Covid-19 has disrupted many of our Thanksgiving plans this year, but perhaps this disruption can give us an opportunity to reevaluate what the holiday really means. Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is tied to a story that has become enshrined as an essential part of the history of the United States: the landing of the Mayflower, the assistance from Squanto, surviving the harsh winter, etc. How many children this year will be taught the story of hard-working Pilgrims and friendly Indians coming together for the first Thanksgiving? How many teachers will leave the story there? What kinds of harm, misinformation, and false understandings of the world do we perpetuate when we simply repeat the traditional Thanksgiving narrative? If we truly wish to respect Native Americans, we must listen to Indigenous voices.
“THE SUPPRESSED SPEECH OF WAMSUTTA (FRANK B.) JAMES, WAMPANOAG”
To have been delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1970
ABOUT THE DOCUMENT: Three hundred fifty years after the Pilgrims began their invasion of the land of the Wampanoag, their "American" descendants planned an anniversary celebration. Still clinging to the white schoolbook myth of friendly relations between their forefathers and the Wampanoag, the anniversary planners thought it would be nice to have an Indian make an appreciative and complimentary speech at their state dinner. Frank James was asked to speak at the celebration. He accepted. The planners, however , asked to see his speech in advance of the occasion, and it turned out that Frank James' views — based on history rather than mythology — were not what the Pilgrims' descendants wanted to hear. Frank James refused to deliver a speech written by a public relations person. Frank James did not speak at the anniversary celebration. If he had spoken, this is what he would have said:
I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction ("You must succeed - your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!"). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first - but we are termed "good citizens." Sometimes we are arrogant but only because society has pressured us to be so.
It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years?
History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were broken promises - and most of these centered around land ownership. Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls. But the white man had a need to prove his worth by the amount of land that he owned. Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the so-called "savages." Although the Puritans were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other "witch."
And so down through the years there is record after record of Indian lands taken and, in token, reservations set up for him upon which to live. The Indian, having been stripped of his power, could only stand by and watch while the white man took his land and used it for his personal gain. This the Indian could not understand; for to him, land was survival, to farm, to hunt, to be enjoyed. It was not to be abused. We see incident after incident, where the white man sought to tame the "savage" and convert him to the Christian ways of life. The early Pilgrim settlers led the Indian to believe that if he did not behave, they would dig up the ground and unleash the great epidemic again.
The white man used the Indian's nautical skills and abilities. They let him be only a seaman -- but never a captain. Time and time again, in the white man's society, we Indians have been termed "low man on the totem pole."
Has the Wampanoag really disappeared? There is still an aura of mystery. We know there was an epidemic that took many Indian lives - some Wampanoags moved west and joined the Cherokee and Cheyenne. They were forced to move. Some even went north to Canada! Many Wampanoag put aside their Indian heritage and accepted the white man's way for their own survival. There are some Wampanoag who do not wish it known they are Indian for social or economic reasons.
What happened to those Wampanoags who chose to remain and live among the early settlers? What kind of existence did they live as "civilized" people? True, living was not as complex as life today, but they dealt with the confusion and the change. Honesty, trust, concern, pride, and politics wove themselves in and out of their [the Wampanoags'] daily living. Hence, he was termed crafty, cunning, rapacious, and dirty.
History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood.
The white man in the presence of the Indian is still mystified by his uncanny ability to make him feel uncomfortable. This may be the image the white man has created of the Indian; his "savageness" has boomeranged and isn't a mystery; it is fear; fear of the Indian's temperament!
High on a hill, overlooking the famed Plymouth Rock, stands the statue of our great Sachem, Massasoit. Massasoit has stood there many years in silence. We the descendants of this great Sachem have been a silent people. The necessity of making a living in this materialistic society of the white man caused us to be silent. Today, I and many of my people are choosing to face the truth. We ARE Indians!
Although time has drained our culture, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States Government, until only recently.
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting We're standing not in our wigwams but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.
There are some factors concerning the Wampanoags and other Indians across this vast nation. We now have 350 years of experience living amongst the white man. We can now speak his language. We can now think as a white man thinks. We can now compete with him for the top jobs. We're being heard; we are now being listened to. The important point is that along with these necessities of everyday living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture, we still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians. We are determined, and our presence here this evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.
September 10, 1970
James, Wamsutta (Frank B.). “THE SUPPRESSED SPEECH OF WAMSUTTA (FRANK B.) JAMES, WAMPANOAG.” United American Indians of New England. http://www.uaine.org/suppressed_speech.htm
November is Native American Heritage Month, and Thanksgiving is just one week away. While Thanksgiving is a holiday fraught with a problematic history, it is also ostensibly a day to thank Native American contributions to the history of the United States. But of course, many of us are canceling Thanksgiving plans this year to keep our families safe as the covid-19 pandemic surges across the country. And with President Trump still refusing to concede the election and instead continuing to promote baseless conspiracy theories, some might think that it is a mistake to focus so much attention on the social representation of a small minority population at such a crucial time. A lack of accurate, positive representation leads to a reliance on easily manipulable and usually negative stereotypes, which in turn leads to the systematic dehumanization of the minority group. Combined with other societal narratives of “natural” entitlement and being threatened on all sides, this deadly mix has historically led to genocides. Indeed, both the means and the reasons used by the Nazis to perpetrate ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe were inspired by the American conquest, cleansing, and forced resettlement of the American Indians of the Western United States.
During the “Indian Wars” between 1846 and 1890, the U.S. massacred countless Native peoples and forced the rest onto “reservations” of unwanted tracts of land in order to open up desirable land for settlers. One way or another, Native peoples were expected by White Americans to be “eliminated” or else to “disappear” on their own. Not too long ago, these atrocities were celebrated as advancements in human progress, not just in the United States, but in Nazi Germany. According to Carroll P. Kakel, III, Hitler conceived of the German war in Eastern Europe as a colonizing war of ethnic cleansing to remove Slavic and Jewish peoples to make way for lebensraum, “living space” for Germans. Hitler himself encouraged his close associates to “look upon the natives [of Eastern Europe] as ‘Redskins’” of the American West. If the endgoal of both colonial wars was the removal of the Other to make space for White or German settlers, then the concentration camps of the Holocaust can be seen as an upgraded, more efficient Native reservation.
Of course, the entire process of conquering and destroying Native peoples in the American West was just a small part of the massive racist project in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. James Q. Whitman has pointed out that Nazi Germany repeatedly found inspiration in restrictive American racial laws, not only with respect to Black Americans, but with all other non-“nordic” peoples. In fact, in the early 20th century, the United States led the world in racist law -- at least in the eyes of the Germans, Brazilians, Australians, and South Africans who implemented infamously racial codes in their own countries modeled after the American ones. As Whitman points out, Nazis themselves had a difficult time finding other models for racist codes like anti-miscegenation laws, except in the case of the “classic model” of the United States, where there was a robust tradition of forced segregation, restrictive racial immigration quotas, and second-class citizenship.
Perhaps it is shocking to learn that the Nazis themselves were inspired by the American treatment of Indigenous, Black, and other non-White peoples. Most Americans do not associate the United States with fascism or Nazism -- we fought them, after all, didn’t we? Some have heard that prominent American figures like Henry Ford and Walt Disney were Nazi sympathizers before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but generally consider such information as curious details of eccentric tycoons during “a different time” in history. Some have even heard of the American Nazi rally in 1939 that attracted more than 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden. But most Americans would likely deny that any genocides have ever occurred in the United States -- not out of denialism, but out of historical misunderstanding and confusion about what genocides actually are.
But then there are also those who believe in the “White genocide” myth, or the “Great Replacement” variation. The conspiracy theory is shockingly popular in some form or another among White conservatives and reveals the anxieties over ethnic diversity and the atrocities committed upon People of Color. Those who believe the “White genocide” myth fear that, given the chance, African-Americans would start a race war to exterminate White people out of revenge for slavery, disenfranchisement, terror, and more. The “Great Replacement” idea is more subtle, stating that unending waves of immigranion into Western countries like the United States will lead to the rapid growth and spread of non-White people, ultimately ending in the “replacement” and erasure of Whiteness and Western culture. Both of these variations often point to some shadowy group directing these massive demographic shifts specifically to exterminate White people. Strangely, these imaginary “globalist” or “New World Order” groups are usually composed of Jewish people.
The United Nations defines “genocide” as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Since there is no secret group imposing such policies on “White people” generally, and Black Americans time and again have faced violence with resolute nonviolent action. Those conspiracy theories are pure fantasy, but even entertaining them can be dangerous. If the preceived threat is as existential as death, replacement, and erasure, then the logic of those fantasies must always end with a kind of preemptive genocide or other atrocity to “protect” the “White race.” This is exactly the logic that led many ordinary Germans to look away from the worst atrocities their government committed upon Jewish, Slavic, and other peoples. It’s the logic that excuses separating children from their parents and locking them in cages today. It’s the logic that makes a threat out of any Black man, and what lets their murderers escape justice time and again..
