Monday, January 21, 2013

Sand Creek, Sandy Hook and the Inauguration

It is a good day - Barack is reinaugurated as President here and Myrlie Evers, a powerful worker in the Civil Rights movement, her husband Medgar Evers a fighter against and martyred by American segregation, delivered the invocation - see the second column below by Gary Younge. Governor Cuomo has done something to limit guns in New York and Obama is working on this. See Joan Walsh's comments here.

But it is also a good day, as Devon Pena has suggested, to recall the roots of immense American racist violence - from Sand Creek to Sandy Hook - and take in the limits, despite growing opposition, to both knowledge about and action against it. I had made related points about "Django" Saturday - see here.


Founding genocides - what I also call Founding Amnesias here or Founding Myths here - are with us. For instance, Paula Bard and I wrote a letter to the Denver Post of January 6th about the Chivington Memorial (the monument purportedly to Civil War veterans in Colorado). See here. The whole area surrounding the State Capitol is a monument to the enormous racism of John Evans, the Governor, Corporal Chivington, his agent and political partner, and the long War to seize the land from and wipe out "the Red Man" as the Rocky Mountain News, then Denver's sole paper, repeated in the fall of 1864.


Standing out for barbarity even in the "normal" genocide, as the My Lai massacre was in the aggression in Vietnam, Sand Creek was declared by all federal investigators in the Nineteenth Century a massacre. The "Civil War" monument, put up in 1909 and including the Sand Creek "battle" and three other aggressions in the so-called "Indian War," is thus a dishonest celebration of genocide by once upon a time Colorado politicians (this group of racists was soon to be superseded by the Klan...).


Paula and I walked around the State Capitol, and Glenn Morris sent me some of the history. The whole area is dead space except that the homeless and the forgotten and outcast, gather there, Occupy camped there (and worked with the homeless). In a paradigm of evil, Governor Hickenlooper and Mayor Hancock cleared the area at night with force - free speech in America in front of the State Capitol, who needs it?

An ordinary person might think that the camping in protest in front of the Capitol would be protected by the First Amendment. But there is also a big stake in not looking too closely at this public area, hearing its uneasy, queasy echoes.


What remains is the false celebration of the Colorado aggression against indigenous people - the plaque on the West side of the Statue in front of the State Capitol supposedly of the "Civil War" soldier, actually propaganda for the genocide of indigenous people smuggled in under the false flag of the war for Union and emancipation.


What remains is also a statue behind the State Capitol of an indigenous man killing a buffalo but with no sign. It was titled "the End of an Era," Glenn informs me, from the 1893 Columbian World's Fair in Chicago. John Evans, still influential, kept it or any statue of an indigenous person, from being put up near the Capitol until his death in 1897, and it remains without a name.


Paula and I found that Statue offensive, since after all, indigenous people were murdered and forced away from hunting buffalo, their land seized, the buffalo extinguished from the plains by careless and greedy white hunters.


The four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage at the 1893 Chicago's World's Fair is a backdrop to this history. Columbus psychotically sought gold to bring back to Fernando and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain, in what he imagined "India" or China. He murdered and enslaved the indigenous people of Hispaniola, an Eden as he called it. He gave out hawks-bells (trinkets) and demanded that people bring them back full of gold every three months or he would cut off their hands.

There was no gold. He killed many.

Some fought back. But between Columbus's arrival in 1492 and 1523, Spain wiped out the population of Hispaniola.


There is another statue of Columbus off by the City and County Building, the 400th anniversary after all, more "public art" for Denver - just to make sure that one doesn't miss the deep background to Colorado's particular infamies.


The whole area is an outdoor museum to genocide.


In place of another proposed statue of a Lakota (perpetuating the end of an era theme) at Broadway and Colfax, the political leadership of Denver substituted "Indian-killer" Kit Carson...


This is dead space because, with the exception of a fine monument to Ralph Carr, the Governor who opposed the internment of Japanese-Americans and stood up for habeas corpus and most of the Bill of Rights (the decent aspect of the Constitution) during World War II, it is a collection of monuments to murdering indigenous people.


