Democracy did not die today

American democracy did not die today with the Senate’s shameful vote. For a democracy to die it must have first lived.

Democracy is nowhere to be found in the multi billion dollar purchase of an Imperial Presidency, or in a legislature of and for millionaires, or in an increasingly politicized judiciary with lifetime appointments. And, critically, there is also little democracy in the justice dispensed throughout the country’s courts. What happened in the Senate today is typical of the dual system of justice found in most American courtrooms. It was a tradition, not an aberration.

Slavery, genocide, and the subversion of democratic elections in other countries have been a steady feature of American “democracy.” Creating a society of equals with equal opportunity and equal representation has never been the object, as Jim Crow, voter suppression, mass-incarceration, censorship, and ever-new variations of McCarthyism attest. Denials of civil liberties and human rights to asylum seekers and immigrants, even after they reach our borders, are the result of growing nativism and xenophobia.

What we believe in is power, not justice. The pursuit of power, and the preservation of it at any cost, gave birth to a deformed — if not stillborn — democracy. Today we find these deformations most starkly in our judicial system, and there have been many examples in my own lifetime.

In 1955, Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, when he was lynched and his body discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River. The identities of his killers and the ringleaders of his lynching were never in doubt. Roy Bryant and J.W. Millam were arrested. But an all-white jury found them not guilty.

In 1963 Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1964 an all-white jury somehow could not reach a verdict. It took thirty years of fighting by Evers’ family, and finally his exhumation for additional evidence, to reopen the case against De La Beckwith.

In 1964 Ku Klux Klan “Kleagle” Edgar Ray Killen participated in the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. When Killen was finally arrested, an all-white jury refused to convict a “preacher.” Twenty years later Killen was again charged with murder, but a mostly-white jury again refused to hold him directly accountable for the murders, instead convicting him on lesser conspiracy charges.

The American military slaughtered up to two million Vietnamese and left behind birth defects from Agent Orange and bodies ripped apart by land mines long after the U.S. beat a hasty retreat from Saigon. But it was the My Lai massacre in 1968 that shamed an American justice system that failed to prosecute it and government officials who covered it up. Hundreds of civilians — the US said 347, the Vietnamese government counted 504 — were raped, bayoneted, and shot execution-style, including children, their bodies left in ditches. Only one platoon member was ever convicted. William Calley was sentenced to just three years of prison, but Richard Nixon commuted it to house arrest. Then the matter was quietly dropped. But impunity for war crimes goes back to the nation’s founding.

Tens of thousands of black people were lynched from Reconstruction through Jim Crow, and one would have thought this gruesome chapter of our history was over. But it doesn’t take much to revert to barbarism in this country. A case in point was the lynchings of African Americans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2019 The Nation and ProPublica reported on a significant number of unsolved homicides of black people in Algiers Point and elsewhere, and of the emergence of white supremacist militias that had organized the killings. After the articles were published, New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley said he’d “look into” it.

Many Americans still remember the name Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who in 2012 was shot after punching George Zimmerman, a vigilante who had been harrassing and following him. Zimmerman’s lawyers planned to defend their client on the basis of so-called “stand your ground” laws and the case received national press. Alan Dershowitz — always found playing with matches at the scene of a fire — attacked Florida’s State Attorney Angela Corey for even daring to prosecute Zimmerman. In the end a Florida jury let Zimmerman walk.

In 2013, when rich white boy Ethan Couch crammed seven of his friends into his hot red pickup truck and totaled it killing four of them, Couch’s defense lawyer claimed he was a victim of “affluenza” — a word the lawyer invented to describe the coddled teen’s irresponsibility resulting from his family wealth. Even though Couch had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit and had killed four people, the defense strategy worked. Couch was released on probation — until he fled to Mexico with his mommy.

And who will forget former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who murdered Michael Brown in 2014 and was never prosecuted? This was a case that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — a fight against precisely the sort of impunity for police violence that kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people of color every year.

