Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech was a hateful assault. This week on Intercepted: Naomi Klein and Jeremy analyze Trump’s threats toward North Korea, his executive order on Guantánamo, and the attack on immigrants, the poor, and the environment. Naomi also reflects on her recent reporting trip to Puerto Rico. Veteran journalist Juan González dissects the roots of fascism, the rise of authoritarian movements, and global migration trends. Marcy Wheeler gives a brief analysis of a theory floated by a former CIA officer that the “Steele dossier” contains Russian disinformation. Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada discusses Israeli collusion with the Trump campaign and Mike Pence’s trip to Israel. He also gives an update on the case of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen who is in military detention after a video of her slapping and kicking two Israeli soldiers went viral. And Franklin James Fisher of the band Algiers talks about the power of optimism in the face of destruction, and we hear music from their album “The Underside of Power.”
“2001: A Space Odyssey”: The crew of Discovery One consists of five men and one of the latest generation of the HAL-9000 computers. Good afternoon, Hal. How’s everything going?
President Donald J. Trump, Jr.: Station, this is your president, do you hear me?
BBC Interviewer: Hal, despite your enormous intellect —
DJT: Do you hear me?
BBC Interviewer: Are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out actions?
DJT: We have astronauts and we have everybody. We’re flying right now. We’re learning, we’re learning about space, learning about a lot of other things — racing into space. So, excited about space! Space. Spaceflight. Space Station. Love space and think about space.
Gary Lockwood (as Dr. Frank Poole): But, Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him.
DJT: So many other things having to do with NASA and space.
GL: If you weren’t proven to be malfunctioning, I wouldn’t see how I would have any choice but disconnection.
DJT: Joining us from orbit, astronauts!
Keir Dullea (as Dr. Dave Bowman): We’d have to cut his higher brain functions.
GL: Yeah. Well, that’s far safer than allowing HAL to continue running things.
KD: Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
DJT: I think you’re ready. I know you’re ready, right?
KD: I don’t know what you’re talking about Hal.
DJT: Which one of you is ready to go to Mars?
KD: Where the hell did you get that idea, Hal?
DJT: 17,000 miles per hour. That’s about as fast as I’ve ever heard. I wouldn’t want to be flying 17,000 miles an hour, but that’s what you do.
KD: Hal, I won’t argue with you anymore. Open the doors.
DJT: So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?
DJT: Who is ready to go to Mars up there?
Sergeant at Arms: Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of preventing, uh, presenting to you the President of the United States.
[Victorious Space Odyssey music.]
DJT: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, First Lady of the United States, and my fellow Americans.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept the New York City and this is episode 42 of Intercepted.
DJT: For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They’ve allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.
JS: Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech was an assault on immigrants, it added gas to an already incendiary situation with North Korea. Trump also announced a new executive order to support his plan to start sending new prisoners to Guantanamo — what he basically did was to reverse Barack Obama’s 2009 order that Guantanamo Prison needed to be closed. Of course that didn’t happen under Obama, but what’s becoming clear is that Trump intends to start sending new prisoners to Guantanamo.
Trump also said that his administration believes that “terrorists,” a term that Trump did not define, are “unlawful combatants” and he also seemed to be referencing a return to tactics that many of us believe were torture.
DJT: Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil. When possible, we have no choice but to annihilate them. When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them. But we must be clear: Terrorists are not merely criminals, they are unlawful enemy combatants [scattered applause].
JS: During the speech Trump won praise on Twitter from Ku Klux Klan jackass David Duke for this hateful line mocking immigrants known as Dreamers.
DJT: Because Americans are dreamers too [scattered applause].
JS: In his speech, Trump carried out a verbal assault on immigrant rights and he advanced policies that would result in an even more dramatic uptick in raids that are being conducted by ICE agents and other federal agencies. Trump repeatedly referenced the MS-13 street gang, which was founded in California in the 1980s. Trump had invited two families whose children were killed, reportedly by members of MS-13. I can’t even imagine the pain of losing your child, and what happened to the daughters from these families is a horrific crime.
At the same time, Trump was not really making a point about these grieving families as much as he was using their horrifying nightmare to push his policies. Trump was speaking about MS-13 like it represents some nation-state-level threat to American security. Like MS-13 carried out 9/11.
DJT: Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws, to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied alien minors.
JS: MS-13 is a heinous criminal group, no doubt. But Trump was using classic Trump scaremongering to exaggerate the actual threat that MS-13 represents. Trump used it as a way of attacking immigrants. He used it as a dog whistle. MS-13 is a gang that was started by young Salvadorans in California in the 1980s. Trump wants hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans deported. Are they members of MS-13? No. Many of them are people who actually fled a U.S.-fueled war in El Salvador and its ongoing aftermath. A lot of them pay taxes and a lot of them are here legally right now.
All of Trump’s posturing was part of his cruel campaign to deport hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of people. He used this speech to defend the building of his wall, to further paramilitarize law enforcement and to expand raids. That’s what all of this was about.
DJT: We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws and support our ICE and Border Patrol agents. These are great people. These are great, great people.
JS: Oh, and for all the praise that Trump heaped on the military and how they’re crushing ISIS left and right, he made no mention of the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger, and we still don’t know the full story of what happened there.
On North Korea? Trump use the family of American Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being freed from a North Korean prison. He died when he was returned to the United States. And Trump also use the story of a North Korean who escaped the country and had a harrowing, terrible story. Trump was using these people as props to justify his warmongering and his dangerous pissing match that could actually lead to a nuclear war.
The whole thing was pretty sick.
Joining me now is my colleague, Naomi Klein who just left Puerto Rico where she’s been on the ground working on a series of reports. Naomi, welcome back to Intercepted.
Naomi Klein: It’s great to be back with you, Jeremy.
JS: Well, this speech that Stephen Miller wrote for Donald Trump was pretty terrifying, I thought. What was your, your sense?
NK: Yeah, it was a really chilling speech. The parts about immigration were completely sick and exploitative and just using this family’s pain and the fact that these two families had lost their daughters to paint all immigrants as criminals and justify the wall, and I mean I think the way he spoke about the Dreamers was one of the scariest points, talking about the generosity and just the crassness of the quid pro quo. I think the racism of this speech, I mean, it was I think Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tweeted that it was like watching a Klan rally. I mean it really was incredible, and using, you know, a 12-year-old boy who was putting the flag on gravestones as an opportunity to take a shot at Colin Kaepernick, I mean it was, it was a truly awful speech. I was mad at the people who were playing drinking games watching it, because it really is, it’s nothing to joke about, there are so many lives on the line.
And, you know, the cheering for Guantanamo, the cheering for torture, the cheering for increasing the nuclear arsenal — I mean, then there’s climate change which we could talk about as well.
JS: It’s clear that the departments within the executive branch that would, you know, typically feed a president a chunk of the speech to cover their territory, it’s like incredible when you compare Trump and the number of topics that he ran through and sort of talked about as a sporting event and then you contrast that with like, did he make any serious proclamations about anything regarding the climate in this or the economy?