This aspect of our history has not been mourned or healed in mainstream American culture. It is a root of continuing American murderousness toward non-white people. American wars in the Middle East, fortunately losing, and the continuing drones murdering civilians continue to be acceptable in the elite. Racism then, "militarism, racism and materialism," the three illnesses Martin Luther King spoke of in his breathtaking speech on Vietnam and the consequences of empire, "Breaking the Silence," now. See here.

Ordinary white people, too, lose out in the degraded wars, financial collapse, rule of the .0001%.

Inauguration Day needs to be made deeply King Day.


We need to found a new democratic, anti-genocidal culture if we are to survive as a country and as a species on this planet. Here are Devon's words, written in late December:

"From Sand Creek to Sandy Hook

[The program would not reproduce the engraving but it can be seen here]

American Holocaust. 16th C. De Bry engraving
Forgotten history, violence, and the state of exception

Devon G. Peña | Shoreline, WA | December 23, 2012

Je sais bien, mais quand-même . . .[I know very well, but nevertheless . . .]
– Octave Mannoni

This past week, the airwaves were filled with agonizing reflections about the mass murder of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. There was wall-to-wall cable news coverage, endless interviews, moving eulogies at funerals, and a steady stream of talking head reflection. The public discourse turned on the questions of why and how this mass slaughter occurred.

The liberal response went along the lines of: There are too many assault weapons and high capacity magazine clips; it is too easy for the mentally ill to get weapons; mental health services for the growing at-risk population are inadequate.

The conservative line espoused by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) revolves around the fundamentalist idea that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” So, the Sandy Hook massacre occurred because the principal and teachers were unarmed. We are to fight gun violence with more gun violence.

Conservatives also spout well-worn culture war explanations of gun violence: The ‘liberal’ media and Hollywood elites perpetuate the culture of violence; there is too much violence in our movies and TV-shows; young men act-out violent fantasies by becoming desensitized to murder and mayhem by playing video games like Halo, Special Ops, and Grand Theft Auto.

The world is not so easily reduced to a good guy versus bad guy formula – one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; remember? Also, audiences in other countries view the same shows and play the same games, but they are not engaging in mass murder.

One thing is clear to me: The speculation and lamentation will be with us but for a brief time and the country will fade back into the long familiar patterns of structural and interpersonal violence, traits that are as American as apple pie. We are in deep denial as a nation about the quintessentially ‘American’ trait of unending mass violence which we have long meted out to ourselves and any country or people opposed to the nation’s ‘manifest destiny’ or more contemporaneously the ‘national security interests’ of Empire.

Reluctantly and cautiously I entered this discourse because of a statement MSNBC’s Chris Matthews made last Wednesday, while offering his typically frenetic take on current events – in this case, the why and how of gun violence in the United States. I am paraphrasing here, but Matthews basically said: “The mass slaughter of innocent children is unprecedented. It has never happened in our entire history.”

This statement struck me as deeply wrongheaded and tragically untrue. The fact that Matthews felt so secure making this declaration symbolizes for me the bedrock reason why so many of us will continue to die in the midst of an historical and institutionalized culture of violence. This violence begins with the very foundations of this nation and, moreover, it has never really been meted out in a random manner as many pundits currently argue.

Deep roots of the culture of violence

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us
9 he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalms 137:8-9[i]

Religious conservatives like to proudly proclaim this as a Christian nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles and led by a Bible-loving and God-fearing people. If this is so, then to understand what happened at Sandy Hook they need to own up to the entire ugly legacy of violence propounded by their ‘good book’ and across the broadest strokes of the Old Testament. Psalms 137:8-9 quoted above illustrate this clearly and I need not remind anyone that the champions of Manifest Destiny, the white slave-owning settler elites, viewed the ‘savage Redskins’ and ‘inferior Mexicans’ as the New World’s version of the sons and daughters of Babylon.

