"I don't think it's right that you take our properties. Over my dead body. I didn't die with Katrina." - Lower 9th Ward resident Caroline Parker.
"Joe Canizaro, I don't know you, but I hate you. I'm going to suit up like I'm going to Iraq and fight this." - New Orleans East resident Harvey Bender, referring to the author of the city commission's "rebuilding" plan.
The overwhelmingly black New Orleans diaspora is returning in large numbers to resist relentless efforts to bully and bulldoze them out of the city's future. "Struggle on the ground has intensified enormously. A number of groups are in motion, moving against the mayor's commission," said Mtangulizi Sanyika, spokesman for the African American Leadership Project (AALP). "Increasing numbers of people are coming back into the city. You can feel the political rhythm."
Mayor Ray Nagin's commission has presented residents of flood-battered, mostly African American neighborhoods with a Catch-22, carefully crafted to preclude New Orleans from ever again becoming the more than two-thirds Black city it was before Hurricane Katrina breached the levees. Authored by Nagin crony, real estate development mogul and George Bush fundraiser Joseph Canizaro, the plan would impose a four-month moratorium on building in devastated neighborhoods like the lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East. During that period, the neighborhoods would be required to come up with a plan to show how they would become "viable" by reaching an undefined "critical mass" of residents.
But the moratorium, itself, discourages people from rebuilding their neighborhoods - just as it is intended to do - thus creating a fait accompli: residents will be hard pressed to prove that a "critical mass" of habitation can be achieved.
"It's circular reasoning," said the AALP's Sanyika. They talk about "some level of neighborhood viability, but no one knows what that means. What constitutes viable plans? What kinds of neighborhoods are viable? Everywhere you turn people are trying to rebuild, but there is this constraint."
The commission is empowered only to make recommendations, but with the help of corporate media, pretends their plan is set in stone. "They keep pushing their recommendations as though they are the gospel truth," said Sanyika, who along with tens of thousands of other evacuees has been dispersed to Houston, five hours away. "There is confusion as to all of these recommendations, issued as if they are policy. The Times-Picayune contributes to that confusion. None of this is a given."
Activists believe the way to play this situation is for residents to forge ahead on their own. "Trying to figure out the logic of that illogical proposal is a wasted effort - all you're going to do is wind up going in circles," said Sanyika. He emphasizes that the commission's recommendations are not binding on anyone - certainly not on the majority black city council, which claims authority in city planning matters. They're not buying the nonsense. "The city council has rejected it. Nagin says 'ignore it.' I think it's dead in the water," said Sanyika.
The city council has attempted to block Nagin's collaboration with corporate developers - a hallmark of his tenure - voting to give itself authority over where to place FEMA trailers. (Only about 5,000 of a projected 25,000 trailers arrived, say community activists.) Nagin vetoed the bill, but the council overrode him. The council has also endorsed equitable development of neighborhoods, rather than shrinking the city. "We [the African American Leadership Project] are developing a resolution to that effect," said Sanyika. Odds are that it will pass - but the question is, who wields power in post-Katrina New Orleans, where only one-third of the city's previous population of nearly half a million has returned?
It is in this context that one must view Mayor Nagin's statement to a mostly Black crowd gathered at City Hall for a Martin Luther King Day march, on Monday: "I don't care what people will say - uptown, or wherever they are. At the end of the day, this city will be chocolate.... This city will be a majority African American city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn't be New Orleans."
Ray Nagin is probably the most disoriented person in the country, these days - the fruit of his own venality, sleeziness, and opportunism. A corporate executive, sports entrepreneur and nominal Democrat, he contributed to the Bush campaign in 2000 (Democrats dubbed him "Ray Reagan") and endorsed a Republican candidate for governor in 2003 (see BC November 20, 2003). Now he doesn't have a clue as to where the power lies or where his base is centered. "Nagin is playing a game, trying to have it both ways," says the AALP's Sanyika - but his options are shrinking as fast as the city envisioned by his buddy, Joe Canizaro, with whom he habitually worked hand in hand, but whom he now tells Blacks to "ignore."
Who's in charge in New Orleans?
Canizaro is clearly the center of gravity on the "mayor's" commission which, although integrated, is essentially a corporate concoction. The commission's slogan, "Bring New Orleans Back," is a euphemism for bringing the city "back" to the days before Black rule by erecting multiple barriers to the return of Black residents. Of course, even when Black mayors hold titular office in New Orleans, Canizaro's crowd runs the show. His bio, posted on the commission's website, shows Canizaro to be the major domo of the city's real estate, development, banking, and pro-business political machinations. Canizaro is also a Trustee and former Chairman of the Urban Land Institute, the planning outfit that is determined to turn Black neighborhoods into swamp.
