The Black Lives Matter uprisings against police and state violence are continuing across the U.S., as a humiliated Donald Trump threatens a broader crackdown to defend Confederate monuments. This week on Intercepted: Robin D.G. Kelley, a distinguished history professor at UCLA, explains why he believes the current abolitionist movement has the potential to fundamentally change the country and offers a historical analysis of the weaponization of racial capitalism throughout U.S. history. He also tells the story of the Black-led Communist Party of Alabama in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the racist roots of U.S.-style policing. As Attorney General William Barr continues to preside over a Justice Department being wielded as a political and legal weapon to defend Trump, Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union explains the dangerous use of military and intelligence surveillance systems to spy on activists, the characterizations of activists as terrorists, and discusses the ongoing drone strikes overseas.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
Donald Trump: Thank you Oklahoma! Boy oh boy, do you have a great immune system! Covid. Covid. To be specific, Covid-19. People don’t know what’s going on. We got tests. We got another one over here! He’s got the sniffles. Here’s the bad part: this country’s in big trouble. We’re going up, we’re going up, we’re going up. We’re going to go up. They say there’s something wrong with our president. I said, “What? How did I do?” “Yes I am, sir, that was one of your best. That was great.” I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it! Hey, it’s one o’clock in the morning. Get me the hell out of here. These people are crazy! Say, you’re fired! Get out! Right? Get out. You are so lucky I’m president, that’s all I can tell you.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 135 of Intercepted.
Crowd: No justice, no peace! No racist police! No justice, no peace! No racist police.
JS: We are living at a moment of tremendous change and upheaval, a time of immense pain and suffering, but also a time of hope and tremendous possibility. We are nearing nearly four years of an incompetent but dangerous authoritarian — Donald Trump — occupying the most powerful office in the land. We are in the midst of a deadly Covid-19 pandemic. And we are just four months away from presidential and congressional elections. But we are also in a moment of great reckoning that has come to be because of the courage and determination of activists, of the movement for Black lives, of good people across this country. The reckoning I speak of is that of the legacy of racism and genocide upon which this nation was built. Monuments to slave owners and slave traders and confederate generals are being pulled down as the rebellion against police violence gains momentum.
Gayle King [CBS]: Protesters across America are tearing down and damaging memorials.
Lisa Desjardins [PBS]: It is perhaps the greatest dismantling of the Confederacy since the Civil War.
Shomari Stone [NBC]: You can see it right now. It has fallen. There it is. Let’s go. Breaking news here on News 4. We are right here. They have taken down the Confederate statue of Albert Pike, here.
JS: A new generation of abolitionists is picking up the mantle and building on the work of the activists and scholars and martyrs who came before them. Many of these activists are mobilizing around both specific and broad goals, among them: defunding the police, abolishing the carceral system of jails and prisons in this country, and attacking the systems and symbols of systemic racism and white supremacy.
Historian Robin D.G. Kelley on Racial Capitalism and New Generation of Abolitionists
JS: It is vitally important that during a time such as this, we take moments to step back and look at the bigger picture, the historical context, the possibilities that lay before us. So today, we are going to do all of that with Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley. He is Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and the author of several groundbreaking books. Among them “Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times,” “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” and “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.” Professor Robin D.G. Kelley, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Robin D.G. Kelley: Thank you.
JS: We had Trump on Saturday giving this rally to six thousand people.
DJT: So we begin. Oklahoma, we begin. Thank you Oklahoma, and thank you to Vice President Mike Pence. We begin, we begin our campaign…
JS: Trump originally was going to hold it on the Juneteenth holiday. He then moved it one day later. At that rally, Trump claimed that the left is trying to “desecrate our monuments.”
DJT: The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments.
JS: And as people across the country are continuing to rise up against police brutality, police murders, systemic racism in this country, demanding the removal of Confederate monuments to slaveholders, put Donald Trump’s comments and his decision to hold this rally in Tulsa in a historical context.
