Portraits of a Changing America

Last month, I watched a number of new documentaries. Three of these stood out thanks to their connective stories.

Three stories that each follow an American protagonist.

Three legal battles over ideology, whether good or bad.

Three very different areas of society that link past challenges to future opportunities, through present discussions.


Past: Welcome to Leith

White supremacist Craig Cobb tries to take over a small town in North Dakota. As his behavior becomes more threatening, residents wrestle with democratic principles as they try to get rid of their unwanted neighbor.

welcome_to_leith_xlgWelcome to Leith looks at the two unfortunate realities in the United States that intersect in a small town in North Dakota: the economic decline of rural America and the long history of white nationalist hatred. Leith is a town of about 30 people, where the mayor also drives the school bus. With many people leaving for the opportunities, land and houses are for sale for extremely low prices.

The United States has a long history of white supremacy, going back to the end of the Civil War and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It’s not surprising that hate groups formed, since the country was founded on the economic model of enslaving humans of a darker complexion. These early hate groups used terrorism against groups they hated (African Americans) as well as groups that challenged them (white Americans). It hasn’t ended either. Many hate groups now use Nazi propaganda and imagery to continue to promote white supremacy.

With its small population and isolated geography, one white supremacist moved into town and tried to turn Leith into a fascist paradise. Craig Cobb and his associated started by flying Nazi flags and interrupting town meetings but soon moved to patrolling the community with guns. This was too much for the town and inevitably lead to Cobb’s arrest.

This confrontation between a small town and a group with small-minded ideas should not be seen in isolation. Hate groups have a long history within the United States and need to be taken on by everyone, especially white Americans who have sat by while these groups spread hate and commit white terrorism inside the country.


Present: Unlocking the Cage

Lawyer Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project file lawsuits to give animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants limited personhood rights.

unlocking-the-cageSteven Wise is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Thee NhRP fights for the rights of highly intelligent nonhumans who have long been seen as things and not beings. Unlocking the Cage follows their recent battles to have chimpanzees freed from their cages using the legal writ of habeas corpus (freedom from unlawful detention), which has never been applied to nonhuman animals before.

Across the world, several groups of people are fighting for their rights – right to be recognized as fully human. In the United States, it wasn’t too long ago that African Americans were deemed to be worth three-fifths of a white American. It took time but this injustice was eventually overcome through changes in the law and fights in the courts. Steven Wise wants to give the same rights to the most intelligent of nonhuman creatures, those who can speak and think like a human child can.

Biological, psychological and other scientific research in recent years has shown that the animals that the NhRP fights for – chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants – have the ability to use language, to use tools, to pass learning down through generations, to develop communities, to understand complex thoughts. These discoveries are broadening the understanding of what our world truly offers. We, as human beings, must work towards ending the pain and violence directed towards highly sentient creatures, understanding that they are not just things.

Unlocking the Cage continues the path of humanity towards a more just world where all beings, whether human or not, are deserving of respect and a peaceful existence. Here’s hoping that the NhRP will continue their legal fights and begin to challenge society’s consciousness for the better.


Future: Deep Web

A feature documentary that explores the rise of a new Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law.

deep_web_xlgDeep Web chronicles the rise of the black market website Silk Road, were users could purchase illegal drugs anonymously, and Bitcoin, a digital currency that is all but untraceable to authorities. Beyond the hidden nature of these tools, the film explores the politics that led to their creation and use.

The film covers the trial of Ross Ulbricht, known under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, who was convicted of creating and running the Silk Road until his 2013 arrest. On its surface it is difficult to know whether Ulbricht is responsible for all of the crimes alleged since the DPR account was used by multiple persons.

Deeper down, the understand the saga of the Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht is to examine the United States’ “War or Drugs” and the response of libertarian free-market solutions crafted by Ulbricht and many others. Ulbricht wished to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind” and claimed that he was “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

Like the mythical Hydra, the Silk Road has now sprouted dozens of offshoots with the same purpose. Bitcoin is becoming a household name and being used for purchasing more products digitally each day. Ultimately, politics and economics will become more intertwined with the Internet and digital technology in the future. Whether society is ready to deal with that fact is to be seen.


The Four Horsemen Rest Within the Security Council

The United Nations and its Security Council were formed at the end of World War II. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, also known as the Permanent Five or P5, include the following five governments: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These five nations have endowed themselves with protecting the security of the world. But how much peace (and war) have followed them since taking up this mantle.

