Category Archives: U.S. Protest Movements
“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television” Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”. The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO. The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.
Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States. President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.” The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.
The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present. The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective. “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer. In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment. “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings. What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.
In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil. The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862. Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.
This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege. Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history. Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power. An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.
There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S. “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated. “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone. In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place. “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”
Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition. In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed. Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries. An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”. While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.
Amazon employees are joining internationally to oppose the mega corporation’s squeezing of its workers for huge gains in profits and stock price. While the loss of the Alabama vote to form a union disappointed, the company is facing a swelling tide of indignation over the heartless treatment of its workers. One of them who helped lead the organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse pointed to the international impact of their movement. 58 year old Perry Connelly told In These Times that the organizing team realized that if a union could be formed in the most anti-union region of the U.S. “we’ll be making a huge difference not only in Alabama, but globally”.
Coinciding with the end of voting in Alabama, workers went on strike at six Amazon warehouses in Germany on the Monday of Easter week. The German strike was planned with the traditional Easter buying surge as well as the customary Polish workers’ holiday in mind. This prevented the company from relying on its Polish Amazon warehouses to fill the season’s orders. A worker at one of the German Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the company’s term for its warehouses, led in organizing Amazon Workers International (AWI) that has enlisted workers at 175 Amazon facilities worldwide.
Another German Amazon worker described coordinated international strikes as Amazon’s “biggest fear”. He went on to summarize the importance of the Alabama struggle to form a union, “If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” he said and further emphasized, “If one fulfilment center falls, everything will go.” His assessment is supported by the magnitude and variety of Amazon tactics to defeat the union in Alabama.
The company initially counted 1500 workers as the warehouse labor force but at the National Labor Relations Board hearing two months later (after the U.S. presidential election) submitted 5,800 as the total. The union organizers had no trouble garnering the threshold of 30% of the work force’s signatures to hold the election, but they could not counter the intimidation tactics that led many card-signing workers to vote no.
The company had Bessemer change the location of traffic lights to force organizers to contact workers directly in front of the warehouse entrance. A postal service mailbox was installed in the facility parking lot and employees were encouraged to use it for their election ballots. Outspoken union supporters were removed from and/or not allowed in the mandatory anti-union one hour “training sessions” the company repeatedly held in the pre-election period. A few days after its defeat, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Not included in the list of charges is the fact that Amazon hired a consultant with the Center for Independent Employees to advise on how to defeat the union. The Center receives substantial funding from the ultra-conservative billionaire Charles Koch and its President also heads RWP Labor which declares its mission is to maintain union-free workplaces across the U.S.
Amazon’s intimidation of individual employees and threats to cut pay and benefits, if not close the warehouse, are standard tactics in U.S. companies’ response to union organizing. Widespread media coverage of the Alabama vote along with support by the Biden administration have helped call attention to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass the House bill to Protect the Right to Organize or PRO Act. Nearly all the anti-union practices deployed by Amazon during the Bessemer campaign would be illegal under the PRO legislation.
In his summary of how U.S. labor law currently favors companies in their defeat of union organizing one union official drew a comparison. “Imagine the 2020 elections but only [former President Donald] Trump was allowed to talk to voters” Ryan Kekeris told journalist Rebekah Entralgo. “Biden had to stay in Canada and shout over the border, and Trump and his supporters had unfettered access to corral U.S. voters into a room, forbid you from leaving, and tell you that you had to vote for Trump,” Kekeris continued. He concluded by noting, “Now imagine that under the eyes of the law this is considered completely fair and legal. That is how U.S. labor law works right now.”
Senate passage of the PRO Act appears unlikely but the U.S. Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may well call for another vote in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse. And the Alabama workers’ dramatic and bold example has fired organizing at warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California. Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign stated following the announcement of the defeat in Alabama, “This is just the first round.” He emphasized that “Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote”. The North Carolina-based leader praised the Alabama workers as having “set a fresh trend in the South”.