RK: Right, well there are a couple of things. One, this also happens to be the 99th anniversary, or commemoration, of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. And so choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. And I think Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about — that is the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street — but there’s a carceral story to it. And that is after destroying this community, with the support of the police and deputized white men in Tulsa, destroying hospitals, public libraries, churches. After that, they literally incarcerated some 7,000 people — Black people — interned them in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps and your crime was being Black.
Over 300 Black people were killed, at least that much, we know that. So the choice of Tulsa is a kind of a slap in the face to that history because Juneteenth represents emancipation, you know? It is the date, June 19th, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. In other words, it was when Texas fell during the Civil War. Juneteenth had become a day of celebration of abolition, but it was also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. So there’s a long history of Juneteenth as representing the very opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and that is to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule and in many ways, it was a white rally.
Tulsa, Oklahoma as a whole is a really interesting place for another reason, which I don’t think anyone ever talks about, and that is that during the 19th century, with the Homestead Act, which itself was a means of dispossessing Indigenous peoples, the Homestead Act actually created an opportunity to have all Black towns. Oklahoma happened to have more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. And many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy, economic independence, and those towns were all subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state for both Black freedom and, in some respects, for white supremacy. And one other small thing about Oklahoma, in the period of disfranchisement — late 19th century, early 20th century — Oklahoma’s one of those places where poor whites, many of whom were also disfranchised. That’s an echo of a memory that many people in that stadium — all 6,000 of them — have no understanding of. That even in the framework of white supremacy, the class politics, the class rule in a place like Oklahoma could lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people. I mean, this is the reality that we’re facing and to me, it has echoes for the next stage of American politics.
DJT: We will make America proud again! We will make America safe again! And we will make American great again! Thank you. Thank you, Oklahoma. Thank you.
JS: You wrote a very powerful op-ed in the New York Times recently and I wanted to ask you a bit about that because, at that same rally in Tulsa, Donald Trump claimed that Democrats want “rioters and looters” to have “more rights than law-abiding citizens.” How is Donald Trump using that word “looters” in this instance? I mean, set it in the historical context of this country.
RK: “Looting” is a Hindi term that says more about the British looting of India than it says about, you know, what we call “flash looting,” as, you know, these massive riot-related acts of theft. And so in some ways what Trump does is so typical. In other words, he doesn’t break with tradition. The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior. That is, it creates a false equivalence between the state’s relentless use of lethal violence — as if that’s, you know, the least important thing — and the kind of episodic political violence by people who are trying to fight back, or people who are taking advantage of the crisis, of the lack of restraint, to try to get commodities, you know, especially in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. Yes, there are lots of reasons for looting, but once you do that, it justifies increased expenditures and expansion of police, and even the militarization of the police.
And let me just give you an example. So in the 1960s, you could pick up almost any article in the press from the 60s and you’ll see the exact same question being posed today. Why do they loot? Why do people loot? And we know that the answer’s always wide-ranging: economic, political, it’s criminal, it’s senseless, it’s normative, it’s deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of those articles was what became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. And that is that once looters were identified as hard-core criminals who just hadn’t been caught, as thugs, political scientist James Q. Wilson took this idea that looters were basically criminals — they were not people in acts of desperation, they were not people who were acting based on the lack of restraint or responding to a crisis. Wilson, in this 1968 essay, extended the argument to say looting is an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities. And from that seed, he and criminologist George Kelling created broken windows theory. And so broken windows theory, which of course we know now has been repudiated, ignores the kind of structural racism that created horrific conditions in these communities, that suppressed home values, that led to the divestment of services for working people, people of color, the poor in urban communities.
So in some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and that level of desperation and you take people who are basically desperate and you police them through what is essentially a kind of fascist structure of violence, rendition, and we’ve seen that in places like Chicago, where people are brought to places and tortured and you have this criminalization of community as opposed to dealing with crime. And so broken windows theory as a response to the notion that Black people, in particular, hold latent criminal tendencies then leads to this kind of violence and it allows the police to basically function with almost no boundaries. To me, that’s part of the story of looting. One last part of the story of looting is that what I try to do in the article is kind of flip the question of “What is a looter? Who is doing the looting?” And what we’ve seen, often, is that the very system of racial capitalism has been the looter.