The Spaniards followed Biblical advice and bashed the heads of Indian children against the rocks. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was among those who noted this travesty in his chronicle on The Devastation of the Indies:

'…our Spaniards, with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate…that…with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million… [The Spaniards] took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks...'(pp. 30-1)

The British perpetrated similar cowardly acts of mass murder as with the case of Lord Jeffrey Amherst who gave Native American men, women, and children blankets infected with smallpox during the French and Indian war (1754-1763).

This country and our media suffer from acute historical amnesia and white people, especially, have a very hard time reconciling themselves to the essentially violent nature of the forced entry, conquest, and colonization that created this settler nation-state.

The violence that killed the children and teachers at Sandy Hook was not an anomaly; it was simply misdirected at the wrong type of victims. Allow me to explain what must seem like an errant and outrageous claim.

The fact is that many young children have been victims of mass murder for hundreds of years. We would do well to recall our own U.S. 19th Century history: The gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 occurred when U.S. troops, under the command of a Colonel John Chivington, engaged in “killing and mutilating an estimated 70–163 Indians, about two-thirds of whom were women and children.”

In 1865, eyewitnesses presented a description of the massacre before Congressional hearings. John S. Smith, one such eyewitness testified of how he

'…saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces ... With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors ... By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops…'

There is, of course, a reasonable tendency to see all this as genocide to distinguish this type of governmental terror from the mass murder committed by individuals engaged in what appear to be random acts. But this is mincing words. Genocide is a form of mass murder. The only meaningful difference is that this is directed at a specific group or community of people with the intent of exterminating them.

We must observe: Sand Creek and Sandy Hook have several elements in common: Both involved the slaughter of innocent children; both involved the use of guns; and angry, frightened white men carried out both of these slaughters. Yet, it is far too easy for this basic idea to be forgotten; for the experience of Native Americans to be erased in the endless media and pundit genuflection over the persistence of violence.

It is also too easy to forget that the problem of violence for Native Americans, Blacks, and Latina/os is not a spectacular isolated event. It is instead a daily-lived experience. We live daily doses of structural violence and micro-aggression and have experienced this for several hundred years.

Would it thus appear that the Sandy Hook massacre is mostly notable to the punditry because the victims were white and middle class children? Where is there the comparable concern for the mass murder of undocumented children who are hunted down my militias in Arizona’s deserts and suburbs? Where is the sense of tragic loss when the victims are undocumented youth raped and maimed inside private immigration detention centers?

In the Daily Kos this past July, Chauncy de Vega made an important point about the history of recent mass murders in the United States. Writing in the aftermath of this summer’s Colorado movie theater slaughter, he noted that there is one aspect to these heinous acts that is seldom part of the conversation: 'It is unlikely that the aftermath…will be a moment when we as a country reflect upon the relationship between masculinity and violence. There most certainly will not be a ‘beer summit’ about how…mass killers are [predominantly] white, male, and young.'

In a related line of analysis, Mother Jones recently published a report verifying that 61 out of 62 of the mass murderers in the U.S. since 1980 have been young men and 70 percent of these white men. This is a significant finding since white men constitute only 30 percent of the total U.S. population. Imagine the racial profiling that would be happening if the primary perpetrators of mass murder were Blacks or Mexicans.

Given this racialized history of violence by white men against the “Other,” we must confront the idea that this problem is not entirely about the proliferation of assault weapons in the streets and homes – the U.S. population is a mere 5 percent of the world’s population but owns 70 percent of the guns; we have more than 300 million guns out there right now.

The problem, however, is that most analysts have a simplistic and shallow understanding of the origins of the culture of violence, which is most often presented as a fabrication of recent vintage by Hollywood elites or blamed on the presumed influence of immoral atheists infecting our schools and popular culture with their Godless ideologies.

As I have argued here, the roots of the culture of violence run much deeper than Hollywood’s manufactured blood-and-gore fests. No one wants to take a serious look at the deeper history of genocidal violence; the murder and rape of Native youth by white men as a matter of business as usual in the building of the Empire of Manifest Destiny.

The social critic and theorist Slavoj Žižek offers some insights on what might be behind this lack of an honest conversation about the culture of violence. The problem of denial and erasure of history is part and parcel of a larger problem, which he calls the ‘totalitarian disavowal.’