The online series The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, takes place in an alternate 1960s in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. At one point in the series, a White asylum seeker studies with a Hitler Youth to become a naturalized citizen of The Greater Reich, which spans most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. As they study, the Hitler Youth brings up a question “about American exterminations before the Reich.” The asylum seeker asks with confusion, “exterminations?” to which the Hitler Youth replies almost with amusement: “Didn’t they ever teach you about the Indians?”
Let’s just make sure we get the story straight.
Sources and Further Reading:
Cochran, David Carroll. “How Hitler found his blueprint for a German empire by looking to the American West.” Waging Nonviolence, 7 October 2020. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2020/10/hitler-found-blueprint-german-empire-in-the-american-west/
“Genocide.” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml
Kakel, Carroll P. The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Schwartzburg, Rosa. “No, There Isn’t a White Genocide.” Jacobin, 4 September 2019. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/white-genocide-great-replacement-theory
Whitman, James Q. Hitler's American Model: the United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2018.
On Tuesday, November 11, many Americans celebrated Veterans Day, a tradition that has been held in the United States since 1954. The holiday began as “Armistice Day” to celebrate the end of the First World War; as many school children around the world are taught, on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the conflicting nations of the Western Front finally laid down their arms. But after almost four decades and a few more wars, various veterans service organizations in the United States petitioned Congress to change the name of Armistice Day to “Veterans Day.” These organizations argued that the holiday should be opened up to honor all American veterans. After all, hadn’t those soldiers in the Second World War and the Korean War risked and sacrificed just as much as the doughboys of the First World War?
The argument seems reasonable until one stops to consider the original purpose for the holiday. Armistice Day was meant to celebrate an armistice -- an end to fighting before a more permanent peace treaty can be determined. And this particular armistice was particularly important. Although now treated primarily as the prelude to the Second World War, the psychological and societal trauma of the First World War cannot be overstated. The conflict was seen at the time as the ultimate existential war, and indeed the First World War collapsed four empires: the Russian, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the German. Deadly new technologies were deployed on the battlefield for the first time. Poison gas, machine guns, and other industrialized weapons helped kill a combined total of almost 10 million soldiers. Nations depopulated their own towns of able-bodied young men, sending them to their deaths en masse as cannon fodder. Finally, largely due to the transport of diverse peoples around the world to cramped and unsanitary conditions, and then sending those people back to their distant homes, the influenza pandemic crossed the globe at the end of the War and in its wake, killing 50 million more people by some estimates. Armistice Day emerged across the world to help collectively process the incomprehensible destruction and loss of life that resulted from the First World War, and to commemorate the moment when the leaders of all involved parties agreed to begin the process to end “the war to end all war.”
The United States entered on the Allied side with fresh troops late in the war, and US President Woodrow Wilson emerged as the most influential arbiter of the eventual peace process. Starting before the US entry into the First World War, President Wilson urged the warring countries to seek “peace without victory.” Even after the US entry into the War, Wilson continued to develop his plan for a lasting international peace, which he eventually delivered to Congress on January 8, 1918 as the “Fourteen Points.” Wilson outlined several proposals that he believed would mitigate or neutralize altogether the factors that caused The Great War to begin in the first place: a prohibition on secret international treaties, freedom of navigation in the open sea, free trade, arms reductions, the restoration of recently conquered lands in Europe, etc. Notably, Wilson’s guidelines did not include a demand for reparations of the losing side, but rather implied shared responsibility of all parties for the War. The heart of his message, if not in the text itself, was that lasting peace could only be built through equitable relations between nationstates, the self-determination of nations, and the consent of the governed -- concepts central to the American mythology.
Although the speech and its general message was largely met with approval in the United States and by most of the Triple Entente (with the exception of France’s Prime Minister Clemenceau), it was picked up and repeated most passionately by the peoples of the colonized world. On the streets of Beijing, citizens celebrated the end of The Great War carrying signs with Wilsonian slogans on them. The imam of Yemen sent a cable to Wilson asking for his support in the cause of Yemenian self-determination. African-American leaders led by the preeminent W.E.B. Du Bois joined their Afro-Caribbean and African counterparts in Paris for the Pan-African Congress to draft their own proposals for the post-war future of Africa. In 1919, as the Paris Peace Conference was getting underway, a 28-year old Ho Chi Minh, future freedom fighter and leader of the Communist Party in Vietnam, wrote to President Wilson requesting a private audience to hear his case for Vietnamese liberation from French colonial rule -- legend says that he even rented a suit for the occasion, but alas, the meeting never occurred. Unbeknownst to the future revolutionary, Wilson had been stricken with influenza weeks before. After the worst had passed, Wilson never fully recovered his vigor, and some historians point to his period of sickness as a major reason why he was ultimately unable to implement his Fourteen Points.
Wilson’s failure at the Paris Peace Conference and the irony of Wilson’s own infamous personal racism notwithstanding, the ideas and values of the Fourteen Points shaped anticolonial thought for years until communism took its place. Colonized peoples were inspired and energized by Wilson’s words, looking to the United States as the leader of the free world, long before that phrase would be invented with a whole different set of connotations -- after all, the United States was the first to win its independence from the European colonial powers. And so it is especially ironic that the United States, the country whose leader fought the hardest for the right of self-determination, equality, and consensual governance of all peoples following the First World War, has been the country most responsible for interfering with democratic governments around the world since. Just a few years following the end of The Great War, US troops would join an international coalition to prevent Russia from implementing a popular communist government. In 1949, the democratically elected government in Syria was overthrown by a Syrian Army chief of staff with extensive ties to the CIA. In 1953, the CIA directed a coup in Iran to oust the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to instead reinstate the constitutional monarch-turned-despot Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the 1960s, the United States invaded Vietnam, just as the Vietnamese people liberated themselves from French rule. Guatemala, 1954. Indonesia, 1957-1959. Democratic Republic of Congo, 1960. Cuba, 1961. Brazil, 1964. Chile, 1964 and again in 1970-1973. Indonesia, 1965-1967. Bolivia, 1971. Afghanistan, 1979-1989. El Salvador, 1980-1992. Chad, 1981-1982. Nicaragua, 1981-1990. Grenada, 1983. Haiti, 1991. Venezuela, 2002 and again in 2019-present. Palestine, 2006-2007. And even those are just some examples of US military and political interventions; they say nothing about the outsized influence of the American dollar in international affairs, nor the exploitative international policies that have contributed to that influence. Garett Reppenhagen (US Army veteran and Executive Director for Veterans for Peace) summarized that connection succinctly in Waging Nonviolence: “The cultural identity [of militarism] is now so ingrained in our society that we unquestionably follow any military adventure despite the fact that poor people end up killing and dying and those who didn’t serve are handed the bill afterwards.”
But the irony goes even beyond that. Armistice Day itself was never originally meant to be a holiday to honor soldiers who died in war; in the United States, Memorial Day fulfills that function. And yet, many other countries, notably those part of the Commonwealth of Nations, changed the name of the holiday to Remembrance Day during or shortly following the Second World War with the express purpose of honoring all patriotic soldiers who died in war. Armistice Day could be considered a day of mourning, but the mourning was never just about soldiers; the mourning included families, communities, nations. Despite the deadly serious, existential threats that the First World War presented to the powers of the time, it was also widely considered an incredibly wasteful and pointless war to have begun in the first place. According to historian Laurence Lafore, Europeans of the late 19th century believed that they were building a harmonious and prosperous future for human civilization: “Modern ideas were triumphing everywhere. Europe would soon be organized on a rational basis, its political and social symmetries would reflect the symmetry of nature and the universe. And it was going to happen, was happening, faster than anyone could have imagined ten years earlier. All that was needed now was hard work and common sense and education, and in the lifetimes of men already born the rising sun would light a Europe of perpetual peace and progress.” Considered within the context of those aspirations, the First World War becomes a cautionary and tragic tale, a catastrophe that Europe at its peak alone brought upon itself. The observance of Armistice Day could even be seen as a critique of war itself, a warning to those who think they can control the violence once it starts, and as a hopeful wish that future peoples would not make the same mistakes of the past. While observing Veterans Day, that hopeful wish is absent.
Sources and Further Reading:
Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Penguin Books, New York. 2005.
Hagemann, Hannah. “The 1918 Flu Pandemic Was Brutal, Killing More Than 50 Million People Worldwide.” NPR. 2 April 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/02/826358104/the-1918-flu-pandemic-was-brutal-killing-as-many-as-100-million-people-worldwide
“History of Veterans Day.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 20 July 2015. https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp
Lafore, Laurence. The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. 1971.
Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford University Press, New York. 2007.