JS: You just mentioned the term “racial capitalism.” I hope people are familiar with the work of Cedric Robinson, but if you can lay out your understanding of that term, of “racial capitalism,” and really explain that for people.
RK: So racial capitalism basically was built based on this idea that capitalism itself is not distinct from racism. The way we think of racism is that racism is a by-product of capitalism. That is, capitalism emerges and racism is a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But what Cedric argued was that the grounds of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. If you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden, then what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. And racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime, and the racial regime convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction through slavery, through Jim Crow, convince them to support or shore up a regime that seems to benefit whiteness based in white supremacy but where their own share of the spoils is actually pretty minuscule.
So if you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, then the outcome is you cannot eliminate capitalism, overthrow it, without the complete destruction of white supremacy. You know, when we talk about the police and we talk about, like, defunding the police, if you think about what the police do, the police protect capital. The police were designed to protect property going back to, not just the slave patrols, but even the system of jails in cities in the 19th century. Those jails were designed to hold fugitives, runaways. When you’re trying to track down a runaway slave you pay a jail a fee to hold that enslaved person until the master could come, identify the person, and take them back into slavery. So when you think about the whole system of policing, it’s organized around property. If that’s the point of the police, then we shouldn’t be surprised that qualified immunity or that the violent acts of the police would be supported by capital. Why is that? Because capital needs a police force that could terrify people. That’s what the police do. So when we look at the relationship between the cost of police, the police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, you know, we’re talking about billions.
In my city, in Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we do that? Why do we let that happen? You know, companies like Target, Walmart, they give money to police foundations, donate money to make sure that the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence through the use of these police brutality bonds. That is they facilitate the creation of public bonds to pay out these settlements because cities and municipalities don’t have the money to pay them out so they borrow the money. You would think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, “you know, of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course, people have a right to protest and to protest freely and to protest militantly and to engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual and the police back off.” That’s not going to work, you know. And so there’s a way in which even the notion of racial capitalism is undergirding police activity in municipalities that support violent police activity, even though it may undermine their reputation as cities. A place like New York City is a good example.
JS: Recently we featured the work of the abolition and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore and at the beginning of that special that we did with her, she set the context for the murder of George Floyd.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore: The thing that set in motion the events that resulted in Mr. Floyd’s brutal murder was that an employee at a convenience store thought that they had been handed a counterfeit bill. This young person — I assume is young — who’s probably making minimum wage, who works for somebody who I understand to be a very decent human being who hires people in the community, a Palestinian American convenience store owner, did their job to keep their job. But we have to ask ourselves, why couldn’t it be, they take this suspect looking bill, complete the transaction, and then deal with it afterward. Right? They had been deputized. Why is somebody working in a convenience store a deputy cop?
JS: This sense in our society that, oh, well, we need to immediately call the people with guns to respond to our discomfort, or our sense that maybe someone is violating, you know, when we boil it down to it, a nothing law.
RK: What’s sad about it is that everyone is deputized in many ways — immigrant communities, even Black communities — because we have been, in some ways ideologically brainwashed to believe that any disruption, anything that’s not quite right, the first people you call are the police. Rayshard Brooks is another example, in which a Wendy’s employee, not knowing what to do, wanting to make sure the drive-thru line continues as Rayshard Brooks falls asleep at the wheel, calls the police. But no one knew what the outcome was going to be, or at least they didn’t think about the outcome. And as a result of that phone call, this man’s dead. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a false sense of safety for white people.
