history

Maps Are Lying to You

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Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their antiracist, anticapitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program.

Charles Bursey hands a plate of food to a child seated at a Free Breakfast Program. (source)

Like Greene’s article, the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (click here to watch online) traces the roots of the Black Panther movement and the impact of its rise and fall on society.

The Black Panther Party put itself at the vanguard for social change. Their community social programs, including free breakfast for school kids and community health clinics, and acts of civil disobedience lead the FBI to call the movement “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and start an extensive government program called COINTELPRO to surveil, infiltrate, perjure, harass, discredit, destabilise and disintegrate the movement. The U.S. government did everything it could to destroy this grassroots movement for racial advancement, including the assassination of its leaders.

Other movements can learn from the example of Black Panthers and their community-based action for social change. No matter what the powerful do to stop them, the people will continue to fight for what’s right.

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All power to the people.

The Banality of Evil: Learning from the Horrors of the Past

Last week I watched The Look of Silence, a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer and a companion piece to his 2012 work The Act of Killing. Both films explore how the Indonesian military killed a million people – suspected communists and subversives – over the course of 1965-66 after it overthrew the government. The films bring this hidden history to life through the voices of both victim and perpetrator.

In this recent work, a family of survivors discovers how their son Ramli was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers, nearly half a century after the event unfolded. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

First he meets Inong who, wearing the heavy optical frames Adi has placed over his eyes, speaks freely about his crimes, how he once cut off the breast of a communist woman who had been given up for execution by her own brother and how, like many of the killers, he drank the blood of his victims in the belief that it would stop him going mad amid the relentless slaughter.

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Inong

Though Adi never engages in prolonged monologues to express his grievances, Oppenheimer implies the depth of the man’s frustration by capturing him seated in front of a television, watching footage of Oppenheimer’s interviews with two boastful torturers. The synthesis of this unsettling material and Adi’s solemn face says more than any dialogue could accomplish. (That would be the eponymous look of silence.)

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Adi

Throughout the course of the film we learn more about Adi and his family. In one scene, filmed by Adi in 2010, his father, Rukun, wizened with age, blind and almost totally deaf, is shown trapped in his own yard, confused and agitated about where he is. According to Adi, that day was the pivotal moment in his decision to confront the perpetrators. It was the first day his father could no longer remember him, his brothers and sisters or his mother, leaving Adi to reflect:

I realised it was too late for him. He would die with the trauma from Ramli’s murder, and he would never heal, because he had forgotten the son whose murder destroyed our family. All he remembered was the fear, like a distant echo from a sound long forgotten. I realised I did not want my children to live their lives with this fear, and I felt the only way of preventing this was for me to meet the perpetrators of my brother’s murder.

This film illustrates many common themes that repeat in history, especially during and after genocide or other crimes against humanity. Although not comprehensive, below are some that I observed.

1. The Banality of Evil

Eichmann_in_Jerusalem_book_coverThe subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem famously introduced the phrase “the banality of evil,” which also serves as the final words of the book. In part, at least, the phrase refers to Adolf Eichmann’s deportment at the trial over war crimes, displaying neither guilt nor hatred, claiming he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job” (“He did his duty…; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.” p. 135).

Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal. Her thesis is that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on clichéd defenses rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.

Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao Zedong. These are just some of the people who oversaw mass murder in the 20th century. Their political ambitions overruled any sense of compassion. But at their core, each one of them was still a human being.

Humans are neither devils nor angels.

These historical figures are not monsters or some sort of mythical embodiment of the devil. They are human beings. Granted they took their positions of power down an ugly road, making decisions and pushing ideologies that killed millions, but they are not some anomaly. Within each of us is the ability to do both good and bad. We are our experiences and nature. We change based on who we meet, what we learn (or don’t), what we believe (or don’t), where we are and where we go.

