wash regularly (and cleanliness is very important to Muslims), no privacy, no regular exercise, no charges, no arraignments, no trials, sometimes no lawyers.

Let me say that again – four years, no charges, no lawyers, no trials.

There have been at least 34 suicides which have been barely reported in our press, though they are widely covered in the Arab, British and even the Taiwanese press. The military has reported several hundred “SIBs” – “self-injurious behaviors”, averaging two a week. The other day, Jumah Dossari tried to hang himself in front of his lawyer. I heard the lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, on Democracy Now! If I relied on CNN or ABC for my news, I could well have missed the story. Yes, it was there, but there wasn't the kind of up-to-the-minute breaking news coverage that there was when Terry Schiavo was sucking in her last artificial breaths, or when Scott Dyleski murdered Pamela Vitale in Lafayette.

But that's no surprise. The mainstream media works for the government or at least for the same agenda, we know that, and their interest is in burying stories of US atrocities. The surprise to me has been the lack of response from the left, even from the people I have worked with for years on other prison issues, against the death penalty, against control units.

When I mention Guantanamo to them, they say, yes, and people are also being tortured in Pelican Bay and in East Oakland. We are busy focusing on that.

Okay, I get that. But actually, I don't think that's right. I think we, the left, are in denial about the significance of what has happened over the last four years.

When the Guantanamo prisoners began hunger striking, I thought that would wake us up, make us realize this is an issue we need to target specifically right now. Just in solidarity. I mean, they are being force-fed with tubes up their noses, which are then put into the next person's nose without even cleaning the vomit and blood off of them.

And if that is not enough, now we know that our government is abducting people from their countries and taking them to Romania and Poland to be tortured.

Congress just said it's okay to torture people as long as they're not u.s. citizens and not on u.s. territory.

I'm not saying that what's happening in our own communities, what has been happening for years in our prisons, is okay, or is less important. The california supreme court recently found the state's prison "health care" system a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered it reformed, and then a couple weeks ago that reform was put on hold because they can’t find a qualified person to implement it . And this is an issue that the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and other prison activist groups have fought hard on for years and years.

And then there are the stories about the prisoners in New Orleans. How the guards left the prison, the largest in the country, leaving the prisoners in locked cells to drown, how some of the prisoners were able to help others get out, how the guards surrounded the prison with rafts to round up the people who managed to make it out, and held them for days on a bridge where they were not allowed to stand up but had to pee on themselves, how then they were taken to a soccer field where they were held for like a week with no blankets and no mattresses and guards would come and throw peanut butter sandwiches over the fence for them to fight over. And on top of that, Human Rights Watch found that when they finally got to whatever prisons they were sent to all over the south, that some of them were badly beaten, just because.

I don't try to say that couldn't have happened eight years ago, because it probably could have and would have and maybe it even did. But I think that Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib made it more possible. Because we, the good people of this country, the ones who care, have heard about Guantanamo, and we have seen the pictures of Abu Ghraib, and we have been pretty silent. Not in our houses, not in our cars, certainly not in our hearts, but in the streets, we have been silent.

Guantanamo, and its counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Poland and Romania and wherever, stand out to me for one reason: Auschwitz.

We have not had one major demonstration focused on the enormous erosion of civil rights that is represented by the newly legalized phenomena of indefinite detention, offshore prisons, "renditioning" and torture. I mentioned this recently to some friends, and I was shocked by their response. "Oh, I don't know, I think people have done some things, there's that group that does street theater, and the Center for Constitutional Rights is doing stuff about it." I don't dismiss those actions, some of which I have done myself, but if you heard that as of late 1942 the German left had done a few small theater actions about concentration camps, and some liberal lawyers filed a lawsuit, would you be impressed?

Why do they call Guantanamo a prison? The people held there – apparently for the rest of their lives, are not called prisoners. They are called "enemy combatants"? What is an enemy combatant? Isn't it a prisoner of war? Well, yes, except it's a prisoner of war who is not subject to any of the international covenants, to which this country is signatory, on the treatment of prisoners of war. The people we are imprisoning and torturing all over the world are not subject to these covenants because our government says they don't have to be. End of story. Well the Jews in europe were not called prisoners of war either. They were called “deportees” or “enemy aliens.”

A website dedicated to defining terms related to the nazi genocide explains, “Concentration camps were prisons used without regard to accepted norms of arrest and detention.”