Since shortly after New Years, the commission has been feverishly working to appear to be an empowered governmental entity, tasking subcommittees to present reports and recommendations several days a week on Government Effectiveness, Education, Health and Social Services, Culture, and Infrastructure. What black New Orleans had been waiting for was presentation of the Urban Planning Committee Final Report, Wednesday, January 11. An overflow crowd at the Sheraton Hotel hissed Mayor Nagin and booed the hated Canizaro. Others cursed and vowed that they would be exiled only over their dead bodies.
"Four Months to Decide" read the headline of the Times-Picayune, on the day of the official unveiling of the commission's recommendations, a blueprint for the displacement of hundreds of thousands. In the packed hotel spaces, residents alternated between rage and deep anxiety at the ultimatum. "I don't think four or five months is close to enough time given all we would need to do," said Robyn Braggs. "Families with school-age children won't be able to even return to do the work necessary until this summer."
Cities with 25,000 or more displaced New Orleans residents include Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, and Baton Rouge. Others are scattered to the four winds. Their children will be enrolled in far-flung schools until the June deadline.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, currently president of the National Urban League, called the commission's scheme a "massive red-lining plan wrapped around a giant land grab." With the situation so uncertain, and time so short, homeowners will have difficulty settling with their insurance companies in time. Said Morial: "It's cruel to bar people from rebuilding. Telling people they can't rebuild for four months is tantamount to saying they can't ever come back. It's telling people who have lost almost everything that we're going to take the last vestige of what they own."
And what about renters, who made up well over half of residents? Such people have no place in George Bush's "ownership society" - especially if they are black. Bush put his smirking stamp of approval on the corporate plan during an oblivious visit to New Orleans, last week. "It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to visit."
Apparently, the president doesn't read newspapers because he is blind - except to the cravings of his class. Bush's Gulf Opportunity Zone Act provides billions in tax dodges for (big) business, while the threatened permanent depopulation of Black New Orleans would eliminate the possibility of return for the nearly 8,000 (small) Black businesses that served the neighborhoods.
Self-styled Black capitalists take note: this is the nature of the beast. Bush fronts for a class for which Katrina is not a catastrophe, but an opportunity. They believe devoutly in "creative chaos" - the often violent destruction of the old, so that new profits can be squeezed from the rubble. Through their Catch-22 ultimatums, they are deliberately inflicting additional "creative chaos" on the displaced people of New Orleans. The fact that the victims are mostly Black, makes it all the easier. Or so they assume.
Grassroots community groups, along with platoons of non-native volunteers, are refusing to acquiesce to the greatest attempted urban theft in American history. At a conference organized by Mtangulizi Sanyika's African American Leadership Project and affiliated organizations, progressive urban planners explored ways to make the new New Orleans a better place for the people who live there, rather than for ravenous corporations and new populations. The experts included Dr. Ed Blakely, of the University of Sydney, Australia; MIT's Dr. Phil Thompson, housing aide to former New York Mayor David Dinkins; and Abdul Rasheed, who helped rebuild the flood ravaged Black town of Princeville, North Carolina after a hurricane in the Nineties.
The coalition also held a Town Hall meeting attended by leaders of 15 national organizations, including Dr. Ron Daniel's Institute of the Black World, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and movers and shakers from the Progressive Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention USA. National co-sponsors included the Hip Hop Caucus, Black Voices for Peace, the Black Family Summit of the Millions More Movement, and the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN).
Neighborhood groups are mobilizing to confront the racist/corporate onslaught. "Every other day some major event is happening," said Sanyika. Various groups held marches during MLK weekend, carrying signs such as "We're Back," "Stop Displacement," and "Rebuild With People."
On February 7th, a National Mobilization of progressive forces will descend on the U.S. Capitol in Washington to pressure Congress to halt the juggernaut of expulsion and give substance to the people's Right to Return. Although there are literally thousands of large and small Katrina-related projects operating throughout the nation, many of the New Orleans organizers are handicapped by the fact of their own displacement. A great moral and political challenge presents itself to black and progressive America: Will they rise to the occasion in the face of a real, imminent, well-defined crisis - as opposed to the general conditions addressed by the Million Man and Millions More rallies? February 7th will be a test of black political resolve and cohesion. And there will be many more.
Meanwhile, New Orleans in some ways resembles a poignant scene from bygone wars, when lists of the dead were published on public walls. The "Red Danger List" is posted in local papers, designating properties that are "in imminent danger of collapse" and, therefore, subject to demolition without the consent of the owners. To date, over 5,000 buildings have been red tagged.
The "Flood Map" is a kind of municipal schematic of a cemetery, delineating the parts of the city that will be caused to die. Residents on the wrong side of the lines will be unable to get flood insurance, which certainly means no meaningful investment can occur in those areas. The map was last published in 1984, and is now being updated.
You can be sure that Black folks are not in charge of the mapping.
