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The Coalition of the Killing — gun lobbyists, politicians, and weapons manufacturers — are the only beneficiaries of the massacre in Las Vegas. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy analyzes the way we talk about mass shootings and the role race plays, and he speaks with Dave Cullen, author of a book on the Columbine school shooting. Trump threw rolls of paper towels at hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico and gave himself an A+ for his (lack of a) response to the disaster. Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff shares stories about exploring her Puerto Rican roots and performs what turned out to be prescient songs from her new album, The Navigator. Former U.S. Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about how his slain comrade, former NFL star-turned soldier Pat Tillman, supported his decision to become a conscientious objector. And he responds to Trump using Tillman’s name to defend his call for an NFL boycott. Historian Jeanne Theoharis digs deep into the manufactured and sanitized mythology used by politicians to misuse the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement. And Donald Trump takes his love of guns into the Twilight Zone.
Jeremy Scahill: What’s up everybody? This is Jeremy.
And no, I’m not going to try to sell you a mattress, or a website platform, or razor that you just have to have. I’m jumping on the top of today’s show to share with you some news. And that is: Today we are launching our Intercepted membership campaign at theinterecept.com/join.
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[The Twilight Zone theme]
Donald J. Trump: My fellow Americans we are joined together today in sadness, shock, and grief. I want to also thank my friends at the NRA. You’re my friends, on behalf of our Second Amendment. The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.
Twilight Zone: This is not a new world. It is simply an extension of what began in the old.
CNN’s John King: He’s been very low key about this one. Very presidential, if you will.
TZ: It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny: Part of it also is, of course, he’s being presidential in this moment.
TZ: But like every one of the super states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.
CNN’s JK: That was pitch perfect.
CNN’s Poppy Harlow: This is the time to bring the country together. That is exactly what the president did with those remarks.
TZ: Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth and dignity — the rights of man — that state is obsolete.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 30 of Intercepted.
DJT: And what happened in Las Vegas is, in many ways, a miracle. The police department has done such an incredible job. And we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by.
JS: We live in a sick country. We live in a country where it is legal for someone to purchase 30 assault weapons, and unlimited ammunition. We live in a country where it’s legal to buy weapons that really only have one purpose: to hunt and kill other human beings. We live in a country where a cabal of high-powered lobbyists, bought off politicians, and merchants of death profit off of the massacres of other human beings. We live in a country where the gun manufacturers love a mass shooting, and we live in a country where the Second Amendment of the Constitution has been laundered through lobbyists, and some Supreme Court justices, to mean something that it does not mean.
The National Rifle Association, the NRA, whose leadership would be viewed as terrorist enablers and promoters in a sane society, they don’t like the first part of the Second Amendment, so much so that they don’t even include it in their very public memorializing of their Holy Bible of gun addiction.
At the NRA’s headquarters, their version of the Second Amendment doesn’t include the first half of the Second Amendment. The NRA really only wants you to focus on the second half which says, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The first part of the Second Amendment, which the NRA finds very inconvenient to include on its headquarters, states “a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a Free State.”
Was this Las Vegas shooter a member of a well-regulated militia? No. Were any of these murderers who shoot up schools or religious assemblies or workplaces, were they members of a well-regulated militia? No. And regulated — that’s an interesting word, because no thoughtful person can really argue that guns in the United States are actually regulated in any meaningful way. In fact, in this country, you can buy dozens of assault weapons. You can store enough guns and ammunition in your house or garage to wage a small war. Why? Because very powerful politicians, businesses, and their gangster-style lobbyists have twisted the meaning of the Second Amendment so intensely that it no longer even matters why it was written or what it actually was intended for.
This Coalition of the Killing fans the flames of fear and promotes the idea that guns keep us safe, that the solution to gun killings is more guns. And they make a shitload of money off of all the death and misery and massacres. And they will make more money off of the Las Vegas massacre.
You can murder 20 small, innocent children between the ages of six and seven, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and these horrid villains are unmoved in their belief in the golden calf of assault rifles. “If only the teachers had been armed, those kids might be alive today. Now let’s check out our stock prices.” It’s sick.
Each time we’re faced with a new mass murder with guns, in this case more than 59 killed, more than 500 wounded, we end up in the same place: “Let’s pray. Let’s tweak this law or that law. Let’s talk about putting in acoustic sensors to detect gunshots. Let’s put armed private security in schools. Let’s use the terrorist database, the watch list, to deny gun purchases. Let’s have more surveillance. Let’s do religious and racial profiling.” Which is itself absurd, given that most mass shooters are white.
None of what most politicians and most TV pundits offer up in the aftermath of these killings is going to do anything to solve the real issue: We are a nation filled to the brim with guns, including assault weapons that are actually meant for assaulting people. Not for hunting. Not for sport, unless your sport is murdering people.
Watch what happens in Congress in the coming days. Empty platitudes. Bullshit proposals: “We must do something about this.” And, of course, a lot of prayer. But none of that is going to result in any change to the fact that we live in a sick society that believes guns bring us security. A nation that has been taught by powerful, twisted people, that guns are not at all part of the problem. That everything except guns and how easy they are to get is the problem.
Mental illness is the problem. Muslims are the problem. Gangbangers in Chicago are the problem. Not having a gun is the problem. And when these mass shootings happen, a majority of the times the shooter is a white man. And we want to know who he was, and why did it, and what was his motive, as we should. But compare that to how black victims of police killings are treated in the media: “Well, did they do drugs? What were they wearing at the time? Did they have a criminal record? Did they listen to hip hop music? Where are the fathers?”
Trayvon Martin, after George Zimmerman killed him, was characterized as a thug, and his hooded sweatshirt was somehow evidence that he was scary or menacing. That’s how black victims are portrayed. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was called a thug with the head of Miami’s police union, saying after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed, that if you act like a thug, you’ll get treated like a thug.
Contrast that with some of the stories we’ve seen about the Las Vegas shooter — not victim — shooter! One headline in The Washington Post said, and this is a quote, that he “enjoyed gambling, country music, lived quiet life before massacre.” Black victim is thug, white shooter is like a down-on-his-luck character from a country western song who just happens to murder 59 people. It’s sick. And this is a pattern.
