In part one of this special two-part Month in Review marking this column's 100th installment, Francesca Fiorentini surveys the avalanche of July's news from the Zimmerman verdict and battles over immigration and voting rights to the raging conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Palestine-Israel. Highlighting the spreading and diverse movements of the 99 percent, Francesca prepares the ground for next month's effort to recap the changes since Month in Review #1 in 2005, offering an estimate of where the fights against militarism, racism, and inequality stand at this perilous moment.
The world’s 99 percent are on the move. Though myriad, these movements coalesce around the notion of defending a dream: a dream of justice in Florida, of democracy in Egypt, freedom in Guantanamo, of honor instead of prison for Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and all whistleblowers. A dream of workers' rights in Detroit, human rights for the undocumented, and that Black Lives Matter everywhere.
But how does one defend a dream? Something not yet seen but shimmering on the horizon. Something intangible yet pulling on our every fiber. At a time when the world’s leaders move us toward division, war, and militarism, the world’s people are raising banners of love. Perhaps it is therefore a reminder from the Universe that August will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An international symbol of justice and love, King’s universal dream of equality and justice has not yet come to pass but is every bit worth fighting for.
STANDING OUR GROUND AGAINST THE RIGHT
Hell-bent on winding back the clock against the dream of Dr. King and the gains of not just the Civil Rights Movement but those of women and workers, the right has claimed some grim victories this month. If in 2010 their gerrymandering electoral strategy blossomed throughout the U.S. with the takeover of state legislatures in the South; in 2013 that strategy is bearing fruit and claiming lives. None of it has gone without a fight.
The month began with a green light to voter disenfranchisement of the poor and people of color with the repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that so many Civil Rights activists sacrificed their lives to achieve. Though there are now signs that the State Department may try and continue to oversee voting changes, the Court decision opened the way for states like North Carolina to pass some of the worst voter suppression bills since Jim Crow. In response, 12 students of the Forward Together Movement staged a sit-in of House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office, where six were later arrested. North Carolina is also home to Moral Mondays, a mutli-sector fightback begun in April in which thousands of Northern Carolinians have gathered—and over 900 arrested—protesting an endless slew of attacks against workers and people of color.
The second hit this month was the ambush on women’s health as Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin all passed new series of restrictions on abortion rights while further stifling birth control access and the work of rape crisis prevention centers. Though pro-choice efforts were defeated and voices silenced, activists continue to fight restrictions on legal grounds, and Senator Wendy Davis—who filibustered abortion restrictions in Texas for 13 hours—now has her sights set on the governorship.
Third was the Senate’s passage of S744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” which many immigrant rights groups are calling a slap in the face. While creating a supposed path to citizenship for 11 million people that would take decades, the bill will grant a swift and whopping 82 percent increase in so-called border security. It is full-blown border militarization, with a doubling of border patrol agents, more helicopters, marine vessels, cameras, radiation detectors, and other paraphernalia. It is a boon for military contractors looking for new war markets in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and (not soon enough) Afghanistan. But even this “border surge” bill as many are now referring to it, may not be harsh enough for Republicans in the House, who are threatening to offer 'enforcement only' alternatives.
Still, young immigrants' rights activists will not be demobilized. The Dream 9, a group of undocumented U.S. college graduates—six of whom had been forced to leave the country and three who left in solidarity— led a daring and powerful act of protest this month by trying to re-enter the country dressed in their graduation gowns. And in Illinois, youth-led groups have staged actions outside of ICE offices, detention centers, and at fundraisers to stop the policing of immigrants. These young dreamers will not been tamed by the watered down versions of reform now on offer in Washington.
Then came a sign that main street keeps bearing the burden of Wall Street’s failures, as Detroit’s recent bankruptcy claim will cut the already slim pensions of over 21,000 public sector workers by 83 percent. Unions are raising legal challenges against the claim and have directly appealed to the Obama Administration for a bailout of the city’s people, given that $82 billion in taxpayer money was handed to the very automobile companies that had abandoned them. Youth with AFSME’s Next Wave have also been taking action against anti-worker austerity plans of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and his undemocratically appointed emergency manager Keyvn Orr. How bankruptcy proceedings now play out and the popular resistance that can be mounted will be critical for future cases of state governments making workers pay the price for capitalism’s fiascos.
