None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The road to total tyranny is littered with tests – moments when those atop reigning oppression structures learn how far they can push the boundaries of decency without sparking potent people’s resistance. One such moment when the demented jackass and imperialist butcher George W. Bush marched down a red carpet to screw up his evil, moronic face to announce the U.S. invasion of Iraq on openly false pretexts including the shamelessly idiotic claim that Saddam Hussein’s government had been involved in the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks and the equally bogus charge that Iraq possessed a threatening stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction.” The president and his team of Orwellian Neocon war pigs faced two days of mass protest across the country and around the world.  Still, they were not deterred from launching a brazenly criminal invasion and occupation that would kill more than a million Iraqis, displace millions more, and devastate Iraq almost beyond recognition.

They got away with it.  In a decent society, their crime would have sparked massive and prolonged civil disobedience and even revolution. They would have been prosecuted and jailed, perhaps even executed.

Six years later, the silver-tonged neoliberal Barack Obama would audaciously betray his claims to represent progressive “hope” and “change.” He loaded his presidency with highly placed financial and corporate operatives who worked with him and other Washington politicians to bail out the very Wall Street parasites who had recklessly collapsed the U.S. economy. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of majority-backed policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S.

But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House. Barry Citigroup Obama opted instead for the government to keep giving the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Under Obama no less than under Bush, Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned,” Greider wrote:

“that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, the American people watched as establishment forces [under Obama’s fake-progressive cover] re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 Percenter Mitt Romney.

Obama was just getting started writing new chapters in the annals of neoliberal duplicity.  Over the next seven years, the “liberal” and “progressive” – the right even called him “Left” – Obama:

+ Set new records for prosecuting whistleblowers, deported more immigrants than any president ever.

+ Launched a devastating and criminal war on Libya.

+ Ramped up the reckless New Cold War with Russia, in part by helping set up a neo-Nazi coup regime in Ukraine.

+ Helped install a right-wing coup regime in Honduras.

+ Cuddled up the vicious and arch-reactionary Saudi Arabian regime, keeping U.S. weapons flowing to that absolutist state as it began to pummel Yemen into epic humanitarian crisis.

+ Initiated a Darth Vader-esque retooling of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

+ Offered fake constitutional cover for Bush’s criminal torture practices.

+ Expanded the criminal U.S. war on Afghanistan, slaughtering thousands of innocent Pashtun women and children along the way.

+ Expanded the mass-murderous Pentagon system, sponsoring among other things an unprecedented growth of the U.S. military presence in Africa

+ Oversaw an expanded drone war program that Noam Chomsky reasonably described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign in modern times.”

That’s just a short list.

Obama got away with it all and more, boasting of his service to the rich and powerful while depressing and demobilizing the nation’s progressive majority in ways that contributed richly to the election of the malevolent racist and sexist, arch-authoritarian sociopath Donald Trump (who Obama had famously goaded into running for president during a White House Correspondents Dinner). He’s been cashing on his service to the ruling class ever since.

In a decent society, Obama’s crimes and betrayals would have sparked massive and prolonged civil disobedience and even revolution.  He would have been prosecuted for war crimes, jailed, and even perhaps executed.

There was, to be sure, the Occupy moment, which Obama helped dismantle through force, but Occupy never really became a lasting movement dedicated to radical transformation.  As Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford noted at the Left Forum three weeks ago, Occupy Wall Street was felled in no small part by its own failure to articulate forthright popular demands. It never even demanded the nationalization of the widely hated banks, “the enemies of all mankind” (Ford).

There have been many tyranny tests under the monstrous orange-tinted white nationalist Twitter clown Donald Trump.  Where to begin:

+ The opening day trip to CIA headquarters, where he half-jokingly rambled about the US going back to Iraq to “get the oil”?

+ The repeated attempts to repeal even Obama’s inadequate health insurance measure and thereby remove tens of millions of U.S. citizens from health coverage?

+ The insane claim to have won the popular vote but for the votes of illegal immigrants?

+ The idiotic call for a southern border wall combined with the asinine call for Mexico to “pay for it”?

+ The noxious description of Mexican and other Central American immigrants and asylum-seekers as rapists and murderers?

+ The praise and dog-whistling cover he offered to murderous fascist racists in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017?

+ The giant tax cut that the racist real estate mogul trailblazed for the already obscenely super-opulent Few last Christmas season – a socioeconomic atrocity in a nation where the top 10thof the upper 1 percent already owned as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent?

+ The advance pardon that the Tangerine Satan offered to the sickening racist and nativist tent-camp murderer Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona last year?

+ The racist shaming of federal judges who happen not to rule his way?

+ The repeated transparent attempts to place himself above the rule of law?

+ The open assault on basic environmental protections and the eco-exterminist determination to advance the extraction and burning of every last fossil fuel in U.S. reach?

