While Donald Trump is busy threatening millions with deportation, he takes a moment to weigh in on the debate over reparations and doesn’t “see it happening.” This week on Intercepted: The House Judiciary Committee holds a historic hearing discussing the lingering effects of slavery and what reparations might look like. Rutgers professor and “Uncivil” podcast co-host Chenjerai Kumanyika argues that demands for reparations should include challenging the driving forces behind slavery: capitalism and imperialism. The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux gives an update on the trial for humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren and discusses the dehumanization that has allowed the war on immigrants to continue for decades. Artist and musician Nakhane reflects on growing up queer in South Africa and talks about their new record, “You Will Not Die.”
This is our last episode of the season. Intercepted is going on hiatus for the summer and will return with new episodes in September 2019.
Chuck Todd: Mr. President, welcome back to Meet the Press.
Donald J. Trump: Thank you.
CT: Let me start right in.
Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe [in The Sixth Sense]: You have a secret but you don’t want to tell me.
DJT: Chuck, look, dead people —
BW: I don’t see anything.
DJT: Chuck, just listen for one second —
BW: Are you sure they’re there?
DJT: I speak to Bush, John McCain. I think he’s real. I don’t think, I know.
BW: I think that they know that you’re one of these very rare people who can see them so you need to help them.
DJT: No, they’re stone-cold crazy.
Announcer: Not every gift is a blessing. The Sixth Sense.
DJT: Uh, Chuck —
BW: I’m working on it.
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 99 of Intercepted.
Reporter: Do you have an exit strategy for Iran if war does break out?
DJT: Uh, you’re not going to need an exit strategy. I don’t need exit strategies.
Reporter: Mr. President, can you tell us about your letter to Chairman Kim?
DJT: Just a nice letter back and forth. He wrote me a beautiful letter on my birthday. It was my birthday.
JS: If there has been one overarching theme to the often vile rhetoric emanating from Donald Trump and his administration, it has been violent gaslighting. The whole Make America Great Again framing, it’s an umbrella under which a seemingly endless series of lies and historical revisionism reside. We see this on issues of race, economics, gender, climate, women’s health, war, even history itself.
This whitewashing of U.S. history, the reverence for slave owners who served as president of this country, it’s not an invention of Donald Trump. Almost all politicians in this country throughout history have engaged in this revisionism masquerading as patriotism. But under this administration, under Donald Trump, it is out there in the extreme open. It is a source of pride.
Last week, the author and intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates testified in front of the U.S. Congress on the issue of reparations for Black Americans. And I hope everyone listening to this show has taken the time to watch that testimony.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: For a century after the Civil War black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror. A campaign that extended well into the lifetime of majority leader McConnell. It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy respects no such borders. And the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs: coup d’etats and convict leasing, vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist G.I. bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.
We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion.
Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
JS: That was Ta-Nehisi Coates testifying before the U.S. Congress. And that hearing happened at a moment where there is still a debate in this country over the true story of the Civil War and the nature of the Confederacy. It’s somehow with us always these days. From Charlottesville to the issue of Civil War monuments and beyond.
DJT: But many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?
JS: One of the best sources for dissecting all of this, that I’ve found, is a great podcast called Uncivil. The show’s producers describe their program as telling “stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacking America’s past, and taking on the history you grew up with.” They say, “We bring you untold stories about resistance, covert operations, corruption, mutiny, counterfeiting, antebellum drones, and so much more. And we connect these forgotten struggles to the political battlefield we’re living on right now. The story of the Civil War — the story of slavery, confederate monuments, racism — is the story of America.”
“Uncivil” Trailer: [Protesters chanting.]
News Anchor: This is an easy one for all leaders to get up and say “This is not us.”
Jack Hitt: This is not us. I hear that all the time now.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: But the fact is this is us. America’s always been divided. From Gimlet Media, this is Uncivil.
JS: I am joined now by the co-host and co-executive producer of Uncivil, Chenjerai Kumanyika. He is a researcher, a journalist, a hip hop artist. He is also an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. Chenjerai, welcome to Intercepted.
CK: Hey, man, thanks for having me on, man.
JS: We saw Ta-Nehisi Coates and others testify in front of Congress last week on the issue of reparations. I just want to get your big picture view of this issue and what you think should happen.
CK: I appreciated the way that Coates frame things in terms of, you know, America, when it thinks about its history, has to account for these other things that don’t fit with the sort of patriotic narrative, right? I think that it’s good that we’re talking about reparations. I think that’s a conversation that we should be moving into, but I do think we have to move into it with caution. I think there’s a lot of perils that we face. You know, one of the things that is a part of the HR40 proposition is putting together a body that would really do a full accounting about how we would even think about reparations.