But it was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin— facilitated by ALEC and the NRA’s “Stand Your Ground” laws— that best laid bare the disregard for Black lives that is such a central feature of today's overall right-wing crusade. Set against a backdrop of so many renewed attacks on Black communities around the country, the verdict came down like the heaviest boot on the advances of the 1950s and 60s. Suddenly, the nation was transported back to 1955 when two white men were acquitted for murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till for the “crime” of speaking with a white woman. Just as Trayvon’s “crime” was walking through a white neighborhood with candy and a soda.
If Till’s murder was emblematic of injustice during Jim Crow, 60 years later Trayvon's is a symbol of the continued racial injustice suffered by Black youth through policing and the broken justice system. But out of the ashes of the demonization of African-American youth surrounding the Zimmerman trial, a new movement of young Black and Latino leaders has emerged. Calling themselves the Dream Defenders, this growing movement of Floridians includes an ongoing occupation of the state capitol building since July 15. They are demanding that governor Rick Scott repeal the Stand Your Ground Law and pass the Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act. Gaining momentum and support throughout the country, the Dream Defenders have sparked a new and necessary movement for civil rights, propelled by the radical notion that inspired their predecessors: Black lives matter.
The verdict also prompted— in this writer’s estimation— the most meaningful words to come from the President’s mouth during his five years in office. Identifying himself with Trayvon Martin, Obama spoke of the hostility of everyday racism, and the anger in the Black community when issues of race are not contextualized within a history of “racial disparity” –also known as slavery and white supremacy.
INCHING TOWARD DIPLOMACY?
One area in which the Right has been momentarily stymied is in their quest for more wars and military escalations. Right-wing legislators and pundits are eager to unleash the “hounds of hell” at every opportunity, therefore even small defeats for them means saving lives. This month there have been signs of more thought before military action than we’ve seen in a decade, cracks between elite policymakers, and a shift toward actual diplomacy.
In an encouraging move by the House, 131 representatives signed a statement urging the White House to commit to pursuing negotiations with Iran. The significance of the country’s recent elections that will bring moderate Hassan Rouhani into presidency in August was not lost on Congress. Their attitude is a vital change from the days of warmongering during the presidential elections just a year ago, when Romney and right-wing hawks chomped at the bit to find a way to “defend Israel’s honor” by starting a nuclear war.
None of this sits well with Israel's Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has once again pushed play on his well-worn tape entitled “Why the US Should Bomb Iran So Everyone Can Forget About Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine”. If Iranians electing a moderate weren’t enough, the European Union then threw a dump truck of cold water on the Israeli right. It agreed that all 28-member states are forbidden to fund or cooperate with entities beyond the 1967 borders, restricting things such as scholarships, research grants, and prizes. At a time when Israel seems to be approving new settlements in East Jerusalem at lightening pace, the significance of a move like this cannot be understated.
Meanwhile Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announced a resumption of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. But considering that they are based on the same skewed conditions of 21 years of failed negotiations and being stewarded from Washington by former AIPAC lobbyist Martin Indyk, it’s no expert’s guess that these too will fall flat.
With more than 100,000 killed and an estimated 6,000 refugees a day, the humanitarian crisis worsens in Syria. Opposition forces have been increasingly divided – with the Sunni jihadist faction gaining strength – and the Syrian National Coalition has failed to gain legitimacy. Meanwhile the bloody tag team of rebel vs. Assad city occupations rages on. Beginning as a nonviolent peoples’ struggle against a corrupt authoritarian regime, the disfigured revolution now leads one to ask: what and who will be left to dream in Syria? While much of the media is quick to paint the conflict with a sectarian brush of Sunni versus Shia, others warn against this reductionism and remind us that the war in Syria is primarily a political one. As Marwa Douda writes, “the way forward lies in de-escalation, in the ‘de-sectarianization’ of both narratives and practices.”
Not by arming rebels, nor targeted strikes, nor establishing no fly zones, nor any of the billion-dollar and no-success-guaranteed military options Joint Secretary General Martin Dempsey spelled out to the Senate Armed Services Committee this month. It was a reality check for hawks like Senator John McCain who have been insisting that U.S. involvement in yet another war in the Middle East is somehow a good idea.
Dempsey’s sobering letter shows the political maturation (as opposed to 10 years ago) of looking before leaping into war, and has temporary put a lid on hawkish pleas. There are also relieving signs the Obama has been rightfully reluctant and concerned with the legal implications of US involvement in Syria, despite still going ahead with a plan to give rebels small arms. Yet as more evidence of radical Islamist elements making up a large part of the Syrian resistance comes to light, even those plans are in the air. British commanders have warned the Cameron Administration against sending weapons and France has said it will refrain from doing so until it can be sure they will not bolster such radical elements. Are at least some diplomats finally learning history’s lessons?