So part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of dialing 9-1-1 or calling the police to solve the most basic issues, issues that should have been solved by simply compassion, neighborliness, and just thoughtful responses. Rayshard Brooks, was probably terrified at the very moment that he woke up and saw a police officer in his face because here’s someone who had gone through the system, who had been incarcerated, who knew the consequences. Even if he didn’t think the consequences would be he’d be shot, but just the arrest alone could have destroyed his life, an economic livelihood that he barely cobbled together as a convicted felon. So part of it is, many people are deputized and don’t realize it. Unless we learn better ways or different ways to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police will continue to kill us.
JS: You have a new book coming out, “Black Bodies Swinging,” and in that book you write, “Reverend William Barber is right, we are living through a third Reconstruction and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.” Can you expand on that?
RK: There are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to really amplify the fact that this generation — this generation of abolitionists — have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s was an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone and it faced a backlash, that is it was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction was an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, but also deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, but had a conception of it that was still based on a system where you can just sort of tweak the Constitution, or tweak our rights and have them apply. The presumption was the constitutional basis of our system was sound, we just had to fix it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and it never has been sound. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. And so this vision of abolition is not: better jails, better police, better training. It’s no police. It’s no jails. It’s no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice that’s not based on criminalization but based on affirmation and reparation, and by reparation that is trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. So here is an opportunity to actually transform not just the nation, but the entire world.
What I’m hoping will not happen, but may happen, is what happened after the second Reconstruction and the first Reconstruction, that is a kind of backlash. The fascism that we recognize in the 1930s resembled the fascism of slavery and the fascism of the post-Reconstruction period, resembled the 1970s in which the Klan was resurrected and the prison-industrial complex expanded, you know, in that period. What we’re witnessing after 2020 is going to be either fascism or abolition, or maybe something else, I’m not sure. But this is a very exciting time, and so what the book tries to do is, not so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the autopsies of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and then to recognize what is unique about the generation that emerged. And by that, I don’t say emerged in 2012, but I’m saying a generation that really emerged in the late 1990s that developed this particular vision of abolition.
JS: As you’re speaking I’m just thinking of the fact that’s in front of all of us now and that is that it seems pretty clear that on the ballot in November, in terms of major party candidates, there’s going to be Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and you’re talking about a generation that came of age in the late 90s. I mean by all fair accounts, Joe Biden has been a major part of the problem in this country and yet here we are with the basic choice boiling down to Donald Trump for four more years or Joe Biden. I’m wondering your bigger picture thoughts on what that says about our society that those are the two major-party candidates at this moment in history.
RK: Right, it says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, the policies that expanded the prison-industrial complex, the policies that criminalized immigration even further than before. I mean these are the same policies basically and Biden represents that. If we see this as “elect Biden by any means necessary,” then I think we’ve lost. I do agree that a Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees a much bigger fight ahead and that no matter who is elected, no matter who is in the White House in the fall, this fight has to continue because this is not just a fight to restore an old democracy but to create a new one. And as long as we silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama — Black Lives Matter emerges in opposition to Obama-era reforms and policies locally, and nationally, and internationally — none of this stuff can be limited to the domestic sphere. As long as we continue to have a foreign policy that is built on war, built on drone strikes, the same kind of violence that is replicated in the cities of the United States is replicated in the Arab world, is replicated elsewhere. This vision of abolition is one that’s trying to end forms of state violence in American expansion throughout the globe.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know the outcome. But I do know that if there’s ever a time when a Reconstruction might actually lead to democratization of the United States and the end of American imperialism, this is the opportunity we have. And there’s no possible way that a Joe Biden is going to lead that. If anything, he and his folks are part of the problem.
JS: One of the subjects and a piece of your work that I was most excited to ask you to share from is your book from a couple decades ago, “Hammer and Hoe,” which tells the story of the 1930s and 40s coming out of the Great Depression, how Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle that is not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, of “Hammer and Hoe,” and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.