Likely to be of even greater concern to Amazon in the long run is the progress made among labor organizers in creating ties with workers in the U.S. and internationally. There are currently an estimated 1,538 Amazon facilities in the world: 290 in Europe, 294 in India and 887 in North America. When workers went on strike at 15 of the company’s warehouses in Italy, some carried banners that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama – One Big Union”. A Dutch Amazon worker involved in the international organization Make Amazon Pay told The Intercept last year, “Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition”. Concluding his case for support of its work force uniting across borders, he noted, “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”
On this Good Friday in the U.S. we await the result of the most significant union organizing drive in decades. Workers in Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse have voted this month on creating the first collective bargaining unit in one of this country’s multiple Amazon “fulfillment centers”. A yes vote will mean the 6,000 Bessemer warehouse workers will negotiate on their wages, benefits and working conditions that now are determined solely by the corporation’s management and board with the aim of maximizing profits and the price of company stock.
With growth of the global economy in the late sixties and early seventies, the number and strength of union organized workers has fallen dramatically in the U.S. As manufacturing jobs in “heavy industries” like steel and automobile have grown overseas, they have been replaced by jobs in the retail sales, restaurants and fast food, transport and warehouses of the “service sector”. Global trade distributes products to consumers around the world products made outside their country’s borders. This applies as well to purchases made by U.S. manufacturing companies for assembly of their products.
The largest retail sales company in the U.S. and the world today did not exist before 1962. Wal Mart was founded and has grown on a business plan wholly dependent on the global economy and lower costs for labor. Advances in shipping and air transport permitted the company to rely on importing products made at much lower wages, from China in particular, and selling them in sprawling stores at prices below the competition. Low wage labor overseas was complemented by steadfast, and often fierce, opposition to unions being formed by their U.S. workers. The result is a dependence by many Wal Mart workers on meager U.S. government programs of food stamps, health care, and housing.
Little progress in union organizing has been made in the past five decades among the U.S. service industries’ workers. Prevailing anti-union media references, the dwindling power and funding of union organizing and state and federal governments’ failure to defend the right to organize have militated against the organizing of service sector workers. The “neo-liberal” economic policies proposed by politicians of both parties, ex-President Clinton being the leading example among Democrats, have left workers with little support from those in power.
Among President Biden’s programs and positions representing reform of U.S. capitalism the most significant among them could be the administration’s outspoken support for unions and organized labor. A former union leader has been named to the Cabinet position of Secretary of Labor for the first time in fifty years. More vigilant oversight of company malpractice in opposing organizing and the holding of elections is promised. And President Biden himself has urged Amazon workers to vote yes on a union at the Alabama warehouse. These gestures could signal growing recognition of the role of organized labor in creating a stronger economy and healthier social climate in this country.
The organizing campaign among the Alabama Amazon workers has been aided by an international effort to “Make Amazon Pay” higher taxes in all countries where the company operates and by Amazon’s shoddy treatment of its workers during the pandemic. At the outset its white collar staff were told to work from home while the warehouse workers were offered unlimited unpaid leave. As consumer orders immediately increased in March 2020, the company raised the hourly wage $2 an hour and doubled overtime pay to further motivate workers. For workers proving a positive COVID test result for themselves or a family member, two weeks of paid leave was offered.
Once Amazon had hired more workers for its 500 U.S. warehouses, the unpaid unlimited sick leave was rescinded in May 2020 and the wage increases revoked the next month. By July the total shareholder value of Amazon had increased $500 million to $1.4 trillion confirming founder Jeff Bezos’ status as the richest person in the world. Company growth did not lead to favorable responses by unionized workers in the European countries where Amazon operates and the workers in Germany announced a strike prior to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Amazon then trumpeted the awarding of Thanksgiving worker bonuses amounting to $300 for full time workers and $150 for its part-time workers.