+ The clear and transparent affection he shows for blood-drenched authoritarians the world over?

+ The snap approvals of the planet-cooking Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines?

+ The open embrace of Saudi Arabia’s practically genocidal war on Yemen?

+ The repeated ugly embrace of the National Rifle Association after yet another and then another mass shooting that amounts to homeland terrorism sponsored by the proto-fascistic and white supremacist gun lobby?

+ The open advance of prison privatization and mass incarceration combined with clear disinterest in curbing the ongoing epidemic of racist police shootings?

That’s just a short list.

What would it take to send millions of U.S.-Americans into the streets to confront the total evil of “their” government in the age of Trump? How about this: “Dragging young children kicking and crying and screaming from their parents, separating those children from their parents indefinitely, locking those children up in cages (‘dog kennels’) like animals, and subjecting them to the predators of the American police state”? Would that be enough? Could that do the trick?

I am quoting from John Whitehead’s recent powerful Counterpunch essay, titled “Caging Children, Separating Families,”which continues as follows:

“In McAllen, Texas, undocumented migrant children are being held in cages made out of wire and net. These children are sleeping on concrete floors with thin foil ‘space blankets’ for a mattress.”

“In Brownsville, Texas, reportedly more than 1,000 children who have been separated from their parents are being held in a former Walmart facility with blacked-out windows that has been transformed into a detention center and is being run by a government contractor.”

“Rep. Pramila Jayapal got a chance to speak briefly with some of the migrant women being held at a federal detention facility near Seattle who had been forcibly separated from their children. Jayapal recounts:

‘Thirty to 40 percent of these women came with children who had been forcibly taken away from them. None got a chance to say goodbye to their children—they were forcibly taken away. One said she was deceived, because they were in detention together. Then the CBP officers told her she was going out to get her photograph taken. When she came back, she was put in a different room, and she never got to see the child again. Some of them said they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room. The children ranged anywhere from one to teenagers.’”

“Bear in mind, there is no bedtime story for these children.”

“There are no parents nearby to protect them from the things that go bump in the night.”

“There is no assurance that they will ever be reunited with their parents again.”

This, my fellow Americans, is fascism.

If it smells like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Nazi Holocaust survivors commonly recall the terrible moment when Third Reich concentration camp authorities removed them and other children from their parents, never to be seen again.

Closer to “homeland,” the soulless tearing of children asunder from their parents – recently caught on soul-chilling audiotape by a whistleblower– resonates darkly with the long history of Black chattel slavery that scarred the first two-plus centuries of white Europeans’ unsettling and blood-soaked “settlement” of North America.  The caging, chaining, and buying and selling of children and the separation and destruction of Black families were hallmarks of the sinister forced labor and torture regime that was British colonial and U.S. slavery from the 17thcentury through the Civil War.

If the federal government “caging children” and “separating families” doesn’t put you in the streets, what will? Yes, the streets where history is made. So what if big U.S. majorities tell pollsters they don’t approve of caging children and separating families at the border?  Most of the policies and actions listed above in this article were and are opposed by the majority of U.S. citizens.  Who cares? Talking to a pollster on whether you like or don’t like a particular policy (or politicians) is a pathetically passive act.  And going into a voting booth to choose from among a handful of candidates generally selected in advance for you by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire isn’t much better.

If you are serious about progressive change, you take into the streets, the offices, the shop-floors, the town-square, the pipeline construction sites, the police stations, the prisons, the army bases, the dean’s offices, the plant managers’ offices, the detentions centers, the ruling class abodes and haunts, the airports, etc.

“There is a time,” Brooklyn’s Mario Savio famously said on the steps of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in 1964, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Millions of white Baby Boomer U.S. Americans acted in accord with Savio’s advice on and around college campuses and sometimes in other environments (draft boards, the Pentagon) during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  U.S. Caucasians have not exhibited militancy and courage in response to government and related societal evil on that scale anytime since. Part of it was the role model and moral force of the struggle for Black equality led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other Black Civil Rights and racial and social justice activists and leaders during “the Vietnam Era.”  But another and big contributing factor of it was the Vietnam War draft, which put millions of young middle-class as well as working-class whites at risk of conscription and service in the bloody and dangerous crucifixion of Southeast Asia. The so-called Vietnam War threatened white people, even middle-class white people. It was in the interests of the white Baby Boomers to try to put their bodies on the imperial machine’s gears and levers.

How to get white Americans – still very much the majority in the U.S. (and over-represented in the U.S. political system) – to care enough to do the same for the disproportionately non-white victims of truly terrible things like Trump’s vicious and proto-fascistic border and child-snatching policies or the United States’ giant military and prison state or the nation’s ongoing epidemic of racist police killings? Appeals to morality and common decency will work with a minority of progressive and honorable whites.  But my many years in and around white America tell me that you should – like it or not – appeal first and above all to their self-interest. Whitehead’s article hits the perfect note here:

You who are reading this [mainly white lefties at Counterpunch- P.S.] hold tight to your own children. They won’t be yours for long if the government is allowed to prevail in its view that children of undocumented ‘criminals’ automatically become wards of the state.

