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Oxford’s ornately decorated town hall was brimming with people. So many people… All of them there to protest against the war in Afghanistan. Well, almost all of them.
On my way to the meeting, I had seen a group of students standing outside the hall, one of them draped in an American flag. I didn’t think much of them until they came in and sat behind me. There were several men and a few women in their group – Americans, judging by their accents. At the centre of attention was a smiling girl with curly brown locks. She looks a lot like Chelsea Clinton, I thought, but I wasn’t sure. Then the meeting began.
The 600-person crowd sat in rapt attention. But at one point, some of the Americans went to the front of the room with their flag, an apparent protest against peace: one of them tried to drown out the speakers by shouting. Embarrassed, I got up to move away from them. The heckling Americans, who were few in number, failed to derail the meeting, their jibes deftly countered by the speakers.
Chelsea, to her credit, remained silent throughout. But, according to recent interviews with CNN and Talk Magazine, she has now broken her silence. Chelsea has said that, because of anti-American and anti-war sentiment in England, she no longer wants to “seek out non-Americans as friends”. Instead, she wants to “be around Americans” – by which she means, I presume, people who support America’s war against terror.
Shame on you, Chelsea. There are millions of people, every bit as American as you, who have every reason to question whether or not this is really a “war for democracy”, a “war against terror” that will “keep Americans safe”. I am speaking about the millions of us who are Americans of African descent, and the millions of others who oppose this war.
While many black Americans felt wounded after the September 11 attacks – indeed, only one of the 38 blacks in Congress voted against giving Bush war powers – we’re far more circumspect than our white compatriots. Fully 20% of blacks opposed Bush’s response, compared to only 6% of whites (64% of blacks were in support, compared with 83% whites). As bombs fell, black opposition rose. We’re less enthusiastic about America’s wars in the developing world because we are aware, as has often been said, that no Iraqi ever called us nigger.
Don’t misunderstand me: many black Americans are remarkably patriotic. We’ve fought in all of America’s wars. But, 20 years after we helped liberate Nazi death camps, we still could not vote in our own country. When black Freedom Riders challenged America’s apartheid laws, they were firebombed and beaten. The police and FBI did not hunt down the “evil-doers” responsible for these crimes; indeed, more often than not they assisted them.
Mind you, just because the FBI broke the law in the 1960s does not mean that they’re wrong about Bin Laden. But we have every right to question US “intelligence” when the same FBI and CIA now chasing Bin Laden also once trained their sights on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (when both men were shot, the first people to rush to their sides were undercover policemen who had infiltrated their entourage).
In a country that refuses to pay reparations for slavery, the FBI spent the equivalent of $500m to “neutralise” black leaders – with frightening success, as the mothers of Black Panther activists Fred Hampton and the exiled Assata Shakur can attest. (The former was killed in his sleep in a police raid in 1969, for which the government, admitting wrongdoing, was forced to pay $1.85m in damages.) White supremacist murders and police killings have claimed the lives of thousands of blacks – most famously in the Tulsa massacre of 1921 – and the prisons house nearly one million more.
So you see, Chelsea, African Americans are not much less safe now than we were before September 11. Even if we found out who was sending the anthrax tomorrow, innocent black males in LA and New York and Cincinnati would continue to have fatal allergic reactions to bullets fired by white cops.
Are blacks expected to line up to fight the Taliban? How can we, when one of our own senators (ex-Klansman Robert Byrd of West Virginia) once vowed that he would never fight “with a negro by my side”, preferring instead to “die a thousand times”? Even now, while our FBI is arresting anyone whose first name rhymes with Osama, the Klan is operating openly and legally in all 50 states. Next time you’re in Tennessee, Chelsea, come visit Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named after the founder of America’s al-Qaida, the KKK.
Absurdly, we’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief now that we think the anthrax was sent, not by Arabs, but by white supremacists. But why were black postal workers treated a week after the whites on Capitol Hill? Has US attorney general John Ashcroft detained 1,000 Christians without charge? Is everyone with links to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh now under surveillance? And what terrorist-harbouring state will be bombed next – Alabama?
The charge has been laid that the left predicted a long war. “Look how they got it wrong, big-time!” as Dick Cheney might say. But this phase of the war – the massacres, continued bombing, the infighting as returning warlords reassert themselves – is far from over, let alone what is likely to happen once Bush turns his attention to Iraq. The irony is that it was the right, especially the military, which expected the Taliban regime to hold out. Last month, Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the war in Afghanistan would take “years, not weeks or months”.
So the real question is: how could the military and the CIA have got it so wrong? After all, we’re paying them $300bn a year to (a) predict the fall of the Berlin wall, (b) predict the invasion of Kuwait, (c) not bomb Chinese embassies when we’re not at war with China, (d) not train and fund Osama bin Laden when he will later use our own weapons against us. Maybe we deserve to be laughed at, left and right, for giving the military and CIA so much money, when they’ve done such a hopeless job.
So, Chelsea, please do not corral all Americans into the pro-war camp. The stars and stripes your friend draped across his back remind too many of us of the bloody stripes that once laced our own. One of Bill Clinton’s redeeming traits is the fact that, when he studied at Oxford, he opposed America’s war. Maybe sometime, Chelsea, you will too.
Professor Jonathan Farley is a math professor at Vanderbilt University and visiting distinguished scholar at Oxford University. He is running for Congress in Tennessee as a Green candidate in 2002. This column originally appeared in The Guardian of London.