Steve Cohen: Create a commission to study the history of slavery in America, the role of the federal and state governments in supporting slavery and racial discrimination, other forms of discrimination against the descendants of slaves, and the lingering consequences of slavery and Jim Crow on African Americans.
CK: And this was, as we know, part of Coates’ argument in his article was that accounting, it could be that that winds up being the most, most realizable part of the whole call for reparations. Because there’s a lot of complicated things in terms of figuring out and sorting out the different kinds of claims that different groups might even have, how you even figure out who gets these things, etc.
But we’re also in a political moment where, you know, in terms of the Democrats, a lot of these different candidates have sort of loosely signed on to the idea of reparations. It’s precisely because it’s not really defined. And so in a way, reparations, which would appear to be like this really radical demand becomes something that in the hand of I think Democratic politicians is a way that they can perform their racial politics without committing to anything really substantive. And I also think that if we look at how reparations played out and the discussions around the 2016 election, with many people challenging Bernie Sanders. Essentially, people saying to Bernie Sanders, do you support reparations? And Sanders kind of says —
Bernie Sanders: We have got to invest in the future. What we have got to do is address poverty in America, something that very few people talk about, and especially poverty in the African American community and the Latino community. And if you look at my record and if you look at my agenda —raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, focusing on high rates of youth unemployment — I think our candidacy is the candidacy talking to the issues of the African American community.
CK: And I do think that at times, the way Sanders has talked about it may have sounded dismissive. But I do think that if you do not transform the way that capitalism functions, if you don’t transform the way that American imperialism functions, you can’t really have any real conception of justice. And there is a way in which you can have a kind of reparations that operates within a market system, doesn’t threaten it.
But in the context of the 2016 election, I think this is really important, reparations actually functioned as a way to paint people who were to the left of Hillary Clinton as class reductionist, who didn’t have a racial analysis, right. And I think at moments, it may have even appeared to make Hillary Clinton who had sort of surrounded herself with mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement, as like more of a racial ally than Bernie Sanders, which is absurd. And I think that’s the danger that we have to revisit this time while pushing very clearly for reparations.
So, I think that when you look at people like Sandy Darity, and many others who are thinking in creative ways about what reparations could mean, for one, the sort of reckoning with not just slavery, but the ongoing forms of what might be called, you know, different types of racial capitalism, you know, carceralism, environmental racism, you know, voting suppression, redlining, like all these things that emerged after slavery, right. So, I think that the research about that, and the sort of public reckoning with that in a real way, which we’ve never had in the United States, is really a necessary part of this.
But then I think that we have to begin to think creatively. I mean, listen, man, I’m never going, in America, I’m never going to argue against people of color and black folks getting a check, you know, given the amount of billions and trillions that have been made on our backs, right. And the way that I see working class people struggling, right, like, I’m not gonna go out here in public and never say, like, no, don’t cut us a check. I’m most excited about the ideas that where you might be able to make a demand on our systems that might actually force it to change. How can reparations be combined with something like a Green New Deal? I think with our creativity and our imagination, and our revolutionary imagination, we can do that.
JS: I think a part of this also, or a big part of it is that this country has never been forced to confront the transatlantic slave trade tens of millions of people snatched and brought in horrifying conditions to the western hemisphere to serve as totally unpaid, forced laborers. The country has never reckoned with the fact that it ran a systemic multi-million person kidnapping operation that ended in people being enslaved building up the white man’s profit centers in the United States.
CK: Absolutely, there’s never been a reckoning with that. And when it’s been mentioned, it’s almost mentioned as kind of a side note. With Edward Baptist, I mean, there’s so many others — I mean, really even before Edward Baptist, so many other scholars in the black radical tradition, Eric Williams and others have said, “no, slavery was at the center of capitalism,” right. With Craig Wilder’s book, “Ebony and Ivy,” slavery was at the center of actually building up the university system in the north. Slavery was not like this Southern problem that was like just a few sort of Southern racist people, you know what I mean, [that] really had some issues with bigotry so they decided to make black people slaves. Like none of that.
I mean, and you’d be amazed how many mainstream journalists accounts, I see how many people who are, you know, otherwise intelligent people buy into a narrative that basically slavery happened because, you know, some Southern white people didn’t like black people, or something like that. You know, I mean, there’s no economic analysis of this institution and its legacy, which is still ongoing, you know. I mean, even in an institution like New York Life, right, where, you know, they literally were insuring slaves, right. I mean, that’s just one among many examples.
