Thursday, December 31, 2009

Taking a Moment to Reflect

As the old year slips away and the new one slides into place, let's consider this painting by Goya and this line attributed to Rebecca Adamson:

"If we don't change direction, we're going to end up where we're headed."
Nuff said?


Monday, December 21, 2009


"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."

-James Baldwin

I got an email this week that moved me greatly, encouraging me to keep doing what I'm doing on this blog. At the bottom of the email was the quote above. No matter what skin we're in, our culture has socialized us to don masks. They are necessary, we are told. They will protect us from each other, we are counseled. But these are lies, just as the masks are lies, as well.

I wonder what would happen if we could remove our masks at once, if we were stripped naked of all we hide behind. It would be, yes, beyond scary for a minute. But we would see each other and ourselves as we are. And then, finally, we would know peace.
The graphic above is by Laurie Cooper and is available here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ronald Darensburg, R.I.P.

I've pretty much accepted that some White people call me a "race traitor." I don't hear it as often as I hear "she hates White people" or "hates her race" or even "hates herself." But I know the term is out there. And if anybody fits the profile, I guess it's me. It's not hard to cross racist versions of that line once you really get it.

I'm not proud of this. I mean, I'm not a smart aleck. I tell auditorium classrooms full of students that I don't hate myself or my skin or anybody else or their skin either, but White superiority is a lie and White supremacy is fascist bullshit. With or without anything I say or write.

Every once in a while, though, I know I'm about to take most White folks and even some African-Americans to the next level, if I can. And that's what I'm doing today.

Last Wednesday night about 7:30 p.m., two young Black men alledgedly robbed a McDonald's fast food store about thirty miles south of where I live. Not a remarkable occurrance given the fact that young African-American males have been summarily shut out of the job market and not just recently, either. The young Black man who tipped me to the story I'm writing about here the morning after it unfolded, while initially coming across as out of place at the university, adeptly quoted statistics about the odds for him and his brothers as soon as he decided it wouldn't piss me off. They know how it works. And growing up with this knowledge must really take a toll over time.

When I stand up in front of a classroom where a third of the students are young people of color and I say, "According to the U.S. Department of Justice, African-American males born in 2001 have a 1 in 3 likelihood of going to prison," I wince inside. I say it like I'm just rolling off some piece of theoretical information, but I can feel the recoil inside me as I say it, like a pistol shooting into the soft flesh of ethereal bodies arrayed before me. And I hate my job at that moment because I choose to tell the truth no matter what the consequences.

How must it feel to be a young Black man and know that all the odds are stacked against you? You might survive. You might get lucky. You might be one of the two-thirds that doesn't go to prison. You might get a college degree and a good job and a hot car and a beautiful wife. And then you might have sons who make it, too. But...

It's always out there. The Boogey Man of White Supremacy. He rocks Black male babies to sleep at night and slips them the milk of internalized oppression, undermining their faith in life and their belief in themselves and their hope for any future -- no matter how hard their guardians try to protect them. And they grow weaker and more depressed and sometimes more belligerent on that milk. And if Henry Louis Gates can get busted, then what protection is there for a poverty-stricken young Black man in the inner city (or for any young Black man anywhere in the U.S., for that matter)?

When I think about the long, dark road that life in this country has been for people of color and most particularly African-Americans, I stand before the Universe ashamed that I haven't done more than I have. And when I hear that Ronald Darensburg, a young man just barely turned twenty, who was a student at my school until last Wednesday night stuck up a fast food joint at gunpoint and then died in a car wreck trying to flee the police, my heart breaks.

Yes, he could have made different choices. After all, lots of people suffer all over the world without ever robbing anyone. But why is it that we demand as a society that no matter how attacked their psyches are on a daily basis from birth, young Black men must never demonstrate any response to it? While we're busy wanting to hold them responsible for their decisions, when are we going to consider -- at the very least -- the responsibility, as well, of people in a society that hangs these young men out to dry, no matter how hard their families try to come between them and the pain they drown in?

I've been thinking this week that maybe I should have some small cards printed to hand out when I run into White people who ignore what they secretly know and sanctimoniously judge African-Americans, while preening in what they perceive as their White superiority. You know the type. Like the ones commenting on the article about the robbery and the subsequent deaths of two young men and the nightmare of mothers and families who will grieve every Christmas for the rest of their lives. The cards will read simply: "May you be born Black next time."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Change, huh? Say Goodnight, Gracie.

Since hearing that Obama has decided to send an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, I've been thinking about what I could do to express my disappointment. Then, a few minutes ago, I visited a blog I'm partial to and found that Professor Zero had put up a letter to the President this afternoon. Her letter inspired me to come back to Why Am I Not Surprised? and delete fifteen posts published between January, 2008, and January, 2009, focusing on Barack Obama's campaign and election.