The P5 won WWII. The Axis powers–chiefly Germany, Japan and Italy–lost. Therefore, the P5 got to dictate the rules. This system of winners rule while the rest of us are seen as causality needs to end.

The P5 are the biggest arms dealers on the planet and pose an incredible risk to all human beings thanks to their massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. They’ve had over 70 years at the wheel. Maybe it’s time for them to step aside, so the rest of us can solve the world’s problems.


Like many others, I think the Security Council’s record shows that “security” is only for a select few. Together, these five representatives have undeniable power to shape global affairs. Power to unleash global calamity on a Biblical scale: “And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” (John 6:8).

Nuclear war and environmental catastrophe are two realities of today–realities created and owned by the P5. Two millennia after that Biblical prophecy, the UN Security Council has unleashed its own Four Horsemen–War, Death, Famine and Conquest–and must take responsibility for their costs.



War Profiteers

Globally, the P5 are the five biggest arms dealers. Together, they sell a total of 20.45 billion U.S. dollars worth of weapons per year. This is more than triple the next 10 biggest arms dealers, who happen to be P5 allies within NATO. The United States is overwhelmingly the biggest weapons exported, with nearly double the sales of its former Cold War adversary, Russia.


Arms sales per year, in millions of US dollars. Data source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Guns, ammunition, tanks, bombs, missiles, battleships, warplanes: these are some of the products the P5 nations are selling all over the world. The P5 aren’t fighting on their own soil. Instead they help protracted conflicts go on far longer than they should.

Two-thirds of UK weapons have been sold to Middle Eastern countries, since 2010, where instability has fed into increased risk of terror threats to Britain and across the West. Since 2010 Britain has sold arms to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House “Freedom in the world” report, and 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.

Russia has supplied arms to several countries where they risk being used to commit serious human rights violations. It does not publish arms export details, but 10 per cent of all Russian arms exports are believed to go to Syria, making it the country’s largest arms supplier. Transfers include missiles and missile launchers, anti-tank missiles for the Russian-made T72 tank, and MIG jet fighters jet aircraft. Russia also supplied AK-style assault rifles to Libya under al-Gaddafi. As of 2004, “Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s”. Russia continues to supply helicopter gunships to Sudan, where they have been used to attack civilians in Darfur and Southern Kordofan.

As the main arms supplier to Egypt, the US authorized the sale of small arms, millions of rounds of ammunition and chemical agents for riot control, despite the security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters. Yemen was also supplied with small arms, chemical agents and armoured vehicles, and Bahrain with small arms. It provides Colombia’s security forces with arms, military aid and training, despite their persistent violations of human rights.

For decades, the United States and Russia fought their Civil War through proxy wars of already struggling nations. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia have all been victims of these powerful countries warmongering and arm dealings. These two nations, like the rest of the P5, continue to wield power through its arms sales. The global arms trade is the worst combination of political conquest and economic gain.


The history of war will continue to maim and injure civilians as weapons, like land mines, continue to lay in peaceful and conflict-ridden lands. On average 5,000 people are killed by land mines each year. Millions of land mines are hidden in the ground in 78 countries. The United States, which doesn’t fear mines itself, has a stockpile of around 10.4 million anti-personal land mines–the 3rd largest arsenal in the world. Once placed in the ground, these weapons are incredibly expensive to clear. Land mines cost somewhere in the region of $3 to produce, and a staggering $1,000 to clear per unit.

In 1997, in response to a global, Nobel Prize-winning campaign, the U.N. adopted an international Mine Ban Treaty, which is currently signed by 162 countries. Under the Mine Ban Treaty, the Parties undertake not to use, produce, stockpile or transfer anti-personnel mines and ensure their destruction. Thirty-six countries, including China, Russia and the United States, which together may hold tens of millions of stockpiled antipersonnel mines, are not yet party to the Convention. The three countries continue to manufacture land mines.

The P5 are the primary sellers of tools of war. They also are the primary hindrances to obtaining justice once the bullets stop flying. The International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Unlike France and the UK, which are a party to the International Criminal Court, China is opposed to the Court (like North Korea and Somalia), the US no longer intends to ratify the treaty (in line with Sudan) and Russia has not ratified its agreement (akin to Syria and Yemen). The majority of P5 nations prefer to protect themselves, preventing justice to be served for crimes against humanity.

They are not world leaders. They are cowards. And should be treated as such.


Certain Death

Unfortunately, the Cold War hasn’t melted away. And neither has the threat of nuclear annihilation.