The Amazon worker bonuses received an unanticipated reaction from the global coalition which organized Black Friday protests in 15 countries. UNI Global Union, Amazon Workers International and other participating groups in a statement noted Bezos could give $105,000 bonuses to every Amazon employee and not have lost in net wealth during the spread of the COVID virus. The coalition statement on Black Friday last year faulted the company’s impact on the environment asserting that its “growing delivery and cloud computing businesses are accelerating climate breakdown”. Amazon’s “carbon footprint” is “larger than two thirds of all countries in the world” the multiple coalition groups, including OXFAM, the Sunrise Movement and Public Citizen, stated. A coalition leader, Global Union’s Christy Hoffman, responded to the Thanksgiving worker bonuses, “To show it values its workforce, Amazon should collectively bargain wages and conditions with workers throughout its operations, rather than make one time unilateral gestures”.
Unlike the U.S. employees, Amazon workers in most of the countries where Black Friday protests took place have been able to organize unions to negotiate with the company and/or appeal to the courts to address their needs. Activist workers in this country are vulnerable to being fired with no defense by a union. Support for Amazon organizing from the Biden administration could also foretell increased pressure to pay higher taxes in this country. Tax avoidance through the use of profit shifting, tax havens and loopholes enabled the company to pay just under 2 per cent of its profits in 2019 tax reporting and no taxes in the previous two years. In the country where it was founded and still has its headquarters, Amazon pays little to nothing to uphold the public infrastructure and the “common good”.
There is now growing recognition in this country that major corporations devote little attention, let alone concern, to the “common good” or the well being of their rank and file workers. Executive compensation and performance of the company stock are given priority through their public relations campaigns, tax dodges, hire of anti-union consultants and dismissal of workers with complaints. The grotesque preoccupation with profit taking by executives and company boards dehumanizes all participants in an economy which threatens world survival. On this Good Friday, the U.S. worker hangs on a cross of corporate greed. There is more at stake in the Amazon worker vote than just forming a union in one “fulfillment center”, as the company calls its warehouses. Amazon’s fear is justified that a worker victory in Alabama will lead to organizing campaigns among its warehouse employees nationwide. We can only hope that is the outcome.
The winter solstice of 2020 also brought the “Great Conjunction” of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. The event was hailed by many as the return of the “Star of Bethlehem” which guided the magi to the manger cradle of the baby Jesus. Although that designation remains conjecture, there is no disputing that 2020 was an extraordinary year in the life of our world.
As we begin 2021 with vaccines, the eagerness to return to “normal” is tempered by what we have learned during the past year. The failures of the U.S. in protecting and treating its citizenry during the pandemic and yet more graphic evidence of the nation’s devaluing of its black residents and persons of color in general cry out for change. It is as though the guardians of our hyper individualistic political and economic order must in 2021 ponder the needs of the disadvantaged and discriminated and allow significant change to begin to take shape.
The poem following reflects on this time of “Kairos”, crisis, and chaos and what the “Great Conjunction” of 2020 might be messaging us.
The Great Conjunction Phenomenal but how interpret the orbits’ coincidence? A tryst, a search, a studied return or a reconciliation? Don’t ask Galileo since his lenses were trained elsewhere. Your answer discloses clues of what you were looking for. Its appearance yet a visitation while longing for connection Fed by centuries of bearing us to a place of rebirth Or bearing us to our contemplation starving for a sign. On first sighting the illumination turned the lens back on us Turned where the ancient message belonged before we left the slime When the addressee remained unknown with no forwarding As we hurtled through the heavens fiddling to our end. The clock ticks toll louder ‘til defeaned by the rage We find ourselves released to join the dance of heavens’ embrace Calling us to explore the wink of elements in our lives. What do the lights tell us now that we know they are two Their brief approach again creating that great light For the seers and all those who notice such things And allows our access to all the darkness within our complicity in the scheme of things which ignores the magi who returned from the cradle of love a new way Wondering if the babe will overcome 456 million miles of separation.