What if these shootings that involve white men killing large groups of people, what if they were covered the way that stories involving shooters of other races are covered on a daily basis in this country? How about this narrative: White man shoots up largely white crowd at a country western concert? White on white crime. Let’s investigate country music and its violent lyrics: What role did all of this play? Where was the shooter’s family? Let’s find some white people brave enough to speak out on this pandemic of white men conducting mass shootings at an alarming rate. And let’s make them speak for their entire race.
We all know why the narratives are different. And another thing: we’re once again hearing that this is the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history. It’s just not true. In fact, there are several examples of white gunmen killing huge numbers of black people. The 1917 East St. Louis massacre resulted in an estimated 100 black people being shot and lynched; 1873, between 60 and 150 black people were massacred in Colfax, Louisiana. We don’t even know the exact numbers of Native Americans killed in mass shootings since the founding of the United States: hundreds were killed in places like Sand Creek, Clear Lake and Wounded Knee. And these are just examples of concentrated killings.
And Donald Trump, who boasts that he’ll be the best friend the NRA could possibly have in the White House, he suddenly found God when he first addressed the Las Vegas shooting. Let’s be real: Trump’s deepest connection to the Bible is watching Charlton Heston as Moses. But religious Trump, who speaks from the Scriptures, was praised for his perfect tone across the media. Specifically, on CNN. “Just what we needed to hear.”
A big part of our problem on guns is how it’s discussed in the media. And presidents who get prayerful are praised instead of held accountable for the role that they play in sustaining this nation’s gun addiction, in promoting the gun industry that profits off of the murder of our fellow human beings. When the shooter is an Arab or a Muslim, they are often immediately branded as a terrorist or a terrorist suspect. The president and other politicians, right after Las Vegas, called this shooter “deranged” or “insane” or another word that’s lost all meaning — “evil.”
And when it’s a Muslim shooter, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about what the US response should be: watch listing, banning people from coming into the country, the profiling of Muslim, surveillance of mosques. But when white people are killed, don’t talk about guns. That’s politicizing the killings. That disrespects the victims. Whether it’s someone inspired by ISIS murdering his coworkers or a white man shooting up a school or a white man gunning down Sikhs because he thought they were Muslims, they all do it with guns.
We don’t need prayers. We don’t need fake unity over the tragedy. We need to look at the common factor in all of these heinous acts of mass murder: guns. Anything else is just talking about putting a band aid on a gaping, infected, and lethal wound on our society.
JS: Now a few words about how mass shootings are covered and the rush to draw conclusions about why the shooter did it, and who they’re connected to and were there any warning signs. I wanted to get some analysis from Dave Cullen. He wrote an excellent and very important book on the Columbine shooting that took place in April of 1999. That’s when two young men killed 12 of their fellow students and a teacher. Dave’s book is called Columbine, and he says that in the vast majority of mass shooting cases, the information that’s spread right in the aftermath, is always incomplete and very often turns out to be flat-out wrong.
Dave Cullen: Ok, so right now, we’re a few days out and we know very little, which is actually normal, which is kind of — you know, but the media narrative right now is like, “Oh, this is so strange, we don’t know anything,” when in fact, often, we always have all these clues, these gigantic clues, most of which tend to be wrong. And so, we’re sort of actually in this blissful ignorance situation this time where we don’t have the sort of false narratives to go on.
At this point after Oklahoma City, we were sure obviously he was a Middle East terrorist. At this point, after Virginia Tech, NBC, was about to receive the package of all the videotapes, the manifesto, because he had misaddressed it, he sent it to the wrong place and so it took an extra day to get to them. After Columbine, we were about to discover the big propane bombs, and, which would lead us to discover, oh, this was mainly intended as a bombing, secondarily a shooting. We also thought in this case, we were very sure that it was all about targeting jocks, none of which was true.
So, this time we don’t have any of the false narratives yet, we have very few things to go on. Except we do know that he’s a very much an outlier in age. We think of most of these things as being people who are sort of post-adolescent, you know, shortly after either high school or early 20s. That is one big cohort.
There’s actually two major age cohorts. One is that one. The bigger one is actually what I call 40ish, which is if you go just a little beyond 39 to 51, 40 percent of the shooters were in that cohort. So, most of, the biggest chunk is a sort of like middle age, perhaps middle-age crisis time.
JS: Dave Cullen said his research has determined a few basic categories that mass shooters fall into.
DC: I did a piece for Newsweek about three or four years ago that looked at the three largest clusters of shooters. The biggest is those angry depressives. So, it was depressives, people then who are, turn angry at the world and want to take out a bunch of people with them. That’s sort of in a nutshell. That’s one.
The second group is deeply mentally ill, in the sense of losing touch with reality. It’s a smaller group, but significant. And that’s people like we had from, you know, Gabby Giffords — from Virginia Tech, and quite a few of the other ones. Where it’s usually some type of schizophrenia, sometimes paranoid schizophrenia, where they’re sometimes hearing voices — totally out of touch with reality.
And we have to always make the point that most people who have these conditions are not shooters. In fact, statistically they’re more likely to be nonviolent than violent, so we don’t want to stigmatize those. But those are the second group.
The third group, by far the smallest, is psychopaths. They’re a very small number who do these sorts of things, but that is a third group.
And then you have obviously terrorists, and then you have sort of outliers that don’t fall. But for the most part, those three, plus terrorists, explain most of these people.
JS: Dave Cullen is the author of the book Columbine.
DJT: Now, I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, 16 verses literally thousands of people, you can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching.
JS: Well from one horror to the next: President Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday and it was an embarrassing, yet unfortunately not shocking, display of insecurity, vindictiveness, and narcissism.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20th. It took Trump 12 days to actually make his brief visit there, and have pictures taken of him passing out bags of rice and literally throwing rolls of paper towels into a group of Puerto Ricans that were gathered in a church for Trump’s photo op.
During those 12 days when Trump couldn’t go to Puerto Rico, he spent four days at his Bedminster golf resort, while tweeting attacks at the mayor of San Juan. He also found time to attend the President’s Cup golf outing and more tweeting of attacks that portrayed Puerto Ricans as lazy. On Trump’s tightly controlled and very brief trip to Puerto Rico the president repeatedly heaped praise on himself and his administration’s response to the hurricane. He compared the deaths and human suffering in Puerto Rico to those during Hurricane Katrina, as though Puerto Ricans should be grateful that they didn’t have what happened during Katrina.
Everything always seems like a game show where Trump is the shameless, and clueless, and tone-deaf host.