There are currently 15,375 nuclear devices in the world. Of these, 98 percent (or 15,045) are held by the P5. The U.S. and Russia account for nearly 93 percent of all nuclear weapons. These two nations have it within their power to end the threat of nuclear war.


Data source: Ploughshares Fund

The other three nations with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons–Pakistan, India and Israel–received assistance from the U.S. in developing their own nuclear programs. Rather than creating a safer world following WWII, the P5 have made the world more turbulent. They split into Eastern and Western superpower blocks during the Cold War, which has continued following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite their differences, the Eastern and Western  blocks agree that they should continue holding the balance of power globally. Worst of all, the P5 have a poor track record when it comes to supporting the means for peace.

Last month, UN General Assembly (UNGA) members have defied the P5 by voting to ban nuclear weapons. The UNGA’s First Committee passed an historic resolution to begin negotiations for a legally binding nuclear weapons ban treaty next year. The landmark resolution passed 123 to 38 – with 16 countries abstaining – and succeeded despite smaller states accusing nuclear-armed countries of “pressuring them to oppose the ban.

The most vocal supporters of the treaty included Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. Even North Korea voted in favor of the treaty, which will attempt to bring in a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

Some nuclear-armed states abstained on the vote, including China, India and Pakistan, while opponents included the United States, Russia, the UK, France and Israel. Green Party MSP John Finnie accused the UK government of giving up on nuclear disarmament:

“Instead of siding with the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in voting to set up a conference to negotiate ways of prohibiting and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the UK voted with the nuclear club states who continue to stand in the way of progress on disarmament.”


Global Famine

The most effective strategy to prevent war is to mitigate its causes. One of more overlooked (at least in news media) sparks for war is climate change.

Even the U.S. Department of Defense has recognized the danger, saying that “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” The problem of global climate change is directly linked to rapid industrialization, which provided incredible wealth in a handful of countries. The P5 nations, and their allies, being the biggest beneficiaries.


Although the P5 nations today produce similar levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the trend hasn’t always been like this. China began industrialization far later than other nations but its high population is closing the cumulative gap. It’s also important to remember that much of China’s emissions are linked to the products shipped to European and American consumers. The United States, with its population of 300-plus million and long history of industrialization, has done more to cause climate change than any other nation.


Cumulative national emissions between 1850 and 2007 (MT CO2e). Data source: World Resource Institute

The United States is responsible for at least 27 percent of global emissions. The European Union, including France and the UK, account for another 25 percent. At 8 percent, Russia has the lowest contribution among the P5 nations, although it is still a substantial amount. Like the issue of nuclear weapons, the P5 are among the top 5 polluters and are responsible for the damage caused by high industrialization on those affected by climate change.


A study led by Jacob Schewe of Potsdam finds that “the combination of unmitigated climate change and further population growth will expose a significant fraction of the world population” to “chronic or absolute water scarcity.” Current agricultural models estimate that climate change will directly reduce food production from maize, soybeans, wheat and rice by as much as 43 percent by the end of the 21st century, encompassing a loss of between 400 and 2600 petacalories of food supply. But incorporating hydrological models reveals that when accounting for the decline of freshwater availability, there would be an additional loss of 600 to 2900 petacalories – potentially wiping out quantities equivalent to the total present-day food supply.

There’s an old saying that people revolt before they starve. This is the future that the highly-industrialized countries, especially the P5, have brought to bear. Climate refugees will join the movements of displaced people who have historically fled conflicts (worsened by the arms sales noted above) and environmental hazards, like earthquakes.


Conquest’s Victims

Environmental forced migrants are people who have to leave due to deteriorating environmental conditions, such as the slow deterioration of their environment due to deforestation or coastal deterioration. Environmental motivated migrants, on the other hand, are people who choose to leave to avoid possible future problems, such as declining crop productivity caused by desertification.

One example where climate change contributed to environmental displacement and ultimately an armed conflict is Syria.

Researchers acknowledge that many factors led to Syria’s uprising, including corrupt leadership, inequality, massive population growth, and the government’s inability to curb human suffering. But a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiled statistics showing that water shortages in the Fertile Crescent in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey killed livestock, drove up food prices, sickened children, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities–just as that country was exploding with immigrants from the Iraq war. The suffering and social chaos caused by the drought were important drivers of the initial unrest.


The five nations of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt collectively host over 4.7 million Syrian refugees. In contrast, the P5 host around 32 thousand; this equates to around one out of every 200 Syrian refugees. The P5 has a cumulative GDP fourteen times that of the five countries neighboring Syria.