JS: The Civil War, it permeates so many political debates in this country, whether the participants in those debates even realize that they’re doing it or not. It seems, especially with Trump now in power. And you have this controversy over the Civil War monuments. Many of those monuments were built decades and decades after the Civil War as a direct provocation to black residents of cities across this country. For people who may not fully understand the nuances of the Civil War in the United States, just give your broad overview of the conditions that led to what we refer to as the Civil War and what the root issues were involved with it.
CK: Really what you had leading up to the Civil War, was a tremendous transfer of land from working class people — some of whom were racist white people in the South — to elite plantation owners, who also gained tremendous power in government, and began to essentially capture the state. There was so much land that had been converted for use for cotton in the South, that there was worries about a crisis of food production, actually. That’s the level of land transfer for the purpose of a small, essentially a handful of Southern landowners. Now, that’s not to say that it was only those Southern land owners who participated in slavery, right? I mean, there was slave leasing. There was all kinds of ways that this was deeply central to the economy.
But I think that there were desires to expand the slave trade right into the west, and actually even beyond the west into other parts of what folks hoped would become the American Empire. While you have that going on, right, you also have, essentially an abolition movement. You have also the American colonization society, who is basically seeing slavery as a problem, the presence of African Americans on American soil as the problem. You also have essentially, mostly Northern industrial capital that’s gaining power, you know, wanting to sort of look at the South and begin to change the way that the economy works.
Now, let me just say too, you know, I really want to avoid the painting of essentially, like, the Northern industrial capitalist forces that were opposed to slavery. There were a lot of businessmen in New York, who were very much reliant on slavery for their businesses, right. And the president of New York Life was actually one of those people. So much so that they actually, you know, implored Lincoln, not to try to go to war with the South when the South seceded.
You know, you have a group of southern states who say they’re going to secede, because they really want to maintain their rights to slavery. In the battle over the Fugitive Slave Act, Lincoln basically sides with the South and says that slave owners can come back into the North and remove slaves. When the Southern states all give their reasons for secession, right, they all produce these sort of secession documents that declare the reasons why they’re seceding. And in each one of those documents, they all mentioned slavery as the only reason really that they’re seceding. So, they write other things, but they’re clear that the reason they’re seceding is because of slavery. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a different narrative took shape where the South, you know, started to change the idea and the reasons for why they seceded to be about something called states’ rights. They started to promote the myth that slavery would have withered away on its own and all kinds of other things that sort of confused and mystified the actual reason why they seceded.
JS: It’s remarkable several of the things you just cited just feel so contemporary. First of all, the historical revisionism about what this country was during that period in time, and continues to be in many quarters. But also the notion that none of this is really about race, all you identity politics warriors out there, you know, this is just quackery, basically and the real issue was always just liberty, it had to be liberty. And the maximum liberty is when the states have rights and the federal government is not imposing its will. I mean, that is a huge part of the current political dynamic, particularly among the MAGA crowd.
CK: Absolutely, the fact that so many people have no understanding why the South seceded, no understanding of why the Civil War was fought, is in a way of victory of the Confederacy, that they were able to rewrite history over a period of 100 years or so. And their version of history has become in a way the dominant one that people know where, you know, they don’t think it had to do with slavery. And it really works well in a time when you have politicians who sort of want to maintain a certain kind of colorblindness as the dominant way to deal with race in America.
I mean, because I think that, you know, one of the things I think that we have to wrestle with, Jeremy — and this is, you know, I think for people who listen to The Intercept, this is like a basic point — but is race really just this sort of issue about personal attitudes, right, and people’s individual biases and bigotry, a kind of psychological mode of thinking about the problem of racism, or is it something that was deeply baked into the structures and economic systems of this country? You know, not even just the culture, but the economic systems like this country has had to have racism because racism essentially, or white domination, was built into the economic modes of slavery, right and the economic modes that currently drive the society, right?
When you look at the Civil War, when you look at the documents of secession, and you see the things that they said about slavery. When you go back to some of the founding documents of the country, right, the Three-Fifths Compromise and other things. If you read my friend Erica Dunbar’s wonderful book on Ona Judge and George Washington. You know, at one point, George Washington was rotating his slaves from Philadelphia, to another state just so that he could avoid them becoming free after their six month residency in Philadelphia. I mean, this is the president, this is the first President of the United States who’s actually hacking the law in a way to preserve slavery, right.
So, there’s a way that racism is structurally baked in. And I think that certainly conservatives are invested in a psychological individualistic mode that doesn’t require us to transform structures, right, that doesn’t require us to challenge capitalism. And, you know, sadly, there’s also quite a few Democrats who are signed on to that. In fact, we just saw Joe Biden, waxing nostalgic about how, you know, he had his civility with racist segregationist senators. You know, he goes through this whole thing where he’s like, well, you can say whatever you want, but in the end of the day, you just beat the system. And then he emphasizes —
Joe Biden: You don’t have to like the people in terms of their views but you just simply make the case and you beat them. You beat them without changing the system.