David Gilbert, U.S. political prisoner for nearly 40 years, is serving a 75 year to life sentence in New York State prisons. Last month five Nobel Peace Prize laureates and multiple interfaith religious leaders, including the chief ministers of four U.S. Protestant denominations, signed a November letter calling for his release. In 1981Gilbert participated in the “expropriation” of $1.6 million from a Brinks armored van at a Nyack, NY shopping center. Two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed and Gilbert with two other veterans of the Weather Underground were apprehended at a roadblock that night. Although unarmed as the driver of a getaway van, Gilbert and all other participants in the action received lengthy sentences.
Seeds of remorse for the victims’ families and regret for his participation in the action were planted at his trial. In his 2014 book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond he described a disturbing incident during the trial. “Trying to show that life sentences didn’t deter revolutionaries, I declared that the issues that motivated us to fight—the depth of racism in the US and the millions of people killed each year by the economies and wars imposed by imperialism—were much larger than three lives. I meant the three of us facing life in prison.” He goes on to note, “But when I said ‘three lives,’ I caught a glimpse of a woman in the court who flinched as if I had struck her. Only later did it dawn on me that she was a relative of one of the men killed on October 20, thinking, feeling, that those three lives were the ones I was dismissing so cavalierly.”
In 37 years of incarceration, David has led an exemplary life. Soon after one of the other Brinks action participants died of AIDS in prison, Gilbert started an HIV/AIDS education outreach program. One former prisoner recently wrote, “It was at Dave’s urging that I took the HIV/AIDS Peer Training Class which he had developed. It changed my life and that of so many family and friends at that time and up to this very day.” Under Gilbert’s patient encouragment, Jerome Wright enrolled in college classes while incarcerated and became an HIV/AIDS peer trainer. The older white man with “an undying commitment to not only bring out the best in people” is credited with turning Wright’s life around. He sums up David’s impact on his life here, “The person who, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me–along with literally hundreds of other young people–become a productive and contributing member of society is still in prison today.”
The letter appealing to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begins with these words, “The extraordinary October 3, 2020 Papal Encyclical calls for ‘a better kind of politics’ based on rethinking social charity and justice approaches to the death penalty, and ‘forgiving not forgetting.’ We write with those sentiments in mind, aware that inordinately long prison sentences are designed more for punishment and revenge than rehabilitation and remorse.” One of the letter co-signers, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had previously written his own letter in support of David Gilbert’s release. He wrote in his letter, “our common beliefs in renewal, rehabilitation, and positive change all provide a foundation which makes it possible for Governor Cuomo to grant freedom.”
Another noteworthy supporter of the 76 year old’s release during the spread of COVID among U.S. prisoners is newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Son of David and Kathy Boudin, the Rhodes Scholar campaigned for the position of the City’s chief prosecutor by arguing that prison sentences should be used only as a last resort. An article this year in Mother Jones magazine reported, “during the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January.” In the same article District Attorney Boudin laments the dangers threatening his father and other elderly and COVID vulnerable persons as the pandemic spreads. “They are not a public safety risk,” he stated. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”
The aging revolutionary has not changed his forthright advocacy for revolutionary change in the U.S. In a podcast interview last year, he continued to describe himself as “an anti-imperialist political prisoner”. He then went on to say, “It’s funny to define yourself as anti-imperialist, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression define the current society. I’m really pro-people. I’m for all people of the world to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. To me, imperialism is the best way to sum up those structures of domination.”
While it was the U.S. civil rights movement of African Americans that opened Gilbert’s eyes politically at age 15, internationalism and international solidarity shape his political positions today. In the same interview last year he cited where he finds hope. The wisdom of his response indirectly makes a powerful case for his immediate release. “Love can defeat hate. That our sense of humanity is bound up with everybody else and with the natural world. And this can be awakened in everyone if there’s a chance, and there’s an opportunity. And if we create a world where people have a chance to develop their creative powers, we can solve all kinds of problems. So yes, I’m anti-Imperialist as I said at the beginning but that means that I’m for humanity and for nature and we have that potential.” During 37 plus years of reflection, study and writing in the “involuntary monasticism” of prison, David Gilbert has changed and our country and the world would benefit from granting this revolutionary change agent the freedom to tell us how and why.