Guantanamo is a concentration camp, and by all accounts, which are pretty sparse because not many people are allowed in there, and not many are trying to go as far as I can tell, it is becoming a death camp. Abu Ghraib, where torture and abuse did not stop when Lyndie England was sentenced, or when Janis Rapinsky was demoted, or when Newsweek retracted its story about the desecration of the Koran, is another concentration camp. Shebergan, in Afghanistan (CIA code name “The Salt Pit”), was another, where at least 43 men suffocated while being transported in closed metal containers, and at least five hundred were in danger of starving to death when the International Committee of the Red Cross “was forced to step in” (Washington Post editorial).

The truth is that we don't know how many more u.s. concentration camps there are around the world. And we don't know partly because we are not trying to find out. Because we are too busy with our lives, and with our other work, trying to stop the death penalty, trying to Free Palestine, trying to educate each other about sex trafficking and publicize the rape of a 22-year-old Filipina by six US marines (see article).

I grew up on the stories of the nazi holocaust, and how the good people of europe stood by and did nothing. And I always believed that I wouldn't do that. And I wondered how it could be that whole countries allowed people to be rounded up and starved to death and then annihilated.

Now I think I know. It's because it didn't start with millions, it started with a few thousand, and there weren't banner headlines that said, "Nine Million Will Be Killed." They were enemy aliens, they were traitors, they were troublemakers, they were cheats, they were fanatics; they were work camps, they were temporary detention centers, they were transit facilities, they were deportation centers; there was war, there were weddings, there were babies, there was work.

They didn't invade Poland one month and Czechoslovakia the next and France the month after that. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2006 [note:  when I wrote this I was speculating; it actually happened in 2014]… and in the meantime they had coups in Haiti and Venezuela and the Philippines was reinvaded without anyone really hearing about it.

We the left in this country need to acknowledge the situation we are in. We are not Germany 1929. We are Germany 1939. It's not "Can It Happen Here?", it's not "If It Happens Here," and it's not "When It Happens Here."

A few weeks ago, I was skimming an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the Democrats. It was titled something like, "Democrats bumble, Republicans fumble," and its point was that the Democrats are against a lot of things but they don't really stand for anything. Now if someone wants to argue that the Democrats are wishy-washy, I'm the last one to disagree. But the premise of this article was the Democrats are against tax breaks for the rich, against privatizing social security and against – um – letting poor people drown, and insofar as that's true, that's actually adds up to being for some pretty important things.

I don't care about the Democrats, because in fact, they never do stand for much. But the argument, that being opposed to enriching the rich and emiserating the poor or to wars of annihilation and weapons of mass destruction, is too negative, is the same one that is often made against the left, even by ourselves. We talk about needing to know what our vision is, that we only critique but don't offer an alternative, needing focused strategic campaigns that we can win. Somehow, when I read that article, I had a revelation:

If you read a news article in a German newspaper from 1938 and it was talking about a group of people who always seemed to be protesting the Nazi government, would you think, "Why are they so negative?" If in the same paper they had an article about another group that was organizing small collective businesses and a barter system for their neighborhoods, which would you think was doing the more important work?

I'm sure that there were Germans who organized summer camps and did cool art with underprivileged kids; some of them doubtless scandalized everyone by inviting a few Jewish kids. I remember reading about Polish Catholic women who took blankets to Auschwitz and threw them over the fence. But the people I grew up learning to honor are the ones who blew up train tracks and sabotaged weapons factories.

It's not true that we don't have a vision. We know very well what we're for. We are for good jobs and good health care and good housing and respect for every kind of communal or family structure people choose to have. We are for freedom from hunger and freedom to thrive and freedom from arbitrary rule. We're for just and peaceful resolution to conflicts over land, we're for sharing the earth's resources as fairly as possible, and for developing a lifestyle that tries not to destroy so many of them.

But let's be clear. That vision cannot simply coexist with the status quo. It's not an alternative vision, it's a counter vision. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, you need to tear down the old house before you build the new one.

I always thought, and I know that most of my friends did too, that If It Happened Here, I would resist to the max. But it is happening, and I'm not doing that, because one, I don't know what to do, and two, I don't want to sound like a nutcase, and three (and if I'm honest I admit that this is the biggest reason), if they don't succeed in wiping us all out, and they probably won't because that's not what they're trying to do, I have to have a life, I have to have a place to live and food to eat and clothes to wear, and money to live on when I can't work any more.

But when history is written, people are going to say, "How could they have known and done nothing?" And I guess maybe someone will read this article and say, "That's how."

Or maybe they will say, "They did do something. They blocked the bridges, they stopped the trains, they interrupted the ballet, they took over the airwaves, they sabotaged military equipment, they protested at the homes of the torturers; they didn't stop it right away, but they kept at it and eventually they made things change."


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