JS: Biden really, really seems to be campaigning as a Dixiecrat in a lot of ways a neo-Dixiecrat. And you know, the other thing that now people are starting to learn some of this history because we’re in campaign mode, but in 1988, Joe Biden called Jesse Jackson “boy.” When Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who’s running against Biden for the Democratic nomination, released a statement criticizing Biden for praising these segregationist senators, Biden’s response to Cory Booker saying he should apologize for framing a compromise essentially, on the backs of Black people in this country. His response was Cory should apologize.
Joe Biden: Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career.
JS: And then you take Joe Biden’s legislative record, whether it’s the crime bill and all of the other things he’s said that were at a minimum, racially insensitive, and it’s hard to understand how anyone who’s about justice can look at Joe Biden and say, yep, that’s my guy.
CK: It really is. And this is why I think we have to really think carefully about race in this time, because Joe Biden is able to render himself adjacent to Obama, right? And so, what you see is that, first of all, the inability to have a critique of Obama is a problem, to really understand his policies in a substantive way, his foreign policy, the overall impact of, you know, his failure to hold Wall Street executives accountable, all kinds of things, ways that we could ask robust, critical questions about Obama’s policy. The failure to do that allows Joe Biden to symbolically position himself in his sort of adjacency and work with Obama as some kind of racial solidarity with black people, right? And then we also don’t look at Biden’s record in the ways that you just indicated. People who do are very vulnerable to being seen as people who are, ironically, somehow not committed to an anti-racist politics.
JS: You were talking about George Washington and his involvement with slavery and being the first president. I mean, obviously, Lincoln was assassinated. So it’s hard to figure out how to frame this but like has history been too kind to Lincoln, the history that is taught in this country about who he was? Because a lot of it just boils down to oh, Lincoln was an abolitionist. He freed the slaves. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and that’s generally just the vibe about him. And that’s why these charlatans like Dinesh D’Souza and others can hold this — The Republicans have always been the, you know, the party of freedom, and we were the ones fighting slavery. And they weaponize that simplistic history. But directly just asking you has that history, is it too kind to Lincoln on the issues we’re discussing about slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War?
CK: Yes, absolutely. We’re offered a mythical understanding of history in which Lincoln is just a sort of racial, white savior. We don’t really hear about the movements, the slave rebellions, the hundreds of slave rebellions, building up to the Emancipation Proclamation. I think that’s embodied in the Freedmen’s Memorial statue in Washington, D.C., where you have Lincoln standing there, and this black person at his feet in chains. And I think that stands in as a visual for how Lincoln is memorialized in the national memory.
One of the biggest problems we have in this country in terms of understanding really how anything works is that we’re deeply not historical. And this is one of the great things I love about Intercepted. Intercepted as a really historical show, that says, essentially, you can’t understand this issue, you can’t understand these foreign policy issues, you can’t understand issues with data or with you know, economics without understanding these relevant facts about history, you know. And once we understand the history, we can form, maybe, you know, our analyses don’t all have to line up, but you have to contend with these facts. And that’s something that I think is deeply missing in this country.
And so, when you have a more rich history, you see one Lincoln growing, right, like Lincoln starting out like not at all interested in emancipation. Lincoln is somebody who is essentially interested in preserving the Union and was fully OK with first preserving the Union and maintaining slavery. And then he also is Lincoln is a colonizationist. So, he believes black people can’t exist on the American soil along with whites after emancipation. He tells this to Frederick Douglass. He goes, you know, y’all gonna have to get out of here, right. And then Frederick Douglass, you know, challenges that, needless to say, but those kinds of things. And I think even bigger than that, the idea that one man, you know, by passing this law can somehow transform this oppressive structure, right, which has all kinds of layers of oppression built into it is also part of a deeply ahistorical way of thinking about history.
JS: You’ve talked a lot about the dilemma, as you put it, that many black intellectuals in this country face and you’ve said, “This need to navigate the dominant understandings of race in this country, which suffers from a deeply impoverished understanding of history, labor, and capitalism and imperialism,” explain what you mean.
CK: I’m somebody who’s really just always still trying to learn about this stuff. You know, that’s kind of intimidating, I think, when you’re someone who has a public life, because I think there’s a pressure for all of us to sort of appear as fully formed, you know what I mean, political and historical people. Do you ever feel that pressure?
JS: Oh sure, all the time, of course.