Katrina has shown us many things. One, is the hollowness of the purely electoral black strategy (and its cousin, lobbying) that followed the shutdown of mass movements after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a great irony that, while we rant at FEMA's inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the Katrina crisis, Black America finds itself desperately searching for the "people power" tools to effectively counter the post-Katrina aggression.
The citizens of New Orleans are paying the cost for the mistakes of the late Sixties and early Seventies, when aspiring electoral and corporate officeholders convinced black folks that mass movements were no longer necessary. Progress would trickle down from the newly acquired heights. Popular political capital could be wisely invested in the few, the upwardly mobile.
What we got was chicken-with-his-head-cut-off Ray Nagin and his many counterparts in plush offices across Black America. We must invent Black Power all over again, under changed conditions. New Orleans in its present state is the worst possible place to start - but that's where we're at.
Hurricane Katrina may mark a watershed in black perceptions of the African American presence and prospects in the United States. "It could very well shape this generation of young people in the same way that the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King shaped our generation," said Prof. Michael Dawson, of the University of Chicago whose team conducted a survey of black and white reactions to the disaster between October 28 and November 17, 2005. "It suggested to blacks the utter lack of the liberal possibility in the United States," said Dawson, the nation's premier black social demographer.
Huge majorities of blacks agreed that the federal government's response would have been faster if the victims of Katrina in New Orleans had been white (84 percent), and that the Katrina experience shows there is a lesson to be learned about continued racial inequality (90 percent).
But only 20 percent of whites believe that the federal government's failure to respond had anything to do with race, and only 38 percent think there is something to be learned about racial inequality from the Katrina disaster.
|Federal Gov. response faster if victims had been white|
Katrina shows there's a
The differences of perceptions based on an event to which the entire nation was exposed in living color, are staggeringly instructive. Blacks and whites saw the same images, but perceived them differently. The Dawson poll, which included approximately 500 whites and 700 blacks, shows a 64 percent difference between black and white perceptions on the federal response to Katrina, and a 52 percent divide on the disaster's significance in terms of racial equality in the United States.
A Grand Canyon looms between the way African Americans and white people view the world, despite the fact that both groups are privy to the same information and images.
However, there is a degree of murkiness in these figures, just as exists in the minds of human beings. Dawson's group surveyed black and white reactions to the statements of Kanye West, the rapper, immediately after the Katrina fiasco. West said:
"I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And, you know, it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I've tried to turn away from the TV because it's too hard to watch. I've even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I'm calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give, and just to imagine if I was down there, and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help -- with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way -- and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us! George Bush doesn't care about black people!"Curiously, a large number of whites, although a minority, agree with Kanye West, that George Bush doesn't care about black people. In light of other indicators, one wonders what proportion of these whites is glad that the president doesn't care.
|Kanye West's comments unjustifed|
It is clear that overwhelming numbers of blacks agree with Kanye, that Bush is hostile to black people. The nine percent figure who think that Kanye is out of line is just about right for what we at BC call the "crazy quotient" -- the nearly indivisible number of African Americans who are irrevocably lost to reality, like the majority of whites (but certainly for different pathological reasons).
"Blacks and whites see two different worlds," said Prof. Dawson, whose team found that "blacks are overwhelmingly supportive to bring people home and restore the city, while whites are overwhelmingly against federal government spending, and in favor of fiscal responsibility."
Fiscal responsibility is a code phrase. It means, Don't spend money on black folks.
"Fiscal responsibility is a code word for whites for anti-black policy," said Dawson. "Reagan used it, Bush used it, and the people who overthrew Reconstruction used it. It is one of the oldest code words in American politics. It's right up there with 'law and order.'"
The corporate media constantly speak of Americans "coming together" in times of crisis. However, such has never happened, across racial lines -- because of white intransigence.
"I don't think that the Katrina disaster brought people together," said Dawson. "I think it is abundantly clear that blacks and whites represent polar opposite views in how to understand major social and political dislocations and traumas in this country."
Why are some black folks so happy to hear an apology from people who don't mean it?
There are nearly a million African-Americans in prison - one out of eight inmates on the planet - a gulag of monstrous proportions, clearly designed to perpetuate the social relations that began with slavery. We demand an end to those relations, not an insincere, risk-free "apology" that sets not one prisoner free.
It is appropriate that the great anti-lynching leader, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), who documented the murder of nearly 5,000 blacks at the hands of white mobs in the terror-filled years that followed the death of Reconstruction, be verbally honored by Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Virginia Republican Senator George Allen. Yet both senators supported laws that will impose draconian equivalents of post-Civil War "black codes" on inner city youth, who will now be designated as criminal conspirators if they congregate in groups of three or more.
No thank you, Senators Landrieu and Allen - the crime you committed against us in May vastly outweighs your weak apology in June. You have guaranteed that hundreds of thousands more young black people will be interned in your gulag - a crime against humanity. And both of you are determined to commit more crimes. Should we ask for an apology in advance?