RK: So that book is 30 years old, that’s how old I am. And it came out at a time when the Cold War had been declared victorious by the Reagan administration, I mean, before that. And after that was, that’s the end of the Cold War and so Communism is dead. That was the story. And so this is a story about the 1930s. A party made up of overwhelmingly Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, and in many ways, they carried what some might argue is kind of the radical sort of wing of the Civil Rights movement. Fighting for the right to organize, fighting for relief for the unemployed, fighting to keep people in their homes and not be evicted, and ultimately trying to fight for democracy in the South and throughout the country. And it precedes the civil rights movement and it recovers a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement at its heyday didn’t quite grasp.
The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership. It actually organized white working people. They actually tried to organize former klansmen into the organization and got some in there and, most importantly, they saw themselves as a multiracial movement that can create democratic, anti-capitalist society — true abolition for the entire United States, but also in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson. When cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class. I mean, that belief in internationalism was extraordinary.
So there’s so many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson to be learned about how movements can be wiped out, how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed but it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. That history, really, we need to come to terms with it because I do think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity are not trade-offs. They’re not mutually exclusive. And it really does show the importance of fighting all forms of oppression, not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side. That a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.
JS: You know, Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihoods put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.
RK: This pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it is just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to people who are most vulnerable. The fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor, that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the top side of it — that is the continuation of racial violence, state-sanctioned violence. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us”— “Stop killing us” is a slogan that we’ve been carrying for centuries — and in some ways, it’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty; the violence of a health care system that has continued to ignore our own health care crises and to reproduce inequality; the violence of dilapidated housing; the violence of a kind of economic strangulation. I mean, it’s not an accident that these things converge. The question is: What are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that all these conditions, you know, you cannot simply reform your way out of this? But they have to be destroyed and be built all over again in order to create a humane society, a society that cares about human beings and life itself, not just human life but all life, over wealth accumulation and property. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up, you know. And this particular portal wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable.
Capitalism was created on the grounds of a theory of inequality. Inequality was foundational to capitalism and as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, then those ideas are not going to go away. You can’t get rid of them. To me, this is not a matter of a kind of slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is really about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we all can benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.
JS: On that note, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley I want to thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted. It was my honor.
RK: Thank you.
JS: Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley is Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. He is also the author of several important books. Among them “Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class,” “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” and “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.” We had a much longer conversation with Dr. Kelley and we are going to be publishing over the weekend an extended transcript of that conversation. Check it out.
Kimya Dawson Sings “At the Seams”
JS: Coming up in just a moment, we’re going to be speaking to Hina Shamsi, an attorney with the ACLU. We’re going to talk about William Barr’s Justice Department, about the military-style surveillance against Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as the ongoing drone wars abroad that are continuing under Donald Trump. But first, we wanted to share with you a song from the great singer, songwriter, and activist Kimya Dawson. Kimya recorded this a cappella version of “At the Seams” for Intercepted.
Kimya Dawson: Left hands hold the leashes and the right hands hold the torches, and the grandpas holding shotguns swinging on porch swings hung on porches, and the grandmas in their gardens plant more seeds to cut their losses. And the poachers with the pooches and the nooses preheat crosses, and the pooches see the grandpas and they bare their teeth and growl while their owners turn their noses up like they smell something foul and they fumble with their crosses and they start to mumble curses and they plot ways to get grandpas off of porches into hearses.
But the grandpas on the porches are just scarecrows holding toys, and the grandmas in the gardens are papier-mâché decoys while the real grandmas and grandpas are with all the girls and boys marching downtown to the City Hall to make a lot of noise, saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot! I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. No justice, no peace.”
I know that we can overcome because I had a dream, a dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams. Sometimes it seems like we’ve reached the end of the road. We’ve seen cops and judges sleep together wearing long, white robes, and they put their white hoods up, try to take the black hoods down. And they don’t plan on stopping ’til we’re all in the ground, ’til we’re dead in the ground or we’re incarcerated, ’cause prison’s a big business form of enslavement — plantations that profit on Black folks in cages. They’ll break our backs and keep the wages.