Osborne, Samuel. “Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day - what’s the difference?” The Independent. 11 November 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20181118032603/https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/armistice-day-remembrance-day-and-veterans-day-whats-the-difference-a6730081.html
Reppenhagen, Garett. “Let’s reclaim Armistice Day.” Waging Nonviolence. 11 November 2020. https://wagingnonviolence.org/wr/2020/11/lets-reclaim-armistice-day/
Wilson, Woodrow. “Fourteen Points.” ourdocuments.gov. 1918 (accessed 11 November 2020). https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=62&page=transcript
Twenty years ago, the United States Presidential election was undergoing a crisis. On Election Night, November 7, 2000, the nation waited with bated breath as Florida was first announced for Democrat Al Gore, then Republican George Bush, then backpedaled completely, claiming the results too close to call with confidence. That night, the count in Florida saw Bush winning by just 1784 votes, automatically prompting a machine-recount. Three days later, the automated recount results showed Bush leading again, but only by a scant 327 votes. The Gore campaign requested manual recounts in four counties, in part citing possible malfunctions with some of the voting machines and the “chads,” the bits of paper hole-punched out of ballots. Some ballots seemed to have “hanging chads” and other incompletions, leading to possible miscounts with the machines. All of these requests were legal according to Floridian law, and reasonable given the extremely close margin between the two candidates as well as the outstanding issues with the automated counting machines. The Gore campaign organized a legal team to argue his case in the Florida Supreme Court, and was granted the deadline of November 25 to complete the recount. Gore seemed to have won the legal case, and as the recount went ahead, the corrected results seemed to be counting in his favor.
Meanwhile, however, a team of lawyers and other paid operatives of the Bush campaign and the Republican Party arrived in Florida. Well-coordinated and seasoned from working the campaign trail, they set about organizing protests among locals, trying to rile up conservatives and especially Cuban-Americans by conjuring up stories of leftists stealing elections. By November 22, with just three days left to count over 650,000 ballots, the officials at Miami-Dade County decided to focus on the 10,750 ballots that could not be read by the machines. By their own admission, Republicans expected the county to go to Gore. And so, as the counting continued, dozens of protesters led by those Republican operatives kicked, punched, and shoved themselves onto the floor of the building where the ballots were being counted, attempting to halt the process. According to the Democratic Chairman of Miami-Dade County at the time, Joe Geller, he was unable to even test his hypothesis about the machine errors due to protesters harassing him, accusing him of stealing ballots. While some Republicans maintain that most of the protesters were locals, there were enough Washington-types prominent in the crowd for the incident to be named for the distinctly conservative and expensive style of dress of most of the participants: “the Brooks Brothers Riot.” Among the Republican operatives involved were Roger Stone, former member of Nixon’s reelection committee, and current Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. These besuited thugs intimidated the Miami-Dade County Board with such a sudden and shocking show that the Board unanimously suspended the recount hours after the encounter. The Board was convinced that continuing the recount would be perceived as illegitimate by the public, and that that negative perception might damage the democratic process as a whole -- ignoring the fact that calling off the recount actually disenfranchised thousands of voters, and that stopping the count of all official votes is fundamentally anti-democratic.
The recent reports coming out from Michigan, Arizona, and other battleground states of protesters attempting to disrupt or otherwise influence the electoral results through intimidation share some similarities with the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000: mostly white, conservative, rowdy. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference is in the clothes: someone dubbed one of these ballot count disruptions in Michigan the “JC Penney Riot.” But focusing so much on the aesthetics of the protests ignores the most important difference between the Brooks Brothers Riot and these 2020 disruptions: the riot in 2000 was planned, organized, and executed by political operatives with months of experience on the presidential campaign trail. They knew each other, had worked together, trusted each other. With far less participants than in the large pro-Trump rallies being held now, those few Brooks Brothers rioters coordinated their demonstration so effectively that they got what they wanted within hours. These protests today, whether organized by locals on the ground or people within the Trump administration, so far do not seem to be nearly as well-organized. While President Trump has called for voter intimidation for weeks, it appears that he has not put in the work to actually organize such efforts. On the other side, however, national groups like Protect the Results, Election Defenders, and Choose Democracy have been preparing for weeks to ensure the elections are safe, accessible, and legitimate for all. Those groups have been analyzing the threats to the election, training people in de-escalation and nonviolent action, and coordinating with local groups for local efforts. The relative lack of voter intimidation, conflicts, and other issues this year despite calls to do so can likely be credited in-part to these groups. And if some of the present pro-Trump demonstrations continue to grow and even organize themselves, these same groups will still be here ready to respond.
We must remember that politics is about power. Foreign observers have said that the institutions of American democracy are more fragile now than ever. Americans themselves openly worry about an imminent second civil war. But American conservatism has always held the rest of the country hostage against itself, using violence or the threat of violence to coerce society and government. Proud Boys and Oathkeepers are just some of the more recent incarnations of the long history of organized American racism and xenophobia. In 2019, Twitter made controversial news when it was revealed that executives at Twitter refused to implement an automatic content filter for White supremacy and neo-nazism because too many currently seated US Republicans would be kicked off the platform. A refrain circulating the internet goes: “Racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.” Perhaps we should not be so shocked that racist gangs and militias like the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers have been praised repeatedly by the sitting President, and that members are often indistinguishable from “normal” community members. Maybe with the collective trauma of 9/11 -- and all the other disruptions that followed -- most Americans forgot about the Brooks Brothers Riot as just one more issue among the seemingly endless problems that plagued the 2000 election results in Florida. But it should have been a wake-up call. It’s long since time to examine our history honestly, without excusing or brushing aside the repeated pattern of right-wing violence as legitimate expressions of political power.
Sources & Further Reading:
Berman, Ari. “How the 2000 Election in Florida Led to a New Wave of Voter Disenfranchisement.” The Nation. 28 July 2015. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-the-2000-election-in-florida-led-to-a-new-wave-of-voter-disenfranchisement/
Cox, Joseph and Jason Koebler. “Why Won’t Twitter Treat White Supremacy Like ISIS? Because It Would Mean Banning Some Republican Politicians Too.” Vice. 25 April 2019. https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3xgq5/why-wont-twitter-treat-white-supremacy-like-isis-because-it-would-mean-banning-some-republican-politicians-too
Gabbot, Adam. “Two decades after the 'Brooks Brothers riot', experts fear graver election threats.” The Guardian. 24 September 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/24/us-elections-2020-violence-fears-brooks-brothers-riot
Heye, Douglas. “I was in the 2000 ‘Brooks Brothers Riot.’ Trump supporters are way out of line.” The Washington Post. 5 November 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/11/05/trump-stop-count-maricopa-detroit-protests/
Kim, Richard. “Why The Brooks Brothers Riot Matters Now.” HuffPost. 5 November 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brooks-brothers-riot-trump_n_5fa44256c5b623bfac4d4043
Miller, Michael E. “‘It’s insanity!’: How the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ killed the 2000 recount in Miami.” The Washington Post. 15 November 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/15/its-insanity-how-brooks-brothers-riot-killed-recount-miami/
Shuham, Matt. “‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ Redux: GOP Sends Supporters To Swarm MI Vote-Counting Center.” Talking Points Memo. 4 November 2020. https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/brooks-brothers-riot-redux-gop-sends-supporters-to-swarm-mi-vote-counting-center
Steinbaum, Marshall. “Brooks Brothers Riot.” Jacobin. 22 September 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/trump-brexit-racism-xenophobia-globalization-gop/
Wolf, Cam. “The Brooks Brothers Riot, the J.C. Penney Skirmish, and the Changing Republican Uniform.” GQ. 5 November 2020. https://www.gq.com/story/brooks-brothers-riot-2020
On October 20 of last year, Bolivians cast their ballots in their national presidential election. Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was expected to win, granting him a fourth term to continue the leftist policies that have thus far resulted in impressive economic growth for the country. Crucially, this economic growth has not occurred at the cost of the indigenous poor peoples of Bolivia, as right-wing governments of the past had attempted, but hand-in-hand with the economic and social uplifting of the people of Bolivia. With such socially and economically just policies already working for 14 years, President Morales and MAS enjoyed overwhelming support in the country -- especially among Indigenous and Mestizo peoples, which together constitute the majority of Bolivia’s population. But 21 days later, after the opposition contested the legitimacy of the election results and started targeting MAS party members and their families, chief commander of the Bolivian armed forces General Wiliams Kaliman publicly requested that President Morales resign his position, and Morales soon after fled the country. Right-wing senator Jeanine Anez was then able to declare herself interim president in a move supported by the US government, misconstrued by mainstream Western media to seem more legitimate, and openly joked about by billionaire capitalist Elon Musk who happens to have interest in the country’s lithium supply.