There can be no absolution for those who continue to profit from past crimes, and plot new ones. Lynch law was the effective law of the South - and, truth be told, the rest of the United States - and the "lawful" authorities sanctioned it by refusing to pass 200 anti-lynching bills. The terror of lynching created the social relationships that resulted in white households accumulating ten to twenty times as much wealth as black households - our collective national inheritance. An apology will not do.
Is that what our movement has been about all of these generations - to get an apology from people who became rich on our backs? There is a method to this racist madness, an assumption that African-Americans can be bought by a simple nod from a few white people. Some of these racists will not even give us a nod - the twelve or sixteen senators who did not join in the anti-lynching vote, all but one of them Republicans. The Republican Senate Leader made sure that no member would have to go on record against lynching. However, are we supposed to be grateful for a non-binding resolution that admits thousands of murders were committed with the complicity of the United States government, but that does not redress the wrongs in any way.
Where is the sense of justice in this apology? What do the descendants of the terrorized class expect? That wrongs be righted, or that those who have profited gain absolution?
Lynching was genocide
The United States Senate did not ratify the Convention on Genocide until 1988, 40 years after African-Americans circulated the petition, "We Charge Genocide," in an effort to make international law applicable to the U.S. By this time, most of the former Dixiecrats had become Republicans, and felt safe in blaming their former party for their own crimes.
The United States, controlled by a Republican majority and feckless minority of white Democrats whose greatest fear is their black constituents, is now engaged in a grand venture to export the ideology of white terror, planet-wide. They have not learned a thing. Having never practiced democracy on their own shores, they claim a copyright to the concept. The fact that nobody believes their claims does not phase them, because they are marching to the tune of Manifest Destiny - the white man's right to rule. It is that belief that drew tens of thousands of whites to the lynching fields of Georgia and Indiana, for the sport of Negro-killing. Now they are in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming moral authority.
The march of civilization goes on, leaving the United States behind. The bubble of news communication fools only those inside. The rest of the globe sees its own interests, and recognizes white arrogance, intuitively.
This intuitive knowledge, born of gruesome experience, also informs black Americans. Although surrounded by the same bubble of misinformation as the rest of Americans, blacks smell the lie. The vast bulk of us see the "apology" for what it is - a scam, with no substantial benefits, and less good faith. But there is a class that is paid to say "Yes sir," on command. Most of us pay them no attention.
Lynch law was no law at all. It was pure white power - the right to declare oneself a higher form of being, and reduce the "other" to charcoal. The current rulers of the United States are spreading lynch law to the far reaches of the planet. They claim the right to "pre-emptive" warfare, and reject all other people's rights to live under collectively accepted rules. They wage war against the concept of international law, just as they violated every law that did not enshrine white privilege.
Nothing has changed, except the world. We will not tolerate such criminality, anymore. In fact, we have collectively called the behavior that white folks in the United States routinely engaged in, criminal. It's far too late for the U.S. Senate to pass a non-binding resolution announcing some vague objection to lynching, when they pass legislation that makes it a crime to be black and a youth, vote billions to fund a military machine that seeks to enslave the planet, and rejects the authority of the World Criminal Court. In doing so, they have made themselves outlaws.
We will not forgive, or accept an apology that does not come with a change in power relationships. And we will reject any so-called black leadership that makes its own deal.
Rev. Al Sharpton's race for the Democratic presidential nomination should be considered a resounding success -- for just about everyone except the candidate himself.
By sheer dint of will and force of personality, Sharpton imposed a vibrant black presence on the party's primary process. (Had Sharpton not run, Carol Moseley-Braun would not have been drawn into the race -- ironically, as a counterweight to Sharpton.) "Big Al" was truly large on the stage, a daunting deterrent to the intrusion of the usual coded racial rhetoric into the Democratic debates or on the stump: Don't even think about it, said Al, without having to move his lips. Sharpton gave voice -- at times, brilliantly -- to the core progressive principles of the black political consensus, causing big-footed white men to step lightly and in the right general direction.
Sharpton's candidacy has had a magical effect on the racial chemistry of the Democratic dialogue, in starkest contrast to the White Citizens Council-type language of the GOP. He caused the white candidates to repeatedly demonstrate, through their words and campaign schedules, that they valued black voters.
In that sense, Sharpton's very success detracted from his appeal. It was not fear of George Bush that caused four of five black voters in South Carolina to opt for a white candidate. There was never any possibility of Sharpton being the nominee, so "electability" was not a consideration. From the beginning, his candidacy promised African Americans the opportunity to send a message to the Democratic Party: you'd better pay attention to us. The frontrunners -- and it seems that every white candidate but Dennis Kucinich has been a frontrunner at some point -- had already gotten the message long before last Tuesday. They embraced black South Carolina.