NK: No, not at all. I mean the incredible irony to me I guess is starting with you know, “We’ve been through so much in this past year.” And going straight to these record-breaking, climate change-related fires in California, Hurricane Harvey, Maria, he mentioned Puerto Rico. Of course, doesn’t mention what is driving these extraordinary events, heaps praise on the first responders and then goes on to heap praise on beautiful, clean coal.
I mean I don’t know if anyone other than Donald Trump has ever called coal beautiful. You know, praising Exxon Mobil for investing 35 billion dollars in new fossil fuel projects, not renewables, and praising himself for eliminating pollution control regulations on the auto industry which he claims is going to create some huge boom in Detroit, which is bullshit, but the contradictions there were certainly stark. I mean, you can never say shocking, but it was striking the way he was praising just their incredible performance, leading with the amazing performance in responding to these disasters at a time when 35 percent of Puerto Ricans are without power right now and FEMA has just announced that they’re cutting off food and water aid. They announced that yesterday.
There was no major policy announcement. It just underlined what an extraordinary moment we’re living in.
JS: And on the issue of Israel, you know, Donald Trump referenced his very bold move that he’s going to put the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and he referenced this vote that happened recently at the United Nations where the vast majority of nations in the world voted to condemn the U.S. position and to urge member states not to relocate their embassies. Trump openly said that he wants Congress to cut off U.S. aid to any country that didn’t support the United States on a vote involving, ultimately, questions of Israel.
NK: And I think it was wider ranging than that, that threat to cut off aid, which got a huge round of applause. I think it was also a threat to Pakistan if I was understanding that well.
JS: Well, I mean, look, we see the clear evidence of collusion between Israel and the Trump Administration. I mean there’s a lot that’s sort of right there for the taking and no one really talks about it. While Donald Trump was speaking, Naomi, they posted on the White House website an executive order that Trump referenced in his speech, this presidential executive order. And its title is “Presidential Executive Order on Protecting America Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists” and we heard Trump openly say they’re going to start putting people back at Guantanamo, and he appeared to be asserting openly and publicly that his administration intends to go back to some version of what Dick Cheney and George W. Bush attempted to implement, you know, with the CIA and in other places around the world. But Trump is openly saying: We’re going to categorize anyone that we’re engaged in a war with as an enemy combatant and therefore we can treat them outside of the Geneva Conventions.
NK: Yeah, I think that was probably the most substantive announcement of the speech in terms of kind of new information, what he said about Guantanamo in light of the fact that we are seeing — And, I mean, we also saw bragging about the fact that the war in Afghanistan is now endless, right? I mean —
JS: But now with “new and improved rules of engagement.” And he didn’t cite what those were, but the military people who were applauding know what he’s talking about. He’s expanded the rules, allowing commanders to make judgments on the spot about conducting operations that quite likely will kill civilians. He’s basically removed the already sort of low-level restrictions that were put in place by the Obama administration. That’s what he’s talking about when he said, you know, “updated rules of engagement.”
NK: Yeah. Yeah. And then I think what we got in the economy was pretty much expected, right? I mean in terms of bragging about the stock market, which of course is not something that is improving the daily lives of the majority of Americans and the fact that there’s so much anger out there is largely because there is a disconnect between what’s good for wealthy people in the country and what’s good for people who are playing with the stock market, and what is meaningful for regular working people.
JS: One point on that, and I don’t know if this is just me or if other people have the sense, but somehow watching this orange billionaire, reality TV host talking about the tax bill and then emphasizing how, “$4000, that’s a lot of money!”
NK: That’s a lot of money. Yeah.
JS: But there’s something that, the way that he was talking about, you know, what they’ve done on deductions and how this has resulted in all these, you know, Wal-Mart bonuses where people all of a sudden are given, you know, a check. And it’s really remarkable given that, how much money he has, how wasteful his administration has been. How much it cost when Melania didn’t want to live with him to fly her back and forth for three months, how much it cost to secure all of his golf outings —
NK: Although her facial expressions tonight were priceless.
JS: OK, I will say, yes, I mean not to get off into too much of a tangent here, but I do really hope that the shade that Melania Trump seems to be constantly throwing at Donald these days, I hope that is truly based on real kind of hatred of him or despising him, and that it’s how it seems to be publicly to us.
NK: Yeah, and there was a couple points where she was pointedly not standing up when other people are standing up.
JS: This is going to be like, you know, some kind of a weird TMZ segment we’re doing here, but also I thought interesting she had the eggshell white suit on.
NK: Oh yeah, you know what? She didn’t stand up for, “Americans are dreamers, too.” Which is a big applause line.
JS: Interesting. All right, now, Naomi Klein we’re going to always have you to do the red carpets on the State of the Union address.
Before we wrap up, you just left Puerto Rico. You are there on a reporting trip, we’re going to see the fruits of that on The Intercept in the coming days and weeks, but give people a sense of what is happening on the ground right now in Puerto Rico.
NK: Puerto Rico has just been booby-trapped at every turn to make this disaster, which was already supercharged by climate change, just have the worst possible impact, you know?
Whether it was the debt and the austerity and how the infrastructure was booby-trapped to collapse, or just the systems of economic development, the colonial relationship that was designed to exacerbate dependency. Like, Puerto Rico, even though it’s this incredibly sunny archipelago and could be getting its energy from fossil fuels, from wind, from wave power, they get all of their power from imported fossil fuels. And I think one of the most striking things is being on Vieques, where you feel that double dependency because they import all of their energy from the United States to Puerto Rico, and then it’s pumped through a pipeline from the main island of Puerto Rico to Vieques, and that pipeline ruptured. So just the systems of dependency are just baked in there. And because they were set up to be dependent on the United States, on agriculture, on energy in all of these ways, when the system broke it just maximized impact and still is.
You know, and I was also there when they announced they were privatizing the energy system, and introduced the fiscal plan that will close hundreds of schools. So, it was an incredibly intense time to be in Puerto Rico, and I hope I can come back and talk not just about that, but about the incredible ways that Puerto Ricans are responding and putting forward their own solutions and building them in the rubble of this failed system, because the really amazing thing, Jeremy, is that I saw some of the most hopeful things I’ve ever seen in my life while I was in Puerto Rico, as well as some of the most enraging and upsetting.
JS: Well, we all are looking forward to reading your reporting on that. Naomi Klein, my colleague at the Intercept. Thanks so much for joining us again on Intercepted.
NK: Thanks Jeremy, great talking with you.
JS: Naomi Klein is my colleague at The Intercept. She’s the author of a number of books, most recently, “No Is Not Enough.” Look for her reporting on Puerto Rico in the coming days at theintercept.com
JS: As regular listeners of the show know, we try as much as we can to not get completely caught up in chasing the rabbit of scandal and presidential tweets and we try to take time to hit pause, and analyze where we are as a society. Take a look at the bigger picture. How did we get to where we are? What does this Trump moment mean for this country and its democratic processes? But also what does it mean for the poor? For global peace? For workers? For women? For immigrants? For black communities.