CK: And I wonder if, in particular, in the social media era, where everything is kind of reduced to like somebody trying to come up with a slick Tweet, me included, right, like, I spent a lot of time trying to think of slick Tweets. But where the idea of being a student in study that has been central to so much political work, right, that was crucial to like labor organizing in the South and in the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, we talk about the Black Panthers. I mean, the Black Panthers were students, you know. They had study groups. The idea that we’re always learning and we don’t understand everything. The room that then creates for us to develop a stronger analysis and politics in public life — I worry that that’s gone, that we’re losing that.
As I kind of first started writing, I was writing about race. And I was taking on a lot of the basic myths about race, which I would basically characterize as most people think race is about individual attitudes and bigots and Klan members with hoods on right. Like white people won’t acknowledge that there’s racism going on unless somebody is literally wearing a hood, right. And then I was challenging that and saying, there’s other more, you know, there’s structural aspects of race, and that actually, the structural aspects are more important, right, for us to take on. Even though I’m not saying the bigotry, explicit, bigotry is good, especially in a time when you have the growth of hate crimes, right. We have to take it very seriously. But that ultimately, we have to transform some structures here. We have to look at voting rights. We have to look at economics. We have to look at automation. We have to look at all those things.
JS: Chenjerai Kumanyika, I want to thank you so much for being with us and for all the work you do. Thanks so much.
CK: Thanks, man.
JS: Chenjerai Kumanyika is the co-host and co-executive producer of the really great podcast Uncivil. He’s also a researcher, a journalist and a hip hop artist. He is assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies.
DJT: The people that came into the country illegally are going to be removed from the country. Everybody knows that. It starts, you know, during the course of this next week. Maybe even a little bit earlier than that.
And they’re going to start next week, and when people coming to our country, and they come in illegally, they have to go out.
JS: These threats from Trump highlight the despicable actions that this administration has taken. They’ve criminalized those seeking asylum and the process of seeking asylum. They’ve taken the worst policies from Clinton through Obama and expanded them, doubled down on them. They’ve put asylum seekers in crowded cages. They’ve ripped children away from their parents.
[ProPublica audio recording of young girl crying.]
JS: Deported the parents. Children are dying in ICE custody.
To make matters worse, border protection has openly attacked humanitarian efforts. There’s an ongoing case, right now, of a man who gave basic care to suffering people and had the book thrown at him. I’m talking about Scott Warren, who gave food, water, and shelter to those in need, to those who were seeking asylum in this country. Warren was arrested and is now facing up to 20 years in jail on charges of “harboring” and “conspiracy.”
My colleague at The Intercept Ryan Devereaux has been following this case extensively and reporting from the trial in Arizona. Here is Ryan Deveraux:
Ryan Deveraux: Scott Warren is a humanitarian aid volunteer who lives and works in Ajo, Arizona, about 40 miles north of the U.S. border. He was arrested in January 2018, accused of providing food, water and shelter to two undocumented migrants who had crossed the desert. He was charged with harboring and conspiracy, and if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Border agent: — Get a good shot. Pick up this trash somebody left on the trail. It’s not yours, is it? All you have to do is tell me, is it yours? Not yours? You’re not going to tell me, huh?
RD: So, in January 17, 2018, No More Deaths put out a report detailing the destruction of thousands of gallons of water in jugs that were left out in areas where migrants are known to die. Hours after that happened, Border Patrol set up surveillance on a building known as “the barn” that humanitarian aid groups in Ajo have been using for years. They spotted Scott with two men who they believed were undocumented, pulled together a raiding team, descend on the barn, took them into custody, and that’s when Scott was charged.
So, the morning before his trial, Scott Warren went on Democracy Now! And here’s what he had to say in his own words —
Scott Warren [on Democracy Now!]: Every day in the border region, migrants, refugees, people who are coming across the border, who are coming to the desert, who are suffering or at risk of dying are knocking on people’s doors and they’re in need of water. They’re in need of food. They’re in need of basic medical care and basic necessities. And people all across the border region are continuing to respond by offering these folks a glass of water, by offering them some rest or some food and frankly, I don’t see that changing.
RD: On May 29, Scott Warren’s felony trial started in Tucson, Arizona. He was facing charges of harboring and conspiracy with a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison. It was a dramatic week or so worth of testimony that then led to three days of deliberations. Jurors were essentially asked to consider one important question above all else, and that was: intent. Did Scott Warren intend to violate the law? Or did he intend to provide humanitarian aid? And after three days of deliberation, the jurors told Judge Raner Collins that they couldn’t come to a unanimous conclusion. A mistrial was declared and now we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has not said whether they’re going to retry the case. A hearing is scheduled for July 2nd and they said that they will come to a conclusion, a decision, by then.