Unlike whites, who are the ultimate bloc voters, African Americans have always responded across racial lines to direct, respectful appeals for their votes. Sharpton worked a civilizing mojo on the white contenders this season. (Even Democratic Leadership Council favorite Sen. Joseph Lieberman -- now, thankfully, gone from the race -- dropped his references to the red herring, "quotas.") Call it nine months of behavior modification therapy, courtesy of Rev. Al. Thanks to Sharpton, others in the Democratic field struggled to make themselves worthy of black votes. They were rewarded and are, presumably, grateful.
Sharpton may or may not appreciate the effect he has had on the behavior and marketability of his white opponents. However, he has much more to worry about than whether he gets to speak at the Democratic convention in Boston. The growing storm over his covert alliance with rightwing Republicans probably came too late to have any measurable impact on Tuesday's elections, but the revelations are a deathblow to his actual goal: to become the recognized leader of African Americans. Although the story has been framed in terms of treachery to the Democratic Party, or as evidence of Sharpton's visceral disdain for white "liberals," the tale will resonate somewhat differently among African Americans. Sharpton comes across as a hapless stooge of the worst elements of the GOP.
Roger Stone, a millionaire political consultant who began his career as a 19-year-old Watergate dirty trickster, virtually took over the Sharpton campaign in the last quarter of 2003, according to reports in the New York Times (January 25), Salon.com ("A GOP Trickster Rents Sharpton," February 3) and New York's Village Voice ("Sleeping with the GOP," February 3). Stone and Sharpton were introduced two years ago by Donald Trump, the celebrity millionaire, said the Times. Stone brought in Charles Halloran to replace Sharpton campaign manager Frank Watkins, a longtime advisor to the Jesse Jacksons, Junior and Senior, who resigned in late September. (In the Village Voice article, Sharpton says Watkins was fired.) Halloran previously managed the New York gubernatorial campaign of far-right billionaire Tom Golisano, on the Independence Party line. He also managed a mostly white, conservative party's attempt to unseat the first black-led government of Bermuda.
Stone provides "ideas and direction, while Mr. Halloran...does the front-line work," said the Times. "In the attacks on Dr. Dean, Mr. Stone helped set the tone and direction while Mr. Halloran did the research. Mr. Halloran came up with Dr. Dean's hiring record as governor, for example, aides to Mr. Sharpton said."
Another rightwing purported Sharpton crony, Tucker Carlson of CNN's "Crossfire," said Stone and Sharpton are both motivated by a "disdain for white liberals."
Joe Conason, of Salon.com, contends that Sharpton is a menace to the Democratic Party. "Stone certainly serves the Republican party by sustaining and promoting Sharpton," wrote Conason. "The Democratic Party, whose institutions and candidates [Sharpton] has consistently undermined for many years, is merely a convenient vehicle for his advancement."
Blinded by the Right
As the primary votes were being counted on Tuesday night, crack investigative reporter Wayne Barrett's bomb exploded in the Village Voice, a devastating document-of-no-return for Al Sharpton. Barrett and his team describe what amounts to a lock, stock and barrel takeover of the Sharpton apparatus by Stone and the "half-dozen incongruous top aides who've worked for him in prior campaigns."
The Republican consultant also appears to have absorbed Sharpton's Harlem-based National Action Network (NAN). "The combination of the unpaid or underpaid services of Stone, Halloran [and Stone operatives], Baynard, Archer, et al., together with the NAN subsidies, paint a picture of a Sharpton operation that is utterly dependent on his new ally Stone, whose own sponsors are as unclear as ever," wrote Barrett.
Possibly most disturbing of all is Stone's role in securing federal matching funds for the campaign. To qualify for matching dollars, candidates must first raise $100,000: $5,000 from each of 20 states. Each individual contribution must be of no more than $250. The combined resources of the Sharpton campaign and NAN ("A shell," according to an aide imported by Stone) either could not or would not assemble the necessary 400-plus contributors grouped by state, to meet the federal threshold. Stone stepped in, filling the gaps with small checks from relatives, lobbyist friends and assorted denizens of the Right.
Did Sharpton really need a Republican organization to do that? Was a household name incapable of finding 20 people in 20 states with $250? Or does he instinctively opt for the quick fix or favor?
Stone has "loaned" Sharpton at least $270,000, and the candidate has made frequent use of Stone's credit card, according to the Voice story. NAN funds have been hopelessly commingled with campaign monies -- a potential legal disaster.
The relationship boggles the mind. Roger Stone is the Hard Right storm trooper whose goons bum-rushed the Miami-Dade elections offices in 2000, shutting down the recount and setting the stage for George Bush's "selection." Sharpton claims he and Stone are just friends. But reporter Wayne Barrett is a veteran dirt-digger who has taken down a number of New York's Sleaziest. Sharpton and Stone seem to have made Barrett's job easy -- indeed, Stone doesn't appear anxious to hide the fact that he has captured a Negro.