Each of these men influenced other people in high authority and the citizens of their respective nations to carry out the heinous acts that we now look back on with disdain. I think what Arendt reported and what many psychologists find is the conditions that led to Nazi rule repeat again and again, over time. Mass murder in various countries follow a similar trend of hatred, fear, manipulation and terror. In times of war, but also at peacetime, leaders use their power for political gain. Sometime with bloody results.

never_againFollowing the Holocaust, announcements of “Never Again” came from different groups. The United Nations was created to foster peace, even if the previous League of Nations had failed to achieve the same objective. Repeated instances since the Second World War have shown that action, not just words, is needed to stop genocide. We need to examine the true nature of evil actions and not exclude ourselves from a similar judgement.

In Indonesia, the killings were carried out by both military officers and civilians. In the film, we meet many men and women who stayed in their villages after the killings, living next to families they hurt. Many of these men have also gone into positions of power. The power they exert, even today, is related to the fear they continue to spread and accusations that their opponents may be “communists” even if they have no evidence.

One of the greatest tools to countering hate and misinformation is through formal education. Schools can be a place of learning about the past and questioning the present. Unfortunately, schools can also be a double-edged sword. In the wrong hands, they become indoctrination factories and spread messages of hate, lies and unfounded differences between peoples. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer shows us footage of Adi’s son receiving propagandistic lectures at school, where he’s taught that the genocidal antics were justified. Until the truth is spread freely through society, the George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” will hold true.

2. The Harm of Silence

The skulls and bones of some of those who were slaughtered as they sought refuge inside the church, are laid out on shelves in an underground vault as a memorial to the thousands who were killed in and around the Catholic church during the 1994 genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda, Friday, April 4, 2014. The country will commemorate on April 7, 2014 the 20th anniversary of the genocide when ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, leaving a death toll that Rwanda puts at 1,000,050. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

The skulls and bones of some of those who were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

While watching The Look of Silence, I was reminded of another travesty that occurred 30 years later – the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, leaving a death toll between 800,000 and one million, eerily similar to the level in Indonesia. (Here is a Human Rights Watch article that events during and after.)

Two lessons can be learned if a country remains silent. The first is the inability to learn from the past. The second is that wounds do not heal if they remain open.

By keeping the truth hidden, citizens and outsiders are unable to learn from the past, allowing for more of the same to occur. If ordinary Indonesians had been given the opportunity to learn from these horrible actions, they might have been able to inform the international bodies and media of similar activities, like those that took place in Rwanda.

Additionally, by not examining the events in more detail, families, like the one profiled in the film, hold on to their pain and suffering for years. They are unable to discuss what happened because the perpetrators remain at-large and society wants to leave the past untouched. Repeatedly in The Look of Silence, many of the torturers interviewed felt is was best to leave these crimes under the rug of history. No doubt, this would continue to prevent justice from occurring.

From the director:

The result, The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror – a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence – a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken. Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, strain to listen to the silence that follows.

3. The Power of Fear

Rather than fighting a traditional war between two sides (such as the Allied powers versus the Axis powers of WWII), Indonesia was fighting an ideological war – a far more dangerous concept. Following the Second World War, the Allied victors continued into the Cold War – waging capitalist ideology against communist ideology – using other nations.

Coup d’état in Latin America. Civil wars in Africa. Supplanting democracy in the Middle East. The Cold War was not as passive as most people in the West would believe.

Indonesia followed a similar script with the involvement of USA and UK governments in the mass killings. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was eliminated as a political force, and the upheavals led to the downfall of president Sukarno and the commencement of Suharto’s thirty-year presidency.

The Look of Killing shows that the past still remains. As Adi questions many torturers about why they so easily killed their neighbors, how they could believe the lies of the state, they begin to question him, labeling him a “communist” and a possible “spy”. The fear in his eyes is real, as we can see when he speaks with his wife after these altercations.

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After revealing that his brother was murdered, Adi is questioned on where he lives.

The credits also prove the power that the murderers of 1965 still retain; dozens of Indonesian names, from cameramen to drivers, are replaced with one damning word: “anonymous.”

One of the mechanisms to counter fear and bring about peace are Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC). First used in South Africa, following apartheid, it helped transition to a full and free democracy. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

TRC were also used in Rwanda, following their genocide, through gacaca courts to a lesser degree of success than South Africa. Other nations can use TRC to help come to terms with past violence, war crimes and human rights abuses. Long standing democracies, like my homeland Canada, can also benefit from TRC. Recently, Canada initiated a country-wide TRC to discuss the history of mistreatment towards aboriginal peoples, especially in our residential schools.