DJT: To confront this border crisis, I declared a national emergency.
The crisis on the southern border.
The border crisis.
It is an invasion, you know that. I say invasion.
Stop this onslaught, this invasion into our country.
RD: Obviously, this administration has been talking about crisis for quite some time. And when they talk about crisis, they are talking about hordes of undesirable migrants flooding over the walls—an invasion. I think that most people can see what’s going on there. At the same time, there is a kind of crisis on the border and it’s been unfolding for decades now. That’s a crisis in which people are directed into the deadliest parts of the border by design and they’ve been dying by the thousands for years and years and years.
(The Intercept’s “Let Them Have Water”) Mimi Phillips: We savor our desert but this desert right around our town, where we recreate held 57 bodies — 57 remains of human beings last year. 57. Do you find remains in your parks? In your golf courses? In your neighborhood playgrounds? What would that make you feel like?
RD: Beginning in the mid 1990s, under the Clinton administration, the U.S. government developed a policy known as prevention through deterrence. The idea of the policy is that migration flows were at that time, generally concentrated around border cities, so the idea was, we’ll push those flows into the deadliest, most remote areas of the border. The thinking being that people won’t cross when they see how deadly this is. They did move migration flows away from the cities but they didn’t stop people from crossing.
Beginning in the late ’90s early 2000s, the Sonoran Desert, southern Arizona saw this radical explosion in migrant deaths. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office went from taking in a dozen or so suspected migrant deaths a year to well into the hundreds. At minimum, that office has catalogued 3,000 or so deaths since 2000. The real number’s guaranteed to be much higher, some estimates say that the true total could be three, four, five times that and that’s just in Arizona.
SW in “Let Them Have Water”: We went from finding human remains every other month to like finding five sets of human remains on a single trip, hiking through the Growler Valley. And then going back, you know a week later and finding two more sets of remains. And then on a single day of searching, finding like eight sets of remains and bodies of people who had died in adjacent areas of the bombing range and on Cabeza Prieta. So, just this like scale of this crisis of the humanitarian crisis and the missing persons crisis just blew wide open.
RD: This crisis of death and disappearance is exacerbated by policies that this administration has embraced in the last two years, which include turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry, forcing them to wait and wait at ports, increasing the likelihood that they will turn to the desert. This administration is turning away asylum seekers and sending them back to Mexico, back to areas where they are at tremendous risk. We’ve seen asylum seekers murdered as a result of this policy. It’s only going to get worse.
SW: People have always been walking through the desert. People have always been finding ways to come here through the desert. But what happened is it was turned into a major industrial scale operation in the 1990s and early 2000s as they really pushed people out into places like these, and these deserts and mountains. What had been really a small scale thing, local organizations that move people and goods through the desert, a small handful of Border Patrol agents that might go out and try to interdict people or might be involved in, you know, finding people who died or local residents who would respond to people who needed food and water, that all just completely mushroomed into this massive, massive industry.
RD: The policy of prevention through deterrence that began in the 1990s, sort of centered on this idea of a kind of state of exception This idea that on the border in these sort of unwatched places, anything goes and migrants can be treated in ways that would be unacceptable for any other population. With the family separation crisis that we saw last summer, I believe that we saw an extension of that logic. This idea that you can do something to this group of people that would be unthinkable to anyone else. That is you can take children from their parents, throw them into a bureaucracy with no word of where they’re going or how they can be reunited again. You can only do that if you think of that population as less than human and that unfortunately, isn’t new when it comes to U.S. border enforcement policy. It’s been the sort of undergirding philosophy for two and a half decades now.
MP: I guess every time I look at Scott, I think of my own son. And it’s unconscionable to think that he’s been charged with felonies for doing what as a parent, I would be so proud of what he’s done.
[“The Partisan” performed by Leo Heiblum and Tenzin Choegyal plays.]
RD: So, Scott Warren’s trial occurs against this larger backdrop of border crackdown that’s been unfolding for the last two years. Just this week, we saw President Trump tweet that ICE was preparing an operation that would result in the deportation of millions of undocumented people.
There’s a couple things that are important to keep in mind here, particularly since this sort of announcement is kind of designed to create anxiety and fear, and one of the things that we need to remember is that ICE doesn’t have the capacity to do what the president is saying that it’s going to do as an agency. That said, it’s also important to sort of step back and think about where we’re at right now, where a president is issuing essentially threats to a criminalized population via Twitter, on the eve of his official re-announcement of his election campaign. We’ve seen this play out over and over throughout this administration. An attempt to terrorize people in an effort to rally the base and show that we’re doing what we said we were going to do.
[“The Partisan” performed by Leo Heiblum and Tenzin Choegyal continues playing.]