By contrast, many high-profile people of Puerto Rican descent have been working tirelessly to raise funds and awareness of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Hamilton, has been working around the clock raising money, doing fund raising, speaking — though he did pause a few times to tweet to Trump that he’s most definitely going straight to hell. “No long lines for you.”
The singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra, who is Puerto Rican, from the Bronx in New York has also been doing a lot of fundraising and outreach. And the band that she leads, Hurray for the Riff Raff has a new album out that is just phenomenal.
And, as it turns out, it’s incredibly timely. The album is called The Navigator, and it’s sort of like a play told in acts, with the main character Navita Milagros Negrón, as an unlikely superhero, travelling through a world of gentrification, privatization, segregation, neocolonialism. I’ve been a longtime fan of Hurray for the Riff Raff and this album really is something special and different. It’s also clear that the album is a living documentary on Alynda Segarra’s own journey to connect with her roots, including those in Puerto Rico. We’re joined now by Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Alynda, welcome to Intercepted.
Alynda Segarra: Thank you for having me.
JS: Your general reflections on this album with the backdrop of all of this reality in Puerto Rico and in Washington.
AS: I think when I first started making this album and creating the concept, I was just trying to heal some of my own wounds and I was trying to get deep into my ancestry and to really understand what it means to be a child of the diaspora. Obviously, as I was writing it, Trump’s campaign was picking up speed. And, you know, I was writing a lot of it coming from this place of “I am a Latina in this country and I need to make a very strong stance on my pride of where I come from.” And then also I was looking into what it means to be like the person that I am, which is I live in the middle of so many identities. You know? I was thinking about what it meant to be a city kid, a New York City kid, a kid from the Bronx. And to be pushed out of the city because I can’t afford to live there. And what does it mean to then travel all over the country, kind of like searching for a home. You know? There were so many personal statements I was making that I was like, kind of using this character, Navita, as a medium to take these very personal experiences and try to turn it into like a fable or a story.
The whole interesting part about creating a character in a story is you have to teach them a lesson. So, I was trying to teach Navita a lesson, you know, in pride and in like not being able to run from who you come from and where you come from. No matter how ashamed you might be. No matter how much people have forced — or society has forced that shame upon you.
You know, and a lot of my pride came from learning about the Young Lords. That was such a eureka moment for me. I had been told my whole life that I did not fit into what a Puerto Rican woman was, or was supposed to be. My whole life, by many different types of people, I was told that. And then I learned about the Young Lords and I see these revolutionary feminists, you know, that are like taking charge in the 70s and are incredibly intersectional. And I just suddenly felt like I belonged, for the first time in my life, and it made me really think about what it means to dig deep into hidden history. The history that a lot of people in power do not want people of color and oppressed people to find out about, because it encourages you to be yourself and to continue on and to stand up for all oppressed people, all over the world.
[“The Navigator” by Hurray for the Riff Raff]
AS: And the whole time I was creating the story about Navita travelling through time, watching her city become so gentrified and segregated, I was trying to create this like dystopian, Sci-Fi reality. Rican Beach, for example, is a place in my story where all of the people of color have been pushed out onto. It’s kind of a garbage island, shanty town. There’s a wall around them and they are just hidden from sight. But they are used to be workers and to, you know, kind of these like servants for everybody on the mainland. And now, as I watch this destruction go on in Puerto Rico, it’s like well, what’s the difference? Where there are so many people in this country that don’t even know Puerto Rico is like considered a part of the United States. And that these people are citizens. They don’t know anything about it. They see it as like a welfare island that we should get rid of.
[“Rican Beach” live by Hurray for the Riff Raff]
JS: Puerto Rico has a population the same or bigger than 21 of the states in the United States. I mean this isn’t just some tiny little sliver of land somewhere, I mean this is a real place.
JS: If Trump reacted this way by spending his entire weekend tweeting about black athletes and what he doesn’t — you know, how he can’t stand them protesting and calling them sons of bitches.
JS: You know, if this was happening in Iowa, Trump wouldn’t be, you know, ignoring it like he’s ignoring Puerto Rico.
AS: There seems to be a very strong effort to just deny people access to being educated about Puerto Rico. You know, when I was growing up I remember I couldn’t ever find the Puerto Rican flag in a textbook. And I felt very confused, sitting in my like fourth grade classroom, being like, “Well, where’s our flag?” Why aren’t we in there? Does this mean we don’t exist? Like, what does that mean, you know? It’s a very important time for the people of the diaspora to say, “We remember where we come from and you cannot cut us off.”
[“Rican Beach,” live by Alynda Segarra]
JS: On this album, you really do feel that sense of connecting with your history that you’re describing and for people that aren’t familiar with the Young Lords, this was a movement of Puerto Ricans in the United States, and a political ally of the Black Panthers. And they were deeply involved with community organizing, breakfast programs, literacy campaigns, but also engaged in a militant confrontation of racist police state and the government.
Young Lord: And should we make no distinction between the jails and our streets, and people are killed in the streets all the time. Brother by the name Johnny was killed in the Bronx by the police. Sister by the name of Carmen Rodriguez in Lincoln Hospital by an abortion. We say that it’s all the same thing, it’s genocide against third-world people, black and Puerto Rican people, and that’s why we’re charging the city with murder.
JS: And they were inspired by radical Puerto Rican independentistas, some of them like Pedro Albizu Campos, who were imprisoned, you know, for a quarter of a century for attempting to overthrow the United States government in Puerto Rico.
JS: I mean there’s this rich history of resistance in Puerto Rico, but also among diaspora people in the United States.
AS: Yeah and also what I thought was really inspiring for me was I saw the thread of art and poetry that really was such an important aspect of keeping Puerto Rican identity alive. Because it’s really incredible that this island, which has never been able to have independence, has such an intense idea of who it is. You know?
Like Puerto Rican identity is carried throughout time, and I think a lot of it has to do with poetry and music. And that’s where I felt like I really belonged was, “Wow, this is my destiny, to be a part of this tradition. To keep this idea alive and to not let the identity die.”
JS: You know in the kind of contrast of the influences that I’ve read you cite to be really fascinating. You talked about, as a younger person, watching videos of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
[“Mood Indigo,” by Frank Sinatra]
JS: And also the Dead Kennedys and Bikini Kill.
[“Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill]
JS: And then you have Woody Guthrie but also then starting to unpack this rich culture of Puerto Rican music and artistic contribution. [Ghetto Brothers plays] And I’m wondering how you reconcile all of these influences in the context of what you’ve just produced on this new album.