Along with the greed behind the plan to sell Bolivia’s national resources for their own personal short-term gain, we must also consider the coup leaders’ racism. Much has been made of the relatively high number of coups and coup attempts in Bolivian history, and some have attempted to frame the one last year as more of the same in a country that just can never seem to make democracy work. But while it is true that much of the 20th century saw Bolivia wracked in political crises or military dictatorships, the most recent power-grab by the right-wing coalition in the country was the first in over 39 years. It was also the first successful rebellion against the latest Constitution of Bolivia, approved by public referendum in 2009, which defined Bolivia as a unified plurinational and secular (not Catholic, as it was before) country and thereby enfranchised Indigenous groups to exercise local autonomy and participation in government on their terms. As right-wing White descendants of European colonizers, most of the 2019 coup leaders, including Jeanine Anez, had on multiple occasions said out loud, tweeted, or otherwise indicated their sense of racial superiority, disdain for Indigenous cultural practices, and fantasies of violence against Indigenous and Mestizo peoples. The coup leaders clearly identify with the predominantly White global elite over the actual people of their country, evidenced by their desire to privatize and sell off the government-owned industries, reversing the MAS socialist policies which have lifted myriad Bolivians from poverty. But if that were not enough, it is simple enough to find records online of Anez and others in her circle dehumanizing Indigenous and Mestizo Bolivians with terms like “poor Indians” and “satanic.” Indeed, that language is not always meant to be figurative: some, like early coup leader Luis Fernando Camcho, are connected with fascist paramilitary groups like the Santa Cruz Youth Union, which advocates for separation from what they consider a heathen state.
As the 2019 Bolivian political crisis developed, many of these fascist paramilitary groups took to the streets. Some may have been involved in violent attacks and arsonry targeted at Morales, MAS members, and journalists. When the right-wing of the country coalesced behind Jeanine Anez and MAS began organizing protests against the new unconstitutional government in response, Anez made Decree 4078, which called on the Bolivian armed forces to assist in “the defense of society and maintaining public order” while exempting such participants from criminal liability. In the subsequent weeks, at least 25 people died of gunshot wounds and two of other causes, while hundreds were injured in clashes with law enforcement. A group of workers organized a march, only to be stopped by soldiers shooting into their ranks and killing nine. Road blockades and mass rallies were attacked by riot police, soldiers, and helicopters with live rounds. MAS, not fully realizing what had happened until it was too late, began negotiating with the new coup government in an attempt to stop the violence. Negotiating with the coup leaders, however, only legitimized the unconstitutional government and temporarily quelled much of the popular resistance.
As the negotiations between MAS and the coup leaders continued and the dust settled, protests dissipated, but frustrations grew. The MAS leaders compromised with the coup leaders, and for several months convinced their supporters to accept the new reality. During that time, Anez and her allies have removed Bolivia from multiple international political and economic organizations, expelled people from foreign countries (including the 700 Cuban doctors that provided the foundation for Bolivia’s new free healthcare system), threatened disenfranchisement of largely Indigenous areas, relaxed covid-19 restrictions against the advice of health officials, and privatized key industries in Bolivia. But by July of 2020, after the fourth postponement of the promised new general elections in just 8 months, the people of Bolivia demanded the immediate resignation of Jeanine Anez as well as general elections to be held in September. The Pact of Unity, a national coalition of powerful trade unions and Indigenous groups supporting MAS, called for a general strike and widespread sabotage. Boulders were scattered across highways, trenches dug into rural roads, and mountain passes dynamited -- the number of blockaded roads in Bolivia reaching over 200 in just a few weeks, with some cities completely shut down. The state responded with threats of military repression, and then encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to attack roadblocks, resulting in dozens injured. Despite the mass rebellion, both MAS and the Anez administration decided to stick with the postponed election date in October. The Bolivian Workers Center (COB), the country’s largest trade union federation, eventually called for an end to the strike, and the Pact of Unity announced the demobilization of protest actions.
It may be tempting to think that the protests against the coup in November 2019 and July-August 2020 were inconsequential and ended in failure. The leaders of the trade unions, the Pact of Unity, and even MAS itself gave in to the demands of the coup government on multiple occasions long before popular resistance broke. But it is notable that after the uprising of July-August 2020, the date of the general election was not moved again. The coup government, despite their nominal command of the police and armed forces, was unable to even muster up a final attempt to retain power before the landslide defeat they suffered at the polls a couple weeks ago. The radical popular resistance exhibited across the country by the diverse multitudes of Bolivia reminded their supposed leaders in MAS that such strategies are what put MAS into power in the first place. Perhaps it is easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, but with 14 recent years of wildly successful socialist economics and decades of organized allied social movements shaping the country, the leftist, progressive, and just forces of Bolivian society are too well-organized and entrenched to be defeated so easily. In the face of such commitment to Bolivian democracy, the long-term viability of Anez’ coup government never stood a chance.
Blair, Laurence and Cindy Jimenez Bercerra. “Bolivia protesters bring country to standstill over election delays.” The Guardian. 9 August 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/09/bolivia-protesters-bring-country-to-standstill-over-election-delays-covid-19-evo-morales
“Bolivia begins the week with an indefinite general strike and roadblocks.” Monthly Review Online. 6 August 2020. https://mronline.org/2020/08/06/bolivia-begins-the-week-with-an-indefinite-general-strike-and-roadblocks/
De Marval, Valentina. “Did Bolivia’s interim president delete anti-indigenous tweets?” AFP Fact Check.15 November 2019. https://factcheck.afp.com/did-bolivias-interim-president-delete-anti-indigenous-tweets
Ferreira, Javo. “Coup and Resistance in Bolivia.” Left Voice. 12 January 2020. https://www.leftvoice.org/coup-and-resistance-in-bolivia
“Healing the Pandemic of Impunity: 20 Human Rights Recommendations for Candidates in the 2020 Presidential Elections in Bolivia.” Amnesty International. 2020. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AMR1828712020ENGLISH.PDF
Mackler, Jeff and Lazaro Monteverde. “Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup.” Popular Resistance. 26 November 2019. https://popularresistance.org/bolivia-anatomy-of-a-coup/
McEvoy, John. “Fear, confusion, and resistance after far-right coup in Bolivia.” The Canary. 12 November 2019. https://www.thecanary.co/global/world-analysis/2019/11/12/fear-confusion-and-resistance-after-far-right-coup-in-bolivia/
Narai, Robert. “Bolivia's right-wing coup government is facing resistance.” Red Flag. 19 August 2020. https://redflag.org.au/node/7329
Snider, Ted. “Morales’s Coup Fits a Long Pattern in Bolivian History.” Truthout. 11 December 2019. https://truthout.org/articles/moraless-coup-fits-a-long-pattern-in-bolivian-history/
Shaw, Danny. “Behind the Racist Coup in Bolivia.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 11 November 2019. https://www.coha.org/behind-the-racist-coup-in-bolivia/
In the past week, the internet has been abuzz about the decisive victory Luis Arce and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party won on October 18. And as well it should: the victory signals the return of democracy to Bolivia after last year’s far-right coup ousted President Evo Morales and other MAS party members from their positions. The internet being what it is, however, some facts and histories have become conflated and unsubstantiated rumors are being repeated as fact. Let us look into the brief history of Bolivia for context as to what happened last October, what happened just last week, and its relevance to the United States.
Bolivia has had a history of political instability and human rights violations particularly perpetrated against Indigenous peoples. Like much of Central and South America, that history begins with the near-complete destruction and subjugation of Indigenous civilizations through Spanish colonization that lasted for about 300 years. In the 19th century, with the European empires in crisis following the Napoleonic Wars, and inspired by the United States and Haitian revolutions against colonial rule, wars of independence were waged successfully across Spanish-American territories (Bolivia is named for the legendary Simon Bolivar, “the Liberator”). But, like in the United States, the pre-existing White male landholding elites led these new nations, with Indigenous peoples in almost every Latin American country designated second-class citizens. This was the case in Bolivia, as well, despite Indigenous people making up the vast majority of the population. Wealthy landowners forced Indigenous people into peasantry to work their estates and mines. The natural resources of the region, silver and then tin in Bolivia in particular, brought foreign investors and trading partners. Meanwhile, conflicts between the elites, seeking to consolidate or carve out some land and power of their own, brought even more violence -- Bolivia lost more than half of its land to neighboring countries in the 19th century following independence.
