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Who Are "We"?
[Remarks at the annual Project Censored awards ceremony in San Rafael, California October 4, 2003.]
I have just one question. Who are we and who’s responsible for what we have become?
They say that we were hit on September 11th because we are free. Does that mean that what we have become is the product of the desires and wishes of the American people?
And if so, are we also free to change our minds?
As I survey the landscape of the changes that have taken place literally before my eyes, over the course of my lifetime, I have to wonder where did we go wrong.
You see, I’m a child of the 60s. I saw the power possible in our country when people of all races, colors, and creeds came together to move our country forward. I also saw that, despite our history, the coming together was, indeed, possible.
It was possible for white people to walk hand in hand with black people on what could easily have been termed "a black issue"–the right to vote in the South–as well as on an American issue–peace in Vietnam.
It was possible for white people to see a black man as their leader too, and not just as someone consigned to the political margins.
It was possible for black people to join with Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, progressive whites, to improve our country and to make us live up to our noblest ideals.
Try as they may to malign flower power, it was truly star power.
So how did we get from that to this?
George W. smirks, Dick Cheney sneers, Rumsfeld jokes, Powell blusters, Rice lies.
Enron and Worldcom steal; DynCorp vaccinates; Carlyle benefits; Halliburton feeds and feeds and feeds.
Americans hurt. And in Iraq, Americans die.
Our national leaders insult our allies, create more foes, reward their friends, increase our insecurity through their own policies, and plunge the American people into our deepest economic abyss in a generation.
Stealing an election in Florida on the uncounted chads representing the legitimate hopes and aspirations of black and Latino Floridians, even the Democrats failed to pursue a remedy that would permanently secure the voting rights of people of color in Florida and around our country.
Massive failures all around us enter into the calculation in any answer to my original question: Who are we and who’s responsible for what we have become?
From the lies to our service men and women and to all of us about Iraq, to the still unanswered questions about September 11th. The Congress has failed in its oversight of the Executive Branch and the American people have failed in their oversight of the integrity of our political system.
It’s abominable that Rumsfeld can say America "can afford" the extra $87 billion for more corporate outrage and human cannon fodder in Iraq while at the same time women and children constitute the fastest- growing segment of our homeless population.
The very act of our sitting Vice President taking a pay check from the American people while at the very same time taking one from a corporation that gets billions of dollars in no-bid, sole-source contracts should make us all outraged and should make our Vice President blush.
But these people don’t blush because in the end, they know they can get away with it.
I believe the promise of our country was stolen two generations ago in bold and brazen acts of violence. And our failure to appropriately respond then has led to the conditions we face today.
That great experiment at togetherness and purpose that I experienced in the 60s was allowed to break down along race, class, ethnic, and religious lines. We lost our moral purpose and our national mission. We allowed others to define who we–Americans–really are. Those who stole our promise became America.
Under the Bush Administration, we see war with horrific human and moral costs. We see terrible, perhaps criminal, abuse of office.
We see ludicrous leaders like Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, Ward Connerly, and now Arnold Schwarzenegger, parade across the stage and adorned with the ornaments of power while thoughtful leaders are shunned or targeted or cruelly maligned.
But there was a time when that truly wasn’t so. When our leaders challenged the best in us and encouraged us to shun war and invest in justice and peace.
Now, in the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s inaugural address set out a new vision for our country. At a time when our country held the power to extinguish poverty or to extinguish man, Kennedy chose to set our country on the path to tackle poverty and to raise the standard of freedom and liberty around the globe.
In word as well as deed, Kennedy set out to make the world safe for diversity and to make America safe in a diverse world. He embarked upon a path to respect the cries of freedom from others and to make a new world order where "the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved." He challenged our generation to space exploration, medical achievement, arms control, and to fight against "tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."
And despite what the revisionists would have us believe about him, JFK rejected war against a smaller, weaker, poorer country, began to work for detente with the Soviets, and threatened to "scatter the CIA to the four winds."
Now, that was leadership for a new generation. And at that time, we had a choice; but Kennedy correctly pointed out that what we really wanted was not a Pax Americana imposed with American weapons of war; not even a peace for our time; but, instead a peace for all time.
Snipers’ bullets took that America away from us. And almost in rapid succession, bullets took Martin King and Bobby Kennedy from us, too. It came to my attention during my last days in Congress that Bobby was considering King for his running mate. Now, imagine the America we might have had.
But when confronted with evil back then, what did we do?
Not too far away from this very spot, Mario Savio of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement told us what to do.
Mario Savio told us that sometimes, when the machine becomes so odious, it makes us sick. And at that point, we have to put our entire bodies against the gears and the wheels and the levers. Against the entire apparatus, and we have to make it stop. And that we have to say to those who own the machine, that unless we’re free, we’ll prevent the machine from working at all.