AS: It has a lot to do with, obviously traveling the country the way that I did. Leaving home so early and throwing myself into a lifestyle of being a hobo: hitchhiking and riding trains and just being dependent on the kindness of strangers, literally. You know, I was out to see the country in a very romantic way. I just had this yearning for adventure and I really wanted to experience America in this beatnik, hobo lifestyle that I got from Woody Guthrie and from the beatnik poets and stuff.
I was really influenced by American folk music. What I loved about American folk music, that I think was what I loved about punk rock, was it was the story of the people. It was people telling their experiences and trying to get across information and to spread warnings and to spread stories. And that’s what I loved about it!
[“I Ain’t Got No Home,” by Woodie Guthrie]
AS: And now making this album, and looking back, it really feels to me like it was an education on what it means to me to be an American. To really know how much immigrant people have done for this country. I feel like I have a very personal experience of that. And to also say, “I’ve traveled all over the country. I’ve slept in the parks. I’ve like, depended on people to pick me up when it was raining.” You know? I have a very important experience with this country and I think it gives me this foundation and these roots, where I feel like I can speak out, and I feel like it’s my duty to speak out.
I think, like many people, when Trump won, I was devastated and frightened and I felt like, “I’ve worked so hard my whole life to just become who I am and now this man is going to come and take it all away from me.” And my experience with traveling and with American folk music has made me stand up and be like, “No! That’s not happening. I’m staying here. And I’m going to say the truth, you know? This is my fucking country too and I’m not going anywhere.”
JS: What gives you hope? What keeps you going when you get up in the morning? What gives you hope about humanity?
AS: Music gives me hope. Ancestry gives me hope. Art gives me hope. Children give me hope — (starts to cry). Sorry, I knew this is going to happen.
The more I learn about where my people come from and the more I learn about the history of oppressed people all over the world, I am just amazed by the strength of the human spirit. I really am. And it’s just like — and also by folk music of all kinds, you listen to it. And it’s just this the story of people who were in so much pain and they continued on and they left a song for their great, great grandchildren to sing when things got really bad.
So, I hope that I can leave songs behind that will do that for people. That can do that for people right now. Because Woody Guthrie did that for me, whether he, you know he’ll never know, but I’ve really tried to go to a place in my personal life where I’m asking for hope from nature, because I don’t know how to get it from human beings right now.
You know? For those days where you’re like: music isn’t doing it, poetry is not doing it and reading the news is definitely not doing it, I’m turning to the power of nature, because I feel like as all of this is happening around us, sometimes you just have to sit quietly and look at a flower and be like, “I don’t know what to do. I want to keep going and I want to spread love, I know that.” As a kid from the Bronx who grew up on punk rock, I never thought I’d be doing that but desperate times call for moments like that.
JS: Well, and I don’t know where I heard it, but I do know that this land was made for you and me.
AS: Also, I heard Dolores Huerta say in a interview recently, it’s a Pablo Neruda quote, “They tried to cut down all the flowers but they couldn’t hold back the spring.” That’s what “pa’lante” means to me. You know, young people are giving me so much hope. I just think young people have found a way to use the internet, to use social media, to spread information that has been hidden from them, and to spread pride and to spread also ideas about self-care that I think is really important. So that gives me a lot of hope as well.
JS: Well, amen to that. And Alynda Segarra, I want to thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AS: Thank you so much.
[“Pa’lante,” live by Alynda Segarra]
Well I just want to go to work, and get back home and be something
I just wanna fall in line, and do my time, and be something
I just wanna prove my worth, on the planet Earth, and be, something
I just wanna fall in love, and not fuck it up, and feel something
Well lately, I don’t understand what I am
Treated as a fool
Not quite a woman or a man
I don’t know
I guess I don’t understand the plan
Colonized, and hypnotized, be something
Sterilized, dehumanized, be something
Well take your pay but stay out the way, be something
And they say do your best oh, but fuck the rest, be something
Well lately, it’s been mighty hard to see
I’m just searching for my lost humanity
I look for you, my friend
But do you look for me?
Lately I’m not too afraid, to die
I wanna leave it all behind
I think about it sometimes
And lately all my time’s been movin’ slow
I don’t know where I’m gonna go
Just give me time, and I’ll know
Oh, any day now
Oh, any day now
I will come along
Oh, any day now
Oh, any day now
I will come along
Oh I will come along
From El Barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante!
And from Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, ¡Pa’lante!
And to Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel, ¡Pa’lante!
To all who have to hide, we say, ¡Pa’lante!
To my mother and my father, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To all came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!
JS: That was Alynda Segarra. She is the lead singer of Hurray for the Riff Raff, performing an acoustic version of her song “Pa’lante.” Their latest album is The Navigator. Be sure to check it out.
And you are listening to Intercepted. When we come back, we’re going to talk to a former US Army Ranger who became a conscientious objector and a war resister. And while he was in that elite army unit, very few people supported him. But one of those was the late NFL star Pat Tillman.
And we’re going to look at the false mythology that is constantly used by politicians about the civil rights movement, about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. It’s a truly fascinating history that you won’t want to miss.
This is Intercepted. Stay with us.
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JS: Ok, we are back here on Intercepted. A poll this week from USA Today found that more than two thirds of Americans think that President Trump’s position on the NFL players who have taken the knee to protest police killings of black and brown people is wrong. The poll reveals that a majority of people support the rights of the players, and oppose Trump’s calls for them to be fired and the NFL boycotted. By the way, a third of Republicans were among those against Trump in that poll.
This issue clearly continues to torment Trump’s head. He can’t seem to shut up about it, even in the midst of all of the other really high stakes stuff happening in the world Among Trump supporters, there are all sorts of memes floating around calling for an NFL boycott and blasting the players. And the central line of attack has been that the players are somehow disrespecting military veterans.
One of the images that Trump retweeted is an image of the now famous veteran who died in Afghanistan. It was that of former NFL star Pat Tillman. Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals and he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a ranger right after 9/11.
The tweet that Trump promoted to his 30 million or so followers featured a picture of Tillman in his military uniform and his Ranger beret. And the message underneath it read, “NFL player Pat Tillman joined U.S. Army in 2002. And he was killed in action in 2004. He fought for our country, freedom #standforouranthem #boycottNFL.”