I work hard at my posts. They take me hours to write and I often re-write them for days. For me to throw them in a trash heap is the strongest statement I can make. Shame on you, sir. This is not a change. And why am I not surprised?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Remembering a Prince and the Ones Who Took Him From Us

When Lawrence Hill Books sent me a copy of The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas, I was excited to receive it, but wondered how in the world I was going to find the time to read it in a timely manner at the end of a semester. The book came out, after all, the first of November and technically, this review should have appeared weeks ago. But I didn't finish reading it until last Sunday night and, though it's perfectly kosher to write the review before you finish the book, I couldn't bring myself to do it. The memory of Fred Hampton, a revolutionary Black Panther leader who was brutally cut down even as his star ascended, deserves better. Jeffrey Haas, a European-American civil rights lawyer who cut his legal teeth representing Black Panthers and ultimately helped to win $1.85 million for the survivors of the infamous police raid in Chicago that killed two young Black leaders, deserves better, as well. And anyway, I didn't want to jump ahead to find out how it ended. I wanted to savor every word. It's that kind of book.

I dropped out of mainstream society myself in the spring of 1970, just a few months after a Chicago police officer put two 38-caliber slugs in the top of Fred Hampton's head, while he lay helpless to move because he'd been drugged by an FBI Cointelpro informant who had infiltrated the Party and gotten close enough to Fred to set the whole thing up. I didn't hear about the murder, even though I first hit the road, as it were, in northern Illinois, just a few hours from the apartment where Hampton took his last breath. And the next few years of my life were dedicated to the prison abolition movement, so one would think that I would have tuned in to the Panthers at some point. I certainly had opportunities. But I didn't.

Still, as I read, mesmerized, through Haas' account of just how ruthless Those-Who-Have-The-Power-To-Define can be in resisting any possibility of having that power compromised, I couldn't help putting myself in the context of the story. A good author will make you go there and Haas can be very proud of the volume he has produced. Because I've been so long invested in prisoner struggles, I understood many nuances I am seldom caused to recall. So I'll admit that I may not be a good judge of this work. I may, quite frankly, rave too much about it for my judgment to be taken seriously.

The fact is that it reads like a John Grisham best seller, only better, because the reader knows that every word is true and therefore riveting. It was, for me, a stroll down memory lane in many respects, giving me informational details about things I should have been more aware of when they were happening had I not been so involved in the struggle elsewhere. But it's such a good read that even if you never dropped out or you're much too young to remember the sixties first hand, you may enter this book only curious, but you'll leave at the end transformed.

I've written about Fred Hampton before here and here, if you'd like some background. And Hans Bennett's state-of-the-art review of this book is already all over the internet, including at Toward Freedom, where it appeared first. So I'm free to just write the things I most want to tell you about Haas, the assassination of Fred Hampton, and this meticulously researched and, I think, crucially important book. Why do I think it's crucially important? Because of the story it tells, for one thing, which absolutely must be remembered to mark Hampton's place in history. But also because we are entering a time in this society, I fear, wherein what happened to him and the way it was carried out and covered up -- as horrible as it was -- will become a more common occurance. And we better recanize.

"In the thirty-five years I practiced civil rights law in Chicago," writes Haas, "I don't recall the police ever finding any on-duty police killing anything but justifiable."

This reality is hardly restricted to Chicago or to any particular time period in U.S. history. And what with the use of Tasers (which we must assume are highly unstable, since they seem to kill with such regularity), we're becoming increasingly numbed to such news. But Haas reminds us that the Panthers were the first to name the police "garrison forces," "licensed thugs who served as an occupying army in [the Black] community." Even though the Afro-American Patrolman's League (the Black police union in the Windy City) declared unequivocally that Hampton had been murdered, the police officers who raided the apartment where nine Panther Party members lay sleeping at 4:30 a.m. on December 4th, 1969, prepared sworn complaints that every one of the sleepers had fired at them, though it was rapidly ascertained that while there were more than 90 bullet holes going into the apartment, there was exactly one going outward. (Lawyers, I learned in Haas' book, say "res ipse loquitur," which means "things speak for themselves.")

