MLK, Torture, Human and Civil Rights: January 18, 2010

When I arrived, outraged at how this part of lower Manhattan is now so obviously a police state with barriers that block off streets you used to be able to walk or drive down, swarming with police cars and vans, I didn’t see anyone I knew.  A couple of people in very cheesy excuses for powdered wigs, a not so bad three cornered hat, and a stove pipe hat were probably going to do some kind of theater; there were cameras about, none from the major press.  Having read earlier in the day suggestions to send money for Haiti to MADRE, an organization that knows that relief money given directly to women will be used for good, I saw a group of Muslim women, some with infants and small children, and decided to head for the women.  I can trust the women.  I smiled and stuck out my hand to the first ones I encountered, saying “I’m Nancy.”  They, very graciously, smiled back and shook hands.  We didn’t strike up a conversation, but I felt safe with them and glad to be with them.

People began arriving in larger numbers as preparations continued under the watchful eye of the police and with the Manhattan Correction Center, the federal prison and torture center in New York at the intersection of Pearl and Park Row, looming beside us.  I was there to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the federal prison where Fahad Hashim, an American citizen, is held and tortured without respect of his Constitutional rights.  Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said “While Hashmi’s political and religious beliefs, speech and associations are constitutionally protected, the government has been given wide latitude by the court to use them as evidence of his frame of mind and, by extension, intent. The material support charges against him depend on criminalization of association. This could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of others, particularly in activist and Muslim communities.”

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Chris Hedges had written about this event a few weeks ago, quoting the statement by Ratner, and encouraged everyone who could to attend.  He showed up and was greeted by a young woman whom I learned later was Jeanne Theoharis, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

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She had taught Fahad Hashmi, the US citizen whose imprisonment in the MCC was the reason for this vigil.  As Hedges says in his article “One Day We’ll All Be Terrorists,” the imprisonment and torture of Fahad in defiance of his Constitutional rights is an example of the ‘corruption of our legal system” which “if history is any guide, will not be reserved by the state for suspected terrorists, or even Muslim Americans. In the coming turmoil and economic collapse, it will be used to silence all who are branded as disruptive or subversive.”  I know Hedges is right and that was reason enough for me to take his suggestion to attend.  It was good to see a contingent from the Center for Constitutional Rights present as well as a large group of law students from CUNY.

A few minutes later, Cindy Sheehan and Debra Sweet arrived together.  I have not seen either of them for months and was glad for hugs and greetings from them.  They joined Chris and Profesor Theoharis as things got closer to starting.

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As I had suspected, there was theater, very instructive about the US Bill of Rights and the abrogations of it by acts of Congress and presidential orders from the earliest days of the Republic.

Professor Theoharis spoke with both passion and knowledge, quoting the 1967 speech of Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church on the upper west side of Manhattan.  She  reminded us that Obama and Holder, who have signed Special Administrative Orders, including for Fahad, which permit extra-legal treatment of prisoners and are a legacy of the Bush regime; she says that Obama and Holder have now made this case their own.  Professor Theoharis challenged Obama, who said in a speech recently that he stands on the shoulders of Dr. King, that such a statement places huge responsibility on him.  She read a part of Dr. King’s 1967 speech Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break Silence.

“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

She challenged Obama and Holder to risk losing friends if necessary in order to do, as Dr. King did, what is right and not what is popular.
I would add the following section of that speech, as very germain today as well:

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that[the civil rights] struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

“Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”

Professor Theoharis, addressing Obama and Holder, reminded them that King was a man of peace and of great moral courage.  He dared to make that speech though he was warned not to by friends and foes alike.  He was never allowed to speak with the president of the country again, was immediately condemned by the New York Times and the Washington Post (at the time a much more “liberal” medium than now) immediately, and was killed a year to the day later.  He did, however, help bring about the end of the Viet Nam war.  Obama could stop the wars and occupations today, if he would.

I had at some point already taken a few minutes to collect myself and just look at the prison, huge and looming.  It was important to me that Professor Theoharis asked us all to turn toward it and to remain silent for a minute.  After that powerful silence, she asked us to say as loudly as we could “I am Fahad.”   Who are you?  “I am Fahad,” as indeed I am.  We are indeed all one.

Chris Hedges continued with more remarks about Dr. King and his interactions with Malcolm X which informed that historic speech.  He remarked that all great American revolutionaries are appropriated by the media and the authorities, sanitized, and made acceptable.  He said that Martin Luther Kind Day is now an opportunity for Americans to congratulate themselves on having overcome racism, which he thinks would outrage Dr. King if he were alive today.  He also notes that the 1967 speech is not quoted in the corporate media and by politicians and other “leaders” on this day who repeat ad nauseum King’s remarks about little black children and white children holding hands.  Hedges warned us again that if we think that the treatment of Fahad will not become widely used against people like us who exercise our rights to free speech, we have not learned from history.

I was very glad to hear Chris Hedges today.  I was glad to have taken a stand with others who are resisting the repression that creeps steadily onward in this country.

When Cindy was introduced, the MC, who is a professor also, but whose name I missed and whom I cannot find, said that her son was killed in Iraq on April 4, 2004.  In her remarks, Cindy said that Dr. King gave his great speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, was killed on April 4, 1968, and that her son Casey died on April 4, 2004.  April 4 is a date that is now very important to her for many reasons.  Always passionate and herself extremely courageous, she said that she had never gotten so much hate mail as when she announced that she was going to protest last Saturday at the CIA against the drone bombings in Pakistan and elsewhere that kill large numbers of innocent civilians, many of them children.

Her next remark seemed to me to be much in the spirit of Dr. King.  She said that nothing is going to change until Americans care about the helpless children whom we kill with our drones in Paksitan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, until we care enough to stop the attacks.

She wore a shirt that read “Arrest Bush,” and told us about participating in an attempt at a citizens arrest of Cheney after the protest at the CIA.  She said her shirt should say Arrest Obama, as well.  The wars and atrocities have not stopped.  Obama has increased troop levels in Afghanistan and increased the already gargantuan war budgets.  He now has responsibility for the atrocities as well.  She said she is outraged that innocent people are imprisoned and tortured, while known criminals like Bush, Cheney, and Obama are free.

Cindy asked at the conclusion of her remarks, that we turn again toward the prison and call out as loudly as we could “Free Fahad” for a minute.  I doubt that he could hear us, but I hope that somehow our energy reached him to help sustain him.

Two speakers whose family members are held in either the MCC or in Guantanamo told us what it is like to have a relative in that condition.  One of them was the brother of a woman held in the MCC and another has an uncle and a cousin imprisoned in Guantanamo.  They were very courageous to tell us what it is like for them.

Fahad’s best friend closed the speeches with the poetic and impassioned language of the young and the committed.  It would be wonderful to see his spirit more widely among our young adults today.  I grieve that this situation with his friend has been the reason for me to hear him.

A folk singer sang us away with We shall overcome, a song I had not sung in decades and that I very much needed to hear myself sing.

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