After thirty years of free-market economics that collapsed with the Great Depression in the 20th century, Bolivia followed the shift in much of the world toward greater suffrage. More wars over land and resources were fought, strengthening the importance of the military in Bolivian society. At the same time, political parties like the popular Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) emerged including persons of Native and mixed descent. Over the course of the 20th century, the Bolivian military intervened in the government on multiple occasions, almost always as right-wing reactions to the success of left-wing politicians and parties. At least one, the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer from 1971-1978 was materially supported by the United States through CIA Operation Condor, and only brought down when four women started a hunger strike that inspired a national movement of nonviolent resistance. Right-wing coups continued to plague the people of Bolivia as they repeatedly tried to establish a peaceful, lasting democracy, while foreign multinational corporations gradually privatized more of Bolivia’s resources. It was not until the early 2000s, with the Water War of Cochabamba that saw Indigenous people fighting back against the privatization of municipal water, and the Bolivian Gas War over the ownership of the natural gas mines, that a new movement of Indigenous socialist organizations emerged, with labor activist Evo Morales at its head. Morales and MAS campaigned on a promise to finally empower the marginalized groups in the country; when he won the presidency in 2006, Evo Morales became the first Indigenous head of state in South America. Since MAS and Morales took leadership of Bolivia, to the shock and reluctant admiration from the neoliberal western powers, the socialist policies of de-privatization and public ownership of industries have fulfilled that promise, vastly raising the standard of living for the poor, while simultaneously improving the Bolivian economy. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, extreme poverty was reduced by half, and the country’s GDP grew by almost 5% per year.
So, if things were going so well for Morales and MAS, how did this coup occur? First, for all the good Morales has accomplished -- and the list is impressive -- many leftists believe he probably should have taken a step back at some point to promote (and advise) a new face of his party. In 2016, the results of a national referendum seemed to agree that presidential term limits should be enforced. To many even in his own party, it did not matter that the Supreme Court later struck down the referendum based on the American Convention of Human Rights, and that Morales was legally permitted to run for a fourth term -- his image was already starting to sour.
Fast forward to the Bolivian election of October 2019: reasonably assuming that the vast majority of rural Indigenous voters would overwhelmingly choose Morales, MAS declares victory before all the ballots are counted. The right-wing opposition quickly pounced, using the opening to claim manipulation and fraud. The far-right quickly fell in line behind notoriously racist legislator Jeanine Anez, who declared herself interim president. The police turned on Morales, killing dozens in street protests with Morales supporters.
And it was not just Bolivians who were mobilized. An entire machine of anti-Morales propaganda aimed at audiences outside of Bolivia appeared seemingly overnight. The Organization of American States (OAS), which was originally established during the Cold War specifically to prevent the rise of democratically-elected leftist governments like MAS, almost immediately claimed to have “deep concern” (at first without evidence) that cast further doubt on the election results. Over a million tweets seemingly from Bolivian accounts claimed to the world “there is no coup.” And the vast majority of American mainstream media fell for the racist, historically ignorant, and simply inaccurate narrative of a corrupt and anti-democratic Latin-American “strongman” finally being removed, even refusing to call it a “coup” at all: the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and even non-American liberal sources like the Guardian. Morales, his family, and others in his party were threatened with kidnappings, assassinations, and more. Morales fled to Mexico, and many others went into hiding.
But it later turned out that the OAS had fabricated any evidence of election tampering, and those tweets came from a massive bot network created by one US Army veteran and apparent right-wing troll Luis Suarez. The mainstream media was either racist, lazy, and/or simply expressing their neoliberal ideologies. And then there’s the tweet from Elon Musk. Last year, as the internet blew up over the Bolivian election crisis, in an example of what some call “saying the quiet parts out loud,” the celebrity billionaire incredibly announced his naked hostility to democracy when it suits the interests of capitalists like himself. Being accused of conspiring with the United States government to organize the coup against Morales in order to obtain lithium from the country, Musk flippantly responded: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
In the year since the coup, the right-wing government under Anez has allegedly kidnapped, murdered, and imprisoned MAS supporters in an effort to stamp out leftist politics in Bolivia. Less than a month after declaring the presidency for herself, and just a week after the military fired massacred at least 23 pro-Morales protesters during a nonviolent demonstration, Anez made Decree 4078 granting impunity for human rights violations committed by the Bolivian Armed Forces in maintaining “public order.”
Well, as MAS returns to power in Bolivia, with citizens decisively siding against the right-wing anti-democratic conspirators, many on the internet have dug up the old tweet, along with those claims that Musk himself, or at least the United States government was involved in organizing the coup. Despite some overtures from the Anez regime to foreign businesses to buy up Bolivia’s lithium (including to Musk), the hard evidence of collusion is scant, and mostly conjecture. The troll Suarez seems to have been a lone actor, and no hard evidence has emerged that the conspirators in Bolivia received material aid from the United States. Admittedly, the false claims repeatedly promoted by the OAS are difficult to ignore, especially considering President Trump’s personal support of the coup, as well as the explicitly leftist reasons for the existence of OAS -- but spreading propaganda and misinformation is not necessarily evidence of a premeditated conspiracy. Indeed, the fact that the OAS could not produce any evidence, even faked evidence, for weeks after announcing their “deep concern” indicates that the Bolivian coup was a happy accident for the OAS to take advantage.
Regardless of who organized the coup, many of the people who fanned the flames, especially outside of Bolivia, were based in the United States. Anti-democratic sentiments are exposing themselves with greater confidence -- just look at that Musk tweet. As the world’s premier “democracy,” last Cold War-era super power, de facto empire, and “leader of the free world,” we are in the strange position that what happens here has an outsized effect in the world. When we go to vote in a couple weeks, we must also consider the racist right-wing violence and undemocratic policies promoted by our own leaders -- there is more at stake than just the future of the United States.
“Bolivia: Jeanine Añez must immediately repeal decree giving impunity to Armed Forces personnel.” Amnesty International, 18 November 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/bolivia-derogar-norma-impunidad-fuerzas-armadas/
Chocquehuanca, David and Bruno Sommer Catalan. “Bolivia’s Socialist VP Candidate: “‘The Coup Against Evo Morales Was Driven by Multinationals and the Organization of American States.’” Jacobin, 26 January 2020. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/bolivia-elections-david-choquehuanca-mas-morales
Derysh, Igor. “‘Cyber Rambo’: How a US Army vet aided the right-wing coup in Bolivia.” Salon, 23 January 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/01/24/cyber-rambo-how-a-us-army-vet-aided-the-right-wing-coup-in-bolivia/
Johnston, Jake. “Data from Bolivia’s Election Add More Evidence That OAS Fabricated Last Year’s Fraud Claims.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 21 October 2020. https://cepr.net/data-from-bolivias-election-add-more-evidence-that-oas-fabricated-last-years-fraud-claims/
Lambert, Renaud. “Bolivia’s coup.” Le Monde, December 2019. https://mondediplo.com/2019/12/02bolivia
Macleod, Alan. “Why the Bolivia coup is not a coup — because the U.S. foreign policy establishment wanted it.” Salon, 13 November 2019. https://www.salon.com/2019/11/13/why-the-bolivia-coup-is-not-a-coup-because-the-u-s-foreign-policy-establishment-wanted-it/
“Massacre in Cochabamba: Anti-Indigenous Violence Escalates as Mass Protests Denounce Coup in Bolivia.” Democracy Now!, 18 November 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/18/bolivia_cochabamba_massacre_anti_indigenous_violence
Robinson, Nathan J. “Lessons From The Bolivian Coup.” Current Affairs, 26 November 2019. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/11/lessons-from-the-bolivian-coup
Rozsa, Matthew. “Elon Musk becomes Twitter laughingstock after Bolivian socialist movement returns to power.” Salon, 20 October 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/10/20/elon-musk-becomes-twitter-laughingstock-after-bolivian-socialist-movement-returns-to-power/
Wilgress, Matt. “The Far-Right Coup in Bolivia.” Jacobin, 14 November 2020. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/11/bolivia-coup-evo-morales-jeanine-anes-indigenous-violence
[Content Warning: mention of extreme cruelty and violence, human rights abuses]
In 1987, Argentine military leaders started the Carapintada Mutiny against the relatively new civilian government, attempting to evade accountability for human rights violations perpetrated under the previous government. Argentina had suffered political instability throughout much of the 20th century, including multiple military coups, and this mutiny seemed to be the start of another powergrab. But the attempt failed, defeated not by the superior leadership of the civilian President Raul Alfonsin, but snuffed out by overwhelming numbers of citizens on the streets demanding an end to the violence and military rule once and for all.
In 1976, a right-wing military junta supported by US Operation Condor seized power in Argentina and terrorized the country for the next seven years in what the junta itself called the Dirty War. Drawing its authority in part from a secret decree from the previous government, the National Reorganization Process, or Proceso, removed President Isabel Peron, suspended Congress and the Supreme Court, imposed strict media censorship, and banned all political parties and unions. With all checks on power removed, the Proceso sent military and right-wing paramilitary death squads to torture and massacre or otherwise disappear an estimated 10,000-30,000 people over seven years. Victims included anyone suspected of being a guerrilla, trade unionist, leftist, or other dissident of either the Proceso or the neoliberal economic policies of Operation Condor. The regime also disappeared hundreds of pregnant women, murdering them after giving birth and distributing their children as spoils of war: some were raised in new families, others abandoned, and still others sold into human trafficking. The Proceso only came to an end in 1983 after mismanaging the economy and permitting widespread corruption for years, suffering a humiliating defeat in the failed invasion of the Islas Malvinas (AKA the Falkland Islands), and being pressured by the international community to reinstate democratic processes. In fact, it was the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, women whose pregnant daughters had been disappeared, who were largely responsible for bringing global attention to the atrocities.
