Saturday, July 25, 2009

News of the Day

by Norman Markowitz

I haven't been writing too much recently for our blog because I have been very busy with a variety of personal and political things, including teaching two summer courses, fighting against an administration which is seeking to use the economic crisis to tear up our contract, and dealing with the loss of a good friend and longtime colleague at Rutgers.

But a story today has to be commented on and from a Marxist perspective, a perspective that understands what fascism is, rather than seeing it as a bunch of storm troopers marching around with swastikas on their arms, listening to a grotesque little man shouting at them to hate and kill various foreign and domestic "enemies of the German race."

The story is that in 2002 the Bush administration "debated" sending the U.S. army into the suburbs of Buffalo to seize a group of suspected terrorists. Let me say that the issue here was not so clearly the individuals involved who were later arrested and held as "enemy combatants." The FBI and various other police agencies at all levels had the personnel to arrest these people, but the issue was really as I see it an important symbolic one.

Sending the U.S. army in to apprehend individuals engaged in a conspiracy was unprecedented in U.S. history, although the military (most often though the national guard) had been used to break strikes and deal with rioting throughout U.S. history. Cheney according to the press argued for the use of the army and specifically that the President had the power to do so, in effect that the president had the power to suspend the constitution without consultation of Congress.

Military forces coming into towns and cities is martial law. Martial law is the foundation of dictator hip, whether it was the "enabling act" of the German Reichstag that Hitler used in 1933 to suspend the Weimar Constitution, or the present military backed ruling circles in Honduras ousting of President Zelaya, in which military suppression of protests has already claimed lives.

Sending in the army would have also intensified the fears of terrorist attacks which the administration was using and developing to achieve its political ends at the time and also the fears of citizens to challenge such policies. It would have set a precedent that could have been expanded greatly in subsequent actions to subdue anti-Iraq war protests and wound the Bill of Rights more deeply than at any time since the domestic cold war repressions aka McCarthyism.

That Bush decided against the actions should not be the source of either great relief or praise for him. I suspect that even in the political atmosphere of 2002 his decision made more out of fear of opposition across the political spectrum than anything else. Bush's subsequent acts in terms of surveillance of U.S. citizens without warrants and preventive detentions in violation of both the Bill of Rights and the Geneva convention show that his view of civil liberties and the rule of law as it has been understood in the U.S. wasn't really different than Cheney's, even if he stopped short at a high profile use of the regular army in an American city, Buffalo, to both spread fear in all sections of the population and rally the kind of people who did march around with Swastikas on their arms in Germany in the 1930s to destroy foreign and domestic enemies.

Another story that the mass media is running with (much more so than this one, which is a blip) is the incident concerning Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr,of Harvard, who was arrested and handcuffed by Cambridge police for arguing with them when they, in response to a call, confronted him at his own home where he was trying to get in after returning from China. President Obama initially referred to the act as "stupid" and today issued a statement apparently attempting to defuse the situation by referring to the police officer quite positively in regard to his background and his following proper police procedure (what I interpret as an apology to a police officer who has made it clear that he will not apologize to Professor Gates).

Let me say first of all that I don't know what happened in the event and there are important discrepancies in the stories. Professor Gates claims that he showed the officer his Harvard ID and his drivers license. The officer claims that he didn't show him his driver's license with his address on it. Professor Gates claims that the officer asked him to provide further proof that he was a Harvard Professor after showing his ID (my Rutgers ID has my picture and most university and other IDs that I know of do have pictures, whereas many older drivers licenses don't).

But there are a wide variety of issues involved here which mass media taking the line that this is a "misunderstanding" with levels of "complicity" is not addressing, much less attempting to clarify. First, what clearly is "proper police procedure" in an event like this. Can we look at similar cases in which police have been called to the home of a white person trying to get into his home after being locked out (these things happen much more than one thinks and they have happened to me but the police were not called and I wonder how many times the police would be called into what is probably an affluent neighborhood --Gates neighborhood, not mine, which is hardly affluent--to a white person seeking to get into his home and what their actions were under those circumstances).

Individual policemen differ greatly in their response to citizens they stop--many are courteous, some are brusque and even threatening in my personal experience: some are helpful, others unreasonable. I have also seen police in court lie about specific events, where they were and what they said, to defend their conduct and be routinely backed up by judges and prosecutors, especially against people who are not represented by counsel. The lack of consistency, as in many other things, characterizes police in the U.S.

I am not here to attack the police who after all are fellow public employees facing the same kind of attack on their unions and living standards as I am, but I am saying that throwing around words like "proper police procedure" without investigating what those words actually mean and starting with the premise that the police are doing their job properly and that citizen protests are either malicious or, in this case, the "over-sensitivity" of African-Americans should not be acceptable in a democracy.

As for Gates himself, he is what I would call a high liberal establishment scholar whose work does not compare in my opinion with Manning Marable or Gerald Horne or my former colleague David Levering Lewis in its use value for understanding the role of and struggles against ideological and institutional racism in U.S. history. But ideological and institutional racism (the former the superstructure, the latter the base) are constantly changing, restructuring, and it is rarely either or. The question that media should be asking is this: is Gates the victim of what ideological and institutional racism is today. And, if an event like this can happen to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and be buried, what does this mean for millions of African American and other minority people, manual and professional workers and employees, who are not affluent and famous?