Or Stanford swimmer Brock Allen Turner, who in 2015 was discovered by two graduate students in the process of raping a woman behind a fraternity house dumpster. Turner’s lawyer wrote that “he is fundamentally a good young man” and Turner’s father argued it was unfair that his rapist child should go to prison for “20 minutes of action.” The Golden Boy was given six months in jail by Judge Aaron Persky, the nearest thing to impunity justice could offer.

Or the City of Baltimore’s refusal to prosecute police officers for the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who died an excruciating death in the back of a police van. Not even Obama’s Justice Department managed to find sufficient grounds to charge any of the officers with civil rights violations. A 2016 national study examining civil rights violations by 21,000 policemen found that only 3% were ever convicted of crimes against the public. Once again, impunity trumps justice.

In 2018 Georgia white supremacist William Christopher Gibbs showed up at an emergency room afraid he had exposed himself to ricin, and he and his car tested positive for the deadly agent. But prosecutors refused to charge Gibbs with domestic terrorism, citing “technical” reasons they couldn’t charge a white terrorist at a time it was so easy to charge Muslims. To this day, the U.S. government is largely unwilling to admit any danger to society of white supremacists.

Each year roughly one thousand people are shot by police, most of them people of color and a majority unarmed. But 98% of the officers involved are never charged with murder and police usually claim “reasonable” fear for their safety as a justification for killing an unarmed civilian. It is ironic, even if not believable, that a police officer can claim “I feared for my life” — and White America believes them — while any refugee seeking asylum saying “I feared for my life” is regarded as a liar.

When Brett Kavanaugh appeared before a Senate confirmation committee in 2018, witnesses cited his sexual predation as a teenager as the reason he was unfit for the Supreme Court. Yet the Senate — as it was when Anita Hill made similar charges against Clarence Thomas — was not disturbed by any of the allegations. Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times, “Boys will be Supreme Court Justices” and she was right. Rebecca Solnit wrote that the old white men of America simply don’t want to know, and she was also right.

It is said that Justice is blind. If so, it is willfully blind. But it is clear that American justice has its eyes open wide enough to recognize color. The entire legal system, from top to bottom, offers a parallel system of justice for the rich and powerful and their enforcers, the police and military. For everyone else, especially if you are a person of color, the United States is the world’s largest police state. So central is police control in our way of life, American foreign policy is often conflated with being the “world’s policeman.”

And in a system that offers punishment for most and impunity for some, even pardons must be misused in the most obscene fashion.

In 2019 Donald Trump pardoned SEAL commander “Eddie” Gallagher and promoted him even after a military court found him guilty and demoted him in rank. Members of Gallagher’s SEAL Team 7 claimed he had killed innocent civilians and murdered an unconscious prisoner, then posed for pictures with the corpse. One platoon member who testified said of Gallagher, “The guy is freaking evil.” According to testimony, when the SEALs captured an injured ISIS fighter Gallagher stabbed him repeatedly in the neck. Another platoon member turned off his helmet cam immediately before the fighter died. Besides Gallagher, Trump also pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted on federal civil rights charges, and Dinesh D’Souza who was convicted of federal campaign violations.

Americans like to say we are a “nation of laws” but what we have should rightly be called an oligarchy, a kleptocracy, or a kakistocracy in which the usual rules of law don’t apply to those with high-level connections. Whatever you call this system, just don’t call it a “democracy.”

The 2008 financial crisis was another example of the American justice system revealing itself as an agent of impunity for financial criminality. In 2014 — six years after the financial crash — ProPublica and the New York Times reported that the only Wall Street executive to ever be prosecuted as a result of the crisis was Kareem Serageldin. Meanwhile, in prisons all over the United States there are people still serving life sentences for marijuana possession. To add insult to injury, rather than hold Wall Street accountable for its own losses, a bipartisan group of rich and powerful men decided to make taxpayers cough up the almost 1.5 trillion dollars necessary to bail out Wall Street.

Last week a friend sent me a piece by Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker — “El Chapo outraged that his trial included witnesses.” It seemed funny at the time. Or would have been if it hadn’t so painfully highlighted the impunity granted to a traitorous criminal by the United States Senate.