Now clearly President Trump knows nothing about Pat Tillman story’s or the cover-up at the highest levels of the U.S. military or the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death in Afghanistan. Trump seems to be totally unaware of Tillman’s correspondence with the legendary dissident Noam Chomsky, completely ignorant of Tillman’s views on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Pat Tillman is not the poster boy for the hyper-militarized, fake nationalism Trump wants the NFL-merged-with-the-military to be. Tillman was, it seems, the polar opposite of that image.
Joining me now is a former U.S. Army Ranger who knew Pat Tillman and served with him in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Rory Fanning wrote a great book about his year-long walk in 2008, 2009, across the United States when he was raising funds for the Pat Tillman Foundation. That book is called, “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” Fanning served two tours in Afghanistan before becoming a conscientious objector.
Rory Fanning: I mean I had a sense that this was the case, but we were essentially drawing the Taliban back into the fight. And it was very quiet when I got there in early- and mid-2002. I didn’t know at the time that Taliban had surrendered by that time and I think our job was draw them back into the fight.
JS: And when did you first meet Pat Tillman?
RF: I met him in Ranger school.
JS: So you guys were in Ranger school together and then deployed together.
RF: We deployed at separate times. We mostly spent our time together in battalion. I got to know Pat basically after I decided to become a war resister after my second tour to Afghanistan. What went into that decision, to become a conscientious objector, a war resister?
JS: Well I signed up to make the world a safer place, and to prevent another terrorist attack. And I realized after two tours in Afghanistan that I was only making the world more dangerous. You know, a rocket would land in our camp and we would call in a five-hundred-pound bomb attack on that general vicinity over there. We know now that, you know, up to 80 percent of everybody who’s died since 2001 has been a civilian. And I think I was there giving people reason to fight when they otherwise had no interest in fighting. The world’s a far more dangerous place as a result of what we’re doing there.
JS: Now, we’re going to talk about your walk across country in a bit. But first I was hoping you could share the impact that Pat Tillman had on you and your development, moving from enthusiastically signing up for the Rangers to ultimately becoming a resister.
RF: Well after I decided I was going to become probably the first war resister after 9/11 in the Ranger Battalion, certainly in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the entire battalion turned their backs on me. And, you know, I was washing dishes, absorbing the general ridicule the chain of command and expecting to go to jail at any time.
There was two people that weren’t afraid to talk to me during that time and it was Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin. These guys were amazing people. You know? Critical thinkers. They, you know, for fun would write papers on anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the question of God and religion and exchange them with each other. I mean these guys were really impressive and I was shocked and impressed that they stood by me when no one else would.
JS: Why do you think the Tillman brothers did that?
RF: I think they respected my decision. I think Pat saw firsthand, you know, he was in the frontyard during the Jessica Lynch operation. I think on some level he may have been disillusioned with the war on terror and Iraq certainly. I think he believed that was illegal. So yeah, I think we had that in common.
JS: You’re saying, you know, that Pat Tillman believed that the war in Iraq was illegal? RF: We had discussions along those lines.
JS: Where were you when Pat Tillman was killed?
RF: I was basically up in my bunk, they had just deployed. I was called down, expecting to be sent off to jail or the big Army to become a bullet stopper is, that’s what we called, you know, the big army in the Ranger battalion. And I was told that Pat was killed in an enemy ambush and that he died a hero. Within seven days, after six months in kind of a state of purgatory, within the Ranger regiment, because they had no idea what to do with me, I was ushered out of the military. And I was shocked that that was the case.
JS: You’ve written that you think that Pat Tillman’s killing, and, of course, the military stated that it was a friendly fire incident, but you’ve written that you believe that what happened with Pat Tillman’s death expedited and ultimately resulted in your ability to get conscientious objector status. Why?
RF: Well they were covering up Pat’s death to the highest levels of the US government at the time, and, I think, I had just called the inspector general to do an investigation on my case, and I think they wanted to avoid that extra scrutiny on the battalion at the time.
JS: Now, of course, there have been documentaries about Pat Tillman that explores these questions and there’s been a fair bit of probing of what actually happened when he was killed. What’s your best assessment particularly, because you were in the Rangers and you know how the units operate, what’s your best assessment based on what we know of what actually happened to Pat Tillman?
RF: Well, I mean, to this day I think the events surrounding that day are suspicious in the sense that Pat’s uniform and diary were burned. The fact that they didn’t communicate what really happened and they took Kevin Tillman’s weapon away at the time.
I mean it’s all suspicious, but I could also see, like I said, at this point in time, Afghanistan was a relatively quiet place, and there was a bunch of very trigger-happy Rangers at that time wanting to kind of earn their stripes overseas. And I could see how overenthusiastic soldiers may have misidentified Pat as someone who they thought was the enemy. But I can’t speak one way or another. I think the most important part of this entire case is the fact that no one has been held accountable for Pat’s death to this day, all the way to the highest levels of the Bush Administration at the time.
JS: Well, and, in fact, some of the key players in this cover up, namely General Stanley McChrystal who himself was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and had held other senior posts in the military, participated directly in this cover up and he now runs his own consulting firm. He has a teaching post at Yale University. Far from being held accountable, it seems people like McChrystal, and also Admiral William McRaven who is now the head of the University of Texas University system, people who were involved with CIA torture programs, they seem to be landing these cushy jobs at elite or big public universities.
RF: Yeah, they seem relatively untouchable.
JS: Well, and eminently promotable, it seems.
JS: When Tillman was killed, your reaction to that in part was to organize a walk across the United States to benefit the Pat Tillman Foundation. Why did you decide to do that?
RF: I mean Pat stood by me. I mean I would have gone to jail or the big army had not things worked out the way they did. And Pat was the only person who stood by me at the time and, you know, I just wanted to bring attention to Pat’s sacrifice. I was still pretty scared about what happened to me during that six months of limbo in the Ranger battalion, so I wasn’t talking about exactly what had happened to me during that walk, you know, I was just walking to raise awareness for the Pat Tillman Foundation. He gave up $3.6 million to leave the NFL to go to the military. I was trying to raise that for his foundation.
And that walk, you know, essentially gave me the courage to start talking about what I saw in Afghanistan and support people who are largely resisting the project of the U.S. empire right now.
JS: What’s your response to the president of the United States using Pat Tillman’s name to attack NFL players who are kneeling in protest during the national anthem?
RF: Well I think it’s disgraceful. Pat’s memory should not be politicized, particularly in this way. You know, Pat was from a different era, so to say what would Pat have done, I think it is kind of hard to do and not necessarily worth doing.
