Katrina, War, Impeachment and the Black Gulag
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
"We must go back to basics, to the ingredients that brought us so far in such a short time in the brief period of the Freedom Movement."
We are witnessing the final dissolution of both the Democratic Party and established Black leadership formations as effective agents of domestic social change and world peace. Corporate power has swallowed the Party whole, and is smothering or absorbing the residue of what was once a powerful Black people's movement. The devastation is all but complete, as is evident when one examines the response to the crises of Katrina, the Iraq War, the necessity to impeach, and the hellish and inexorable growth of a Black American Gulag through mass incarceration.
The Black Gulag - the product of a people-savaging national public policy that began as a mass white societal response to the Sixties Freedom Movement and metastasizes each year regardless of crime rates - isn't even an issue for Democratic leadership. No wonder, since both Democrats and Republicans have conspired over two generations to place a million African Americans behind bars at any given moment, creating a toxic prison culture that poisons every arena of Black life. During the watch of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's husband, Bill, more Blacks were thrown in prison than under any other president in history.
"Black misleadership class is ‘more embarrassed than outraged' at the volcanic emergence of a million-man-and-woman Black Prison Nation."
Mass Black incarceration is not a priority among Black elite formations, either. A deep historical current in Black political culture avoids even a discussion of horrendous imprisonment rates that tear at the very fibers of Black society. Preachers would rather internalize and moralize the ongoing state assault on Black life, while the Black misleadership class, as I have written, is "more embarrassed than outraged" at the volcanic emergence of a million-man-and-woman Black Prison Nation, through which doors multiple millions of the next generation will pass.
The battle against Black mass incarceration cannot be said to have been lost, because it never began. These are the rotten fruits of the impotence of - no, betrayal by - the class that demanded the Freedom Movement be shut down, after Dr. Martin Luther King's death, so that they would have the space and quiet to pursue newly available business and public office opportunities. Vote for me, or support my economic upward mobility, and it will set you free, said the New Class. They lied, and the masses of Black Americans are less politically focused than at any time since Emancipation. More have lost their basic freedoms than at any time since slavery.
Katrina - the monstrous boil on the national political body that burst with the levees, two years ago - should have been a watershed moment for Black America, a grotesque but clarifying historical window into the real nature of U.S. society and its rulers. For the masses of Blacks, it was. Young people who never knew Jim Crow in the raw were forced to recognize basic truths, as when Kanye West uttered what to him seemed a revelation: "George Bush doesn't like Black people."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, having left Katrina out of her "first hundred hours" agenda in January, this month toured New Orleans with a 15-member Democratic delegation, making the proper noises of solidarity with the fraction of the Black population that remains. She was also careful not to offend the white Democrats who are as culpable as Republicans in preventing the city's far-flung Diaspora from achieving their "right to return," "right of citizenship in the city," "right to participate in the rebuilding" of New Orleans and the other rights outlined in the 12-point Citizens Bill of Rights promulgated by the African American Leadership Project, September 22 2005, less than a month after the deluge.
"Pelosi's real concern was that the Katrina issue was, in Chuck D's immortal words, ‘Too Black, Too Strong.'"
Pelosi's response to the pleas of Black New Orleans was to muzzle House Democrats, including the Congressional Black Caucus, barring them from participating in Republican-led hearings on Katrina and its aftermath. The rationale was that the GOP, then in control of all committees, would dominate the conversation. But of course, the same logic would have precluded Democratic participation in any hearings on any subject while Republicans remained in the majority - yet the injunction was only imposed on Katrina. Pelosi's real concern was that the Katrina issue was, in Chuck D's immortal words, "Too Black, Too Strong," and might cause white voters to identify the Democratic Party too closely with African Americans, endangering prospects of capturing the House in 2006. As a body, the Congressional Black Caucus swallowed Pelosi's Kool-Aid, with the notable exception of Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who participated in the hearings in defiance of leadership.