So let us not weep. Democracy did not die today. You cannot mourn what never lived.

The Radical King

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, and I followed columnist Esther Cepeda in reading King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve also been reading Cornel West’s “The Radical King,” which reprints many of Martin Luther King’s more “radical” essays and sermons. King’s analysis of America’s original sin is undeniable, but his views on power and nonviolence are difficult to wrap one’s head around, at least for a non-believer like me. I am grateful for Cornel West — who among other things is a Baptist minister — for assembling an anthology that provides a religious window into King’s radical politics. Or maybe visa versa.

West sees no contradiction between the man most know as the Nonviolent King and the one he calls the Radical King. King’s nonviolence, for all the nods to Ghandi and other religious traditions, was rooted in his Christianity and specifically in the Black Church. There were also connections to the Jewish prophetic tradition — in which prophets rage against the evils of kings and tyrants. This may be one reason for King’s friendship with Abraham Joshua Heschel.

King’s most famous speech was part of a 1963 march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and when he was killed King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. King told his staff in 1966, “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” King traveled across the country with his Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign that Rev. William Barber today is trying to revive. And though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, four years later King still found himself fighting for civil and economic rights when he was assassinated in 1968.

The America of 1968 was the America of Always — not only on the verge of imploding from racial injustice but also from economic injustices and wars of choice that kill black, brown and poor white men and bankrupt America financially and morally. At quite a cost to his own political capital, and even putting himself at odds with other black leaders, King spoke out against American militarism and materialism.

King was regarded as the “most dangerous man in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, who also tried to brand King as a Soviet asset — not because he was a nonviolent advocate of racial equality (which was most certainly true), but because he represented a challenge to economic and political exploitation.

We are all familiar with the “long arc” optimism of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but no one ever got to hear the more pessimistic sermon King had planned to deliver the Sunday after he was murdered, “Why America May Go To Hell.”

Before his death the Radical King had grown disillusioned with white liberals whose solidarity never matches our rhetoric, and he witnessed a repudiation of nonviolence among many of his supporters. In one essay King discusses Stokely Carmichael’s rejection of both white allies and nonviolence. With increased physical repression, members of Carmichael’s SNCC, CORE, and Deacons for Defense were all beginning to question the limits of nonviolent strategy. In the excerpt West chose on “Black Power” from 1967, King never repudiates nonviolence but clearly understands and even appreciates the reasons Black Power advocates gave for their willingness to use force if necessary:

“Black Power advocates contend that the Negro must develop his own sense of strength. No longer are ‘fear, awe, and obedience’ to rule. This accounts for, though it does not justify, some Black Power advocates who encourage contempt and even civil disobedience as alternatives to the old patterns of slavery. Black Power assumes that Negroes will be slaves unless there is a new power to counter the force of the men who are still determined to be masters rather than brothers.”

By coincidence, my book group’s selection this month was Colson Whitehead’s “Nickel Boys,” set in Tallahassee, Florida in 1962. The very first page begins with Elwood Curtis’s thoughts on a ten cent record of Martin Luther King’s speeches. King’s speeches served other purposes than a moral call to action. For kids like Elwood, King’s words were educational and also an affirmation of black pride:

“In the third cut on side A, Dr. King spoke of how his daughter longed to visit the amusement park on Stewart Avenue in Atlanta. […] Dr. King had to tell her in his low, sad rumble about the segregation system that kept colored boys and girls on the other side of the fence. Explain the misguided thinking of some whites — not all whites, but enough whites — that gave it force and meaning. He counseled his daughter to resist the lure of hatred and bitterness and assured her that ‘Even though you can’t go to Fun Town, I want you to know that you are as good as anybody who goes into Fun Town.’ That was Elwood — as good as anyone.”

Elwood is well-read, naive, and a bit of a geek. And when his bicycle chain snaps, Elwood ends up being arrested along with the driver of the stolen Plymouth he has hitched a ride with. Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, a great believer in doing things by the book, respectably, hires a white lawyer who then absconds with the $200 intended to defend Elwood. Elwood ends up in Nickel Academy, a segregated prison camp for boys, where many go missing without explanation.