Although these commissions will not undo the pain of the past, by admitting our faults and working together we can build a more just, verdant and peaceful world. I hope one day Indonesia will be able to heal its wounds.

Concluding Thoughts

Genocide Watch lists current crises in Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria, among others, as some of the potential places where genocide could break out. Protracted issues in Sudan and Palestine are also of worrying concern. Until we truly learn from the past, shouts of “Never Again” will be meaningless. Luckily, we have the tools for change. Following the Holocaust and later genocides, Gregory H. Stanton created the following eight stage of genocide as a simple illustration of how mass murder can manifest. If even a singly one of these stages appears in a country, we should be concerned of the consequences.

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My biggest take-away from this chart, the movie and other reflections on history is the need for greater humanity and compassion in our world. Not only do we need to end hatred within societies, we also need to feel compassion for our neighbors, far and wide. We need to question people in power and the actions they take. We need to feel empowered to say “No” or to say “Stop” when we see injustice. We need to fight for injustice each and every day.

As Howard Zinn beautifully quipped, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Rojo y Negro

“Red and Black”

A common theme that fills the history books of developing countries is the role of outsiders in influencing policies, mostly political, but also economical. In the past, European countries – France, Belgium, Spain, England, Portugal, Germany – played a major role in determining how countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia ruled themselves. When many of these European colonizers began returning power to their colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, a new power filled the void: the United States of America (USA, US, or so-called “America”). The role of the US in other countries is very evident in the history of Nicaragua. For centuries, the US has tried to either influence or outright control the lives of Nicaraguans. The fact that is most interesting about US-Nicaraguan relations is that the United States has repeatedly been defeated!

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Nicaragua – now made up of 8 million people – has time after time won the long game against the US – a country of over 300 million and defended by the world’s largest military. In every instance, one would have to give the better odds to the US, but sometimes things can’t be predicted.  While in Nicaragua, you can spot two very different flags being flown. This first one is the official national flag. Made up of two blue bars on the the top and bottom – representing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that Nicaragua borders – with a white stripe in the center. There is also a triangle in the center with its own symbolic meaning.

But this is not the flag that I wish to highlight.

The one I find more interesting is the party flag of the FSLN. The party flag of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN (in English: Sandinista National Liberation Front) is a very simple design. It’s top half is red (rojo) and bottom half is black (negro), with the middle spelling out the four-letter acronym “FSLN”. It’s not exactly the flag that’s interesting, but rather, what it stands for.

During the 20th century, Nicaraguans have had to mobilize and fight for their freedom on three separate occasions. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Augusto César Sandino led a national rebellion against US occupation. Unfortunately, Sandino was assassinated by the police forces of the Somoza family and they would rule (with American support) for over 40 years.

In the 1970’s, building upon Sandino’s legacy, the FSLN and its Sandinista membership started a revolution against the American-backed President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Wanting an end to the corruption of Somoza and a more socialist set of policies, the Sandinista fought many battles in a civil war of urban warfare, eventually winning in 1979 and overthrowing Somoza.

But, with the election of American President Ronald Reagan came a new chapter in the USA’s presumed need to determine Nicaragua’s future. The year 1981 saw the start of the Contra War. Now that the USA could not manipulate a puppet leader, they used their own form of guerrilla warfare to try and destroy the presumed threat of a small, leftist government in Central America.

The Contras were made up of remnants of Somoza’s National Guard and were secretly financed and trained by the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Much of the actions taken by the Contras were later determined to be illegal, such as bombing schools and health centers. Terror was the main tool of change that the US tried to use on the Nicaragua peoples.

It is inspirational to hear stories of everyday people standing up to determine their own future. At the same time, it’s sad that Nicaragua has had to shed so much blood for such a simple goal: freedom.

