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Homeland Imperialism: Fear and Resistance

Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, is director of the Children and Family Justice Center and clinical associate professor of law in Chicago.


The creation and cultivation of fear is one of the pillars of empire both abroad and within the imperial “homeland.” And that fear is always accompanied by the threat of discipline, punishment, and violence. Every state uses violence to enforce its power against its enemies, but we must recognize that a major change has occurred. September 11, 2001 gave a green light for a full blown, and bipartisan, agenda of repression at home, as well as for the expanded imperial project abroad.

Yet it’s important when we talk of repression always to pair it with resistance. As we pile up the evidence of consolidated state power we must remember that a part of what has happened since 9/11 includes 2/15—that is February 15 of this year, when as many as ten million people around the world simultaneously joined to cry out against U.S. imperialism.

This robust and unified resistance to imperialism is indeed new, but in the United States and elsewhere, it did not come from thin air. On the local level, on the person-to-person level, incredible organizing work has been underway focused on prisons, women’s health and safety, labor, the environment, reparations, antiglobalization, solidarity with Latin American and African countries, and human rights movements. Anti-death-penalty struggles have, notably in my home state of Illinois, begun to achieve great things.

These social movements and organizing from below are invisible to the U.S. newspapers and CNN, but they are the cauldron in which people understand the connections between issues and come to understand reality. And so as we talk about the cultivation of fear and repression, we should note that what looks strong is also weak. The message sent by the U.S. mass media is not necessarily the message received.

Miles Horton founded the Highlander Center in 1938, in its time a center for adult organizing and education throughout the South, and indeed throughout the country. He often told a simple little story. In the mid-sixties, the Klan put up a series of billboards across the South with a famous picture of Martin Luther King at Highlander. It showed several people from the Communist Party, as well as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, sitting in the front row of a lecture. It had a circle around Dr. King’s head and the caption “Martin Luther King at communist training school.”

Miles described going with a carload of young teenagers to a civil rights demonstration in the South, and as they passed one billboard nobody in the car said anything. As they passed a second one somebody in the back said, “Hmmm.” And when they passed a third one, a kid in the back seat said, “You know, that’s the dumbest poster I’ve ever seen, because they don’t tell you who to call.” The powers that be think they’re giving one message, but it’s actually being received in other ways.

The scope of the current repression is vast, and as separate resistances are created it is our task to unite them. There’s no detail too small for repression at this moment. Under attack are state medical marijuana statutes (an attack initiated by the Clinton administration), end of life statutes in Oregon, abortion, the judiciary, environmental protections, social security, public education, women’s rights, and a range of progressive measures from birth control to OSHA regulations. Far-right and neoconservative cultural activists are assigned to each of these domains to implement a reactionary plan that has been articulated since 1964. A part of their strategy includes the culture wars and the criminalizing of the sixties.

The heart of today’s repression is the American addiction to caging African-American people, especially young men. This is the model for the cage in which they now seek to place the entire world. The mass incarceration of people of color took place through a very deliberate cultivation of fear, the legend of a crime wave, and the invention of the super-predator myth during a decade when crime rates plummeted. Key facts about the United States are that prison construction and staffing has become the largest sector of state budgets, the fastest growing major on college campuses is criminal justice, and the fastest growing union has been the union of prison guards. When Angela Davis speaks of the “prison industrial complex,” she’s not kidding. It has become a major set piece of economic, social, and cultural life and what is at its core is the caging of young African-American men, overwhelmingly for nonviolent offenses.

How has this happened? The field was well prepared in U.S. history, but it was sown with the development of fear promoted on the nightly news, the anxiety that strangers were coming through your window, the imagery of young kids shooting each other and shooting up high schools, and the conviction that this was likely to happen in your neighborhood, although all the facts were to the contrary.

And so the legacy of slavery, the modern day version of slavery, is reflected one way in prisons but it is also visible in the transformation of schools. Schools in America have become barricaded places of fear. People who don’t have their own youngsters in school today may not realize what’s happened to the environment where our young people spend seven hours of their day. You can’t get into a school and you can’t get out. Surveillance is pervasive. There are lock downs, body searches, and dogs. There are armed guards. And all of this is in schools that have never seen a violent incident. The fear of violence and the notion that it is likely to come from anywhere, including from our young people, has been the precursor and the trial run for what’s now happened in all of our public spaces and airports.