Sorely Tested, He Failed
Barrett's article sketches Rev. Al's wheeling and dealing in the Byzantine world of New York politics, arrangements in which, as often as not, he has actively or tacitly backed Republicans. So have lots of New York Democrats; the city is a shadowy, immensely corrupt environment -- a gray political landscape. Sharpton has long been known as an influence trader. This time, he got eaten -- whole.
We have been holding our breath ever since the Reverend announced that he was serious about running for president. Somebody black had to do it. The Democratic Leadership Council had just engineered a sweeping Republican victory in the off-year, congressional elections, and corporate media favored DLC champion Joe Lieberman as frontrunner for the nomination, followed by a mealy-mouthed Sen. John Kerry. It was imperative, we believed, that black voters show their strength within the Democratic Party in an unmistakable way, by coalescing in large numbers around a black candidate in the primaries. Al Sharpton stepped forward.
In our April 24 issue, "What the Black Presidential Candidate Must Do," we declared, wishfully: "We believe that Al Sharpton is up to the task, if he maintains a clear vision and personal discipline." Believing in the possibilities of human growth, if not redemption, and in the transformative powers of righteous political movements, we wrote: "Sharpton will show who he is in the course of the race. Even those of us who think we know him cannot predict what the National Action Network leader will become as he is tested by the experience."
Now we know.
The Sharpton campaign's descent into what looked like madness became apparent shortly after the resignations of Jesse Jackson family confidant Frank Watkins and South Carolina coordinator Kevin Gray, September 30. We don't know what precipitated their exits, but Roger Stone and his Republicans moved right in. In late October, when it became clear that Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. would endorse Howard Dean, Sharpton went on the attack, shedding the steady, even statesmanlike persona he had cultivated in the previous months of campaigning. We described the spectacle in the November 13 story, "Al Sharpton's Political-Emotional Breakdown":
Sharpton went ballistic, firing off a blistering statement, by far his harshest criticism of a fellow Democrat of the entire campaign: "Howard Dean's opposition to affirmative action, his current support for the death penalty and historic support of the NRA's [National Rifle Association's] agenda amounts to an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color in this country."We concluded that Sharpton had been "laid low by Jesse Jacksonophobia" -- confirming that his real mission was to seize the mantle of national black leadership. We stand by the diagnosis. What we did not know was that Roger Stone was methodically channeling Sharpton's ambitions and grievances. Like all of Bush's men, the dirty Republican trickster aims to suppress the black vote in the general election. He hoped that Sharpton could be deployed as a disruptive force in the primary process, thus tamping down black enthusiasm for the ultimate nominee. Two or three hundred thousand dollars is a small price to pay for the chance to wreak havoc among Democrats -- and who knows where the money really comes from. Sharpton, who thinks he's a player, played right into Stone's hands. Now he can be broken at will.
Words on paper do not convey Sharpton's physical demeanor. He seemed struck, wounded, desperate for space to breath and bellow, as if the "Jacksons" had cornered him or - worse - cut him adrift. "Any so-called African American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice." Sharpton had never used such language against any of his fellow performers on the Democratic Presidential road show. Clearly, this was not about Dean at all.
Bush's Mega-crimes, Al's Misdemeanors
Every story such as this one, in which small men on transient stages act out petty passions, must be framed by a larger perspective. The overarching corruption in America is centered in the White House, where a racist cabal of pirates and thieves prepares to swamp the coming election in fantastic, unprecedented waves of money. At this writing, George Bush has $91 million dollars in the bank. According to Charles Lewis, author of "The Buying of the President," Bush's presidential campaign account swells at the rate of $600,000 per day.
In puny contrast, Al Sharpton finds himself -- through his own moral and character flaws -- the poor captive of Roger Stone, a rich, cynical, misanthrope who pummels democracy for sport. It is a great irony that the electoral process that Sharpton did so much to enrich, in which his formidable presence deterred white Democrats from reverting to racist type, has resulted in more palatable choices for black voters, but negligible delegate clout for himself.
We must ask why Al Sharpton emerged as a contender for national black leadership via the presidential primaries. The answer is simple, and should be deeply troubling: He was the only one to step forward. Such was also the case in the decades of Sharpton's rise to prominence in New York. When police brutalized African Americans, Al Sharpton was there. When demonstrations needed to be mounted, Sharpton was on point. When black anger rose, Sharpton rose to the occasion -- year, after year, after year.
Whites of all political persuasions denounced Sharpton as an opportunist and publicity seeker -- as if they were telling black folks something we didn't know. But we desperately needed publicity, and an opportunity to be heard. Rev. Al seized the spotlight and shook things up, which was a lot better than nothing.