I put my entire body against the gears and the wheels and the levers–against the entire apparatus of the machine. And I tried to stop it.
I tried to warn the American people of the dangers that I saw emanating from this Administration. For that, a known black female Republican was advised to run against me in the Democratic Primary. Republicans fed her campaign coffers and then 48,000 of them crossed over and voted for her. Just think about it: Katherine Harris who participated in the illegal disfranchisement of innocent black and Latino voters was rewarded with a Congressional seat and I was taken out of one.
And sometimes I wonder what the progressive community in Georgia and around the country was thinking as I was running my race. Why was it so easy for national Democratic political pundits who knew me to dump on me in the same manner that Sister Soljah was dumped on by the Clinton campaign? Was it that I deserved the mischaracterizations because I had dared to hold this Administration and America accountable on the 2000 election, the missing $2.3 trillion at the Pentagon, the Pentagon’s corporate sweetheart deals with political insiders, US continued use of depleted uranium in Iraq, US covert activities in Africa that resulted in genocide, clearcutting of our national forests, a return to COINTELPRO through the legislation we were passing, the treatment of black people in this country? I had tried to take money away from Lockheed Martin because I feared the rampant racism gone unchecked. I had challenged Westinghouse and their running of Savannah River Site and the numerous leakages of tritium into the river. I had tried to stop the senseless weapons transfers to dictators and human rights abusers and I authored legislation to force overseas companies to identify the names and locations of their subcontractors who might be engaging in sweatshop labor. And I had forced the Pentagon to stop sewing its PX jeans in Burmese sweatshops.
I worked with five of your Project Censored 2004 journalists, on thirteen of your 2004 issues, and on six of your 2003 issues. And despite all that, I still managed to bring home over 350 million dollars during my service in Congress.
It didn’t matter.
By the time the corporate media had finished with me, my white support had plummeted. And sadly, this was even among people whom I had represented for a decade and who knew me. I was even booed at our annual Gay Pride Parade despite my lifetime 100% HRC voting record. And Atlanta’s white gay and lesbian leadership refused to march with me, including Georgia’s only openly gay Member of the Legislature whom I had endorsed and for whom one of my trusted staffers had worked to ensure that she won. I protected her during redistricting when other Democrats targeted her. A white lesbian that I helped get elected in a majority black district. She refused to march with me too.
Even some progressive journalists found it easier to just join the bandwagon against me rather than to simply report accurately what I actually had said and done.
But now, we have distance from that moment.
We know that this Administration will do anything to have the appearance of winning an election. Florida was round one, Georgia was round two, California, round three, Texas, round four, all building up to the big one, 2004.
We also now know that this Administration has kept many secrets from the American people: including, changing a September 11th Ground Zero environmental impact statement in order to speed up the opening of Wall Street. They have lied to us on Iraq. They still haven’t told us what they knew and when they knew it about the tragic events of September 11th. And yet, they have intimidated the poor 9-11 families into giving up their right to sue the perpetrators and their supporters who helped carry out the 9-11 attacks. That’s why my last piece of legislation allowed the 9-11 families to participate in the government compensation fund as well as retain their right to sue and thereby find the truth for all of us on what actually happened that day.
At the time, I even handwrote an impeachment bill I was so outraged. But my mother was more outraged at the lies in the local and national media and begged me to just leave it alone. And so I did.
If there ever was a politician Project Censored, I think I’m it.
So I’m proud to have earned my spot here at the Project Censored awards tonight. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for including me.
But although we’re all losers as a result of what happened in Georgia and Florida. We’re really losers if a little black ink can sow hatred and division between progressive blacks and whites. Even in the South.
Now, before I sit down, I want to go back to that question I first asked: Who are we and who’s responsible for what we have we become?
America is us and we are responsible for what we have become. If we answer in any other way, we are content to have others define us. Even others who have proven to us that they can’t be trusted.
A young teacher recently asked me what did I think she could do, to advance the cause of people who think like us; I told her that the greatest gift my teachers had given me was the ability to think; teaching our young people how to think is the greatest gift our teachers can give, for it will be those independent thinkers who will save our country.
So, my hat’s off to the professors at Sonoma State University for even conceiving such a program and to the University for being committed to it. Project Censored ensures that our country will have a cadre of young people trained to think. And for those of us who care enough about our country to find out what’s going on, Project Censored makes it easier for us to know enough to make for our country a better tomorrow.
Thank you to the journalists for writing the stories that you’ve written and thank you Seven Stories for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful occasion.
CYNTHIA MCKINNEY is a former member of Congress from Georgia.