One of my journalistic heroes and a colleague I have learned a tremendous amount from is Juan González. He’s what I call an OG journalism. Juan is widely known as the co-host of the daily radio and TV show Democracy Now! and I had the privilege of working with him for many years on that show.
But Juan is so much more than that. He spent more than 30 years as a reporter and somehow managed to keep his job as a columnist at The New York Daily News from one 1987 to 2016, despite being a militant defender of some of the most forgotten populations in the U.S. and around the world. And, also, by the way, for being a labor organizer and a strike leader at the Daily News, it makes his tenure there all the more impressive.
Juan was one of the founders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He served for a period as its president and he’s now in its Hall of Fame. Juan has written five books that cover a broad range of topics, from race and class to the health consequences of 9/11 and the failures and cover-ups of government institutions, including the EPA, to take the threat seriously to the health of people who lived near Ground Zero.
Juan’s book “Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America” is, in my view, a must-read classic. His latest book is “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.” That book looks at how progressive forces are organizing at the municipal level.
Juan is now a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. And perhaps my favorite bit of Juan trivia is that he was a leader of the student uprisings at Columbia University in 1968, and he was one of the co-founders of the Young Lords in the 1970s. And I’m proud to call him a friend.
Juan, welcome to Intercepted.
Juan González: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here, Jeremy.
JS: One of the main reasons I wanted to talk to you at this moment was to get your big-picture analysis of this moment that we’re in with Trump, with Russia investigations, now with this whole Nunes memo. Like how do you see this moment in American history?
JG: There is a clear move to make the country a more authoritarian country, and that the fascism is based, as it’s always has been based historically, on the scapegoating of particular marginalized groups within the general society. So that the, all the battle over Muslim bans and over the wall and immigration is really the, the social weapon that’s being used by the sectors of the American capitalist class that Trump represents, because he really only represents a sector of the class but an aggressive sector.
To institute a more authoritarian form of government in the United States — and, I should add, it’s not just occurring in the United States, that the reality is that fascist, right-wing populism has been gaining ground in all the advanced industrial countries of the West, increasingly as all of those countries have been buffeted by huge waves of migration and refugees from Asia, Africa and Latin America, there’s been a growing the insecurity among not only some of the established population groups within those countries but especially by the capitalists within those countries as to the nature of how their countries are changing.
So, whether it’s in France or in Germany or in England, you’re seeing the rise of right-wing populist movements that are really a harbinger of a potential new fascist order in the 21st century industrial world.
JS: How much of this tilt toward a more authoritarian form of government comes from Trump and how much of it is outside forces taking advantage of the Trump moment?
JG: Well, I think that Trump basically kindled a movement that was already incipient, was developing within the country.
You know, I look at Trump as one of the biggest small businessmen in America. Because the right-wing populism always comes out of the small business community. It doesn’t come out of the globalized public corporations that understand that they need a world in which trade and goods are flowing freely without barriers.
And Trump as a protectionist represents the small business groups within the society, but, except that he is a billionaire small businessman really. He was always an outcast among the capitalist class of the United States. In that sense, though, he’s tapped into the tremendous insecurity that exists among the great sectors of the American population over the impact of unfettered globalism on their lives.
So, he has wracked his form of populism and his America-first policies, and in that sense, he’s been able to use patriotism as a way to further ensnare some sectors of the not only small business people who are obviously benefiting tremendously through his policies, but also the more well-to-do sectors of the American working class. Because there has always been a sector of the American working class that benefits from the existence of the imperial power of the country. So they have rallied to his call.
For instance, the opioid epidemic in the country. It’s rarely talked about the racial composition of the opioid epidemic. I recommend that people look at the Kaiser [Family] Foundation report which analyzes the opioid epidemic. More than 90 percent of the opioid deaths in America are occurring among white Americans. But the opioid epidemic, I believe, is part of the affliction of white, middle class and working class Americans in this insecure situation that they’re facing. The good paying jobs disappearing in terms of, if you don’t have a college education. And, really the growth of globalization also crushing small businesses.
Walk around New York City, all you see is empty storefronts. People can’t afford the rents, business people can’t afford the rents in downtown, but all the chain, globalized companies are taking up all the spaces. So, small business people are really being pressed under a capitalism that is frantically searching out new markets, even within the saturated domestic economy.
So, I think that Trump used all of that, the anger and the frustration. But it’s not an anger and frustration of the working class, as many people have portrayed. I believe it is predominantly the upper strata of the working class, and, most importantly, the small business sector in American society. Which is big! They’re the ones, I think, that are the real social base that Trump has been increasingly moving toward a fascist view of how to run business in America.
JS: How do you see the debate or the negotiations going on between the White House, the Republicans in Congress and the Democrats? Media focus tends to be on Dreamers, DACA recipients, but there are many more categories of immigrants that are in the crosshairs now of this administration. The Democrats have gotten a lot of heat from immigrant rights organizations, etc., who say that they’re not doing enough, that they’re capitulating too quickly to the Republicans and that they’re playing a sort of roulette with the fate of many immigrants.
How do you see this current battle right now?
JG: If you’re going to analyze it intelligently, both in terms of the historical battles over immigration in the United States and also in terms of the fact that the United States is not alone in confronting the problem, what to do about uncontrolled immigration. I mean France, England, Germany — they all have these problems of large numbers of people coming into their countries.
Perhaps the most long-lasting impact, for instance, of American wars in Syria, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is the refugee problem. After so many years of constant warfare, the people of the Middle East suddenly started leaving. They couldn’t take it anymore. And so now Europe is trying to — it’s obviously the first one to deal with this problem, because they’re the closest place that people can go. But also throughout Africa you’re seeing huge numbers of boat people leaving war-torn country. That’s what they’re leaving. They’re leaving countries where they can no longer maintain themselves in any kind of way. So these massive refugee problems now are a direct result of imperial wars over the last 10, 15 years in these areas.
Previously in the United States, there were all the Central American wars, all the interventions of the United States and Latin America that forced all of these Salvadorans and Guatemalans and Hondurans to come to the country, to this country, in the ’80s.
So you’ve got to understand that one, the United States is not alone in this problem. But number two, the United States has a particular history as a country that often has identified itself as an immigrant nation, that immigration has always been a big political battleground in the United States. Always. And because there’s always an attempt by those who came a while ago to portray those who came more recently as part of the problem, whether it was the Irish in the 1840s with the Know Nothing movement, the Chinese in the 1880s with the Chinese Exclusion Act, whether it was the Polish and the Russian Jews and Italians in the late 1800s and early 20th century. But now, what really has made the situation more difficult now is that there’s not only a cultural and ethnic component to the migration, there’s a racial component to the migration.
And so now you’re increasingly dealing with the reality that the bulk of the migration to the United States over the last 50, 60 years, half of it has been from Latin America and two thirds to three quarters, the rest of it has been from Asia and Africa.
Remember back in 2006 there was an attempt to pass a comprehensive immigration reform?