He is also taking away attention from the actual reasons and motivations for that protest, Trump is, you know this protest being about police brutality and mass incarceration that this disproportionately affects people of color.
JS: We know a fair bit about the thought process that was going on with Pat Tillman in part because of his correspondence with his family, but also he had a correspondence with Noam Chomsky.
Noam Chomsky: It’s in essence true, but that the specific facts are that shortly before he went to Afghanistan, I was contacted by — he couldn’t do it, but I was contacted by his friends and family. And we did arrange to meet when he came back. And I don’t want to say what was on his mind, of course, but it was pretty clear from the discussion that he wanted to discuss the question of the justice of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and other regional issues.
RF: Pat stood for the exploited and the oppressed. You know, he stood up, you know for people who stood up for themselves. And I think he would have a lot more in common with someone like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, than he would those who jeer and try to repress dissent from the sidelines.
JS: When you’ve seen NFL games, and you’ve seen the kind of overt, militaristic messaging that has become a staple of NFL Sunday, the jets flying over, the national anthem, the whole thing is just sort of dripping in militarism. As someone who was in an elite special operations forces unit, the Army Rangers, what happens on an emotional level, being you, watching this. Having been in the elite forces of the United States Military and then becoming a conscientious objector and a war resister, what do you think of the NFL and the military?
RF: Well first and foremost, I see it as a recruiting tool. I think, you know, players weren’t forced to come out and put their hands over their heart and sing the national anthem until 2009 when public support for, you know, the global war on terror and Iraq were at an all-time low.
I mean so this is the military and Department of Defense, you know, targeting the sweet spot of military recruiting, those who kind of endorse and get behind this aggressive sport that prioritizes self-sacrifice, et cetera. So, I see an opportunism of sorts to keep the 800 military bases around the world filled. I also see it as a way to buy the silence of people who want to speak out, who feel disillusioned by what the U.S. has done around the world since 2001, you know, by trotting out soldiers, patting them on the back and calling them heroes.
You know, heroes don’t kill innocent people, heroes don’t fight so a small percentage of the population can become wealthy at the expense of everybody else. Heroes don’t overthrow country’s leaders. Heroes don’t occupy for no good reason. And so, none of that is really communicated during these gaudy, flag-waving parades, and sporting events, and concerts and the like.
JS: How do you want Pat Tillman to be remembered?
RF: Someone who stood for the exploited and the oppressed. Somebody who wasn’t afraid to stand by me, when, in my personal experience, when I was going through one of the roughest times of my life, you know, with no fear of what the rest of the group thought of him at the time.
JS: Alright, Rory Fanning, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
RF: Alright, thanks for having me.
JS: Rory Fanning is a former U.S. Army Ranger who served with Pat Tillman. He’s also the author of the excellent book, “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” Rory now spends a lot of time speaking to high school students and universities about his experience.
JS: A lot of the debate around these NFL players kneeling seems to occur in a historical vacuum. The history of athletes and protest is seldom mentioned. And, what’s worse, the reason why Colin Kaepernick and his comrades began protesting during the national anthem has been drowned out in the shouting. Last week, I saw an image circulating online that showed Martin Luther King, Jr. with his hand over his heart in respect for the American flag. It was accompanied by a message from a Trump supporter saying, “MLK didn’t take the knee in protest of the flag or anthem, he took the knee in prayer to God.” That was followed by the hashtag #boycottNFL.
In fact, a lot of people on the right seem to love using King to defend all sorts of things — to defend guns, would liberals have wanted, you know, King to not have been able to have a gun after a house was firebombed. They falsely claimed that Martin Luther King was a member of the Republican Party. Martin Luther King has become a malleable symbol for rampant deployment by people trying to tell protestors and black people today to shut up.
One of the biggest problems with all of this is that it’s based on complete fiction. And total ignorance of who Martin Luther King, Jr. actually was and what he actually believed. It’s also particularly vile when used to try to suppress dissent against police killings. The same thing that happens a lot with King, also happens all the time with Rosa Parks. It happens with the civil rights movement in general. Caricatures have been created, after being sanitized, historically revised, and made palatable for mass consumption and abuse by crass politicians. An important and groundbreaking new book coming out in January digs deep into this manufactured mythology surrounding Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other figures and movements. And it provides a nuanced portrait of the truth. It’s called, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.” Its author is Jeanne Theoharis, she’s a professor of political science at Brooklyn College in New York. Jeanne Theoharis, welcome to Intercepted.
Jeanne Theoharis: Thanks for having me.
JS: Your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.
JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.
And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.
And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so as you’re implying, politicians, citizens constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions. To chastise contemporary movements, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.
JS: Right, and we interviewed Tavis Smiley who wrote an excellent book about the last year of King’s life, where King was basically disinvited to everything. He was no longer embraced by the mainstream of the civil rights movement and he was increasingly denouncing U.S. imperialism talking about how “my own government is the greatest purveyor of violence on earth.” It’s the one King quote that I would love to see at an NFL game, when they have all the rockets and the war craft flying over it. Let’s put that Martin Luther King quote up about the U.S. government being the greatest purveyor of violence on earth.
JH: Absolutely but I think we also need to remember that even the King at the high water mark of 1963, is not popular. So, in Gallup Poll, the week before the March on Washington, two-thirds of Americans don’t support the March on Washington. You have Congressman denouncing it as un-American. And in the wake of the March on Washington, the FBI, and the Kennedys, this is the moment when you see the escalation of surveillance of Martin Luther King, to kind of wall-to-wall surveillance of him. They call him a demagogue, the most dangerous. Even in this moment, right? We’re not even at ’67 King with the public speech against the War in Vietnam, we are at King and the March on Washington, and that King is seen as dangerous, and that King is surveilled. Right? It’s not just ’67 and ’68 King.
JS: What were media outlets and sort of broader liberal society saying about the tactics that Martin Luther King and others in that movement were using?
JT: I mean, again, if you look at polls in the early 60s, most Americans do not agree. They don’t agree with the Freedom Rides, they don’t agree with the sit-ins, they don’t agree the civil rights movement is the way to go. They’re constantly paranoid about violence. They constantly talk about violence, even though there’s no violence.
I’ve been particularly interested, partly because of my own work, which focuses a great deal on civil rights movement outside of the South, how King is received outside of the South. And if we look at how King, for instance, is received in California in the early 60s, and this is before 1965 Watts Uprising.