The NAACP Commission of Inquiry's book-length report on the incident, entitled Search and Destroy (after the military missions in Vietnam to locate and kill Vietcong) reached four conclusions about the raid:

1) that the police fired all but one shot;

2) that the first two shots belonged to Officer George Jones and Sergeant Daniel Groth, with the third shot coming from a shotgun held by Black Panther Mark Clark, as he fell to the floor mortally wounded;

3) that Fred Hampton was killed in cold blood by an officer or officers who could see him lying prostrate on the bed when they committed the murder at close range; and

4) that Hampton -- who did not himself use drugs recreationally -- was more than likely drugged at the time, since an independent autopsy found the drug in his system and since his pregnant fiance and others were unable to waken him during the melee, if the melee itself would not have been enough to do so.

Nevertheless, no grand jury indictments resulted whatsoever for any crime at all by the law "enforcement" personnel, though what they conducted was a "summary execution," on the spot without trial or due process. And for thirteen long, grueling (and poverty-stricken for the Panther lawyers) years, the civil suit resulted in a panorama of highly successful courtroom and legal antics calculated to frustrate the efforts of Haas and the others who were trying to establish some modicum of justice related to the nightmare.

The cast of characters in this monumental drama reads like an over-populated conspiracy theory movie or an Elmore Leonard novel: there's a Black cop nicknamed for the leather gloves he wore when he brutally beat Black youth; a U.S. district court judge who served as a mouthpiece for the FBI; a Black street punk and agent provocateur who gave the FBI a detailed floor plan of the apartment to be raided, slipped Hampton Seconal in a drink so he'd be easier to kill, and then begged, sobbing, to help carry the casket; a lawyer who headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division while also leading the grand jury investigation of the raid and a secret intelligence unit charged with gathering information on Black militants and passing it on to law enforcement bodies; probably the hands-down dirtiest District Attorney that ever graced a corrupted court of law; and a presiding judge over all this madness only a couple of notches more rational than the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Wonderland.

One has only to look at the photo taken of the killers as they hauled Fred's bloody body out of the building to understand why the Panthers called these men "pigs." "Pigs," you see, was the Panther terminology for, as Hampton put it, "police officers who have no regard for the constitutional rights of individuals." And the Panthers, by their own rules, according to Haas, only had the right to kill "pigs" when the "pigs" attacked first. But by the looks of this photo, the "officers" had no such rules.

The bottom line turned out to be that J. Edgar Hoover's Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), subsequently ruled unconstitutional itself, had issued orders to the heads of all FBI field offices, to come up with "hard hitting programs" to "disrupt, expose, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the Panthers and "prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement." The charismatic and highly principled young Fred Hampton, who started his career as an activist by refusing to register for the draft at 18 and demonstrating for more qualified police officers in the suburb of Chicago where he grew up before going on to recruit more than 500 young people to the NAACP youth chapter there almost over night, was just the type of organizer and motivator Hoover was pressing his forces to "neutralize."

Still, Haas quotes film-maker Mike Gray who wrote:

"Fred Hampton was fearless. Literally, without fear. And as we listened to the speeches again and again, it became apparent he had accommodated death. He knew he was going to die. It was OK. And so he had set aside the ultimate fear, the one that stopped all of us in our tracks, no matter how courageous, the net fear upon which we base all our other fears, the one that keeps us all in line. Hampton had simply set that fear to rest. He was free. Thus he was able to speak clean simple truths that hit you like a thunderbolt."

After the raid, with Fred Hampton (at 21) and Mark Clark (even younger than Fred) buried, Haas writes:

"Part of me wanted to gather evidence to help the survivors win their criminal trials [for supposedly attempting to kill the police who were actually doing all the shooting] and, if possible, prove through the courts that Fred was intentionally killed. The other side of me believed Fred's murder proved the legal system didn't work. What good did it do to have lawyers and courts and a constitution and legal precedent if the police under the direction and control of the prosecutor could murder you in your bed?"

Of his own evolution through his connection to the Panthers, Haas shares:

"Like much of the rest of the world, we had come to believe radical, indeed revolutionary change was necessary...We felt empowered; we could make history. Only a lack of will or courage could stop us...Today I realize our revolutionary vision did not take into full account the strength of the forces against us. No strategy would have succeeded."

Still, he maintains, "Like others who heard Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton speak in the 1960's, I learned that fighting injustice and inequality is the struggle of our lives, and perserverance in this struggle is what makes our lives valuable...[The People's Law Office] has stood up to confront and expose government illegality and atrocities for forty years. The inspiration for us, like for many others, came from...anticolonial struggles, from the black struggles for equality and power of the sixties, and from women's challenge to patriarchy...It is the light, energy and fervor of those times, so well articulated and symbolized by the short but inspiring life of Fred Hampton, that has driven our lives and commanded us to pursue justice."

I think Fred Hampton would be pleased.

To view a report on today, the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton and an interview with author Jeffrey Haas, visit Democracy Now.