President George W. Bush: Good evening. I’ve asked for a few minutes of your time to discuss a matter of national importance: The reform of America’s immigration system. The issue of immigration stirs intense emotions.
JG: Why has it taken so long? Well because this, the final immigration legislation that is passed will essentially define who is legitimately in the United States in the 21st century. It is really going to define the composition of American society. Everybody who’s involved in the negotiations knows that. There are big stakes here in terms of who gets to be elected to office in 10 or 15 years, you know, how the resources of the country are divided up and it’s really a question of who is legitimately in the country.
The fascist trend represented by Trump wants to totally reverse immigration policy, to instead of saying, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” — “give me your best educated people, who have the most money, who can essentially me buy their way into the United States, either as a graduate student working for Silicon Valley.”
JS: Or an investor in one of Kushner’s companies.
JG: Yes! Or an investor in one of Kushner’s companies. You are essentially, now, the trend is to buy your way into the United States. To get people who are educated in India or China or Mexico, where those governments invested in their education, but than the United States stole the brains, right? Essentially bought the brains. And those countries invested in their education but they didn’t get the benefits of their education.
Trump calls it chain migration, the official term is “family reunification.” They want family reunification out, because that would only allow the already-existing working-class migrants who have already become legalized to bring more of their relatives. They want to end that. They want to bring in a whole different type of migration into the United States, and I suspect also increasingly make it a whiter migration.
The Dreamers are like the sexy part of the migration reform. What is going to happen to the technological workers? What is going to happen to the agricultural workforce, which is still needed, they still need agricultural labors to pick the crops that people in the United States are going to eat.
Under what conditions will these other categories of migrants be able to come into the country.
JS: You, of course, as NAFTA was coming to fruition were reporting extensively on the potential outcome of this. At the end of the day, your political analysis, and correct me if I’m wrong, ends in the same place as Trump’s when it comes to wanting to get rid of these kinds of so-called free trade agreements, but for very different reasons.
I’d like to hear your critique of how NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements impact workers in the United States but also in other parts of the hemisphere.
JG: Remember, NAFTA was passed under Bill Clinton.
President Bill Clinton: In a few moments, I will sign the North American Free Trade Act into law. NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations. It will create the world’s largest trade zone, and create 200,000 jobs in this country by 1995 alone.
JG: NAFTA and all of these free trade agreements were based on being able to exploit the huge gaps in income that already existed in the world. They were going to take advantage of that, not to necessarily raise the income levels but just to take advantage. It’s like a currency trader who tries to trade between the differences, values of currencies between countries, that’s all it was.
And so unless there is somehow, in the policy, a commitment to close the income gaps between countries — and not just the income gaps — the gaps over environmental controls, the gaps over protection of worker safety in these places, there will always be a race to the bottom to which country offers the cheapest labor and the worst environmental regulations and the worst labor safety.
You know, now it’s no longer Mexico or even China, now it’s Vietnam and Bangladesh. There will always be another country where the elite will offer you a better deal in the race to the bottom.
JG: Would you celebrate the dismantling of NAFTA, even if it was based on Trump’s rationale or motives for it?
JS: Well it’s definitely good that these agreements are being revisited. The question then becomes though, who negotiates the new ones? You know, because eventually, any trade agreement has to go through Congress and with the makeup of Congress now, you could conceivably have a worse trade agreement, especially for the people in these other countries than you have now.
It’s positive that at least what Bernie Sanders raised about these trade deals during the campaign and what Trump raised about these trade deals at least broke the control over the debate that the globalists, in American capitalism, along with the media had that anybody who raised a criticism of these debates was crazy or fringe. So that’s changed. That’s changed. People understand now that these trade deals have hurt the American workers and have hurt the people in the countries where they were developed.
JS: I was recently looking back at your excellent book “Harvest of Empire” that also has been revised, and it made me start to think how so many people in this country when they talk about immigrants or when they talk about undocumented immigrants or people who are here with protective status or people who were brought here by their parents and they didn’t have documentation.
We never talk about why people have come here from any number of these countries. Give an overview of the “Harvest of Empire” and why people started migrating from south to north at different points in history.
JG: Well, I think the basic thesis of my book “Harvest of Empire,” you really cannot understand the massive growth of the Latino population in the United States in the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, unless you understand the role of the United States and Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th century, that in fact the 50-some million Latinos now living in the United States are a direct result of the United States’s creation of an imperial empire in Latin America.
And, in fact, the United States is not alone. The reason there are so many Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans in France is because those were the colonies of the French Empire. The reason there are so many Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans in England is because those were the colonies of the British Empire. The reason there are so many Turks in Germany is because Germany got late into the imperial power game, and after World War I basically absorbed the Ottoman Empire and began going into Turkey and other places in the Middle East.
But basically what happens is that World War II was a seminal moment in the colonial world because all of the powers in World War II all impressed their colonial soldiers into the war. The French drafted the Algerians and the Tunisians into the French Army. The Americans drafted Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. My father and his two brothers all served in a Puerto Rican regiment in World War II that was attached to Patton’s Seventh Army. They were all recruited right out of Puerto Rico, not even speaking a word of English to fight in World War II. Even African-Americans who came up from the south, a lot of them were pressed into World War II.
So, the result was, after the war was over, the soldiers who returned all became the leaders of their independence movements, of their civil rights movements. If you look at all of the people in the civil rights movement in the United States, many of them were World War II veterans. And the same thing in a Mexican-American community and the Puerto Rican community. They came back having been trained and fought in World War II, and said, “Hey, we just defeated fascism, but we don’t have rights in our own country.”
After World War II, you get a huge surge of African independence and Pakistan and India. All of the colonial powers are forced to give up their colonies. But then, because these countries had already established routes of trade and commerce and information with the metropolis, suddenly people started leaving their countries and going to the metropolis. Algerians started going to France, and Tunisians and Indians and Pakistanis started going to England. And people who came to the United States were largely from countries that were already directly intervened, like Puerto Rico or Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico, and then of course Nicaragua, Salvador and Honduras.
So basically you can directly trace the mass migrations of every imperial power in the world to their former colonies. So that’s why I say that the Latino presence in the United States is the harvest of the American Empire.
For the first 150 years, the colonial powers tried to get the resources: the gold or the copper or whatever resource they could get out of the colonies. But then, what they never expected was that the people themselves would come, that the workers would start using those same routes of trade to migrate to the metropolis. Had the West not tried to dominate the entire world and colonize the entire world, it would not be facing the kinds of migration situations that they’re facing now and the people just at a certain point said, “Hey, we may as well go to these countries, we’re considered to be subjects of these countries.” And so, during the 20th century the Third World stood up and became independent but still is economically controlled by the West.
And now, gradually, at the late stages of the 20th century and the early 21st century, the workers of the Third World started coming to the West, and now capitalism is faced with the problem: How can you argue for no barriers to capital, whether it’s a money transfer, whether it’s an investment opportunity, whether it is lowering tariffs on trade — how can you argue that we’re in a global world and capital must be free to move anywhere it wants at any time and labor can’t? How can you argue for freedom for capital but not freedom for labor?