In 1963, after much work and much civil rights activities, you see California pass a fair housing law, and white people go crazy, realtors go crazy. And they get on the ballot, Prop 14 in 1964, on the November ballot which is going to be the presidential election, and basically trying to repeal this law.
And King comes multiple times, right? There’s a massive civil rights campaign in the state to try to keep the law and to vote no on the proposition. And King is repeatedly called a communist, King is picketed, King is denounced for that work in California in 1964. And then we will see, white Californians by 3:1 margin vote for Prop 14 in 1964, and they sent Lyndon Johnson back to the White House, but they, still, like in my home, I don’t want any fair housing laws. And what King will call this is a vote for ghettos, right? Because that’s what it’s about.
He writes this really beautiful thing that most people have not read in the couple months after Watts, where he’s basically like, “You invite me to your cities, and you sit up there with all this regalia, and you praise the actions of Southern black people but you know when talk turns to condition — local conditions, basically it’s polite but firm resistance.”
JS: I mean and Phil Ochs wrote that great song about this very phenomenon that you’re describing called, “Love Me I’m a Liberal.” And in one of the verses he says:
Phil Ochs: And I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, as long as they don’t live next door. So, love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
JS: Also when King went north into Illinois, you had this famous incident in Cicero, Illinois where you had this white mob come out and they were physically assaulting King and his fellow marchers.
Reporter: The secondary purpose of the march was to hold a prayer service in the lot of a service station, at the scene last May where a young negro was fatally beaten by four white youth. Perhaps 3000 people along the way, heckled the 200 or so marchers.
White counter protestor: Back to the jungle! Back to the jungle!
JS: And King was then blamed for bringing the violence into the Chicago area. And, in fact, King’s message after that was, “We only unmasked the violence that was there. We didn’t bring the violence.”
And I feel like there was such an analogue to the times in which we’re living now where black people who rise up to protest against the killing of black people by police are then blamed for any police violence that takes place, whether it’s in Ferguson, Baltimore, or places that we don’t even know about.
JT: Right, right, again repeatedly when King starts to talk about conditions, let’s say in New York City, right? After the 1964 Harlem Uprising, King is talking about a civilian complaint review board, he’s talking about needing to reform the police and New Yorkers won’t want anything to do with that.
The biggest civil rights demonstration of the 1960s is not the March on Washington, it is a school boycott that happens in February, 1964, here in New York City.
Newscaster: Malcolm X, what brings you here today?
Malcolm X: Well, I’m out here to see the successful expose of the New York City School system. It proves that you don’t have to go to Mississippi to find the segregated school system. We have it right here in New York City.
JT: After a decade of parents, students, civil rights activists have tried to get the New York City Board of Ed to come up with a comprehensive desegregation plan and they’ve continued to stonewall and say, “We don’t, this is not a problem here.” And we have committee after committee, and so, basically for a decade after Brown, nothing has happened in New York.
And so finally, in February of 1964, they decide to have a school boycott. About 460,000 students and teachers stay out of school, so this is almost twice the number of the March on Washington.
A month later, in protest of this, about 15,000 mostly white mothers march over the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of a very modest school desegregation plan that the Board of Ed is floating.
White female protestor: What we believe that we can prove much as our own opponents that use the same tactics, we feel that we have as much as right as they with justice — these are our civil rights that we’re taking advantage of them.
JT: Pictures of that march end up being played over and over as Congress is debating Civil Rights Act. One of the things the Rights Act does is the ties federal money for schools to school desegregation. But Northern and Western liberal sponsors of the bill write in a loophole for their schools, which is evident the time, Southerners are furious about this, that basically says school desegregation shall not mean, you know, having to change racially imbalanced schools. Because that’s what northerners call their schools: racially imbalanced schools.
Over and over, you see northerners unwilling and angry and furious when sort of the lens comes on their own practices.
JS: Ok, fine, Martin Luther King was an unrepentant radical, I get that. But don’t ruin Rosa Parks for people. She was a tired old seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus and it sparked an entire movement because she did that. Right?
JT: Right. Except, no. So, Rosa Parks has this huge life what she will call a life history of being rebellious, that really begins in her 20s when she meets and marries the person she describes as, “the first real activist I ever met.” And that’s Raymond Parks. They fall in love. They get married. And Raymond is working on Scottsboro. This is 1931.
Scottsboro is nine young men, ages 12 to 19, get arrested for riding the rails. Basically, they’re riding the train for free. These are young black men. But in the midst of this arrest, police also discover, in a neighboring car two young white women doing this. And that charge quickly changes to rape. These young men are quickly tried and all but the youngest, who is 12, sentenced to death.
[Lead Belly – “Scottsboro Boys”]
And so, this local movement grows in Alabama to try to prevent the execution of these young men. And Raymond Parks is one of the local activists on the ground working on that movement. They get married in 1932, and she joins him.
By the 1940s, she’s wanting to be more active. She’s galled by the fact that black people are serving in overseas in World War II and they can’t register to vote at home. She wants to register to vote. So, she goes to a local NAACP meeting, she’s elected secretary that very first day, she’s the only woman there. And she will spend the next decade with one of Montgomery’s most militant activists, a man by the name of E.D. Nixon, transforming Montgomery’s NAACP into a more activist chapter. Working on issues of voter registration, and issues that we would consider criminal justice. The wrongful accusations and convictions of black men and the unresponsiveness of the law to white brutality against black people, in particular, white sexual violence against black women.
So, she spent more than a decade, when we get to that day in 1955, working and trying and over, and over, and over, and largely they get nowhere. They can’t get convictions or they can’t even get indictments. She manages to get registered to vote because she tries over and over, but most black people in Montgomery don’t, and can’t. You have to take a test but that test is different for white people than for black people.
In 1945, she’s angry. She’s convinced she should register. So, she writes down all the questions and all the answers on her test, because she’s thinking about filing suit. Now, just, where we are in history, this is ten years before she’s going to make her bus stand. So, the notion that Rosa Parks comes out of nowhere, you know, her feet are tired, or this or that, bears no relation to Rosa Parks’ actual life.
Rosa Parks: The time had just come where I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. They placed me under arrest, and I wasn’t afraid. I don’t know why I wasn’t, but I didn’t feel afraid. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all, what rights I had as a human being and a citizen even in Montgomery, Alabama.
