March Madness: Theirs and Ours

Tomas and wife Claudia. Photo by Frank Morris
Memorial poster for Kimani Gray. Photo: Reuters, Lucas Jackson
By Michael Reagan
March, 2013

Michael Reagan connects the war in Iraq, elite impunity, the police murder of Kimani Gray, the Steubenville rape case, and the "sequester" assault on the poor, to the "madness from the top" that structures U.S. society.   

It's March and despite what you read on the sports pages the real madness in the country isn't on the basketball court. It's on the streets of New York where police murder another Black teenager. It's in Steubenville, Ohio, where a teenage girl is raped by high school athletes and a culture of misogyny blames the victim. It's in the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which passed without a single perpetrator of that lie-based bloodletting facing any consequences whatsoever. And it's in “sequestration,” a special kind of “structural violence” that targets the most vulnerable among us. This kind of madness, madness from the top, rooted in the violence and self-interest of the powerful, is enough to drive many of the rest of us mad in a different sense. We're mad with the kind of anger and outrage that leads to resistance.


March 19 marked the ten-year anniversary of the official invasion of Iraq, and still the human devastation continues to pile up like trash and wreckage in the streets of Baghdad.  Among the detritus is the personal story of Tomas Young, a soldier and resister, subject of the 2007 film “Body of War.” Young decided this month to kill himself by starvation. In 2003 on his first day in Iraq his truck was shot at by insurgents. Young’s spinal cord was severed. In the years since a combination of poor medical care and his deteriorating condition caused him such excruciating pain that Young decided to end his life. Considering his death part of his resistance to the Army and the Iraq War, Young made his suicide public in a letter to George Bush and Dick Cheney, expressing the rage, sorrow and madness of so many who dealt with the war personally.

The tragedy of the loss of Young is just the tip of the iceberg.  His action highlights the physical and mental condition of so many, especially the countless Iraqi civilians whose lives have been destroyed by the war.  A comprehensive report from Brown University’s Cost of War project chronicles the continuing impacts of the war.  Hundreds of thousands killed, the overwhelming majority civilian, by direct violence.  The report notes that with secondary effects included, the loss of health care facilities (intentionally targeted by the U.S.), infrastructure, the environmental impacts of depleted uranium and other toxins, the death toll is much higher.  This kind of calculus is hard to process, its human impacts beyond rational thought.

This kind of calculus is hard to process, its human impacts beyond rational thought.

In addition to the deaths, Iraq’s infrastructure and civil society are in shambles. Human Rights Watch reports that the Iraqi government is increasingly authoritarian and makes regular use of torture and disappearances. Their report highlights that these are U.S. responsibilities since “the abuses U.S. officials allegedly authorized in the early years of the war… and their tacit or direct complicity in Iraqi abuses throughout the occupation, are all partly responsible for the entrenchment of weak and corrupt institutions in Iraq.”

The HRW report was supplemented this month by an explosive investigation by the UK Guardian that linked the establishment of secret Iraqi police squads for torture and disappearances - the so-called El Salvador option- directly to the highest level of U.S. planners. The report has the man responsible for establishing death squads in El Salvador and Iraq, James Steele, mentioned in public addresses by name by none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld forwarded Steele’s memos directly to Bush and Cheney.

Human Rights Watch notes that neither the UK nor the U.S. has “set in motion a comprehensive public inquiry into the abuse, nor held senior-level officials accountable for war crimes.” So while the deaths and human misery in the wake of the horrible war continue to pile up, no one in the US, especially not George Bush who has taken to amateur painting, nor Dick Cheney who recently told the press that “if I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute,” is being held accountable under the Obama administration. 

This is in stark contrast to the genocide trials in Guatemala, undertaken on the same day as the Iraq war anniversary. In Guatemala, General Efrain Rios Montt and several of his associates are facing trial for the crimes they committed in the genocidal civil war.  A coalition of civil society groups, including indigenous organizations and human rights and legal aid programs have struggled for decades to bring those responsible to account. It’s a lesson in social justice organizing that we have a lot to learn from here. 

In the U.S., the culture of impunity is not just limited to Bush, Cheney, and the invasion of Iraq.  Obama too has committed war crimes. Among them are  assassinations of U.S. citizens and their children and the now public legal justification for it, and the never ending nightmare of Guantanamo where in the last months one hundred remaining detainees have sustained a nearly two-month hunger strike, while one of their members was shot by a guard for trying to escape. These crimes, and the impunity mentioned here, of Iraq, Guantanamo and targeted assassinations, the impunity of the executive,  is not just limited to the Chief Executive, but to the entire executive class, the rich and powerful banks and CEOs who act criminally without consequence, as Glenn Greenwald points out in his most recent book. The crimes of Iraq, the human devastation, the impunity and the realization that these atrocities barely scratch the surface of ongoing US crimes, are the madness of America, a madness from the top, of power and violence and privilege.