It’s outrageous that there’s no place we can feel safe in this nation. Not in our cars, not at the park, not in subway stations, not at church, the pool, the store, not asking for help, not walking down the street so we’ve got to scream and yell: “Hands up, don’t shoot! I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. No justice, no peace.”
I know that we can overcome because I had a dream, a dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams. If you steal cigarillos or you sell loose cigarettes, or you forget your turn signal, will they see your skin as a threat? Will they kill you and then smear you and cover it up and lie? Will they call it self-defense? Will they call it suicide?
Hands up, don’t shoot! I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. No justice, no peace. I know that we can overcome because I had a dream, a dream we tore this racist broken system apart at the seams.
JS: Those are the words of singer-songwriter and activist Kimya Dawson. Much gratitude to Kimya for recording that version of “At The Seams” for Intercepted.
ACLU’s Hina Shamsi on DOJ’s “Terrorist” Characterization of Activists, Surveillance of Protesters, and Ongoing Drone Strikes
JS: Thursday will mark a month-long streak of uprisings across this country sparked by a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd. One map, created by GIS analyst Alex Smith, has documented nearly 4,000 Black Lives Matter protests in cities and towns around the world. Zooming into the U.S. the map dots span all over the country from Riverton, Wyoming to Caribou, Maine.
Wyoming resident [speaking to Wyoming Public Radio]: There’s been a lot of silence in Wyoming, and Lander, Riverton as well, surrounding the death of George Floyd and for me as a Black individual, a Black soul, I feel real discomfort with it. And so, knowing that there was going to be a space where we were talking about it, I felt like I needed to be there.
Protester: Justice for Floyd!
Maine resident [speaking to NEWS CENTER Maine]: I want to see our community come together and really support the Black community because there’s not a lot of us in Maine and sometimes we really feel like outsiders.
JS: As people continue to flood the streets demanding racial justice, community reinvestment, and an end to police violence, Donald Trump’s federal government has responded belligerently. Last month, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement directing federal law enforcement in using “existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces,” and went on to characterize protests as “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” Those the words of the Attorney General.
Trump has threatened to use federal troops to end protests across the country, which would require invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807. Earlier this month, a Justice Department official told the Washington Post that William Barr ordered Lafayette Square cleared of protesters, which was followed by the now famed-Trump photo-op at the church holding the Bible.
Cecilia Vega [ABC News]: Outside the White House protesters facing off against authorities kneeling and raising their hands in peaceful demonstration. But then, almost suddenly, U.S. Park and Secret Service police began shoving and hitting.
Garrett Haake [MSNBC]: I was standing with those protesters. I’ve been with them since two o’clock this afternoon. It was by far the most peaceful day of protest that we’ve had in D.C. since this started.
JS: Now William Barr denies giving the order. But the Post writes, “Whatever the origin, the result is well-documented: Officers from several agencies closed in on protesters, using smoke canisters, irritants, explosive devices, batons and horses to clear the area.” Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting the use of widespread aerial surveillance, including with drones, of protests across the country by the Department of Homeland Security.
Joining me now to discuss the militarized response to domestic protests and the weaponization of national security here at home, as well as abroad, is Hina Shamsi. She is the director of the ACLU National Security Project, which is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.
Hina Shamsi, welcome back to Intercepted.
Hina Shamsi: It’s good to be with you again.
JS: So Hina, I want to begin just by looking at the big picture of what is going on at William Barr’s Justice Department. We had this scandal that is still unfolding of Donald Trump’s firing of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Amy Goodman: Last Friday night, Attorney General William Barr issued a press release claiming Berman was “stepping down” as head of the Southern District of New York. But then Berman announced he was not resigning and had no intention of resigning. This led to a dramatic showdown that resulted in Barr sending Berman a letter on Saturday saying President Trump had fired him. But then Trump distanced himself from the move, saying “I’m not involved.”
JS: It seems pretty clear that the Department of Justice and William Barr are not acting as the top law enforcement entity in the United States, but rather as sort of a private law firm for Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. What is going on, Hina, at the Department of Justice right now?