And when the reality is the more people are on the move today than ever before in the history of the world. I mean, if you look at the numbers of Filipinos and other people that are basically propping up the economies of the Middle East, you know, and the numbers of Koreans that are working in Japan. There’s been mass migrations, not just to the United States but all over the world. Labor is in motion. And you cannot continue to lower the barriers for capital while erecting walls against labor. Doesn’t make any sense.
So, I think that’s the quandary that global capitalism has today: How do you make it easier for business to make money while you try to make it harder for workers to make money?
JS: It seems, given everything that you’ve just described, that there are two main drivers of undocumented immigration to the United States from the south. Either wars and conflict that the United States has played a direct role in, or people have shattered economies that have been targeted by neoliberal economic positions of the United States, by the corruption of dictators who have been backed by the United States or that their countries have been pressured into very bad deals for their people. And they’re coming seeking economic opportunity, and I mean every single person that I know that is undocumented in this country is an incredibly hard worker who is living in a crappy situation and sending a lot of money to support a lot of other people in their own country. That is almost the exclusive story that I know.
JG: Migration is itself a self-selecting process, because the people who leave are usually the most industrious, the most willing to take risks. So basically the very process of migration selects out the most industrious, hard-working and risk-taking people. So to portray them as a people who are going to commit crimes and destroy the society is completely at odds with the facts. One of the things I raise in “Reclaiming Gotham” which is that it’s been documented that sanctuary cities in the United States have lower crime rates than non-sanctuary cities.
It’s firmly established that the crime rate among immigrants is far lower than the crime rate among the U.S.-born citizens. There’s a lower crime rate. And yet, you want to find the examples that you can find, because you’ll always find examples of people committing crime in any in any group in the society, and elevate those to the norm rather than to realize that they are the exception.
JS: Juan González, you’re a true legend in journalism and I hope we can have you back again sometime very soon. Juan González, thanks for being with us on Intercepted.
JG: Well, thanks, I have to tell you how proud I am of all the fantastic work you’ve done over the years. You’ve really redefined investigative journalism and social justice journalism. So, keep up the good work!
JS: Thanks, Juan.
Juan González is a veteran journalist. He’s now a professor of journalism at Rutgers. He’s the author of five books, among them “Harvest of Empire” and “Reclaiming Gotham.”
JS: Just a quick update on a story we recently covered on the show and that is the so-called Steele dossier. That’s this 35-odd-page compilation of reports that the former MI6 agent Christopher Steele prepared for the company Fusion GPS, which we now know was hired by Hillary Clinton’s team during the 2016 campaign to compile opposition research on Donald Trump.
And there’s an interesting theory this week that was floated in the Wall Street Journal by a former CIA station chief with experience in Russia and what was the Soviet Union. That former spy is named Daniel Hoffman and he makes the case that the Steele dossier, which of course includes a variety of salacious allegations about Donald Trump, including the notion that there may be a pee tape of Trump that could be used to blackmail him, that this dossier itself, and this is the case that this former CIA station chief is making, that the dossier itself contains misinformation that was deliberately provided to Steele by Russian agents or the FSB.
The piece in The Wall Street Journal is titled “The Steele Dossier Fits the Kremlin Playbook.” And Hoffman points out that Chris Steele did not travel to Russia himself to obtain his intelligence. Instead, he used intermediaries. According to Hoffman, those intermediaries could have easily been compromised or manipulated by Russian intelligence. Hoffman writes: “If the FSB did discover that Mr. Steele was poking around for information, it hardly could have resisted using the gravitas of a retired MI6 agent to plant false information.”
Hoffman’s piece continues: “No one has been able to corroborate its charges, but Democrats continue to see the dossier as a roadmap for impeaching Mr. Trump.” Republicans, on the other hand, point out that it was created as opposition research, leading them to see it as an elaborate partisan ploy.
There’s a third possibility, according to Hoffman, namely that the dossier was part of a Russian espionage disinformation plot targeting both parties and America’s political process. “This is what seems most likely to me,” Hoffman writes, “having spent much of my 30-year government career, including with the CIA, observing Soviet and then Russian intelligence operations.”
Now, obviously, there’s all sorts of reasons to take this theory with a grain of salt. It’s impossible to know the motives for a former CIA officer floating this theory. The dossier itself is filled with unsubstantiated allegations and a bunch of errors. It also has a bunch of things that have proven to be true.
Hoffman says that it’s the exact Russian MO, to mix fact with fiction in a disinformation campaign. But since this dossier remains such a hot topic, I decided to ask journalist Marcy Wheeler, of emptywheel.net, for her take on Hoffman’s theory. She told me that she believes it’s plausible if not likely that it’s grounded in some truth.
Marcy Wheeler: It would have been doable, certainly, and possibly very easy for the Russians to have some of his sources — and remember, some of his sources were supposed to have close ties to the Kremlin — to insert information into the dossier that was misleading or that would lead the Democrats to act in ways they maybe shouldn’t act, or frankly to hide as part of the cover-up for the real conspiracy that was going on.
So, yeah, I think that that is not just possible, but remember, I mean, by September Steele was sharing his dossier with a range of journalists, so by September you would have journalists out there trying to confirm it, which would, if the Russians didn’t already have information about it, it would have given them, there would have been people calling and asking questions which would have given them a read of what was in the dossier so far and it would have alerted them to the existence of the dossier. I suspect that it was likely to see disinformation starting in September, but I think it may have been possible right from the start.
JS: That was Marcy Wheeler. Her website is emptywheel.net
JS: Vice President Mike Pence went to the Middle East this month and he visited Egypt, where he hung out with the authoritarian U.S.-backed dictator Abdel Fatah el-Sisi before heading to Jordan in his campaign to flaunt president Trump’s hard line and contentious position on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Mike Pence ended his trip, of course, in Israel, and he gave a speech to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Many U.S. presidents have said that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and have said:
GWB: As soon as I take office, I will begin the process of moving the United States ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.
President Barack Obama: I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and I have said that before and I will say it again.
JS: What’s new here is that Trump is the first president to state that the embassy will be moved to the Holy City.
DJT: Last month, I also took an action, endorsed unanimously by the U.S. Senate just months before. I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
JS: The peace talks that Trump has put Jared Kushner in charge of appear to be going swimmingly. Palestine boycotted Mike Pence’s trip. Its leaders refused to meet with him. Mike Pence’s trip comes on the heels of last month’s status of Jerusalem vote at the United Nations General Assembly, where the overwhelming majority of nations in the world voted against the U.S. position that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and they passed a resolution calling on nations not to move their embassies to Jerusalem.
As the U.S. often does, under both Democrats and Republicans, at the United Nations Trump’s ambassador Nikki Haley, along with the president himself bullied and threatened countries and actually kind of threaten the whole of the United Nations. Nikki Haley said she would be “taking names,” that the U.S. would “remember this day” and would “look at cutting funds” to those who voted against the U.S. position. The only countries that did support Washington were Togo, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guatemala, and Honduras.