Under pressure from all sides, the military junta permitted open elections in 1983, and the centrist candidate Raul Alfonsin won on a platform to bring the perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice. Shortly after taking office, President Alfonsin launched the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. After a year of research, in September 1984, the Commission produced the “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) report detailing thousands of deaths and disappearances under the Proceso. The Trial of the Juntas officially began in April 1985, seven months later.
The trials were gradual and methodical, and many who were to stand trial retained their positions in the military in the intervening years. In the meantime, anxiety grew among those who had perpetrated the state-sponsored atrocities of the Dirty War. In 1986, the military successfully pressured President Alfonsin and the National Congress under threat of a coup to pass the Full Stop Law, which effectively granted immunity for the atrocities the Commission was meant to investigate. Even still, on April 15, 1987, Major Ernesto Barreiro was called by civilian court subpoena to answer for allegations of torture and murder as chief torturer at the La Perla concentration camp. Barreiro refused to comply, instead taking refuge in the 14th Airborne Infantry Regiment camp at Cordoba with support from the local commander. The mutiny quickly spread to other military bases and barracks. Soon, the Carapintadas (“Painted Faces”), so-called for their military camouflage, demanded amnesty for all alleged human rights violations as well as a change to the military authority.
President Alfonsin waffled on his response to the rebellion -- flatly refusing to negotiate at first, then later insisting on a compromise for “all the major political parties.” He even went on at a separate public address to call the mutineers “heroes of the Malvinas war,” a comment met with derision from the audience. Indeed, apparently dissatisfied with the government’s ambivalent response to the mutiny, Argentines themselves took action. Just two days after Barreiro’s subpoena refusal, about 500 civilians marched onto the Cordoba base, defying a tank placed there to intimidate them, and forced the surrender of the 80 officers there. Thousands more citizens besieged the Campo de Mayo facility, an infamous site of human rights atrocities, while 400,000 took to the streets of Buenos Aires in opposition to the coup attempt. The trade union federation called for a general strike, motorists waved Argentine flags and honked in support of protesters, and at least one massive street demonstration was happening in some major city every day. Protesters rallied around slogans: “Nunca mas” and “Long live democracy! Argentina!”
Encouraged by the clear opposition to the mutiny by Argentine citizens, President Alfonsin finally took charge. He distributed a document to all the prominent members of Argentine society, asking them to “support in all ways possible the constitution, the normal development of the institutions of government and democracy as the only viable way of life of the Argentines.” Leaders of all the major political parties, civic organizations, labor unions, business groups, and the Catholic Church signed, effectively turning all corners of society against the coup. On April 17, President Alfonsin himself went to the citizen-besieged Campo de Mayo and negotiated the mutineers’ surrender, announcing later “The time for the coups has ended.” The mutiny had been defeated.
Or so it appeared. In actuality, the centrist President Alfonsin ultimately gave in to most of the mutineers’ demands. In the weeks after the mutiny, Alfonsin changed the oversight authorities for the military, as the Carapintadas demanded. Alfonsin also passed the Law of Due Obedience shortly after the mutiny, which granted amnesty for subordinates who may have committed atrocities while carrying out orders. Justice regarding Proceso-era atrocities would not be resumed until 2003, when the Full Stop Law of 1986 and the Law of Due Obedience of 1987 were ruled unconstitutional, over 16 years later. The people of Argentina defeated a nascent military coup and saved democracy in their country, but in the process let their ambivalent centrist government betray the very reason for putting down the rebellion in the first place. So let us remember to maintain scrutiny of our legitimate leaders even after illegitimate power-grabs are defeated and democracy is saved, lest we put off justice any longer.
“Argentina: The Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws and International Law.” Amnesty International, April 2003. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3f13d9d34.pdf
Blakemore, Erin. “30,000 People Were ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina’s Dirty War. These Women Never Stopped Looking.” History.com, March 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/mothers-plaza-de-mayo-disappeared-children-dirty-war-argentina
“Nunca Mas (Never Again): Report of Conadep (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons).” Desaperecidos.org. http://www.desaparecidos.org/nuncamas/web/english/library/nevagain/nevagain_000.htm
Zunes, Stephen. Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. ICNC Monograph Series, 2017. https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ICNC-Monograph-Civil-Resistance-Against-Coups.pdf
On Sunday, October 11, many of us will celebrate National Coming Out Day. Few, however, know that October 11 was chosen to commemorate the largest demonstration on Washington, D.C. up to that point: the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, AKA “The Great March” of 1987. Between 500,000 and 750,000 participants marched on the National Mall for a number of interconnected issues, not least of all demands for the Reagan Administration to finally acknowledge and address the ongoing AIDS epidemic that was disproportionately affecting men who had sex with men. The March encompassed six days of activities, starting with a mass wedding conducted for 2,000 same-sex couples in front of the IRS building. In many ways, we in 2020 share much with those Americans 33 years ago: a fatal disease spreads unchecked through the population as a far-right government callously and intentionally ignores the danger. But against all odds, in just a single generation, activists and allies rapidly transformed attitudes and policies toward queer people altogether, leading to increased research into HIV/AIDS, the adoption and later repeal of the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, the legalization of equal marriage, and countless lives saved from disease, homophobic violence, or suicide. And many of those who helped shape the course of our society got their start at The Great March in 1987.
It was a pivotal moment in queer history. The HIV/AIDS epidemic had started in 1981, but had been permitted by the Reagan Administration to absolutely devastate gay communities the entire time. People struggled for years to get help from the medical community, from the government, from anyone -- all while watching their loved ones die. Then in 1986, in the ruling for Bowers v. Hardwick, the US Supreme Court upheld the criminalization of “sodomy” between two consenting men in the privacy of a home. This regressive and outrageous violation of individual privacy spurred a new impetus for people to organize in protest. The group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was one such group to form in this time -- a leaderless organization dedicated to ending the AIDS epidemic through nonviolent direct action: conducting medical research or forcing the government to fund such research, direct treatment of sick people and advocacy for sick people, promoting safe sex and comprehensive sex education, and more. ACT UP played a significant role in The Great March of 1987, featuring prominently in the march itself, the main rally, and the civil disobedience action at the US Supreme Court. It was the first time ACT UP was covered in national news, but it certainly would not be the last -- after participants had returned home, local ACT UP chapters began popping up all over the country, transforming society.
Why was the Great March of 1987 so successful? After all, it was the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights -- what made this second one so much more successful than the first? The first march was held in 1979, ten years after the Stonewall Riots and a year after the assassination of Harvey Milk. Big names were in attendance: Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, Congressman Ted Weiss, and more. The National Steering Committee mandated gender parity and 25% representation of people of color. A few other groups were contacted to support the March: Lambda Legal Defense Fund, National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the National Gay Task Force. Organizers agreed upon a few specific demands unique and inclusive to all lesbian/gay people. Despite all that, only 75,000 to 125,000 participants attended -- a relatively small crowd compared to many other marches of the past couple decades. What’s worse, the event did not seem to inspire participants by and large to organize and take action on their own.
By 1987, the situation had changed dramatically. The HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States started in 1981, two years after the first march. In the first six years, at least 1,920 people had died from AIDS, each one represented by a 3 ft by 6 ft panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt first presented on the National Mall during The Great March, and the number was rising unchecked; when the Quilt was laid out for the first time, it covered an area larger than a football field. President Reagan himself did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” until well into his second term, and intentionally ignoring the crisis had become a de facto policy. But in the intervening years, queer activists had linked up with other social movements, learning from more experienced groups and coming to recognize the commonality of their oppressions. In preparation for The Great March, a new list of demands was made that included not just legal protection for people in homosexual relationships nor the mere repeal of all anti-sodomy laws, but also included a demand to end discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS (regardless of sexual ortientation), a demand for reproductive freedom, and a demand for an end to racism in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. In the months of organizing leading to The Great March, queer activists contacted not just big names to participate, but big organizations to endorse this platform. The list of groups endorsing the March in 1987 filled several pages, and included labor unions, civil rights groups, women’s organizations, religious groups, and elected officials at various levels. Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a leading figure in the Chicano civil rights movement, was a keynote speaker. Eleanor Smeal, three-term President of the National Organization for Women, was also a keynote speaker. In a speech at the March, Democratic Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson said, “We gather today to say that we insist on equal protection under the law for every American, for workers' rights, women's rights, for the rights of religious freedom, the rights of individual privacy, for the rights of sexual preference. We come together for the rights of all American people.” In a summary of how this new LGBTQ+ movement connected to other social movements, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington wrote in his endorsement letter, “The breadth of the issues highlighted by the March -- against racism and apartheid, as well as for civil rights -- is consistent with the historic thrust of struggles for civil rights in this country.”