JS: Ryan Devereaux is my colleague at The Intercept. He spoke to our associate producer Elise Swain. You can find Ryan’s reporting on Scott Warren as well as our series “The War on Immigrants” at theintercept.com.
JS: We end today’s show, and in fact, this season of Intercepted, with some stories and music from South Africa. Like the United States, South Africa is a country whose history is inextricably built on state violence and the systematic oppression of people of color. Both countries are scattered with statues and place names that function as monuments to white supremacy. But both countries are also home to movements aimed at tearing down these monuments of oppression—from New Orleans, to Cape Town—to decolonize land and to reclaim their own history.
For Nakhane, a South African artist who resides in London, this decolonization came from within as [they] struggled with christianity and how [they] says it repressed [their] identity, and [their] sexuality. Nakhane’s record, “You Will Not Die,” was released in the U.S. earlier this year, and it tells the story of grappling with religion, growing up Queer in post-apartheid South Africa, and dismantling the history of colonization. Here is Nakhane.
Nakhane: My name is Nakhane. I’m a musician. I’m a novelist, and I’m an actor.
[“Interloper” by Nakhane plays.]
N: I was born in a small town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa called Alice in a hospital called the Queen Victoria Hospital. The Eastern Cape in particular was quite a British colony and it’s interesting how colonizers are not there to really start anything new. They’re there to extend their own legacies, right?
Announcer: South Africans, descendants mainly of the first men from Holland and the settlers who follow them from France and England. This is their country. These are all South Africans.
N: And that goes down to the naming of places. You know, Queen Victoria Hospital. Alice is actually Queen Victoria’s daughter. A general had given it to her as a present at the time. The fact that rivers are named, and towns and chieftains are destroyed. And you know, all those things just like as if people are just expendable.
Announcer: Under British guidance, these people grew and prospered. Today, they display their loyalty and allegiance to visiting royalty, spectacular and heartwarming scenes to Britain’s monarchy. In a troubled world, expressions of native loyalty, further cement the bonds of empire, the bonds that unite free men everywhere.
N: My biological mother and my other aunts were all opera singers, and they all sang Mozart and Handel, all that stuff. And I grew up around that and most of South Africa is so steeped in western classical music, even Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which is our national anthem is based on a hymn.
[Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika plays.]
N: But I was also being taught by my aunts. By the time I was seven years old, by the time I moved to Port Elizabeth and I got my first solo in school in primary school singing Silent Night at a carol evening. I can hear it now. Like there’s a video I posted on Instagram of me singing Silent Night. And you can hear that there’s already some training happening here.
[Nakhane singing “Silent Night.”]
N: I decided when I was seven years old, during that solo, I made the decision that I would dedicate my life to music forever more. I knew that. How it was going to happen, I didn’t know. What kind of music is going to be, I still didn’t know. But I knew that I was going to do it for the rest of my life. I didn’t actually really want to be an operatic tenor. Even though I was interested in the technique, and I was interested in how it sounded and I thought was beautiful. I wanted to sing Marvin Gaye songs.
[“I Met A Little Girl” by Marvin Gaye plays.]
N: What I liked about Marvin Gaye was how androgynous his voice was, how high it could be, how feather-light it could be.
[“I Met A Little Girl” by Marvin Gaye plays.]
N: You know, and then you spend time just in the car listening to Marvin Gaye records trying to piece together I guess how he sang. It was only later that I actually wanted to be a songwriter. The idea of me being a songwriter, it was so foreign. It seemed so impossible. It seemed so, I don’t know, miraculous to be able to write a song. Rufus Wainwright completely changed my life and he showed me that you can be out from the get go.
[“The Maker Makes” by Rufus Wainwright plays.]
N: You didn’t need to make a big deal about your sexuality. And I found that really, really powerful and he was successful. And he made music that I had never heard before my entire life. Up until that point, I thought that queer people only made like Village People music and that was it.
[“The Maker Makes” by Rufus Wainwright plays.]
N: I’d come out to my friends and my cousins at 17. No big deal. And then I was outed by an ex-girlfriend and her mom, when I was 19. Big deal. It was so ugly at home when I came out that my dad threw me out. And then I went back into the closet, because my mom took me to a prophet — a Christian prophet. This just completely derailed me and I jumped right back into the closet, fighting it now. And then going into a much more conservative church after that, and being sort of a project for them, and sharing my testimony, sometimes preaching about the fact that I had defeated homosexuality.
[“Fog” by Nakhane plays.]