I argue that this is what explains the culture of violence in the United States: The problem is that totalitarian societies – including those like our own that have the mirage of a representative democracy – involve a denial of history and deep roots of violence because of “the power of ideology [as] reflected in the cynical attitude of the subjects, who know full well that the official ideological line…is false, and yet they stick to it as a matter of belief – since…belief has less to do with reason and knowledge than with habit and senseless…enjoyment.”[ii]

The white majority culture celebrates this senseless enjoyment precisely because it is so afraid of confronting the dirty truth of a culture of violence that was actually always the basis for the establishment of a Republic of Property that values acquisitiveness and aggression above relationship and peacemaking. As long as this deeper source remains unexamined, we will never overcome the base cultural impulses that drive mass murderers to gun violence, which will continue to wreak havoc on an already stained and corrupt national soul.

[See here]
Scene from Massacre of Bad Axe (1847). Illustration by D.H. Strother

The problem of totalitarian disavowal is also premised on the ability for white people to continue exercising their racial privilege – even as mass murderers. Sikivu Hutchinson, writing for Feminist Wire, states: “…white people are simply unaccustomed to being explicitly identified as white. For many, the tired colorblind party line of white privilege means that just talking about race is racist. Universal means normal, and even the most heinous white criminals (Gacy, Bundy, Dahmer, and the list goes on) are humanized by a back story of psychoanalysis, cable TV biopics, books, and pop culture reportage.”

This is precisely what has unfolded the past week as liberal and conservative pundits and policymakers tried to interpret the why and how of the Sandy Hook massacre. For one thing, they forgot to ask themselves how it was rooted in the violence visited upon Native American children at Sand Creek.

[i] I recognize that Psalm 137:8-9 was written as a rebuke of the Babylonians for holding the Hebrews captive as slaves and indentured servants. Still, the Hebrew response calling for the murder of the children of their captors is a clear illustration of the deep roots of the culture of violence I am briefly outlining here. For more on the Babylonian captivity, see Michael D. Coogan, ed. 1999. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. New York: Oxford University Press; also see the Wikipedia entry.

[ii] Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner 2007. Ideology critique or discourse analysis? Žižek against Foucault. European Journal of Political Theory 6:2:141-59; p. 146"


Obama's inauguration to provide landmark moment for civil rights titan
Myrlie Evers-Williams, 79, will deliver the invocation at Monday's ceremony, placing the contribution of women firmly centre stage

Gary Younge, Friday 18 January 2013

Myrlie Evers-Williams will be the first women and layperson to deliver the invocation at a presidential inauguration. Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

On the evening of 11 June 1963, Myrlie Evers-Williams lay in bed in Jackson, Mississippi, allowing her three small children stay up with her to watch President John F Kennedy deliver a landmark address on civil rights.

"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public," said the president. "If he cannot send his children to the best public school available; if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him; if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

They were still up when her husband Medgar, field secretary for the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), came home just after midnight from a meeting with activists in a local church.

Lurking in the honeysuckle bushes across the road from his house was Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and Klansman from nearby Greenwood, with a high-powered hunting rifle. The sound of Medgar slamming the car door was followed quickly by gunfire. The children dived on to the floor just as they had been taught. Evers-Williams ran downstairs to find her husband slumped on the doorstep. The bullet went through his back and came out of his chest. He died in the early hours of 12 June.

The assassination, just as the civil rights movement was cresting, would place Evers-Williams in the national spotlight, the most prominent of what would become known – problematically – as a 'civil rights widow'. She would be joined before the decade was out by Corretta Scott King and Betty Shabbazz, Malcolm X's wife.

"We came to realise, in those last few days, last few months, that our time was short," she said later. "It was simply in the air. You knew that something was going to happen, and the logical person for it to happen to was Medgar."

The rifle was traced back to Beckwith, whose fingerprints were found on the rifle's telescopic sight. Some witnesses reported seeing a man who looked like him in the area that night as well as a car that looked like his white Plymouth Valiant.