All of this comes as one of the most underreported stories of the Trump era continues to receive scant attention in the United States — namely, evidence that the Trump Administration has colluded with the state of Israel, including efforts to attempt to get Russia to aid Israel in undermining the Obama administration at the United Nations while Obama was still president.
I’m joined now from Amman, Jordan by Ali Abunimah. He is the founder of electronicintifada.net, and the author of two books, “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” and “Battle for Justice in Palestine: The Case for a Single Democratic State in Palestine.” Ali Abunimah, welcome to Intercepted.
Ali Abunimah: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Let’s start, first of all, with the most recent developments with Vice President Mike Pence going to Israel. What are your thoughts on that visit and the impact and the message that the Trump Administration continues to send to Israel?
AA: The message it sends was really made visual in what happened in the Knesset. Pence gave this sort of Christian-Zionist fanatical speech.
Vice President Mike Pence: Just last month, President Donald Trump made history. He righted a 70-year wrong, he kept his word to the American people when he announced that the United States of America will finally acknowledge Jerusalem is Israel’s capital [applause].
AA: And when the 13 Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli lawmakers stood up to protest and held signs saying “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” they were dragged out bodily by security, while Netanyahu and his government were applauding. And this was such a shocking and blatant scene I think for many people, that even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, and that’s not a network known for taking big risks when it comes to Israel, tweeted “Imagine what it would look like if the Capitol Police dragged members of the Congressional Black Caucus off the house floor.” That was actually a pretty good analogy for what was happening, and Trump followed it up in Davos by saying because Palestinian leaders refused to meet Pence, that he was going to further punish the most vulnerable Palestinians, threatening to cut even more aid from the humanitarian agency UNRWA.
DJT: When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table, and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.
AA: In some ways I think it’s a more honest expression of U.S. policy — not exactly refreshing, but definitely honest.
JS: And what about Jared Kushner, that Trump has but this position of “making a deal” between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
AA: Basically, what it amounts to is pushing the Palestinians to a total surrender where they would be given a state in name only. What would more accurately be called Bantustan, the sort of fake state set up by the apartheid government of South Africa in the1970s and ’80s to say: Look, black people have their own independent states now, so stop asking us to end apartheid. That’s basically the approach the Israelis want to take. And the outline is a few enclaves, totally surrounded by Israel, nothing in Jerusalem, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, but you can call this a state if you want to. That’s the direction it’s going.
I think to be fair to the Trump Administration, this is the direct descendant of all the so-called American peace plans that various administrations have pushed for decades since Bill Clinton.
The big difference here, I think, is the regional situation or architecture where now the Trump Administration is teaming up with a major power in the region Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, so they have signed up to help bully and pressure the Palestinians into accepting this and that’s part of the kind of regional approach of taking the Saudis, the Israelis, the Egyptians and the other so-called Sunni-Arab states, aligning them together in a big confrontation with Iran. Let’s get the Palestinians out of the way, this is a thorn in the side, let’s force them to surrender and then we can say that that issue is done with.
JS: On this issue of Trump physically moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he and his administration are now saying that that is going to happen on a faster timetable than they originally had intended. What’s actually going on here?
AA: Where the U.S. ambassador sits is really of little practical concern to Palestinians. What happened with the Jerusalem issue with Trump’s announcement back in December, of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is very interesting because this was clearly a demand from the far-right, particularly the radical Christianist base of the Republican Party in the United States for many, many years. And so Trump gave them that.
What it means politically is very interesting because at the time Trump made that announcement, he said: Well, we’re recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but we are definitely not taking a position on final status issues, the borders of Israeli sovereignty, you know, whether the Palestinians will have any rights in Jerusalem and so on. That’s what he said back in December when he made the announcement. But what he said in Davos and what he said before that is, I “took Jerusalem off the table.”
DJT: Hardest subject they had to talk about was Jerusalem. We took Jerusalem off the table. So, we don’t have to talk about it any more. They never got past Jerusalem.
AA: So he’s undercutting his own assurance that he wasn’t trying to predetermine the issue and take away Palestinian rights. The other effect of what he did which I think could be put in the category of unintended consequences is he united pretty much the whole world in standing up and saying: We reject the Israeli and American position on Jerusalem.
So, whereas the issue had been dormant for many years, to the point where I think the Israelis really thought that if the Americans make this announcement, the rest of the world will sort of quietly follow-on, what actually happened was a pretty unanimous vote in the UN, condemning the U.S. decision and calling it null and void. So, in a sense, Trump helped to reawaken opposition to Israeli and American positions on Jerusalem.
JS: You’re talking about the UN process, and of course, Israelis’ occupation of Palestine is regularly condemned by the overwhelming majority of nations of the world represented at the UN. And I want to ask you, though, about one specific vote that occurred at the end of President Obama’s time in office and this has been discussed in some media outlets, but really hasn’t been as big of a story as it obviously should be and that is this vote that the Obama administration was indicating it was going to abstain from, the Trump camp was apoplectic over and Jared Kushner, who, as we know, has been designated by Trump as the peacemaker here, was at an event with Haim Saban, who is a major Democratic Party fundraiser.
Haim Saban: An issue that I personally want to thank you for. You and your team were taking steps to try and get the United Nations Security Council to not go along with what ended up being an abstention by the U.S. against a 50-year-old tradition. Some people might, as far as I know, there is nothing illegal there, but I think that this crowd and myself want to thank you for making that effort. So, thank you very much [scattered applause].
JS: They talked to the Russian ambassador, not about Russia’s agenda but trying to pressure Russia into taking a pro-Israel position on behalf of the incoming Trump administration. What’s going on here?
AA: What came out back in December in the context of Michael Flynn’s plea deal was that Flynn had lied to the FBI about two conversations with the Russian ambassador. And all of this got reported in, you know, the mainstream U.S. media, what I call regime media, and that includes MSNBC, you know, very breathlessly as more evidence of collusion with, between the Trump people and the Russians.
In fact, what the Flynn plea deal showed and what the proffer and the documents that were filed in federal court showed, was not Flynn’s collusion with Russia in order to serve Russian interests, but rather an attempt to serve Israeli interests.
And, in short, what happened: Benjamin Netanyahu asked Jared Kushner to do everything possible to undermine the Obama administration’s policy. This was during the transition, so Obama was still president but the Trump transition team was asked by Netanyahu to contact all these governments, including Russia, to try to sabotage the vote that was taking place in the UN in December 2016, condemning Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestinian land.
The effort failed. The vote passed. The Obama administration abstained. But what was actually happening was the Trump team was colluding with a foreign power to undermine U.S. policy, but that foreign power was Israel, not Russia.
JS: And, of course, Michael Wolff in his book “Fire and Fury” does quote Steve Bannon. Lay out what you learned about Trump collusion with Israel from Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.”