Today you’ll find FSLN flags and colors on every street and every town. But rather than focus on the violence of the past, Nicaragua is joyous and celebratory of the peace (paz) that fills the country now. Bullet holes can still be seen in historic buildings. But you can also spot people working tirelessly to earn an income and educate their children. It is a country that welcomes outsiders (like myself) and it proud to celebrate its national heroes.

My hope is that Nicaragua can remain independent and fulfill their dreams and those of their ancestors in their long battle towards freedom.

First Days in Nica

Nicaragua has so far been a beautiful experience. The Project HOPE team (which I’m co-leading) has worked for over 6 months to get to this point. Although we spent most of our first day traveling – more accurately, sitting in an airport – from Edmonton to the capital, Managua.

Transitioning from an air conditioned airport to the humidity and heat of Central America in May was no small feat. I was sweating buckets, but it was mainly my fault: I was wearing jeans, hiking shoes, carrying a 49.9 pound pack on my back, and a second smaller pack on my front!

To learn more of the history of Nicaragua, the team went on a bus tour of Managua. We visited the city lookout point, the city square (included a closed cathedral; closed due to repeated earthquake damage) and the port named after Salvador Allende. The team was put outside their comfort zone, somewhat, as they had to navigate the nuances of interacting with street merchants, some of whom were children. Throughout the day, we saw many references to the Revolution of 1979. And many examples of how the country celebrates their national heroes; people like Augusto Sandino.

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The most exciting part of this first day (for me) was meeting Tanya, our in-country coordinator. Her and I got to share stories from growing up in rural communities; she told me about her studies in the USA; and her large family of 9 siblings, with 2 currently in university – one studying journalism and the other nursing.

Our time in Managua would be unfortunately cut short, as we had to start moving north and start working. On our second day, we drove to Esteli – our base for the month – settling into our hostel and getting to meet our partner organization: FUNARTE. This land is filled with amazing and generous people. We were greeted at Hostal Tomabu by the owners – Elena and Poncho – and showed to our assortment of single, double, and triple rooms. At this point, the team was running low on energy due to countless hours of sitting in transport.

On the third day, we were lucky to be invited to FUNARTE’s weekend workshop with the children of the Oscar Ramero community. Team members painted with youth of all ages and got to see, first hand, the power of adding color to canvas. I find the work of FUNARTE to be inspiting. Not only have they working continuously since the revolution (so, 35 years long), but they are able to inspire children to become story tellers and community artists.

I should mention at this point that Esteli is internationally known as the City of Murals. 35 years of murals adds up to a lot of murals. When walking on the street you are hard pressed to find a wall without a mural or a story. Rafa and Karen (our translator) from FUNARTE were able to give us a history lesson on a a few murals. Some were new creations and some were reproductions of ones done decades before. They speak to peace, environmental awareness, and equal rights. I am looking forward to taking in all the stories and artwork I can.

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As the weekend was upon us, our team set out for a “fun” activity – a walk to waterfall. You could call it a walk, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. It was more of a endurance test of the mind and spirit. We began our trek at 9:30 am through the common sights of outdoor shops and narrow streets. We even passed the traveling circus. And them came the unpaved road. It winded up and down, left and right, with no clear indication of ending. People were sweating and people were getting tanned. But, in the end, we made it to our destination. And what a destination it was.

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Everyone got to go for a swim. You could even go through the falling water to take a break on a quickly cramped set of rocks.

Later in the day, we found out that we were the first Project HOPE team to make this hike – everyone else just took a bus or set of taxis. Who knew!

The day was only half over as we had to get back into hiking mode and walk to Tanya’s family home, where we’d be eating lunch. It was a lovely traditional meal, with chicken soup and fresh tortillas. We were escorted around the family property, which featured coffee trees, an area that is rented to tourists, and a very large, very sociable pig.

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All of this travel, planning, and fundraising was meant for one thing – the project. Our group of 11 MacEwan University students will be working in partnership with FUNARTE to bring the high school students of the Rosario Hospital community three things: repairs to six classrooms, a newly built multipurpose room to allow teachers to plan and psychologists to counsel, and the interaction with us. We will bring our own stories and hopefully take back with us, some of theirs.

photo (1)Stay tuned for updates!