A War or A Lynching?

Against the Current, No. 96, January/February 2002

Edward Whitfield

NOVEMBER 8, 2001, Greensboro, North Carolina:

There is something in the mentality of Black folks in the USA that is connected to our history in these lands. It is the memory burned into our collective consciousness of the terror of lynch mobs, race riots, and mob violence. We remember Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921; Rosewood, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia 1906; Chicago, Illinois 1919; Elaine, Arkansas and too many other times and places to list.

As I write these lines, the best armed and most sophisticated lynch mob in history is bringing panic, death and destruction to innocent people in Afghanistan. It is a lynch mob organized, equipped and backed by the most powerful killing machinery in the world.

Some parts of its work are being carried out from the sanitary heights of nearly ten miles up as B-52s conduct their carpet bombing of the Afghan cities and countryside. Other parts are conducted at closer range with AC130 gunships flying slow, low and loud with high-speed, high-power machine guns and cannons that are designed as much to intimidate and cause panic as to tear apart whatever targets they are aimed at.

Then the Special Forces move in quickly and stealthily on the ground. They are heavily armed and trained to kill everyone they see — men, women and children — to guarantee the success of their operations. The target is Osama bin Laden and his organization Al Qaeda (“the base”), along with the Afghan Taliban government that has been “indicted” for harboring these terrorists and supporting their activities.

Nothing has even been suggested that would point to the guilt of the peoples of Afghanistan in any of the atrocities that took place September 11. Yet it is the people of Afghanistan who must withstand the brunt of this attack.

Even the in-depth and convincing evidence that U.S. government spokespeople have said they have against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must remain secret to protect intelligence-gathering methods. Such an idea sets a dangerous precedent indeed.

The exact same argument might be made about the evidence gathered for any criminal proceeding. As the draconian PATRIOT act continues to unfold in practice, we should look out for additional attacks on our hard won civil liberties.

In any case, evidence is always secondary to a lynch mob. Its real purpose is not to bring the guilty parties to justice, but rather to put whole populations in their place through violence, fear and intimidation while advancing other, more fundamental, agendas.

The mob’s logic is simple: “We know he did it. Ain’t no need wasting no time on no trial. Let’s string `em up!” This allows the mob action to go forward without the complexity of having to stop, think and examine any facts.

We Black folks know about that process. That would have to explain part of why there is a difference in the level of support between Black and white U.S. residents for Bush’s military policies in the aftermath of September 11.

I remember it from Little Rock, Arkansas, where I was an 8-year-old child in September of 1957. White lynch mobs there took to the streets to prevent the integration of a public high school, which I ended up graduating from ten years later. I was only 8 at the time, so I don’t remember the details except from reading it in histories, but I still remember the fear.

We know what it means to wait in fear at home, knowing that all outside is madness. The Afghan families who are watching their homes destroyed, their communities leveled and their children torn apart by bombs, cluster bombs, artillery and land mines know, too, what I am talking about.

Some have attempted to flee. Others have had to calculate if they had enough food and water or a reliable means of transportation, or health and energy enough to walk the distance to the border.

Others have realized or found the borders to be closed — the only option found to be no option at all. And so, with everything disrupted, people who are not directly hit by the bombs are beginning to die of starvation and disease.

These Afghans must have to ask themselves: “Why are they bombing us? Why are they maiming our children? Why are they killing our relatives? We know nothing of New York. We know nothing of Washington, DC. We have never been on an airplane. We don’t control Al Qaeda. We don’t know bin Laden, except from your news. We are pained enough by the actions of the Taliban, our own government, but we must try to moderate them.”

Still, the vigilante mob violence goes on.

Manipulated Images

Here in the United States, the media trot out a daily news diet of the inhumanity of the Taliban. Some of what is shown must certainly be accurate. This band of religious extremists has control over the country and rules with the harsh hand of ancient tribal law.

Prostitutes are executed in public arenas at the same time thieves are hung from the goal posts. Women are beaten on the street for not wearing veils or wearing the wrong color shoes or high heels.

They have banned the Internet. Free speech is severely limited. Freedom of religion is unheard of. The education of women is outlawed. This is not a “nice” regime.

We need to remember at the same time, that if the United States were judged solely by what is wrong or extreme within its borders, a somewhat distorted but profoundly disturbing view of it could be portrayed: as one of the few countries in the world that allows the execution of children; as the place where police officers shoot and kill unarmed people who are only accused of traffic violations; where an unarmed immigrant street vendor is shot at forty-one times
and hit nineteen while reaching for his wallet; where mentally ill people are shot and killed on the street when they need assistance; where poor people are turned out into the cold if they don’t have the proper credentials for emergency night shelters; where children are forced into educational institutions that are so alienating, so mean and so frustrating for some of them that they turn to killing their classmates before taking their own lives.

Such would be a true, yet distorted, picture of the USA. Looks can be deceiving. No narrow description of any government or culture can capture the richness and complexity of what is there.

These things must ultimately be judged and corrected by the people themselves. But this approach to the Taliban is useful in making the people of our country, smugly assured of our own righteousness, confident that whatever violence the United States does is justified — while the real, unspoken agenda is advanced.

We have a need to understand and expose this real agenda behind the mob or we are complicit in it. We need to know if it is indeed the case that the plans for an invasion of Afghanistan were prepared well before September 11, 2001.

We need to understand fully the connections to U.S. oil companies’ need for an oil pipeline across Afghanistan bringing newly found oil from the Caspian Sea. This pipeline would only be viable if the United States has a “stable” government there that it can control.

We need to understand how our whole involvement in the Middle East is connected to patterns of energy consumption and connected to advancing the business interests that profit from our use of oil. We also need to know the long-term impact of our policies on the lives and livelihood of other people, and the new political realities that flow from people’s resistance to domination and exploitation.

Just as the Tulsa attacks in 1921 [when white mobs destroyed a thriving Black commercial district, which was never rebuilt –ed.] were really not about a Black elevator operator assaulting a white woman in a department store, but were more an effort to stop the growing commercial success of Tulsa’s affluent Black population, we need to know what is really at stake in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia — countries on Bush’s short list of places to attack while fighting terrorism.

Where Are Our Leaders?

Since there is so much intuitive understanding in the Black community, we have to ask where are our so-called leaders? Where are the voices saying, as Malcolm said in the early `60s, that you can’t understand what’s going on in the Congo unless you understand what’s going on in Mississippi and that you can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi unless you understand what’s going on in the Congo?

When will they tell us that you can’t understand what’s going on in Cincinnati and New York unless you understand what’s going on in Afghanistan, and that you can’t understand what’s going on in Afghanistan unless you understand what’s going on in Cincinnati and New York?

Do our leaders really think that Black people need to try to prove our patriotism by endorsing the mob? Don’t they know that we represent the highest of what is best about the USA when we question and challenge, as we always have, the policies and practices that are accepted by others?

In some ways we have to lead the struggle for morality, decency and democracy in the United States. But that is not a role that is foreign to us.

In the meantime, the lynch mob goes on and other Americans with the mob mentality stay wrapped comfortably in the flag. As that continues, Blacks at the grassroots level will keep on drawing on our history and drawing on the understanding that grows out of our current reality.

We have to speak out, try to ask the right questions and in doing so help build the movement that will lead this nation toward correcting the injustices it imposes upon us and upon the rest of the world.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)