AA: The book recounts a conversation between Bannon and Roger Ailes early on during the transition when they’re talking about who to appoint and what the administration’s first moves will be. And Bannon says, you know, “Day one we’re going to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Let Jordan deal with the West Bank, let Egypt deal with Gaza or let them go down trying. And he says, Netanyahu is on board, Sheldon Adelson is on board, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
So this is an Israel-first agenda and what Bannon is saying, you know, he mentions Sheldon Adelson who gave, what was it? $25 million, $30 million dollars to the Trump campaign through various vehicles. And $5 million to the Trump Inauguration Committee and he is calling the shots. This has gotten no play in U.S. media. Imagine if this was a Russian oligarch instead of a pro-Israel oligarch, basically dictating the foreign policy of the Trump Administration: you’d have Rachel Maddow screaming it from the rooftops. But instead, there’s silence.
Now, the other you mentioned: Haim Saban. Haim Saban is basically the Democratic Sheldon Adelson and so when he was on stage with Jared Kushner back in December at this Brookings Forum, Saban and Kushner were getting on like a house on fire, even though Haim Saban had put millions of dollars into trying to get Hillary Clinton elected, because when it comes to fanatical, extreme, unconditional support for Israel that’s the last truly bipartisan issue — maybe that and war and, you know, secret surveillance.
The other interesting trend that I think is worth noting is that what’s happening on the ground, and this is being shown up in survey after survey after survey, and that came out again with the Pew Research Center poll that Israel is now completely a partisan issue in the United States, and that Pew poll, 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians.
But just 27 percent of Democrats say that and in a poll last year more than half of Democrats said they would support sanctions or tougher measures on Israel because of its settlements. That’s what’s happening in the country. That’s what’s happening in the grassroots. The growing support for Palestinian rights, opposition to the unquestioning support for Israel, but it is not being reflected by political elites. And it’s not being reflected by media elites, which is why we have this total silence from CNN to Fox to MSNBC, you know, the so-called political spectrum of U.S. regime media.
JS: It seems like Benjamin Netanyahu is able to very effectively play this administration, in particular, like a fiddle. Yes, as you point out rightly, this has been the bipartisan reality for many, many decades. But it does seem like Trump presents Netanyahu with an opportunity to go even further than maybe he would have imagined under an Obama administration or a Hillary Clinton administration.
AA: That’s very true to a big extent, with things like, you, know moving the embassy or recognizing Jerusalem or even the horrific policy of cutting humanitarian aid to UNRWA, which puts at risk the basic welfare of half a million Palestinian children who are refugees because Israel won’t let them go back home.
But I think the bigger picture is that, in a way, Trump is accelerating the polarization of Israel within the United States and I think accelerating the loss of support for Israel, because what’s been happening over many years is that Israel is becoming more and more an issue that is more conservative, more associated with the religious right, more associated with the older generation and what you also see is that younger people are much more ready to support Palestinian rights on college campuses — the growth of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
In December, Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced a bill that, for the first time, focuses on Palestinian human rights, particularly Palestinian children’s rights, and basically says that the State Department must certify every year that no U.S. aid is being used for the military detention, abuse or torture of Palestinian children. Right now, there are 350 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention, including Ahed Tamimi, the teenager who was caught on video shoving and slapping a heavily armed Israeli occupation soldier, who’s now being indefinitely jailed for that. This happened on a Friday in mid-December, moments after an Israeli soldier had shot in the head and seriously injured her 15-year-old cousin and these heavily armed occupation soldiers were on the family’s property and she was very understandably trying to get them off. But Israel is treating her as if she’s the criminal. And, you know, Amnesty International has called for her release, people are calling for her release, but there is official silence in the United States.
But we have this bill, when it was launched it had ten co-sponsors, now it has more than 20. I’m under no illusion that it’s about to pass Congress, but the point is that this was the fruit of three years of grassroots work by activists, by people like the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker group that has just been labeled as an enemy of the State of Israel, and I think the kind of shift the Israel lobby fears is the kind of change that happened around same-sex marriage in the United States. Now it’s the law of the land, it’s supported by majorities and I think they fear a similar kind of sea change with respect to Palestinian rights could happen within the space of a couple of years.
JS: Ali, what is the latest on Ahed Tamimi’s case?
AA: The latest is that she is now in indefinite detention, as is her mother Nariman, who is accused of incitement because she live-streamed the incident Ahed shoved the Israeli soldiers. They are in military detention. Israel is the only country in the world, and certainly the only so-called democracy that routinely subjects children to military trials. They will be put in military trial in an Israeli kangaroo court, the so-called military court, which has basically a 100 percent conviction rate for Palestinians.
And Ahed Tamimi and her family are the subjects of relentless incitement by Israeli leaders. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that the family has to be dealt with harshly, and made an example of. Naftali Bennett, the education minister, has basically said they should spend the rest of their lives in prison. And Michael Oren, a minister in Netanyahu’s office, and the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. has said that the Tamimi family is “a bunch of light-skinned actors brought together just to embarrass Israel”: these crazy conspiracy theories to malign and defame this family.
But as the family themselves are the first to say, what’s happening to them is happening to many Palestinian families it’s just that the Tamimi family has suffered this intense focus of vengefulness by the Israeli government because they consider that Ahed Tamimi humiliated the army, by resisting by defending her home, by being angry, by being outraged that she’s on the occupation, that she and generations of Palestinians before her have never seen a day of freedom in their lives and they don’t like it. To Israel, that’s intolerable that they should fight back in any way.
JS: All right. Ali Abunimah, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AA: My pleasure. Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Ali Abunimah is the founder of electronicintifada.net
JS: We’re going to end today’s show with some music from the band Algiers. Originally from Atlanta, this four-member band gleaned their name from the pages of Albert Camus’ existentialist novel “The Plague.” But the inspiration for their name isn’t a literal reference to a 19th-century cholera outbreak, but rather the power of optimism in the face of destruction and oppression, and the commitment to fighting colonialism and racist violence.
These themes transposed to the 21st-century reality of American life, paramilitarized police and the killing of unarmed black people, ravenous capitalism, are front and center on their latest record: “The Underside of Power.” Perhaps the complexity of Algiers’ music can be summed up by the pair of pins worn by their lead singer, Franklin Fisher: one, the clenched fist of the Black Panthers, the other a photo of Thriller-era Michael Jackson. The band’s sound, while varied and borrowing from post-punk, Southern Gospel and industrial, is always direct and always militant.
Franklin Fisher: My name is Franklin Fisher and I’m the singer in a band called Algiers, and we’re from Atlanta, Georgia.
In terms of things being complicated or political, that didn’t happen to me until I was about 10 years old. My elementary school, there were probably five or six other black kids in that school. I grew up in that environment, in a predominantly white neighborhood, you know, in a white world, but that’s just kind of a microcosm of what it’s like to be black in America.
James Baldwin: I am an American. I’m not [indistinct], I’m not saying that as, no, I am American. But I do mean that I was formed in a certain crucible.
FF: You know, James Baldwin talks about: There is always a moment where you realize that you’re black, you realize that you’re different.