Syrian refugees resettled. Data source: Oxfam

These low figures of refuge offered by the P5 nations are even more shocking when you consider that the P5 nations are supplying weapons and bombing fighters in Syria as well as Iraq. Clearly, the world’s “most powerful” countries are not doing their fair share.


What percentage of its “fair share” each country has actually pledged to resettle. Source: IRIN

Thanks to the legacy of the Iraq invasion led by the U.S. and the U.K., 3.9 million people were already internally displaced in Iraq before the war in Syria started.

Another region of the world where all of these issues–nuclear weapons, climate change, displacement of people–intersect is the Pacific Islands. The Marshall Islands are one of many that highlight these overlapping concerns.

The United States tested their nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, causing scores of health problems and displacement. Now, climate change may wipe the Marshall Islands off the map, as sea levels rise. The United States in a pathetic excuse for a solution provides Marshall Islanders asylum. Unfortunately, they will become exiles to a nation underwater. Will the U.S. ever learn its lesson?!

The Security Council spend the past seven decades failing to eliminate the threat of nuclear annihilation, which they themselves created. Now, the world has to face the threat of climate change; also primarily caused by the P5 nations.

We can’t wait for their slow and inconsequential attempts to correct their own misbehavior. It’s up to all of us to demand change. The world depends on it.

The Cyberweapons Race Has Begun

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary film covers the phenomenon surrounding the Stuxnet computer virus and the development of the malware software known as “Olympic Games“. The Stuxnet worm, a groundbreaking virus jointly created by the US and Israel, has the power to cripple nuclear plants and more.

zero_days_posterGibney’s film, Zero Days (2016), documents several aspects of this particular cyberweapon: from how the virus got into the relevant networks, to what it actually did when it got there, to how it was discovered (and whose fault that was) and the fact that no one in the United States or Israel has ever acknowledged its existence.

Gibney has concluded that the sovereign nations of this pale blue dot had better work hard on some sort of cyber-nonproliferation treaty if we want to make it much further into this new century. “The danger is that it seems innocent,” Gibney said after a screening in New York. “Command and control machinery were never intended to be integrated with the internet in such a way,” he said, referring to the fact that the Stuxnet worm didn’t just clog up a bunch of email accounts, it caused actual machinery to spin out of control until they were destroyed. Part of his research involved talking to agency moles (whose identity the film weaves into one composite character) and Zero Days explains how the US has another cyberweapon ready to launch at Iran called Nitro Zeus that would essentially knock out all civic infrastructure. That isn’t just cable television, it’s hospitals and transport.

Gibney is eager to show how the US and Israel are mostly to blame for this. “Stuxnet was the first cyberweapon to cross the boundary from the cyber realm to physical realm. Iran hadn’t even contemplated the possibility. At first, their engineers thought they had screwed up.”

According to Zero Days, the Bush administration agreed to create Stuxnet as a form of Israeli appeasement. Anonymous US officials claimed the worm was developed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with what would seem like a long series of unfortunate accidents. Without some sort of programme, the Netanyahu administration was likely to bomb the nuclear facility at Natanz. “Obama inherited the programme and, as with drones, cranked it up,” Gibney said.

Like nuclear weapons, which were developed by the United States but soon spread to allies and enemies, the development and deployment of cyberweapons are a global risk to all societies. It is shocking that they were developed to destroy facilities producing nuclear material since they are ultimately just as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Gibney’s film shine an important light on the overreach of American and Israeli cyber warfare against external nations.

The revelations of Zero Days add to the revelations provided by Edward Snowden. Snowden leaked documents that revealed previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the United States’ NSA in close cooperation with three of its Five Eyes partners: Australia (ASD), the United Kingdom (GCHQ), and Canada (CSEC). It was revealed that the NSA was harvesting millions of email and instant messaging contact lists, searching email content, tracking and mapping the location of cell phones, undermining attempts at encryption via Bullrun and that the agency was using cookies to “piggyback” on the same tools used by internet advertisers “to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.”

These secret cyberweapons programs and other forms of digital warfare, as revealed by Snowden, point to a dangerous trend by incredibly powerful nations to target not only perceived enemies but all people, foreign and domestic. These weapons have incredible power to destroy physical infrastructure which hold together countries. Continued development and deployment by Western powers raises the risk that all military powers will follow suit and develop their own versions, as we’ve seen with nuclear weapons. It is a risk too high and should be stopped immediately.

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.


All power to the people.