TWEAKING THE “WAR ON TERROR”
These rays of light don’t mean that Washington has actually shed its “war on terror” mentality; rather that it is changing form. Four glaring emblems of endless war remain: Guantanamo, Afghanistan, targeted killings via drones, and the war on whistleblowers.
On Afghanistan and drones, there has been some small movement. Peace talks between the U.S. military, the Karzai government, and the Taliban seem to be advancing despite stops and starts. As analyst Phyllis Bennis sees it, Washington might be viewing the December 2014 immunity agreement expiration date—when the 68,000 remaining troops will no longer be above Afghan law—as an inevitable impetus for full withdrawal. Afghan-led talks are also being supported by Pakistan, a country that has seen some relief from CIA drone strikes after the public and even the military have pressured Pakistani and U.S. officials to end these attacks.
Yet there has been little relief for the 166 men who still languish in Guantanamo. Despite Obama’s “renewed commitment” to closing the prison, the White House’s absence in a recent Senate hearing on the prison—the first in nine years!—shows a gaping lack of political will and leadership. At least 120 prisoners continue on a hunger strike that began in February, 45 of whom are being force-fed. This despite 86 Yemeni nationals being cleared for release in May, which will hopefully be the focus of current meetings between Obama and Yemeni President Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi.
The final vestige of endless war is also its first casualty: the truth. Bradley Manning was acquitted of "aiding the enemy" but still faces 100 years in prison for exposing the dirty underside of Washington's foreign policy and wars. Manning's fate bears heavily on that of former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden who Washington has left stateless and holed up in a Moscow airport for all of July. After downplaying its interest in arresting Snowden, the Obama administration did everything but to capture the man who pulled the curtain on the NSA’s massive spying program. Things like pressuring European nations—the same on which the NSA is also spying— to refuse Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane from entering their airspace, and appealing to Putin’s soft side by saying that Snowden won’t be tortured or killed if extradited, all amount to an embarrassing display of the frazzled global cop.
Lucky for Snowden, who stated his worst fear is that information leaked would fall on deaf ears, progressive and libertarian-leaning Congress people agree on one thing: protecting privacy. In a shockingly close vote, the House came just 12 “yeas” shy of passing a bill that would have defunded the NSA program that collects sweeping records of Americans’ phone calls. The most notable part of the vote is what Glenn Greenwald breaks down so scathingly: the coming together of establishment Democrats and GOP leaders in defense of NSA spying, thereby laying bare a “decaying establishment leadership of both political parties whose allegiance is to the sprawling permanent power faction in Washington and the private industry that owns and controls it.” For those of us on the left looking to end these Big Brother practices, this congressional fissure will be critical to exploit.
July began and ended with the world’s eyes on Egypt. First with a massive popular uprising and then a military coup against President Mohamed Morsi; followed by a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that refused to negotiate until their leader’s reinstatement; and finally, ending in days of bloodshed as the police opened fire on pro-Morsi supporters killing at least 80. Once again, the cry of many Egyptians for true democracy seems to be momentarily smothered, as the military government and media look to further drive divisions by targeting Islamic political organizations. Some Egyptians still try to carve out space for a “third square”—against Morsi’s Presidency but also against a return of iron-fisted military rule with the same brass that propped up Mubarak’s 30-year-reign. The situation will continue to be in flux for months.
The Egyptian military in power means the U.S. will inevitably have greater leverage in the country given its $1.3 billion in military aid, thus far uninterrupted. The Obama Administration did halt a shipment of 20 F-16 fighter jets to the country, signifying that Washington’s is thinking before offering blanket support. Now with Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s all out war on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, the U.S. has called on the interim government to de-escalate the situation but aid continues to flow.
The dreams of Egyptians, whose revolution inspired movements the world over, remain intact. Interrupted, perhaps not yet tangible, but still somewhere on the horizon.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
Francesca Fiorentini is an independent journalist and comedian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Before working with War Times she was an editor with Left Turn magazine andWIN: Through Revolutionary Nonviolence, the magazine of the War Resisters League. She writes, produces, and directs the comedy video blog Laugh to Not Cry. Follow her @franifio
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