How journalism is helping to normalize the concentration camps
Janine Jackson interviewed Arun Gupta on Trump’s concentration camps for the July 12, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: The horrific treatment inflicted intentionally by the state on people legally seeking asylum at the US southern border is not happening under cover of darkness. There has been powerful, brave journalism, bringing harrowing stories and images of the cruel conditions inside the concentration camps to light, some even detailing how hard the Trump administration is working to keep us from seeing what’s happening, or caring about it.
But connecting outrage and heartsickness to transformative action is an unfamiliar exercise for many Americans, in part because of elite media’s deliberate and invidious distinction between citizens (good) and activists (bad)—and, even more, their constant reassurance that ultimately, the system works.
As conversations devolve into rhetoric about whether this is really what America stands for, maybe it isn’t only the country’s history of atrocities that media could usefully remind us of, but its history of response to atrocities.
But whatever media do, for the majority of the public, whether concentration camps have a place in American life is not a question worthy of consideration. The only question is what to do now.
Our next guest is part of a new call to action on the issue. Longtime journalist Arun Gupta has written for The Intercept, the Guardian and numerous other outlets. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Arun Gupta.
Arun Gupta: Thanks for having me back, Janine.
JJ: Like I say, it isn’t that I don’t think people need to keep being informed, confronted even, with the realities, the specific dead-father-and-daughter-in the-river realities, of this horror show.
But I am a little tired of people saying that nobody’s doing anything, when it sounds like what they’re saying is, “How come I can’t just click on something and make this all stop?”
I’m a media critic, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for corporate media to connect whatever the most horrific news is to anything—not about how to debate it, but how to stop it. And I frankly just wonder, when reporters look back on this time, if they’re going to think that narrating the nightmare was the only responsible role that journalists could take.
So all of that said, what does the call to action—recently drafted by yourself with Juan Carlos Ruiz of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and signed by a growing list of social justice advocates—what does that call to action say? And how are you hoping that it will be used?
AG: What we’re trying to do is to highlight what is going on, that there is a lot of action going on. We’re calling on people to support the frontline communities who’ve really been in the lead, for years and decades, against this brutal system. The architecture really starts to come into place during the Clinton years, and then it starts to get just more and more repressive, the border gets more and more militarized, after September 11. And then the last decade or so, the rising anti-immigrant hysteria that has just really taken off under Donald Trump.
So there are all these different sorts of actions, in terms of the people who are protesting at these concentration camps near the border. There’s a campaign against tech companies who supply ICE and the Border Patrol with much of their infrastructure, their digital infrastructure, that is important; for instance, Amazon is selling them facial recognition technology.
People are also targeting the banks. Recently Bank of America said that they would no longer fund any companies in the private prison industry. And we’re seeing these new child influx centers being opened, which is costing something like $800 a day to house these children.
And, by the way, this is another one of the ways in which the story is the result of poor reporting. The Department of Health and Human Services recently had a dog-and-pony show where they invited in the media to see how great these child influx shelters are. And, in fact, the NPR reporter John Burnett talks about, these are like these self-contained little towns in the desert brush.
But the influx shelters are the direct result of the Trump administration’s policies, many of them which are illegal and criminal policies, that are resulting in the keeping of these children in these shelters. There should be absolutely no need for these shelters if the Trump administration was following the law, and if they weren’t inciting so much fear around the border issues.
But what we’re really calling for is to raise the level of general resistance. And what we’re hoping to see—many of the people who are involved in drafting the call are veterans of a lot of the biggest direct action and protest movements of the last 20 years. We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Battle in Seattle and the global justice movement, the Iraq anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter. These are moments where you have this inchoate mass outrage around an issue, and then a spark helps to set something off that coalesces that outrage into a movement in the real world, right, into a real mass movement.
There’s been these great actions by a lot of Jewish activists recently, under the banner of Never Again, where they blockaded ICE facilities in New Jersey and Boston; they also blockaded the federal building in San Francisco, where Nancy Pelosi has her offices, because the Democrats just absolutely botched the recent immigration funding bill; they essentially are funding what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called child abuse centers. They completely flubbed managing their own caucus in Congress.
So what we’re hoping is that something takes off and captures the public and media imagination, and then completely shifts the debate, the way that Occupy Wall Street completely shifted the debate from economic austerity to economic inequality, or the way that Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter shifted the debate to systemic police violence and killings of people of color, especially black Americans.
So we’re calling on that Occupy model or Seattle model that we’ve seen to self-organize and to find targets, and especially to follow the lead of the immigrant communities: Find the immigrant rights and frontline organizations, and work in conjunction with them, but then go after specific targets.
Something that may work is using nonviolent direct action tactics to disrupt ICE raids. Trump is essentially threatening, once more, these mass raids on the weekend; I believe it’s actually July 14, which is ironic, because that’s Bastille Day, right? The day the French celebrate for tearing down the prison, this is when Trump wants to throw thousands of families who haven’t done anything wrong, except overstay a court order, he wants to tear these families apart and throw them in prison.
JJ: Yeah, well, I think many people are ready for big narrative-shifting, world-changing ideas. The urgency is such that people are not interested in half measures, or in rhetorical diversion. And I just want to draw you out for a moment and in terms of media, because as some journalists are braving logistical obstacles, outright intimidation and harassment to get these stories out, other journalists seem to be busy, as I would say, derailing themselves and their audiences with pretend serious questions, or should I say concerns, about language. And I want to ask you, what have you learned about traps laid by journalists, including—in fact, most emphatically—”sympathetic” journalists, when you try to talk about social action like this?