While Thomas Young in Kansas City dies for the crimes of power, in New York and cities across the nation Black youth like Kimani Gray are murdered in an entirely different kind of madness. Gray, a sixteen year old East Flatbush, Brooklyn resident was shot by police in unknown circumstances.  Witnesses say Gray was prostrate on the ground pleading for his life when officers shot him.  Police say the teenager, known as Kiki to his friends and family, was moving in a threatening or suspicious manner and that a revolver was found nearby.  The two officers involved in the shooting have between them five civil rights and excessive force lawsuits that the NYPD settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  But the death of Gray, coupled with countless other murders of innocent Black youth by police, including Darius Simmons, Oscar Grant and Aiyana Jones and others, is another form of American madness. In the first half of 2012 one-hundred and ten Black people were killed by police and security in the U.S.,  a number that the Malcolm X Grassroots Project used to estimate that a Black person is murdered by police once every 40 hours

In East Flatbush the murder of Gray sparked four days of confrontation with the police.  Residents demonstrated in the streets and berated officers, when the police declared the area a “Frozen Zone,” preventing media access to the area.  Despite the media lock-out, peoples’ voices were heard.  Some residents complained that police brutality and police harassment, amount to a new type of Jim Crow, a war on Black and Brown people. Sophie Lewis, a labor reporter who was at the demonstrations, characterized the demonstrators’ view of the police as a “racist paramilitary organization operating in their neighborhood with impunity” – echoes of Iraq. And part of legacy of America’s racial violence - from the Klan to "Minutemen" border vigilantes -  madness with a long history. 


If the war on black people offers one kind of American madness, another is the nation’s war on women.  The latest episode to spark national outrage, the Steubenville rape case, is, like the murder of Gray, or the crimes of Iraq, is just the tip of a much larger structure of violence from the top.  Steubenville is remarkable because we know about it at all.   Author Rebecca Solnit estimates that worldwide a rape happens every minute, most of these never discussed, reported, or brought to justice.  Steubenville became news, and the rapists were prosecuted, because of the efforts of bloggers and activists who refused to let the case drop into the background normal intensity of violence against women.  In this case the horror of the assault was compounded by the reception it got from witnesses, who didn’t act to stop the crime, the openness of the rapists who videoed and joked about their assault, and the media which lamented the harshness of the sentences for promising athletes.  Feminist activists and writers used the case to talk about “rape culture,” a patriarchal set of values that blames women, and excuses the violence of perpetrators.  But they might as well call it “American culture” for the prevalence of these values – impunity, support for power, and violence – in our society.


Sequestration is a marvelous euphemism, and a rather ingenious political tactic. It is a form of violence to take away peoples’ livelihood and the basic structures of support that those on the bottom have to come to depend on. The exact impact of the cuts is unknown, as everything in the economy, schools, welfare projects, charitable spending, environmental protections will take a hit. No one doubts the effects will be ruthless.  With fifty million people going hungry in this country (one in six), fifteen million children living in poverty (one in five), and unknown millions, including college grads and people with jobs, homeless or on the edge, these populations will be pushed further into the margins. The roughly four million people completely dependent on government programs to meet basic needs will find survival more difficult.  This on top of a radical shift of wealth to top, whereby the bottom 90% of earners increased their income by only fifty-nine dollars in the last four decades. These kinds of attacks, on the necessities of life for so many, are a form of violence, another manifestation of American madness. 

Sequestration is also utterly contrived in both a political and fiscal sense. Politically, the sequester is a maneuver for both Democrats and Republicans to impose harsh and unpopular cuts on poor and working people without taking responsibility for their actions.  The cuts are imposed automatically across the board, so no single political actor can be blamed for making them happen – including Obama. In the budget negotiations ongoing for dozens of months, Obama has been privately maneuvering Democratic Party members to support cuts to entitlements. His cuts are not nearly as drastic as are those of the Republicans, but the agenda is roughly the same – continue to take more and more from the poor. The question of how much more is the scope of the debate of Washington politics. 

Sequestration is mad in another sense too – it harms the economy.  A growing chorus of mainstream economists, including Dean Baker, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, argue that spending cuts justified by the appeal to deficit reduction will only continue the recession. Those at the top have plenty of money to mitigate spending increases.  Corporate profits, the stock market, and executive pay packages are the highest they have ever been. The madness of the austerity agenda couldn’t be any clearer, and the violence in these choices will only become more evident. 


That's the madness from the top. Our madness, from the bottom, looks very different.  Our madness is born from anger and sorrow, a reaction to the violence and aggression, the division, racism, assault and brutality. We are mad to be subject to this, and mad to tolerate it.  Which is why we fight back. We resist. Like those in East Flatbush who refuse to let police violence continue unabated. Like women activists and writers who brought the Steubenville rape case to light. Like those fighting from the bottom to keep our social safety net intact. And those who fight against the continuing devastation of the Iraq war. Like Thomas Young, who uses his death, the last vestiges of his life, to fight back against the madness from the top. We are mad, our madness is the only hope for a sane society.

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Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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