The government’s rationale goes like this: illegal immigrants are criminals who should be jailed; criminals in jail don’t get to keep their kids; therefore, illegal immigrants shouldn’t get to keep their kids, either.

Wait and see.

Allow the government to inflict this kind of terror on other people’s children, and it won’t be long before you and yours find yourselves in the government’s crosshairs.

Allow the government to strip naturalized persons of their citizenship under trumped up pretexts (yet another tactic being proposed by the White House), and it won’t be long before your own citizenship hangs in the balance.

Allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law, and it won’t be long before your rights are also being disrespected.

Whether you’re talking about weapons of war used abroad or police state tactics deployed against enemy combatants, these methods always come home to roost.

So if you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.

Whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.

Indeed, it’s just a short hop, skip and a jump from the government stripping undocumented ‘criminals’ of their parental rights to the government meting out the same treatment to American citizens.

Martin Neimoller was a German Lutheran minister and early Nazi backer who was imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime. It’s long been practically a cliché to quote him on the slippery slope that leads to one’s own oppression after one stays silent on the oppression of others.  Timeworn and cliched or not, Neimoller’s recollection is perfect here:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

People can move from self-interest to solidarity in the process of seeing their fates as united across lines of race and ethnicity.  During the 1930s, with some help from Communist Party activists like the brilliant organizers Herbert March and Henry Johnson, white Chicago packinghouse workers got it that they could not form potent unions in the city’s giant meatpacking and slaughtering plants without reaching out to and learning from the mostly Black workers on those plants’ strategically located killing floors. What became a union and related political culture of racial equality in that and other industrial locales started out on a note of self-interest.  But it became something more – real and heartfelt solidarity – in the process of waging working-class struggle from the bottom up.  It developed into an awareness that – in the words of the Solomon Burke, a Black former preacher who became one of the “founding fathers” of American soul music in the 1960s:

None of us are free
None of us are free
None of us are free, one of us are chained
None of us are free

And there are people still in darkness
And they just can’t see the light
If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right
We got try to feel for each other, let our brother’s know that we care
Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear

Now I swear your salvation isn’t too hard to find
None of us can find it on our own. (On our own)
We’ve got to join together in sprirt, heart and mind
So that every soul who’s suffering will know they’re not alone

None of us are free
None of us are free
None of us are free, if one of us are chained
None of us are free

*Postscript(6/21/2018): Trump deserves no moral credit for realizing that the horrible political optics of his child-snatching policy required him to seem to benevolently reverse course by issuing an Executive Order calling off the separation of children.  (No Executive Order was required. A phone call or memo to his Christian Fascist Attorney General Jeff Sessions [who cited the Holy Bible to justify the family separations] would have sufficed.)

Trump betrayed no remorse for his original kidnapping measure.  He offered no federal plan for re-uniting the asylum-seeking families (including 2300 kids or more) already torn up at the border. The families already ripped apart will not be “grandfathered” into the new executive order, the White House explained.  It will be up to detained and deported parents to try to locate and retrieve their stolen children, many of whom have been taken far away from the border.

The U.S. will continue to absurdly treat the seeking of asylum by Central American refugees as a crime requiring detention.  Trump continues toxically misrepresent the refugees as dangerous lawbreakers. The U.S. continues to carry out policies and to support vicious regimes that create misery and violence in Central America – this while pretending to have nothing to do with terrible living and working conditions in the Northern Triangle nations (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). The U.S. continues to respond to the asylum-seekers with the goal of deterrence, coldly dismissing their obviously genuine human rights claims.

The U.S. continues to work with the private prison industry to set up “baby prisons” and other child detention facilities.  Federal authorities do so with the knowledge that a previous federal Consent Decree means that refugee children cannot be detained with their families for more than 20 days and thus can be re-separated from their parents and siblings in just less than three weeks.

Trump is widely expected to resume the child separations.  His stand-down’s primary aim is clearly meant to defuse the political and media shitstorm raised at home and abroad by revelations about the horror resulting from his policy.  At the same time,  immigration lawyer R. Andrew Free reminds us that Trump’s child-stealing policy was just a double-down on Obama’s horrible response to the “unaccompanied minor” crisis that hit the U.S. southern border in 2014. Trump is following in the footsteps of Obama’s “aggressive deterrence strategy,” which involved family detentions and “fast track deportations” without asylum hearings – pretty much the Trump policy without the unhuman pile-on of child separation.  It was challenged by an ACLU lawsuit and a US District Court injunction in 2015.

This essay originally appeared at Black Agenda Report, June 20, 2018.  I have added a new postscript,* written on June 21st.



Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).