The defeat of Donald Trump in the U.S. election marks another significant victory for nonviolent resisters over those who would hold on to power. In the face of strategies of voter suppression and outright disenfranchisement of voters of color, the U.S. voter turnout was the largest in history. For many U.S. citizens, the election will be remembered as the only national election in which the current administration orchestrated a campaign to subvert and ultimately reject the outcome.
From jeopardizing the safety of mail-in absentee ballots to pressuring Republican election commissioners to withhold or oppose certification of the results, the subversion of the voting began early and continued after the Biden win had been declared. Two weeks after the election, the President hosted at the White House the two white commissioners in Detroit, an 80 per cent African American city, in an effort to discredit the voting in the swing state of Michigan.
That Trump and the Republicans failed can be attributed primarily to unprecedented participation in the election by persons of color and the impact of voter registration drives especially in Georgia. A southern State which a Democratic presidential candidate had not won since 1992 went for Biden and will determine who holds a Senate majority with their run off voting for their two allotted Senators in January. Georgia is a prime example of effective nonviolent resistance to voter suppression and other Republican efforts to rig the election.
We can now include the United States in the list of countries where nonviolent civil resistance has protected the democratically expressed will of the people. Also in 2020, massive demonstrations in Malawi in southern Africa denied an incumbent president’s third term. The election there followed the ruling by the nation’s highest court that the 2019 announced results defied credibility and demanded a rerun of the voting. Multiple examples of the defense of people’s rule by movements of civil resistance have attracted the attention of more political scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere.
A post-election article in The New Yorker titled “How to Stop a Power Grab” focused on the work of Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth. In her 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works Chenoweth and co author Maria Stephan analyze how in the last century nonviolent campaigns of resistance proved more than twice as effective as those employing violence in achieving their goals. A memorable example cited by the two authors is the mass organizing of protests which rule brought the Shah of Iran’s regime to an end in 1979
Apart from the effective mobilization of voters in the U.S., we expect to experience more change resulting from the Black Lives Matter nonviolent protests in cities across the nation in 2020. Reforms in oversight of policing and in budgeting for public safety and mental health are among the topics prioritized now in many City Councils. Despite the administration’s attempts to blame outbreaks of violence on protestors, evidence has emerged that counter-protestors, many of them heavily armed white supremacists, provoked the violence and any looting that occurred. This year of 2020 highlights then a major shift from expressing rage and opposition by endorsement and practice of violent practices such as those the U.S. and Europe experienced in the 1960’s and 70’s to the recognition and embrace of nonviolent resistance in this nation today.
U.S. citizens, young and old, intent on helping create a more just, equitable economic order and further democracy are intent on applying nonviolent tactics in making change possible. This is cause for celebration and gratitude among those who will always lament the suppression of the movements for change fifty years ago which succumbed to and foundered on their resort to violence. Armed with the experience of the Gandhian movement for Indian independence, the civil rights gains of nonviolent protestors in the 60’s and multiple nonviolent social change achievements of the last century, change agents and activists today represent a “force more powerful” than the armies of empire and autocracy.
So who holds now “the spiritual atom bomb”? In 1965 Chinese Defense Minister Lin Piao coined the phrase in an article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper when he declared “the spiritual atom bomb that the revolutionary people possess is a far more powerful and useful weapon than the physical atom bomb.” In an essay entitled “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” Rev. A.J. Muste envisions U.S. unilateral disarmament as the answer to Piao’s advocacy of violence and the world’s acceptance that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”. With ample evidence provided in this year’s political developments “revolutionary people” in the U.S. know mass nonviolent resistance will represent the “spiritual atom bomb” for years to come.
Note: For more on A.J. Muste, the organizer of nonviolent resistance protests from the era of WWI through the Vietnam War, see this website’s 2020 blogs of March 3, April 1 and April 21.
Louis Agassiz was, at his death in 1873, the most famous scientist in North America. Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard, he was the founder and Director of the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The Museum’s web site calls him “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history”. Agassiz was also a white surpremacist widely known for defending slavery in the U.S. and what he considered to be the “natural” status of slaves of African origin.