Somebody black had to do it.
So, who's stepping forward, now?
The character of much of what passes for debate in the United States signals that the nation has become the moral equivalent of Tobacco Road, a backwater of civilization.
Humankind has traveled a long journey since the time when some folks walked out of Africa, and others decided to stay. Yet at the American center of the Earth's material wealth and military power, human progress has been short-circuited -- smothered -- by a ruling group bent on dragging the rest of the species toward a social and moral dead end.
This hyper-aggressive group maintains an iron grip on both the mechanisms and the terms of civil discussion, retarding the rest of the citizenry's ability to think and speak like other humans privileged to live in the developed countries. American political conversation is becoming nonsensical, divorced from the very purposes of life.
Measured by the most minimal standards of the modern, industrial world, only two of 10 Democratic candidates for President passed civilized muster at a recent debate in New York City: Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton. The rest of the field, to varying degrees, fail to even comprehend modern assumptions of what it is to be human, living among other humans.
The civilizational divide
Why do we work? What is the purpose of industry and commerce? Do other peoples have rights that stronger nations are bound to respect? Only Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton appear prepared to take part in the evolving global discussion on the central issues facing humanity, Americans included. Other nations have begun fashioning answers to these questions, to the moral, material and physical betterment of their inhabitants. They are reaping the benefits of a long and sometimes bloody debate over humans' obligations to one another, and the proper uses of wealth and power.
In the U.S., Sharpton and Kucinich must shout to even broach these subjects. Kucinich is labeled a kook when he argues for "health care for people, not for profit" -- although this is the premise on which all the other wealthy societies begin their discussions of health matters. Rev. Sharpton's platform calls for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing quality health care as a right, and seeks universal, single-payer coverage in the interim. "I would rather have no bill and fight for something real," he said.
The mind-shrinking corporate media snicker and sneer, focusing instead on the other candidates' partial schemes based on the concept of "affordability" -- barbaric constructions in which the lives of fellow citizens are endlessly devalued. (Candidate Carol Moseley-Braun favors single-payer national health care, but reveals her barbaric side in other matters -- casting doubt on the moral grounding of all her positions, as becomes clear, below.)
The "top tier" is oblivious to the obscenity of their Social Security retirement age debate. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is in trouble for having once suggested that the age be raised to 70, to ensure the continued "solvency" of the system. However, Dean's sin is worse than the rest of the media-favored pack only in degree -- they all discuss Social Security retirement in insurance company actuarial terms, morbid calculations that fail entirely to address the basic questions: why are people expected to work hard for much of their lives, and what is the value of life after one's time in the workforce is over? These are the logical, natural and civilized questions with which societies grapple once there is enough wealth to provide acceptable standards of food, clothing, education and shelter for all. It is at this point that human populations can envision the larger possibilities of existence, as individuals, as nations, and as a species.
Western Europeans treat time not spent on the job very seriously -- and have arranged a social contract that finds many of them in the Caribbean for long stretches of the summer. They debate ways to implement national goals for progressively shorter work weeks and earlier retirement ages, so that the collective nation can enjoy its wealth and become -- more interesting! The United States is even richer than Western Europe, but the debate over Social Security is confined to formulas that leave concentrated wealth untouched. In this sense, U.S. Social security is not a "national" program at all, since the futures of citizens who have outlived their usefulness to employers is not financed as if it were a key component of the common, national mission. Longer life spans, the greatest benefit that society can convey to its members -- and the reason humans band together to create societies -- becomes a "problem," or so it is treated by the leading voices of the two American mass political parties.
Dennis Kucinich promises to restore the retirement age to 65. He is, at least, peeking through the window at civilization.
Americans have been trained to cheer when the stock market goes up. They don't know why. Nowadays, the closing bell on Wall Street is likely to be tolling for their jobs. No matter -- the Pavlovian conditioning is general: up is good. "Trade" has also become a positive mantra to be chanted rather than debated, even when what is being traded away is millions of jobs and the industrial capacity of the nation. None of the top tier Democrats can find the words to directly address the vast dislocations and suffering that other, corporate Americans are inflicting on their fellow citizens and the world. Better to bash China, instead.
Kucinich is made to seem hallucinatory, when he points out that U.S. government policy is facilitating the impoverishment of America. "We need to cancel NAFTA, cancel the WTO, which makes any changes in NAFTA...illegal." But even "staunchly" pro-union Rep. Dick Gephardt cannot bring himself to "challenge the underlying structure of our trade," as Kucinich puts it. Dean and Kerry make just enough noises about workers' rights and such to convince wishful thinkers that they are really listening.