The same "don't get too close to the Blacks" rationale dictated that Pelosi leave Katrina out of her "first one hundred hours" pitch in the 2006 mid-term campaign. Then, this Spring, Pelosi unleashed Black lawmakers and others to hold hearings on a variety of Katrina-related subjects - a gesture that looked more like loosening a safety valve on Black discontent than a prelude to restoration of New Orleans' original population. Black Democratic Whip James Clyburn (SC) announced the belated offensive, but 18 months after the catastrophe, the historical moment had passed, skillfully circumvented by the congresswoman from San Francisco, and acquiesced to by a meek and compliant Black Caucus. There can be no doubt that, as the 2008 elections near, Pelosi will again quash all substantive proposals to make Black New Orleans whole, once again aggressively shedding excessive Democratic Party identification with Black interests. The August Democratic tour of the Gulf was a pitiful gesture, a harmless and farcical "Black Summer of Discontent" that will pass unnoticed by history.
Black misleadership, as presently constituted, is also fated for the dustbin, having utterly failed the historical test of Katrina. As I wrote in October, 2005:
"Cruel history presents the catastrophe as an unwanted opportunity, a test of Black people's capacity for the operational unity craved by the vast bulk of African Americans. The pain and anger in Black America is all but universal, and demands collective action, the outcome of which will largely define the true State of Black America as it has evolved over the last two generations."
"The lost opportunity for mass Black action can never be regained."
If Katrina could not galvanize Black institutional structures to decisive action, resulting in the mobilization of millions, then those structures are moribund and flaccid. The lost opportunity for mass Black action can never be regained. Contrast this with the response of mainly Hispanic immigrants, their sons and daughters, to the threat of repressive legislation. Millions of Latinos staged coordinated demonstrations in scores of cities, with the active assistance of Spanish-language media. Yet, on the Black side of the divide, as we wrote in the inaugural issue of Black Agenda Report:
"If the national Black political infrastructure, such as it is, could not set masses in motion after Katrina, when African Americans were as one in their concentrated anger and collective will to do something, then what currently passes for leadership will never effectively mobilize Black folks for anything. They have lost the tools and desire to fight, and cannot function as leaders even when the people cry out for common action.
"Had Black people been called out en masse, they would have come - but the historical moment has slipped away, wasted. In a few years, a new generation of Black activists will deploy themselves in structures of radical resistance, their world views shaped by the multiple crimes of Katrina. But in the near term, it must be recognized that not only have African Americans been numerically overtaken by Hispanics, we have been eclipsed in mass organizing, as well."
War - by now one of the few pistons running the engine of the U.S. economy, while also guaranteeing its eventual collapse - is the enemy of every agenda item of the Historical Black Consensus. George Bush's policy of endless warfare condemns Black America to permanent deferral of urban transformation, in all its aspects. There can be no revitalization of the cities - except under corporate terms under which Black removal is a prerequisite - while the public treasury is poured into the black hole of the War Industry.
In the aftermath of 9/11, decades of struggle against racial profiling were erased in an instant; now, every non-Aryan-looking person is fair game for profiling, and Black complaints are deemed petty, as if removed from history. Vast income and wealth disparities must take a back seat - all the way to the back - to the spending imperatives of war, most of which ultimately winds up in the hands of what I dubbed the "Pirate Class," epitomized by Halliburton, Bechtel and other pillars of the ruling order - which also happen to be the behemoth "reconstructors" of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf region. Wars have always accelerated the rate of structural change in societies. Corporate wars - the only kind the U.S. wages, these days - direct all restructuring to the most non-productive corporate coffers.
The forces that animate George Bush intend to keep the restructuring process on full throttle. As I wrote in December, 2002, three months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq:
"The predator-scavenger class must...reproduce itself to meet the demands of permanent war, changing fundamentally the relationship of forces within American business as a whole. The Cheney-Bush pirates are about to birth a new brood of billionaire pillagers and parasites with no direct connection to the well being of the domestic economy and those of us who depend on it."