Throughout his scientific career, the Swiss immigrant Agassiz lent his weight to the pro slavery theory of “polygenism”. This theory hypothesizes that different races of humankind have different origins. Most advocates would further view the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s creation as solely describing the origin of the white race. A summary of his views on the U.C. Berkeley web site reads, “Agassiz could not accept that all groups of humans belonged to the same species, and he argued vehemently for the inferiority of non-white human groups”. Several researchers have noted the influence of Agassiz and other polygenists on the Nazi racial theories and policies.
Darwin’s findings and development of the theory of evolution contributed significantly to the theory’s rejection. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould’s “devastating” account of the Agassiz position in the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man consigns polygenism to the dustbin of other discredited scientific theories. A historian in Agassiz’s Swiss homeland began in 2007 a “Bring Down Agassiz Campaign” to shed light on the repugnant aspects of their famous compatriot’s legacy.
In 2002, a public elementary school in Cambridge just north of Harvard’s campus took off the Agassiz name from the school to honor an African-American principal instead. Other schools and institutions have removed or are in the process of considering the removal of the scientist’s name. Stanford’s Department of Psychology has requested the University remove his statue from their building’s façade. In a recent court case, however, Harvard has taken a position that seems intent on protecting the Agassiz legacy.
In the case, a descendant of slaves has demanded the University return to her family photos taken on a South Carolina plantation that were commissioned by Louis Agassiz. The photos depict “Papa Renty” Taylor at about age 65 and his daughter Delia as evidence in an Agassiz collection to support his racist theories. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Harvard, Tamara Lanier heard many tales of Papa Renty from her mother and is motivated by a two fold aim in bringing the suit. She explained, “I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images.” She continued, “Beyond that, it’s a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty.”
This year, 43 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed a letter to Harvard in support of Ms. Lanier’s lawsuit. The family members note in the letter, “For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused”. They then appeal to the University’s humane principles, “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos.”
I consider the legacy of Agassiz as important to us for two reasons. First, he is an outstanding example of how the social, economic and political context for doing science can affect the practitioner’s supposed “value-free” work and findings. We have ample evidence of this in our own age when a world economy built on fossil fuel consumption has influenced a coterie of dissident scientists to dispute the effect of the looming climate catastrophe. Second, the support for white supremacy brought by Louis Agassiz reminds us of the pervasive reach of such views, their public respectability until recently and of the vaunted origin of such views in this country. Harvard’s determination to hold on to the photos of Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, protecting the Agassiz collection in effect, is another indication of the scope and array of challenges U.S. “anti-racists” must grapple with.
For some people in the U.S. it is cause for anxiety and even fear, but we all seem to agree on one fact about the pandemic. This nation will not return to what was “normal” before the world virus crossed our borders. For many of us the “normal” set the stage for the division and social conflict that have attended our virus response. Rather than solidarity and mutual support joined by radically different people as during recent hurricane recoveries, in the pandemic response we’ve experienced highly visible signs of disagreement, resistance to mask wearing being the most common.
Aside from the toxic, inhumane immigration policies and grotesque economic inequality that have plagued the country and represent the “normal” we lived with prior to this crisis, we all have suffered for years from a lack of courage on the part of our political leaders and representatives. This lack of courage is manifest in the sycophantic response to an inept and self centered chief executive but also in our failure to address what in our system has enabled, even called for, the rampant greed and selfishness.
While veteran spokespersons for President Trump’s Republican party have all failed to counter the administration’s blunders, with the tepid exception of Mitt Romney, the opposition Democrats have little grounds for boasting. A majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate approved President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, including Sen. Hilary Clinton. The 2016 Democratic Party candidate for President seemed to take her election for granted, with a campaign notably lacking in proposals for substantive change. Notably lacking were programs to deal with the rising economic inequality and stagnant working and middle class wages relative to the gains by the wealthy.