Indeed, the March in 1987 was one the first times the LGBTQ+ movement exercised another American tradition: mass civil disobedience. Three days into the activities, ACT UP led the nonviolent action “Out & Outraged” in which activists attempted to enter the US Supreme Court to demand the reversal of the decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Although the scene may have appeared chaotic to some, ACT UP had previously learned certain organizing practices from groups like the War Resisters League in order to safely and effectively perform actions -- some practices that many other groups still use today. For example, every participant was required to be part of an autonomous “affinity group.” This rule meant that no single individual could spontaneously join the action without their group nearby to keep the individual both accountable and safe. It also meant that there was a great amount of trust shared between members of the same affinity group. Affinity groups would be formed months in advance, and members would often train, learn, and work together on the same issues. These best practices in organizing, like the use of affinity groups, helped maintain safety, accountability, and focus while diverse participants carried on potentially dangerous actions. With these practices, the LGBTQ+ movement joined the ranks of more mature, experienced, and successful movements that had already won many successes with the same nonviolent action strategies.
Of course, the situation facing us now is not quite the same as in 1987. Because Covid-19 is a sickness of the breath, not the blood, and is thus much easier to spread than HIV/AIDS, we must exercise far greater caution. And yet, when George Floyd was murdered in May, people found ways to express their rage on the streets while staying safe. From 1981 to 1987, the United States tragically lost about 1,920 people to AIDS. The pain of those losses sparked a movement during a deadly epidemic that not only saved countless lives by pressuring a negligent government and speeding up HIV/AIDS research, but also helped to rapidly transform attitudes and policies toward queer people in the United States altogether. Sometimes, it is from pain and outrage that the most transformative movements grow. It’s time to let them come out again.
(The image for this post is a part of a collection assembled by Markley Morris, a LGBTQ+ activist and artist involved with War Resisters League, and is featured in the War Resisters League Perpetual Calendar. Full source for the image below. To see more pages from the Perpetual Calendar as well as to order your own copy, follow this link: https://www.warresisters.org/store/wrl-perpetual-calendar
If you would like to subscribe to the text-only Google Calendar version of the Perpetual Calendar, follow this link: https://calendar.google.com/calendar/embed?src=i10q0ba7d5vsn857rhopomg98o%40group.calendar.google.com&ctz=America%2FNew_York)
“Affinity Groups & Support.” ACT UP. https://actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Affinity.html
Butigan, Ken. “LGBTQ everywhere: the power of marching on Washington.” Waging Nonviolence. October 11, 2012. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/10/lgbtq-everywhere-the-power-of-marching-on-washington/?pf=true
D’Emilio, John. “The 1987 March on Washington Committee: The Chicago Chapter.” Out History. December 21, 2016. http://outhistory.org/blog/in-the-archives-the-1987-march-on-washington-committee-the-chicago-chapter/
“Jim.radke.3” Nonviolent Civil Disobedience at the U.S. Supreme Court, October 13, 1987. http://supremecourtcd.org/Photos.html#38
Springate, Megan E. “LGBTQ Civil Rights in America.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Foundation, 2016: Washington, DC. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/lgbtqheritage/upload/lgbtqtheme-civilrights.pdf
Stein, Marc. “Memories of the 1987 March on Washington - August 2013.” Out History. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/march-on-washington/exhibit/by-marc-stein
“Wedding, The.” Histories of the National Mall. http://mallhistory.org/items/show/532
Williams, Lena. “200,000 March in Capital to Seek Gay Rights and Money for AIDS.” The New York Times. October 12, 1987. https://web.archive.org/web/20070326092700/http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9B0DE7DA1E3CF931A25753C1A961948260
This past week, activists in Philadelphia made an incredible announcement: the city government had tentatively agreed to turn over 50 vacant homes to a community land trust, ensuring that those homes will remain affordable forever. This historic victory comes after six months of direct action: supported by a diverse network of activists, over 120 people in two homeless encampments protested the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), while 15 mothers and their children weathered threats of eviction from the formerly vacant homes they had moved into. Activists and organizers at various levels coordinated and sustained pressure on the PHA to lead to this tentative agreement. With over 5000 homeless people in Philadelphia, and with this present deal for the first 50 homes not yet finalized, much more work is still to be done. But the success so far is a model for many other communities seeking to secure permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development -- a model first pioneered by Black farmers on a 5700-acre tract of land in Albany, Georgia in 1969.
The first community land trust (CLT) was New Communities, Inc., organized primarily by civil rights activists in the late 1960s for Black sharecroppers who had lost their homes and jobs for registering to vote. It was an experiment in cooperation and collective resilience in the face of endless challenges. Like the recent efforts in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the creation of New Communities grew out of resistance and necessity -- and so did the movements around the world that inspired the CLT in the first place. Influences include the Gramdan village movement in India organized by Vinoba Bhave, who had worked with Gandhi, as well as the single-tax movement in the United States and the garden city movement in the UK. One key figure in the development of the CLT was Bob Swann, a founding member of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (NECNVA; predecessor of the Voluntown Peace Trust), who began to explore “nonviolent economics” when he was in prison as a war resister during World War II. Swann’s major theoretical contribution to the development of community land trusts was to put the “C” in CLT, emphasizing the importance of community control of the land they put in trust.
The “Peace Farm” that eventually became the Voluntown Peace Trust was an early experiment in some of Swann’s ideas for an intentional community, but it wasn’t until he began working with Slater King, president of the Albany Movement and a cousin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others from the civil rights movement that the first community land trust in the United States was born.
But what, exactly, is a community land trust? A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit corporation that actively acquires, holds, and stewards land for a place-based community, usually in order to provide affordable housing, increase food security, and equitably redevelop neighborhoods. The CLT acquires land with the intention of owning it forever, but any building on that land may be sold to an individual homeowner, a housing cooperative, a rental housing developer, or some other nonprofit, for-profit, or governmental entity. In addition, the CLT may also lease the land on which a building stands to the new building owner in a ground-lease, granting long-term exclusive-use rights to that land and a resale formula which maintains the permanent affordability while allowing limited equity. This means that one may buy, sell, alter, inherit, and even mortgage a building on land owned by a CLT.
CLTs are designed to be guided by and accountable to the community that lives in and around it. The size of the community can range from a single neighborhood to an entire county, and all adults who live within the community typically qualify as voting members of the CLT. A board of directors leads the CLT, with members drawn equally from three groups of stakeholders within the community: residents/leaseholders of CLT-owned land, CLT members, and public representatives who can connect to broader constituencies. Many CLTs actively seek to expand their land holdings, including community gardens, civic buildings, commercial spaces, and other community assets. There is a great deal of diversity under the umbrella term of “community land trust.” The fundamental purpose for the CLT, however, is always primarily to secure permanent affordable housing for people with low or moderate income in an equitable way.
From its founding in 1969 to 1983, many of the resident farmers of New Communities considered their land trust as a safe haven for other Blacks. The dozen or so residents of New Communities, as well as dozens more participating community members, grew and sold crops, raised and slaughtered hogs, operated a smokehouse, and even built a sugarcane mill. But a combination of systemic racism and bad fortune conspired against them. Racist Whites in the area boycotted their market and otherwise sabotaged New Communities. Blight and bad weather caused financial troubles to mount. Requests for an emergency loan from the federal Farmers Home Administration were consistently denied by local officials, despite the approval of similar requests from neighboring White farmers. Then, starting in 1981, a severe drought devastated the farms of southwest Georgia, exacerbating problems. When finally Washington officials forced local administrators to approve the loans, the assistance New Communities received was consistently too little, too late, and tied to arbitrary restrictions. New Communities persisted for a few years longer, but eventually lost the property to foreclosure in 1985.
The residents of New Communities were just some of the victims of the systemic discrimination by the Farmers Home Administration over several years, as was revealed in a national class action lawsuit brought by Black farmers against the FHA in 1997. As one judge wrote later, “In several Southeastern states, for instance, it took three times as long on average to process the application of an African American farmer as it did to process the application of a white farmer.” But the members of New Communities did not disappear, instead continuing to meet regularly even after losing the original property. The case against the FHA was eventually settled, and in 2009, New Communities was awarded $12 million in damages. The community land trust invested the money in a new 1600-acre property named Resora, some miles outside of Albany, GA, to pick up where they had left off all those years ago. After almost two and a half decades, their persistence paid off.