Nonetheless, all-white juries twice failed to reach a verdict in 1964. During the second trial, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett interrupted the trial to shake hands with him while Myrlie was testifying. He would not be convicted until 1994, thanks in no small part to Evers-Williams' meticulous collection of evidence.

On Monday, on Martin Luther King day, Evers-Williams, 79, will deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's second inauguration, making her the first woman and layperson to do so. In a day pregnant with symbolism – the first black president being sworn in on a federal holiday day dedicated to the nation's most revered black, historical figure – Obama will be using King's bible to take the oath of office.

Asked if she ever imagined back in the dark days of segregation then that there might be one day be a black president, Evers-Williams told the Religious News Service: "Of course, we all knew, we hoped, we worked, we prayed that one day there would be a man or a woman of African American descent who would become the president of the United States of America.

"That has been a dream come true, but if we look at the politics leading up to particularly his second term, there were blocks that came during this time of getting people to register and to vote that are reminiscent of some of those actions that took place 50 years ago to keep people of my race and others away from the polls."

Half a century after Medgar's death, Evers-Williams, who remarried in 1975, is comfortable still being closely associated with the memory of her first husband. "I have always wanted to see Medgar be recognised for what he did," she says. "Medgar's remains are in Arlington Cemetery, only about four to five miles away from the spot where the inauguration will take place. It's kind of a miracle for me that all of this is happening at this particular time."

But her inclusion in the ceremony sees her take centre stage again as a political figure in her own right. After Beckwith's second trial, Evers-Williams moved to California, went to university and twice, unsuccessfully, ran for Congress. During the mid-1990s when the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organisation, was mired in scandal and economic difficulty, she became its chair and was instrumental in turning it around.

But as she takes to the podium on Monday, she will help restore to public memory the vital contributions that women made to the civil rights movement that were often denigrated within the movement at the time and have been omitted from the historical record since. Church-led and male dominated, the civil rights leadership often gave its female footsoldiers little or no credit for the essential work they did and the extraordinary sacrifices they made.

In Montgomery, Alabama, for example, the first woman to plead not guilty after she refused to sit at the back of the bus – 15-year-old Claudette Colvin – was dropped after she became pregnant. After Rosa Parks stepped up, and the bus boycott that would propel King to national attention was under way, she would be marginalised after she refused to simply be a benign figurehead. One of the leading local activists, AD Nixon, referred to her as a "lovely, stupid woman"; ministers greeted her at church functions with irony: "Well, if it isn't the superstar." And one of King's key aides, Reverend Ralph Abernathy referred to her as a "tool" of the movement.

During the march on Washington, where King delivered his "I have a dream" speech, no women were scheduled to speak and women leaders were not allowed to march alongside the men. Only after an uproar from some women activists was Evers-Williams, who'd lost her husband just 10 weeks earlier, included on the roster. She could not get there. "That was one thing that has haunted me over the years," she says. "Fifty years later, I receive an invitation to deliver the invocation."

Evers-Williams was set to speak alongside the Rev Louie Giglio, who pulled out from giving the benediction following an outcry over a homophobic sermon he gave in the 90s. Evers-Williams' denominational affiliation can best be described as promiscuous. "I have been Baptist, I have been Methodist, I have been Presbyterian. I have attended all those churches depending on where I have lived my life."

Evers-Williams has been on the lecture circuit since Medgar's assassination, but admits to being nervous about her participation in Monday's ceremony. "To pray is nothing new. To pray in public is nothing new. But to pray in a setting where there will be thousands and thousands of people who will listen. I am asking for guidance. I am asking for direction and I am asking to, please God, help me stay within three minutes that I have been given."

Back in 1963 at the march on Washington, after much complaining from many quarters, the organisers hastily arranged a "tribute to women" in which the female civil rights leaders were asked to stand on stage and be applauded by the crowd. At the time, Parks turned to a fellow campaigner, Daisy Bates, and said "Our time will someday come."

Half a century later, Evers-Williams has finally arrived to take centre stage in the capital.

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