Rev. Sharpton also opposes NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. "I disagreed with NAFTA when Clinton was in, and I think that we have come to see that that disagreement was correct," said Sharpton, following up on Kucinich's broadside. "I think that we cannot have trade policy that overlooks labor, overlooks workers' rights, overlooks environmental concerns. We can't act like just because something is trade, that also that makes it right. African-Americans are here on a bad trade policy."
Now that's breaking it down in civilized language. The slave trade was fantastically lucrative, a centuries-long commerce that shaped every society in the Americas south of Canada and allowed Europe to assume its unnatural position of dominance in the world. "I'm here on a bad trade policy," said Rev. Al. "So just because it's trade, doesn't mean that it is good and it is something that we should support."
The largely conservative audience and the Wall Street Journal and CNBC hosts got a good laugh out of that one. No doubt they considered Rev. Sharpton's remarks gritty and homespun, a kind of comic relief. In fact, he is by far their superior in both intelligence and civilization.
Trade in what, and on what terms? Business and commerce for whose benefit? These are the burning questions, the stuff of national and global debate -- except in the United States, where substantive discussion is confined to the bottom tier of the out-of-power party. (Were conservative Democrats in power, as in the Clinton years, we would likely hear even fewer challenges to "underlying structures.")
'No choice' candidates
Wars, and war profiteers, require money. No funding, no war. Occupations can be even more expensive. The entire cast of characters running for the Democratic nomination -- including Lieberman -- now claims to be opposed in some fashion to Bush's Iraq policy. But only two propose that Bush's policy be de-funded.
Howard Dean: "...even though I did not support the war in the beginning, I think we have to support our troops."
Joe Lieberman: "...we have no choice."
Bob Graham: "...whatever is required for the troops in Iraq."
John Edwards: "I will vote for, what's necessary to support the troops."
"We have no choice" is also the Kerry and Clark position. Thus, the entire top tier sees no alternative to funding a policy that they so loudly oppose. They denounce the madness -- and then hand the madman a check.
Kucinich: "I will not vote for the $87 billion... I say bring the troops home unequivocally."
Sharpton: "I would unequivocally vote no... Real patriots don't put troops in harm's way."
It is eminently logical to withhold funding from adventures that one opposes. In a sane society, Kucinich and Sharpton would be thought neither courageous nor kooky for following the logic of their stated positions. However, voices of reason and logic are forced to the margins of American discourse.
Possibly hoping to somehow escape from marginality, Carol Mosley-Braun revealed that in the final analysis she, too, is a creature of barbarism. Moseley-Braun has opposed the war for nearly as long and as fervently as Kucinich and Sharpton but, like Lot's wife, at the critical moment she looks back -- and is lost.
Braun: "...it is absolutely, I think, critical that we not cut and run..." In the end, the former U.S. Senator cannot escape the imperatives of Manifest Destiny. By her moral compass, demonstrations of U.S. resolve are more important than other people's national sovereignty. The black woman from Chicago cannot imagine that she is talking like a barbarian, that such patterns of thought are the principal threats to the survival of the human race -- in short, that she is warring against civilization.
Seconds later, Moseley-Braun waged war against English as a coherent language: "...it's going to be important for us to come up with the money to make certain that our young men and women and our reputation as leaders in the world is not permanently destroyed by the folly of preemptive war." It's not so much Moseley-Braun's fault that this sentence makes no sense. The logic of barbarism does not mesh with the realities of an inter-dependent globe. It becomes difficult to communicate in civilized company -- the essence of George Bush's problem at the UN, last month.
Americans think they are guardians of civilization. In reality, they don't even live there. The proof is plain for all to see in the statistics on wealth and public service disparities, infant mortality rates and, most damning, incarceration levels that certify the U.S. as the world's gulag (25 percent of the planet's prisoners). This is barbarism writ large, since these conditions exist as the direct result of public policy, rather than as a consequence of general deprivation or factors external to the nation.
The U.S. evolved as a nation without a real "social contract" -- merely an agreement that white males could pursue riches without too much interference from the state. The contract for Indians and blacks took the form of bounties for scalps and bills of sale for slaves. Now a relatively small elite composed of a few million millionaire households, and led by piratical corporate politicians, have seized the state. The people -- the whole people -- face a multitude of disasters, and desperately need to forge the beginnings of a real social contract, but they have few national historical references to draw upon. The dramatic exception is black America, which has been compelled by history to value justice above all else.
Sharpton and Kucinich bring social justice to the national political conversation, for which they deserve our deepest gratitude. The black activist preacher and the white leftist congressman speak to civilized values, without which the United States will become a failed nation. At a pace that corporate media cannot comprehend and, therefore, cannot convey, the world recoils from the backward model that the U.S. presents in domestic as well as foreign policy. There is nothing surer than that the U.S. will in coming years be shrunk to normal size in the community of nations. When that day arrives, Americans will only prosper if they have learned to speak to a world of equals, in civilized language.