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Witchhunts to the Right; Witchhunts to the Left


Some leaders of the American Indian Movement and quite a few mouthpieces on the left are currently seeking, on what I am sure they consider morally justified grounds, to counter the efforts to fight the witch-hunt against University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill. Churchill faces an attempt by the University of Colorado to find grounds for firing him because of statements he made about the 9/11 attacks and to deepen the attack on ethnic studies at the university.

I think these attacks are unsupported by convincing proof, unjustified and inappropriate coming as they do from groups and individuals who have a lot to lose from the blow to all our democratic rights that is being aimed at Churchill.

Some charge him with being an agent of a COINTELPRO operation against the Indian struggle for rights. Their evidence is flimsy, and not sufficient to convict anyone on any charge.

They challenge his claim to be an Indian, claiming that he is not a “real” Indian genetically or spiritually. There has been no disproof of his claim to be 1/24th (or whatever) Indian and therefore the claim should be accepted.

(Another tack has been to raise the issue of whether he is not as good a teacher as Vine Deloria. This has nothing whatever to do with the political issues being fought over and I invite those who have taken their classes to debate this to their heart’s content. After all, it’s supposed to be a free country.)

Support for Indian rights does not oblige us to get into the race-certification business, which usually has more to do with business interests among the Indian nations than with rights per se. From the standpoint of the struggle for rights, the oppressed generally have no interest in preventing others from identifying with them for whatever reason.

There should of course be affirmative action and treaty-based measures to support the business activities of Indian nations, including the protection of Indian identity in these operations (casinos, artwork, etc.). But the defense of the democratic rights of Indians and all of us should not be disrupted by inevitably poisonous campaigns about who is really an Indian genetically or in their deeper nature.

The charges that Churchill is an agent have no logical basis. It is claimed that his statements on 9/11 were a deliberate attempt to enable the government to label the American Indian Movement a terrorist group – an alleged attempt that was defused by AIM’s simply exercising its democratic right to disagree with the statements that he had an equal right to make..

Or they claim that Churchill raises this issue now because he is trying to aid the government’s war against terror. But it was the enemies of democratic rights, not Churchill, who raised this issue now. The attempt to present ‘COINTELPRO’ – type government documents as proof positive are unconvincing, and the documents themselves – being written by expert liars – actually PROVE nothing.

But above all, the attacks on Churchill particularly the statement by the AIM top leadership — legitimize the rightist claim that what Churchill said about 9/11 goes beyond the limits of legitimate free speech, beyond the limits of what can be civilly debated in a democratic society,and that these statements could only be made by a US agent or a “fool.”

This is an attack not only on Churchill but on everyone who differs from the only legitimate mainstream discourse on 9/11 – the passion of American innocence violated by “evil” from abroad. This includes not only a modest minority of people in the United States, but millions in countries all over the world.

The attacks on Churchill are filled with vague and sinister references to COINTELPRO. As someone who was involved in a suit against the government around the COINTELPRO operations against the Socialist Workers Party (which I belonged to at the time), I read a lot of COINTELPRO documents and lots of court testimony about them.

And I am struck by the resemblance between the charges and factional attacks on Churchill and the content and style of these FBI campaigns to divide and disrupt struggles for progressive social change and democratic rights by setting people up with rumors or “evidence” about their being agents, baiting about racial purity, and so on.

These attacks were sometimes deadly in their effectiveness. In New Haven, FBI agents got Black revolutionaries to torture and kill each otherin the early 1970s over such accusations.

I am convinced that the current attacks on Churchill are not part of a government plot, but are a product of a tradition of blind factionalism that has plagued progressive struggles in this country for a long time.

In part, the FBI learned the art of “putting a snitch jacket” on a targeted individual (portraying them as a government agent), and the “tabloid expose” literary style of attack from the Communist Party. Under the influence of Stalin, the Communist Party from the late 20s,and for decades thereafter, tended to accuse all who disagreed including suspected dissidents in its own ranks, or working for various US or international police agencies. And the method was picked up from that source by various left and nationalist organizations, as well as by the FBI.

This played a role in the destruction of the Black Panther Party. It helped undermine internal solidarity against the witch-hunters in the Communist Party.

It has eaten away at the counter-tradition in this country, the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Instead, it fostered the idea that the enemy of my factional enemy is my friend, or at least my practical ally in exposing or cutting down the factional enemy. It is division in the face of the enemy, which Fidel Castro said was never an intelligent or successful strategy.

Instead of fighting the government’s witch-hunt, the current attacks on Churchill have the effect of supplementing the rulers’ witch-hunt against challenges to their orthodoxy on 9/11 with a witch-hunt within the movement against dissenters and against those suspected – primarily for their opinions, but with other shreds of “evidence” thrown in to sweeten the pot – of being “agents.”

In lending itself to this witch-hunt, the top leaders of AIM are damaging their own completely just struggle. They are undermining the democratic rights of all the Indian nations, as well as everybody else. They will be more vulnerable to witch-hunting because of the way they have handled their conflicts with Churchill in this instance.

To pay too much attention to these attacks can worsen their divisive effects. But I have to restate the class-struggle basics on this issue, without which we will tear each other apart to the benefit of our enemies.

No one should be considered a police agent without definitive and tested proof beyond reasonable doubt. Anything else is destructive. There is no convincing evidence that Churchill is a COINTELPRO agent. Therefore he is not. To declare that he is an agent without positive proof beyond reasonable doubtis itself an attack on democratic rights, and a contribution to the rulers’ attack on our rights in this case.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Stop the witch-hunt against dissent in the United States in general and the University of Colorado. Oppose the attempts to silence and punish Ward Churchill for his views – on whatever pretext.

FRED FELDMAN can be reached at:


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