Now we have war abroad and war at home. The second stage of the process is the silencing. Ari Fleischer, the day after 9/11, proclaimed “beware of what you say” and announced that you’re for us or you’re against us. The Jihad is here, at home, and it’s going to be enforced by the neoconservatives; consider the full-page ads that the New York Times seems to run once a month from people like William Bennett. Such an ad (“Americans for Victory over Terrorism”) states as its purpose: “we will take to task those who ‘blame America first.’ ” The target of this Jihad “against terrorism” is the population here at home; and so this notion of “taking to task” means menacing and disciplining, threatening, and silencing people like Susan Sontag, Bill Maher, Danny Glover, and university faculty in places all over the country. The result is a chilling effect. That is to say, people around the targets back away, get silent, don’t stand up when they see the cost of simply expressing your opinion or even making a joke, let alone publicly objecting to what’s going on.

The actual tools of repression, the USA Patriot Act and now the bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, were passed in a way that took even the lawyers and legislators who passed them weeks to figure out what they had done. The Patriot Act is 348 pages long; it passed two weeks after 9/11. No one even knew what made it in or out of the homeland security act until the final moment, and still the INS is trying to figure out which of its functions are assigned to which agency.

The Patriot Act created a new federal crime of domestic terrorism. It is important to recognize the broad brush of what now counts as “terrorism.” I am part of a children’s law center in Chicago. We represent children in court. We have seen this tremendous mushrooming of young students, of course primarily African-American and Latino youth, getting expelled from school for “terroristic” threats. The word alone creates fear, and by now almost anything manages to scare a lot of Americans.

Here’s the language from the Homeland Security Act: “Acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws if they appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Malevolent prosecutors and judges (and we do not lack for them) could sweep anything under such language. “Acts dangerous to human life” might be read to include attempting to block any street on which there is vehicular traffic. And think for a moment of the phrase “appear to be intended to influence.” The tools are in place to criminalize, as domestic terrorism, basic protests, and civil disobedience. Can you doubt that they had Seattle in 1999 in mind?

Prosecutions are underway that are reminiscent of the indictments of the early-fifties McCarthy period and the conspiracy indictments of the early seventies pre-Watergate Mitchell Department of Justice, the two most recent periods of overtly political repression. For example, John Ashcroft has orchestrated a series of high profile indictments against Islamic charities, including the Holy Land Foundation in Texas and the Benevolent Association in Chicago. In the Chicago case Ashcroft flew in to announce the indictments. A year later all the terrorist charges were dropped and the head of the organization pled to one corruption charge, involving improper reporting of received funds. It will not surprise you that the TV coverage of the indictment was hysterical, but of the plea quite restrained. The aim was to accustom the U.S. public to, and intimidate the judiciary from interfering with, the repression of freedom of association, and they are no doubt pleased with the results.

Now one must look abroad, or at least as far as Guantanamo, to see the full extent of what is in the works. What were accepted restraints on U.S. power for decades have been shattered. We are talking of torture and extrajudicial executions or assassinations. We have now had the example of the United States executing people on the soil of a state at peace with the United States with no evidence, no charges, and no legal process whatsoever. Torture, like slavery, is practically the only thing in international law and human rights that’s an absolute. There are no exceptions to it. Torture is banned; every country in the world has signed on. But we have Guantanamo. We have U.S. troops and CIA forces implementing “stress and duress tactics” as they call them, and we have the U.S. admittedly handing prisoners over to torture by other cooperating states. This too has not happened out of thin air; the techniques developed in the last twenty years in “control units” in maxi-maxi prisons in the United States are barely a step short of Guantanamo.

So the long and short is that our task is to keep on organizing politically. The structures of opposition are there. We need to make the connections between these issues so that people better understand state power, and don’t see imperialism as only an optional foreign policy. On the human scale, it’s essential to stand up in solidarity. I don’t think you can overestimate how important it is, when someone is under attack, to write them a note, to call them up, to object, to stand up and say that you disagree and you think they’re acting courageously. That stuff matters. The failure to do it gets noted, and where support is expressed it is powerful.

A friend and colleague at the university has been passing around a poster that he made on a Xerox machine. It’s a faded picture of four aging Native Americans at the turn of the century in their indigenous dress. They’re all holding rifles and they’re not posing. They are standing with their rifles looking directly into the camera. And the banner across it says “homeland security, fighting terrorism since 1492.” That’s our tradition.

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