JB: And you are formed by what you see, the choices you have to make and the way you discover what it means to be black in New York. And then throughout the entire country. And I know how as you grow older, you watch in the richest city in the world, the richest, freest nation in the world, I know how you watch as you grow older, literally, this is not a figure of speech, the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. And not for anything they have done. They were too young to have done anything — and, in any case, too helpless. But what one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, when you do that without knowing the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.
FF: You develop a political consciousness and mind was relatively late. I went to Georgia State University. I was selected to be a part of an exchange program. We went and we studied in Newcastle, England for a year and at the time, you know, this was just after 9/11, politics kind of existed in the ether of my family. I was a card-carrying Democrat. I was just kind of like a blank slate for indoctrination of American exceptionalism.
So I didn’t do a whole lot of questioning about America and its place in the world and how it presents itself to its citizens and, you know, the citizens of the world up to that point.
GWB: This is George W. Bush, the president of the United States.
FF: And you’re seeing the ways that Bush and Blair are orchestrating, you know, this war, this invasion in Iraq on false pretenses.
GWB: And I assure every citizen of Iraq, your nation will soon be free.
Prime Minister Tony Blair: A new and better future beckons for the people of Iraq.
GWB: And all these things are kind of coming into fruition.
TB: We did not want this war, but in refusing to give up his weapons of mass destruction, Saddam gave us no choice but to act.
FF: It was just this kind of this perfect storm that led to the epiphany, and at that point, I realized that I was, I’d been drinking the Kool-Aid, and it was one of those life-defining moments. I didn’t realize the extent to which I had been just kind of filled up like a vessel with all the hype. And I decided I was going to leave Atlanta, and I wanted to live in France. I took the time to really just work on music and try to find my voice and that’s when we kind of just started laying the foundations for what evolved into Algiers, you know?
[“Blood” by Algiers.]
FF: When I was teaching in France, I noticed pretty early on that a lot of people are completely oblivious to the history of slavery in America and therefore the history of America. The same question that I just kept being asked, “Where are you from?”
JB: They wanted to know where I was from, and I told them I was from Harlem. And that didn’t satisfy them.
FF: “I’m from America.” “No, but where are you from?” “I’m from Atlanta, and I was born in North Carolina, I’m from Atlanta.” “No, but where are you really from in Africa?”
JB: Yes, he said, “But man, where were you born?” My mother was born in Maryland, my father was born in New Orleans, I was born in New York. He said, “But before that, where were you born?”
FF: The didn’t understand that there was a massive disconnect between your culture of origin and the culture that miraculously was brought into being that is African-American culture and identity. They didn’t understand that.
JB: And I tried to explain that if I were originally from Dakar, from wherever I was in Africa, I couldn’t find out where it was because my entry into America is a bill of sale. At some point in our history, I became “Baldwin’s nigger.”
FF: There was still a couple of years before Obama, and I felt the sort of, almost need to come back to the States and re-engage. And I had romanticized, I think, what I thought was going on in the streets in the neighborhood, black neighborhoods across America.
I came back and to my naive sort of dismay. The reality of the experience of so many black people in this country is not romantic, and it’s presented in the media as being very romantic but it’s not. And if you are living in a difficult, you know, socioeconomic situation, you get disenfranchised and it leads to a certain type of nihilism almost.
Struggle and change are intergenerational. The progression that seems to have been made for black people in this country in the 20th century for example, the real sort of solidarity and political resistance, revolution that was being organized and being exacted in blood kind of takes the place of the ghosts of the past speaking to the present.
In the same way that your otherness is kind of placed on you, politics is kind of brought to your doorstep, regardless of whether or not you asked for it. And just by virtue of being who I am, by being a black man, I’m made to be political, regardless — so whether or not I choose to be.
I mean American electoral politics, look where it’s gotten us. I mean it just seemed so audacious on the part of the Democratic Party, and so presumptuous that they didn’t really need to try because they just assumed that they would beat Trump and my alarm bells started going off pretty early, because, for a country that let Bush take the first election and then decided to elect him after starting two wars on false pretenses and numerous other crimes, you know, like it was really a consequence of having a black man in the White House for the past eight years. That’s what it was, they’re assuming black people would vote for her because she’s a Democrat. You know, black America would have amnesia about, you know, the three strikes and you’re out rule, and, you know, like that the Clinton administration incarcerated more black people than, you know, probably anybody since Nixon.
It’s insane and it’s so bankrupt. And it’s to the point now where you have, aside from the fact that he’s a fascist and he’s a racist and all of these things, he has no qualifications whatsoever to hold office. None. And that somebody like that can kind of just creep in the front door, not even the back door in American politics shows you how bankrupt the system is. So no, I’m not, I don’t put any credence into the American electoral political machine. No.
[“Walk Like A Panther” by Algiers.]
FF: We deliberately put Fred Hampton as the first voice that you hear on the record, as a line in the sand so people know where we stand and what we’re coming out of the gate doing.
He’s talking about taking action. It’s like he knew that he was going to be killed by the State, which he was. He was murdered by the police and by the FBI.
[“Walk Like A Panther” by Algiers.]
FF: Being presented with the grotesque reality of Donald Trump shook off the self-congratulatory denial that so much of people in America had undergone with eight years of Barack Obama. There were a lot of people who kind of drank the Kool-Aid of, oh yeah, look what we did, we got a black president. That’s not how works.
Black Lives Matter, Occupy, like these things happened whilst Obama was in office. There’s a disconnect there that I’m not sure a lot of people have realized, but if the supposed most powerful office in the land, if, in that office, you have a black man but you still on a very local level, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, people are getting still murdered by the cops, you have to understand that there requires action on a very real, very local level that you can’t just assume will happen just because of whoever’s in the White House.
[“Cleveland” by Algiers.]
FF: Cleveland is one of the few topical songs that we have, and that came out of just the frustration of when the news broke that the officer that killed Tamir Rice wasn’t going to be indicted. It was just too much. It’s just one after the next after the next of just this acceptable, systematic murder of black people.
And for every case of institutionalized murder, or of a cover-up of a lynching of a person of color, there are hundreds of cases that you’ll never hear about. There’s just decades that these things have gone on and there’s been cover-ups, and so much corruption with these police departments and the parents of these people die without ever having any sense of justice or answers about what happened to their children.
[“Cleveland” by Algiers.]
FF: “The Underside of Power” is kind of like our twisted take on optimism, because when you’re at the very bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. It stems from that mentality that you know, you’re only king for a day and even these maniacs that are in power, at some point they’re going to fall, even if they take the rest of humanity and civilization with them, they’re not infallible and they’re not going to stay where they are for very long.
The tide will turn to feel that there’s nothing you can do about it is probably the worst part of it. And so, you have to do something. You have to do something because to do nothing is complicity. And to give in to nihilism is just unacceptable. You know, eventually, at some point you’ll get somewhere. And you don’t stop rallying for change and trying just because you get beat down. You keep going.
[“The Underside of Power” by Algiers.]
JS: That was Franklin Fisher of the band Algiers. He spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you’re not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto theintercept.com/join. Sam Sabzehzar is our honorary producer, and we thank him for his generous support.
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. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.