Whitehead’s book deals with the boys’ attitudes toward resistance and compliance, particularly in a prison setting long after Jim Crow should have disappeared. A boy appropriately named Turner “with an eerie sense of self” who knows that only he is ultimately responsible for his own safety is the foil for the tragically well-behaved and trusting Elwood.

In one passage which seems to illustrate the divide between Black Power and King’s nonviolent approach, Elwood is still trying to make sense of Dr. King’s agape (pure love):

“He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side of the struggle. Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now:

Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win our freedom.

The capacity to suffer. Elwood — all the Nickel boys — existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

Indeed. What an impossible thing.

As he stated somewhat prophetically in his last speech, King had been to the mountain top. And King had seen the Big Picture if not been given sacred insight. King’s early sermons were well-crafted moral calls to action, Christian in style and language, but frequently referenced other religious traditions. King was often ecumenical and always accessible. For example, in 1956 King delivered a sermon to 12,000 people at an Episcopal cathedral in New York City on the second anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. His talk was about evil. King’s sermon contained the seeds of the same argument that so perplexed our young Elwood:

“Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

Some will find King’s argument for nonviolence unconvincing (and I am one). There are both political and religious reasons for this. I can well imagine Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing with King about pikuach nefesh — the Jewish obligation to save human life. Some admire radical King’s love for the oppressed — except for perhaps 60% of the American white population. Some admire the prophetic King for speaking truth to power, while others are surprised at his growing understanding of (and even sympathy for) those advocating change “by any means necessary” (King had approached Malcolm X in 1966 about working together on a UN resolution).

Though King believed in ecumenism and frequently linked arms with men of different faiths, West cautions us to always remember that King’s

“radical love flows from an imitation of Christ, a response to an invitation of self-surrender in order to emerge fully equipped to fight for justice in a cold and cruel world of domination and exploitation. The scandal of the Cross is precisely the unstoppable and unsuffocatable love that keeps moving in a blood-soaked history, even in our catastrophic times. There is no radical King without his commitment to radical love.”

Though it has become expected that pundits and even some white supremacists will quote King and visit the various memorials that commemorate his life and words, King was a complicated man. Despite his rejection of violence, King’s speeches empowered at least one generation of young black men and women like Elwood. King’s anthologized words cannot be reduced to easily-digestible snacks, even for those who admire him. Cornel West’s collection shows us, in King’s own words, some of that complexity and contradiction.

Martin Luther King’s ideas continue to challenge Americans to examine the roots of our national sin, to consider with clear eyes a strategy that may have failed King himself, and to look for new solutions to heal this blighted nation.

That is, if America doesn’t go to Hell first.

“A little late, gentlemen”

As the United States continues to slide into fascism, I have been rereading Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” concerning the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of a war criminal who expressed himself in cliches, was an ambitious braggart, an egregious liar, an ignorant sociopath, someone attracted to and utterly at the service of men of power. We have many of these creatures living among us today. It could happen here. It is happening here.

In Arendt’s discussion of how ordinary Germans made themselves accomplices in something so monstrous as the Holocaust, she touches on the coup attempt that almost ended Hitler’s regime. Arendt quotes from German novelist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, who himself died in a concentration camp on the eve of the collapse of the Third Reich. In his “Diary of a Man in Despair” Reck-Malleczewen writes of those who participated in the dictatorship who could have stopped Hitler early on — but only thought of it too late to save their nation.

I swear, he was talking to the Republican Senators of 2020:

“A little late, gentlemen, you who made this archdestroyer of [the nation] and ran after him, as long as everything seemed to be going well; you who […] without hesitation swore every oath demanded of you and reduced yourselves to the despicable flunkies of this criminal […] Now, when the bankruptcy can no longer be concealed, they betray the house that went broke, in order to establish a political alibi for themselves — the same men who have betrayed everything that was in the way of their claim to power.”