It will take courage on the part of citizens and politicians for substantive change to a more humane “normal”. We all feel discomfort and even fear when the levees break, the waters rise, homes are lost and health imperiled. Like those launching their rowboats for rescue operations in a flood or the one who enters the burning house, courage will be demanded for a robust pandemic recovery and the repair of our democracy. So during the social distancing and isolation I’ve been led to think again about a person who helped me deal with change in my own life.
The costly and courageous witness against the Vietnam War of David Batzka has been a profile in courage for me for over fifty years. David was a seminary student in New York City with a coveted 4-D deferment from his draft board. It was a safe bet that so long as he stayed in seminary and proceeded to become a minister he would never lose his deferment. But David informed his Indiana draft board that he refused his classification and opposed their right to draft anyone to fight the unjust, immoral War. In a demonstration on the steps of the Indiana State Capitol building, the neatly groomed seminarian burned his draft card.
As a result, David’s home church in Indiana rejected sponsoring him for ordination as a pastor. Only the stalwart support of his denomination’s Church and Society office kept him from being arrested and sent to prison. Although he was eventually approved for ordination, in spite of his home church’s opposition, David never served as a church’s pastor.
His resistance to the Vietnam draft was not the first time he had demonstrated great courage. Prior to graduation from college, David’s courage and his faith had been tested by involvement in the struggle for Black civil rights. Between his junior and senior years, he spent 6 weeks registering African-Americans to vote. Before he left home that summer of 1964 two white civil rights volunteers had disappeared in the same State of Mississippi. Before their maimed bodies were found, David was quoted in The Indianapolis Star, “I’m more determined to go ahead. This proves something must be done.” Asked what motivated him, he replied, “Christians should be involved in civil rights work.”
David remained steadfast in his faith as a Christian. His resistance of the draft and subsequent organizing helped lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to take an anti-War position at its national conventions. Invited to speak on the War at churches he always wore the attire and short hair customary for a minister in that time. “His somewhat formal appearance disarmed lots of people” his wife Vickie Batzka wrote about David’s public speaking.
David Batzka laid the path for my own opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent resistance of the draft. As a white American male today, contemplating my response to the multiple crises plaguing my community and nation, David’s work for love and justice represents a primary resource. In my July 4 Independence Day celebration, as I thought about the change required for our post-pandemic “normal” to be a better world for all, I wrote the following poem. It’s my belated tribute to David, who died after a surgery in 2002, and his place in the life of someone who never met him.
Call it Courage
July 4, 2020
We know truth by the cost
Or to those we love
Without knowing what
The real price will be.
Life’s heroes weave our days
The thread always
We call it courage
Binds up the love
Splendid in a dreamed time.
They did not choose;
Gripped then chose them:
To cherish life,
Its dignity, its sanctity in crisis.
Of this comes change and its cost
Known more now
Than its outcome so opaque:
Always more love,
More life, more courage, more thanks
It is remarkable how the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of officers of law and order in the U.S. have sparked massive protests worldwide. Responding to the intensity and number of protests across their country, the Belgian Parliament just formed a “truth and reconciliation commission” to revisit their country’s colonial history. And sixty years after their vast colony of Congo achieved self rule, the Belgian King Phillippe has expressed “deepest regrets for these wounds” suffered by the Congolese people. The time has come to embark on the path of “research, truth and memory” focusing on their colonial legacy in the words of the current Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Willems.
Many Parliament members and Belgian citizens will feel obligated to defend and whitewash their rule in Africa. King Philippe’s younger brother Prince Laurent soon disputed his brother’s words of contrition. In defense of the source of much of his royal family’s wealth, the system of resource extraction costing an estimated ten million Congolese lives, Prince Laurent pointed out that King Leopold II had never set foot in Africa.
Ten years before Leopold II was forced to cede his Congo Free State personal rule and create the colonial administration, Conrad’s narrator in the 1898 novella The Heart of Darkness condemned colonialism in general. He emphasized features characterizing other European colonies in Africa:
“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Anti-racist protestors have succeeded in removing statues honoring King Leopold in Belgium but their call for reparations for the Congo will meet stout opposition. As in the United States, there is profound discomfort and sensitivity among whites of all political leanings when faced with the truth of their complicity with and benefit from racism in their society.