JS: How does this happen? Because it certainly has happened with Martin Luther King, and it certainly has happened with Rosa Parks, and it certainly has happened with the broader civil rights movement. There has to have been some tactical decision made by people in positions of authority to revise this history.
Or is it just a collective sense of denial that then, you know, snowballs into this huge avalanche of bullshit? How did this happen?
JT: So, I kind of began to locate this with Reagan’s flip-flop around the King holiday. Basically from the minute that King is assassinated, John Conyers introduces a bill for a federal holiday for Martin Luther King. A couple years later the SCLC delivers a petition with 3 million names on it. No action from Congress. There’s huge resistance.
Throughout the 1970s, people are trying to get Congress to act. They won’t act. I think couple things happened.
One, in trying to convince Congress, what you see is the images of King are getting more universalized. Right? Stevie Wonder writes the song, “Happy Birthday” King, right? It’s sort of how American King is.
[“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder]
JT: Meanwhile Reagan, in 1983, he’s about to run again, he’s getting some criticism and he’s worried about keeping moderate white voters. And he comes to see the idea of signing the bill for the King holiday as useful to show kind of how progressive he is.
Newscaster: Why have you changed your mind now about the holiday for Dr. King? Why are you willing to sign that legislation?
Ronald Reagan: Because I think, I think this has become so symbolic of what was a very real crisis in our history. And a discrimination that was pretty foreign to what is normal with us, and the part that he played in that, I think the symbolism of that is worthy of this.
JT: Up to this point, he comes in saying it’s costly; he comes in saying he can’t rule out that King was a communist.
Reporter: Mr. President, Senator Helms has been saying on the Senate floor that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a communist associations — was a communist sympathizer. Do you agree?
RR: We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?
JT: Then, in 1983, he doesn’t veto the bill. The change is he starts to see how this could be politically useful for him, and we start to see in the language that he uses this mythology about how the civil rights movement, in many ways, proves how great America is. Or, so this idea that I talk about in my new book, of America as a kind of self-cleaning oven. Right? That the civil rights movement, we were destined to have a great civil rights movement because we’re such a great country. Right? And this just shows like all the progress we’ve made. And I think we see a similar thing with Rosa Parks. Right? Both in the national funeral rehab for Rosa Parks following her death in 2005, less than two months after Hurricane Katrina. Why do we have a national funeral for Rosa Parks? Partly it’s to paper over those much more unsettling images from Katrina that are raising these questions of enduring racial injustice and so, a funeral for Rosa Parks sort of saying, “Look how far we’ve come, right? Look, look who we are! This woman who was denied a seat on the bus! Look, she’s now in the capital, right?” And I think the ways the civil rights movement is now used as a kind of tale of American progress and it makes us feel good about ourselves.
And that reaches this apex with the election of Barack Obama. Right? There’s all sorts of movement symbolism, right? And that this is the dream being fulfilled and there’s a kind of feel-good nature to that.
And I think there’s a way that we all like to think we do the right thing and it’s so hard to do the right thing. It is excruciatingly hard to act in the moment. It’s excruciatingly hard to act again and again and again and again, which is what the story of the rights movement is. It’s not: one day you sit down and the people rise up. It’s like: you do it over and over and over for years, and then you get fired, and then you have to leave your home, and then you have to do it more, and you’re super poor, and you, you keep fighting, and it’s just, you know, and fighting and fighting for like 60 years of your life. That’s Rosa Parks’ story, right? It’s not one day on the bus.
JS: And yet Rosa Parks is often cited as a personal hero of both Democrats and Republicans, alike, even in the Republican presidential campaign, when Trump emerged victorious in one of the debates, when they were talking about the $20 bill.
JT: Right. And so, I mean, in this sort of crazy, absurd moment, the second Republican debate, they get this question, “Who would you pick on the $20 bill?” Trump, Rubio and Cruz all say Rosa Parks.
Senator Marco Rubio: Rosa Parks. An everyday Americans that changed the course of history.
Senator Ted Cruz: Could be Rosa Parks, she was a principled pioneer.
DJT: For three hours, I think my daughter Ivanka, who is right here. Other than that, we’ll go with Rosa Parks. I like that.
JT: And you’re like, “Wow!” I think that we’d be tempted to say, “They don’t know who she is, right?” And I think that’s absolutely true. But it’s also like how interesting that just sort of saying the name of Rosa Parks becomes politically useful. I mean I think we saw that a few months ago.
What did Trump take to the Pope? He took first edition copies of all of Martin Luther King’s writings. Right? An extraordinarily gorgeous present. I would like to take that to the Pope, too. Right? But, it’s like Donald Trump, whose policies sort of stand really against why King is writing about in those books, and yet there he is like trundling to the Vatican with his first edition copies of Martin Luther King.
JS: Your new book that’s coming out in January is called “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.” Maybe you could give another example you know from the upcoming book of this kind of misuse of history that you’re writing about.
JT: Last summer, as the protest after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police and we see this upsurge of protests all around the country, and we see Atlanta’s Mayor, Kasim Reed, basically talk about how Atlanta is the home Martin Luther King. They believe in free speech, but then to justify this massive police presence that we’re seeing in Atlanta, but also all across the country he says, you know —
Mayor Kasim Reed: And Dr. King would never take a freeway.
JT: And you’re like: what do you think the Selma to Montgomery March is? What? They’re not marching in somebody’s field. That’s a freeway, right? This is what the civil rights movement was. It was disruptive. It was meant to disrupt civic life, government life, commercial life, one of the things that I find sort of ironic, is all of this like, “We want you to be more like Martin Luther King. This constant telling of young people, “Be like King, be like King.”
And I think what this history shows is, “Be careful what you wish for.” Because if, you know, what it means to be like King is disruptive protest. What it means is understanding that U.S. domestic and foreign policy are linked. What it means is calling out not just sort of Southern conservatives but Northern liberals. What it means is making a moral and religious witness against racism and poverty and interlinkages between those two in the United States. What it means is getting arrested over and over and over, 30 times, right? What it means is having to call out your allies. What it means is using a whole variety of strategies that people call violent, that are actually disruptive.
So, when people say to young people, “Be more like MLK,” what I want to say is: “Be careful what you wish for.”
JS: Jeanne Theoharis, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
JT: Thanks for having me.
JS: Jeanne Theoharis is the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and her forthcoming book, which comes out in January, is, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”
JS: And that does it for this week’s show.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro. And our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.