New Communities continues to foster and inspire community land trusts across the country and around the world as a model for permanent affordable housing and equitable economic development. They celebrated 50 years of resilience last year, hosting community land trust activists from around the country, supported by Grounded Solutions. Today, more than 330 CLTs exist around the United States, including the Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SE CT CLT), affiliated with the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Arc of Justice: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Beloved Community. Producer/Directors Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman. Open Studio Productions. 2016. https://www.arcofjusticefilm.com/
Breed, Allen G. “Black Farmers’ Lawsuit Revives a Dream.” The Washington Post. December 6, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/12/06/black-farmers-lawsuit-revives-a-dream/f286668f-67de-400f-a10b-051ba9bf47a7/
Elliot, Debbie. “5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers.” National Public Radio. October 3, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766706906/5-decades-later-communities-land-trust-still-helps-black-farmers
Lacey, Akela. “Philadelphia activists on verge of historic win for public housing.” The Intercept. September 29, 2020. https://theintercept.com/2020/09/29/philadelphia-public-housing/
Mills, Stephanie. On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics. New Society Publishers. 2010.
Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (who led the Philadelphia CLT campaign): http://blackandbrownworkerscoop.org/
Philadelphia Housing Action (latest info from the coalition of groups in the Philadelphia CLT campaign): https://philadelphiahousingaction.info/
New Communities, Inc.: https://www.newcommunitiesinc.com/
More on the history of CLTs: http://cltroots.org/
Video-lecture and slideshow on the history of CLTs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC7YRbih4IY&t
Southeastern Connecticut Community Land Trust: https://sectclt.org/
On the gray and rainy morning of December 1, 1960, one hundred and fifty people gathered at San Francisco’s Union Square in excited anticipation: a diverse crowd of students, minor celebrities, the religiously-motivated, and others, along with a couple filmmakers and half a dozen people in news and media. The air was chilly, the wind blustery, and perhaps some in attendance were considering going home when, “As if by Providence, the grey ceiling opened and a stream of sunlight washed the Square as the marchers entered.” After a warm reception and a couple send-off speeches from community leaders, the walkers lifted their signs and strode out. No one, least of all the walkers themselves, knew if they would be admitted into Eastern Europe when they finally arrived, or if they would even find hospitality everywhere in their own country -- volunteers were out establishing contacts to support the Walk in California even as the walkers left Union Square. Thus, as flashbulbs burst from cameras and supporters chatted and laughed as they strode beside, and the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace began its 6000 mile journey.
The whole project took a considerable amount of work to organize behind the scenes. So much had to be coordinated: meals, meetings and interviews with the media, rendezvous with local supporters, and especially overnight housing. Bradford Lyttle, one of the principal organizers of the Walk, started the Walk with the others, but eventually found himself zipping on ahead in cars and planes to coordinate. Lyttle especially organized a good amount of media coverage: a 10 minute radio interview here, a two hour radio interview there. Filmmakers even set up an interview between Brad Lyttle and Rand Corporation representative Herman Kahn, who had recently published the book On Thermonuclear War.
It took the Walkers the entire first month to cross California and enter Arizona three days behind schedule -- a whole month of learning from painful mistakes and experience. They tested all types of boots and sneakers for walking -- Brad Lyttle estimated that the Walk wore out 200 pairs of shoes. They learned how to treat their blisters, and incorporated foot care into their routine. They learned the physical limits of their bodies, and that almost all of them would have to take the occasional break, at least until their bodies became used to walking an average of 23 miles every day. They learned that sending a car out a few miles ahead of the walkers to talk to the locals sometimes made the difference between free hot meals and empty stomachs. They learned the difference between coordinating in a small town versus a sprawling city: in Los Angeles, organizers had arranged for eight families scattered across the city to host the eight Team members, only to realize the difficulty of coordinating the transportation to each destination in a city like L.A. (especially before mobile phones). Perhaps most importantly, the Walkers learned how to work with each other. This “group of artists, intellectuals, mystics, anarchists and whatnot,” as Lyttle described them, learned to work through differences in opinions and make collective decisions -- despite the “desire for autonomous individuality [which] collides with our need for organization, resulting in relatively complete chaos most of the time.”
Brad Lyttle was likely exaggerating about the chaos -- or perhaps he was accurate and it was exactly that creative individuality that also accounted for some of the Walk’s success. The Walk certainly attracted unique people. Bea Burnett was one early convert to the Walk. A corporate spokesperson who had been inspired by marchers at a meeting in San Francisco, Burnett threw herself into the project. At first, she volunteered for the advance work of securing food and housing for the walkers -- in the first week of the Walk, she even convinced local businessmen at a shopping center to give the walkers free lunches and haircuts. Barton Stone, a Buddhist who attended a meeting during the send-off for the Walk in San Francisco, was another early joiner. Others, like John Beecher, an eminent poet and English professor at Arizona State University, and his wife Barbara Beecher, an artist, had been developing their own pacifist feelings for some time, and took the Walk as their opportunity to finally commit to those feelings and do something. At a vigil at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, ten men and women dressed in white and blue and calling themselves “Children of Light” joined the walkers. On Christmas 1960, Joan Baez showed up and played a short concert for the walkers -- she had visited Polaris Action in New London with Pete Seeger just a few months earlier.
Most of January was spent in Arizona, where local receptions were less welcoming. In California, the Walk could usually get a platform, if not a sympathetic audience, at the universities; the worst the walkers would get was mild condescension at what the audience perceived as pacifist naivete. In Arizona, such privileges could not be guaranteed; en route to a speaking engagement organized by sympathetic faculty members of Arizona State University at Tempe, a crowd of over 50 hostile students threatened the walkers with violence if they attempted to proceed toward campus. Even after the marchers convinced the students to let them pass, the audience that ultimately attended the talk heckled and booed the walkers while holding signs like “EXTERMINATE THE ENEMY.” Members of the Team noted the influence of Barry Goldwater, The Arizona Republic, and the John Birch Society, creating a toxic atmosphere of isolationist conservatism and violent paranoia.
Even the churches, reliable for a meal or place to spend the night in much of California, largely denied the Walk any help in Arizona. Time and again, advance workers would request assistance from individual church leaders as well as larger religious associations. Quakers and Unitarians were often most likely to answer the call, but it was no less disappointing when other denominations refused them. Some individual ministers who had initially welcomed the walkers even had to reverse their offers out of pressure from their hostile congregations. On the nights they couldn’t find shelter, the walkers camped.
Arizona was where the walkers first experienced media blackouts regarding the Walk. In Tucson, a reporter told Team member Scott Herrick that the owner of the main Tucson daily had ordered that the Walk be ignored. Some of this institutional hostility could be explained by individual prejudices of locally powerful men, but the walkers began to suspect that a more coordinated effort might be organizing against them. Reports began to filter in about the FBI spreading rumors and false characterizations about the walkers to local military leaders and law enforcement, sending directives condemning the Walk and suggesting a “hands-off” policy to the media, and warning local chambers of commerce and ministers’ associations not to lend aid.
Sometimes, these FBI directives were quite successful. Despite some moments of generosity and humanity along the way, the unfriendly pattern established in Arizona held throughout much of the American Southwest. But some communities perhaps never received the FBI message. When the Walk arrived in Alva, Oklahoma late on the evening of February 21, 1961, the walkers were not expecting what happened that night. From Brad Lyttle’s words about that night:
“We had camped at a railroad overpass about a mile north of Alva. Immediately, people began coming to talk to us. There were several ministers who were interested but did not feel we were ‘safe’ enough to take in. Many students came. By the time we finished supper, cars were parked lining both sides of the highway and caused the police a bit of a traffic problem. What a scene. More cars continued to arrive. Our fleet of odd-looking vehicles parked around the green and orange tent, by camp-fire; guitars and singing, foodboxes, lanterns and paraphernalia strewn around. A crowd of fraternity boys parked up on the hill, gathered in a band, with torches. One boy had a bugle, another carried an improvised sign saying WORKERS ARISE. STAMP OUT THIRST. DRINK BEER. They walked yelling and jeering down to the camp, and became part of the crowd. At one time there were about 100 people, mostly students, from Northwestern State Teachers College gathered around our fire, but we must have talked to many more than that, for the crowd kept changing as some left and others came. These students were as a whole much different from others we had spoken to. They were more curious, open-minded, tried harder to understand what we were saying, less antagonistic. I got the impression too they were less informed about world affairs, not as ‘sophisticated’ as, for instance, the students in California. Many of them understood and agreed with us up to the point of taking personal action. They regarded Allan Hoffman and Betty Blanck [two Team walkers] as particularly curious specimens because of their frank atheism. Often they got sidetracked into theological discussions.
“There were Five or six groups gathered around nuclei of two or three walkers. People drifted from one group to another. These students asked very intelligent questions which were obviously aimed at understanding, rather than discrediting what we said.
“By 12:30 AM most of the crowd had left and many of us fell asleep exhausted. Dr. Beecher said that the last ones didn’t leave until 2:30 AM. He said it was one of the greatest experiences of his life.”
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.