N: The next four or five years were spent basically scrubbing off everything, all the politics that I’d learned up to that point. Oh, I remember being at a dinner, because I still go to church twice on Sunday and go to like two to three bible studies a week. And I remember one bible study evening having dinner with the pastor and his family and his wife saying, she doesn’t care what I say, the fact remains that black people were sinful in their ways before white people came to colonize them, and that they were a judgment upon them. So, I said, “So, are you saying that all the things that happened were deserved?” And she said, “yeah.”
And there’s nothing — I was so flummoxed. And so — But also so in it. Shocked, but also a weird Stockholm Syndrome, because not only do they take care of me spiritually, they also took care of me financially, sometimes, you know, and so, you believe in this completely. Because even if life sucks, at least you’re going to go to heaven.
[“Fog” by Nakhane plays.]
N: I became homeless around 25 lived with friends on their couches and then for the first time in my life, there was no one to remind me to read my bible or to take me to bible study. And these are friends that I was told to give up because they were leading me down the wrong path by the church. And these friends were the ones that were there for me when I had no place to live. Suddenly, the church disappeared. And so I took it upon myself to really ask myself some questions. Am I prepared to deny myself for the rest of my life? And it was clear to me that I was tired. I was exhausted of hating myself. I was exhausted of being an example, being a minstrel for them. So, I said “Fuck it” and I left.
[“Presbyteria” by Nakhane plays.]
[Excerpt from The Wound plays.]
N: The Wound is a film based on a Xhosa tradition for boys going into manhood. And part of that initiation rite of passage is circumcision. No one who is not Xhosa is allowed in that space. They go into seclusion into the mountain, and they circumcise there, and they spend about a month healing and learning ways on how to be a man, so to speak. It’s changed over time, of course, with technology, with the mixing of different cultures. But you know, the fulcrum, the center of it is still there, which is manhood. But you’re not allowed to talk about it. It’s a secret rite of passage.
We went and we made a goddamn film about it. And not only did we make a film about it, we put queer characters and principal characters, the lead characters, the three leads could be described as queer. The film came out. It won a slew of awards all over the world. It is the most awarded film in South African history. And then, things got really ugly.
Traditional leaders of the country wanted to ban it. They got the court to give it basically a porn rating, which means that it couldn’t be shown in any cinemas. But people were talking. People are talking about toxic masculinity. People were talking about homophobia. Because the question was, what is it that we are angry about? Are we angry about the fact that people made a film about this? Are we angry about the fact that the film shows that queer people exist in this space?
I still can’t go home. I still can’t go to the Eastern Cape because I don’t know what people are capable of. Because people still talk about the fact that if they were ever to see me, they would kill me. But I didn’t leave South Africa because of that.
[“You Will Not Die” by Nakhane plays.]
N: I believe that if you’ve done something as disgusting as the people who were the custodians of white supremacy and colonialism, then they deserve to be blotted out of history. The history’s in our bodies. The history is in our lives. We can do without them, you know. And we need to rewrite those stories. A lot of the people that are seen as the father figures of lands were rapists and murderers and they’re still celebrated. There are continents that are completely destroyed because of that.
The first time I went to Europe, I remember thinking that I would be so excited to be there and I was so fucking pissed off. I remember walking around Paris, being so angry, and going back home and saying to my boyfriend, “I’m so fucking angry.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “It’s so beautiful and it’s so old and they get to have that because I don’t.”
Names are very important.
Like when a person is trans, they come up with a different name that they chose. And they say, “No, no, no, not what you said, but what I say about me and my life.” I find that really, really beautiful. So, I thought I wanted to write about that.
[“New Brighton” by Nakhane plays.]
N: When Apartheid ended, there was a lot of renaming of cities, of streets. I don’t think anyone deserves to be a monument. I think monuments are really problematic. And every time they look at that goddamn statue of you that everyone is praying to, because it’s an idol, you know, biblically speaking, they hurt and it’s a trigger to them.
[“New Brighton” by Nakhane plays.]
N: They colonized everything as stuff new. But also asking where was the names of the people that I love, the people who raised me? Let’s raise up the women who were there, you know, who during Apartheid at least, and pre-Apartheid who took care of their families, made sure the kids had something to eat, you know, because a lot of fathers were killed or taken to prison, those people. And that’s why I wrote my song “New Brighton” which is about that.
[“New Brighton” by Nakhane plays.]
JS: Nakhane’s album “You Will Not Die” is out now. [They] also stars in the new John Cameron Mitchell podcast musical. It’s called “Anthem: Homunculus.” It was produced by Topic here at First Look Media. You can check it out at topic.com/anthem. Nakhane spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro.
And that does it for this week’s show and for this season of Intercepted. We will back with regular programming later in the summer. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted. If you like what we do, support our show by going to TheIntercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next season, I’m Jeremy Scahill.