Black folks used to complain about the abandonment of the cities, and our resultant disproportionate suffering. Permanent War, an integral component of the latest stage of U.S. imperialism, marginalizes everyone but the super-privileged, and Black folks most of all. Yet much of Black leadership and the African American public reflexively support Barack Obama, whose imperial bent is not even closeted. Obama wants to add 100,000 additional soldiers and Marines to the U.S. Armed Forces - more manpower for the imperial mission that feeds the coffers of War Industry and starves out any hope of domestic social transformation. No "new" New Orleans that embraces the aspirations of the original population - no revitalized cities in which the current residents needs are served. No wonder Obama has no plan for urban America, or to ameliorate rampaging inequalities; militarism will ensure there will be no money, no matter who is president.
"A bankrupt Black misleadership at the end of the day gives a pass to the militarism that will be the death of every Black dream of a just society."
Hillary Clinton, who garners most of the other fraction of Black support, is wife of the man who crushed majority Democratic opposition to NAFTA "free trade" legislation, in an alliance with Republicans. This version of "free trade" and war are pieces of the same cloth, as are the unequal rules of the dollar-based oil business, and international bankers' "debt" practices in the developing world. All must be backed up by the ultimate threat of military enforcement of the prevailing order. Thus, Obama's call for 100,000 new troops as the U.S. continues its unique "mission" in the world.
African Americans have historically opposed U.S. military adventures abroad - "White Man's Wars," we used to call them - and still do, as all the data show. But a bankrupt Black misleadership, many of whom mollify their constituents with occasional anti-war rhetoric, at the end of the day gives a pass to the militarism that will be the death of every Black dream of a just society. Genuine anti-war lawmakers like California congresspersons Maxine Brown and Barbara Lee are among the exceptions in the Congressional Black Caucus; many other CBC members have signed on to the Out of Iraq Caucus that Waters and Lee lead, but nevertheless vote for continued funding of the war. In the Congress, Black leadership becomes a charade, and "progressive" white Democratic leadership, the mask Nancy Pelosi continues to wear, is most often mislabeled.
Impeachment - the only way to stop the criminals in power from committing executive mayhem, and to prevent succeeding presidents of either party from using the tools of oppression inherited from Bush - is a no-brainer in Black America. As BAR's Bruce Dixon wrote last week, "No constituency is as heavily in favor of impeachment as Black America." The entire roster of the Congressional Black Caucus should be on record as favoring impeachment of Bush and Cheney, by popular acclamation of their constituents - but only a fraction are. African Americans and genuine progressives look to my old friend, Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the Judiciary Committee where impeachment proceedings must begin, as a leader on this issue. But Conyers' leader is Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House. Although many of us anticipated more of him in this crisis, he cannot possibly be expected to act as a Black "leader." He is embedded in a white dominated Democratic Party machinery that long ago decided Blacks were an albatross around their necks - despite the fact that many of them cannot win dogcatcher offices without us.
"The entire roster of the Congressional Black Caucus should be on record as favoring impeachment of Bush and Cheney, by popular acclimation of their constituents."
If there is a fool out there that thinks we are advocating some kind of accommodation with Republicans, he should check into the nearest psych ward. We must go back to basics, to the ingredients that brought us so far in such a short time in the brief period of the Freedom Movement. Moribund misleadership must be replaced by mass mobilizers, organizers responsive to the essentially progressive instincts of the Black public at-large - a people whom noted political scientist Michael Dawson describes as politically akin to "Swedish Social Democrats," far to the left of what passes for "liberal" in white American terms.
Our enemy is corporate capital, which has polluted every nook and cranny of electoral and traditional Black politics. The Congressional Black Caucus has been broken like an egg. Black institutions contort themselves and their agendas to seek corporate funding. The corporate media voice is a monotone, celebrating the rise of a "new" generation of "Black leaders" that rejects confrontation with the powers-that-be and, like Barack Obama, questions the relevance of race-based grievances. That's money talking. But we are a loud people, and our voices will be heard.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be reached at [email protected].