Thanks to the continued protests there is however serious scrutiny for the first time of how even avowedly anti-racist whites participate in preserving their country’s structures of racism in the U.S. and in Europe. Responding to the protests, movies, books, podcasts, etc. are challenging whites to consider previously neglected personal traits of “white fragility” and “white privilege”. Widespread recognition of deeply rooted injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system promises significant change.
Whether continued calls for reparations to address the vast gulf between black and white families’ wealth and income will lead to a U.S. “truth and reconciliation commission” is more open to question. Progressive U.S. religious leaders, notably Dr. King among them, have for years declared the nation faces a moral and spiritual crisis, a struggle to heal the soul of America. Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness explores the racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, agrees with Dr. King’s analysis:
“I think that racial justice in this country will remain a distant dream as long as we think that it can be achieved through rational policy discussions….I think we’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and fail to realize that all of these issues really have more to do with who we are individually and collectively, and what we believe we owe one another, and how we ought to treat one another as human beings. These are philosophical questions, moral questions, theological questions, as much as they are questions about the costs and benefits of using one system of punishment or policing practice over another.”
My Old Testament professor in seminary was drafted into the German army in the closing days of World War II. At age 15 following an abbreviated training he found himself on the front line of the forces defending his homeland. As he hunkered down, terrified in his trench, the ground shook with Allied bombs falling all around him.
By the time he told us this story, in the second semester of the year long course, his fierce passion for the ancient text had already been displayed. Woe to the students seated in the front row of the class. He leaned into their faces, eyes blazed and the words thundered down in a thick German accent. Until the day he relived for us his survival as a teen ager of the Allied bombings, we had little idea of the origin of that fire within the man.
His life-shattering story was his way of introducing us to the prophecies of Amos. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible revealed to him the only way he could make sense of his experience of war and how it could fit into crafting a fruitful life. And the prophet Amos stood out for him among their ranks. There, in the 8th century BC prophecies of a herder and tree trimmer, he had found the words essential to making sense of the terrors of the Nazi humiliation and defeat.
“Is not the day of the Lord
darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?” Am 5:20 (NRSV)
Rolf Knierim’s message to us could not have been clearer. Would-be ministers should never treat the prophets casually; handle with caution or use at your own risk remained for me his teaching of the prophets, and his lesson for us on Amos especially. Not just you yourself but your congregation had to be prepared to really hear the prophets’ word for our day.
So when I heard Rev. Dr. William Barber choose Amos 5 as the text to preach from Washington’s National Cathedral Sunday June 14, my first thought was of Rolf Knierim. God’s fury that Rolf had lived and taught about for thirty years helped me take the measure of the anguish that grips this nation at this time.
Barber’s sermon surprised me by its tone. He seemed restrained in his denunciations and soft in his anger. Now as I write this it occurs to me that the fierce prophecy had already been accomplished with the suffering of George Floyd, the cruel pursuit of Ahmaud Arberry, the death of so many other men and women of color at the hands of a system built on white supremacy while professing that all human beings are created equal. The comfortable had already been afflicted and the afflicted already comforted by the truth telling of the brutal videos followed by massive protests in solidarity worldwide.
What remained to be done, Rev. Barber had decided, was to proclaim that God is at work in making us uncomfortable, disturbed, distraught by the recent events. And that the words of the prophet Amos spoken long ago would help guide us in finding our way as persons and as a nation in helping create a world more like our Creator intended. The prophet’s words would help us grow into the image we were created to be as they had helped grow Rolf Knierim and so many others devoted to the truth and beauty of life as a human being.
“Take away from me the noise of your songs:
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:23-24, NRSV trans.)
To listen to Rev. Barber’s sermon go to: https://cathedral.org/sermons/sermon-the-rev-dr-william-j-barber-ii-2/