AG: It’s interesting, because when we launched the campaign, the Institute for Public Accuracy, which tries to get non-mainstream voices into the mainstream, they sent out a press release about this effort, and I pretty much immediately was contacted by NPR’s reporter for the borderlands and immigration, John Burnett. And it was a bizarre and disturbing exchange, because, essentially, he was trying to set a trap for me. He doesn’t even say, like, “Oh, I’m interested in this story. What is this about blah, blah, blah.” He just starts immediately, “Which of the facilities are concentration camps?”
And we start having an exchange, where I’m like, “I’m not going to be drawn into this game.”
And finally he admits, “Well, I’m touring the new HHS child influx center in Carrizo Springs tomorrow; so I wanted to know, like, which one of these specific shelters are concentration camps.”
And I’m like, “You were basically playing a gotcha game; you wanted me to say, like, ‘They’re all concentration camps,’ then you’re going to go on this Trump administration-run tour, and talk about how great it is.”
And in fact, that is exactly what he did in his report, but he couldn’t attribute it to anyone. He starts out by saying, you know, “Critics called these child prisons and concentration camps. But this is definitely not one of them,” or something like that; people can go listen to the report.
And then I asked him, “What do you think are concentration camps?” And he basically says, “That’s an unknowable question. And this is a controversial topic.” This is how we get euphemisms in the mainstream, where torture becomes “enhanced interrogation,” or war crimes against civilians become “collateral damage.”
Basically, anyone who is an expert in this field has said, “These are concentration camps. They meet the historical definition.”
No one is calling them “death camps.” But in 1933, the death camps were concentration camps, and there’s all the historical examples, from Spain and Cuba, Germany and Namibia, British in South Africa. This is how they began. This is basically similar. The US has its own experience with concentration camps: reservations for Native Americans in the 19th century that were places of disease, death and brutality, to the strategic hamlets in Vietnam, which were essentially concentration camps. And so now we’re seeing this on the borders again.
But what we have is a media that is both overly legalistic, where you can’t say anything unless it arises to a judicial level of proof.
AG: And where reality is determined by who holds the most social power. If you can harangue the media enough, criticize the media enough, they will adopt the language that you use. And it’s especially the right that has gamed this system almost perfectly.
JJ: And to me, I would add, I think it’s about defining who acceptable sources are and who should be listened to. So if you can get Arun Gupta to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a concentration camp,” and then show a picture of what looks like a sanitary facility, then you can say, among myriad other things you’re saying, you can say, “Activists are dumb, they don’t even know what words mean, they don’t understand history. They’re just trying to gin up emotions.”
And what you tell people, you say, as Burnett says to you explicitly in that exchange, “I’m just trying to be very careful, I’m just trying to be very thoughtful about what I say.”
What you’re telling people is, “You’re seeing these horrific images, it’s okay to feel bad about it, it’s okay to feel sick about it. Just don’t imagine that you should listen to anyone about how to change it, except for these experts that we’re going to bring on for you.” And they’re going to basically tell you the status quo is all going to work it out.
I feel that a lot of people see through that now; I feel that more people are recognizing the way that journalism, and their framing, can be a problem that really blocks us from changing things in the world. And part of that is not just the ahistorical nature of their coverage of concentration camps, or of protest against concentration camps, but also a kind of ahistorical presentation of journalism, that says, “It always has to just be objective; people are saying this, some people are saying that. We don’t really know.” You know, that’s not what journalism has to be. That’s not what it has been.
And I just want to ask you, finally, what is the role for journalists in moving us forward here, and not just in keeping us locked in this horrific status quo?
AG: I was talking about this with Ari Paul, who’s a regular contributor of FAIR.
AG: We were discussing the fact that we need a new New Journalism. It should be standard in any article, pretty much any article about Trump, especially if it involves race and immigration, that it’s just like, “Donald Trump”— then comma— “a racist” or “a white nationalist.” Take your pick. That is who he is. His agenda is clearly white nationalism. But you’re not allowed to say that, unless he basically says it himself.
I don’t want to say it’s ineffective investigative reporting. You know, I do investigative reporting, but I think it’s just the deference to power. And so we need a more speculative, a more historical, a more kind of essay-style journalism.
And I will point to one piece, and one writer in particular, in the mainstream media who has really done, I think, an excellent job, is Masha Gessen for the New Yorker.
AG: And she had a recent piece about the unimaginable reality of American concentration camps. And I think she really nailed the subject on the head, that the reason we can’t use that term, the media can’t use the term, is because concentration camps are supposed to be unimaginable, right? They’re supposed to be this horror, but in fact, what we’re seeing is the normalization, where they become imaginable, but we are not allowed to use that term. And John Burnett is just a symptom of this. He can look back and tell his children and grandchildren, “I helped to normalize concentration camps,” if they ask him, “Where were you when there were concentration camps being set up?”
This is what journalism is now doing. They are helping to normalize the concentration camps.
JJ: The call is not to journalists; it’s to human beings around the country. And I think I’d just like to end on that note, that as important as we know media are, people are more important.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with journalist Arun Gupta; find the call to action, “Close the Concentration Camps Now!,” and hook into the work at NoMoreCamps.org. Arun Gupta, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AG: Thanks for having me on.