HS: There’s so many things going on at the Department of Justice, and I think part of what it boils down to, Jeremy, is that it is not functioning as an institution that is supposed to provide equal justice and be independent of the executive branch to a significant extent. Now there has been politicization of the Department of Justice in the past. We knew that under Bush, for example. But this seems very different and extremely harmful and dangerous to the enforcement of the laws, the upholding of the laws in ways that anyone can trust.
JS: Hina, I don’t want to dwell on this because there’s already been a lot of discussion on it, but I just want to get your immediate thoughts on the legal battle over John Bolton’s book. You know, on the one hand, John Bolton kind of played cute with not wanting to appear in front of Congress. He gets this $2 million advance on his book. But on the issue of the legal battle right now over John Bolton’s book, just give us a brief overview of your thoughts on it.
HS: This was yet another extreme and dangerous power that the government has been claiming to block the publication of a book that has been excerpted in major newspapers around the country, read aloud on national television, and distributed to bookstores worldwide. This sort of really goes back to a similar attempt by the Nixon administration to block the publication of, for example, the Pentagon Papers. And the court rejected that attempt and here again what the government was arguing with respect to seeking to suppress and prevent this book from going out was a dangerous and extreme expansion, or claimed expansion, of power.
JS: Ok, let’s move onto the major issue of the rebellions across this country right now, the actions of the Trump administration and the role of police in our society. Since late May or so, we’ve seen this movement rise up. It’s always been there but now there’s this unprecedented action against police brutality, against systemic racism across the country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. There are calls for justice not only for the death of George Floyd but for Breonna Taylor and many more. And now we see this momentum building for police abolition, defunding the police, and I wanted to talk to you about the response to these protests at the federal level. Can you talk about the demonization of protesters by, not just Trump, but the Justice Department, and sort of give an overview of how the Attorney General has responded to these uprisings from the moment they began?
HS: Absolutely, Jeremy. And I think, you know, part of what was so disturbing was that the kind of rhetoric that Trump has emphasized and used as, political, essentially, catnip for his base was being turned into something that we’ve always been very worried about which is something very dangerous. And what we saw happening in response, especially to the early stages of the protests, is Trump’s threat to call out the military, the federal military through invocation of the Insurrection Act.
Kayleigh McEnany: But rest assured, he has the sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act and if necessary he will do so.
HS: But also something that I’m not sure has gotten enough attention, which is their viewing of Trump and Barr seeing Black protest and protesters and allies through the lens of domestic terrorism, meaning enemies of the state. If you’ll recall, on May 31, Attorney General Barr decided, he announced that the government was going to be seeing what he called the violence instigated in connection with the protests as domestic terrorism and would be investigating it as that, using authorities that have existed for a while and that have already been used investigatively and discriminatorily against Black and brown communities and dissent and targeting them in response to protests against brutality and injustice.
JS: And picking up on what you just said, in a memo that Barr wrote in May, he proclaimed, “To identify criminal organizers and instigators and to coordinate federal resources with our state and local partners, federal law enforcement is using our existing network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF).” Explain to people what these Joint Terrorism Task Forces are and what this means that Barr is talking about activating them for the purpose of crushing or confronting these protests.
HS: So the Joint Terrorism Task Forces are entities that combine federal, state, and local law enforcement and they conduct investigations, as well as information sharing. And what a lot of people don’t necessarily realize is that these entities have claimed broad power and investigative authorities. They started out, as much of the, you know, claimed authorities in the post-9/11 era did, claiming authority to investigate terrorism.
We’re talking about the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, we should also be talking about Fusion Centers, which are intelligence gathering hubs established after 9/11 again to promote information sharing. They, similarly, have targeted communities of color and tracked First Amendment protected protest activity. In addition to the extremely broad definition of domestic terrorism under the Patriot Act, there are two other important sources of authority that play here. One is the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security guidance on race, which purported to ban bias-based profiling in a variety of contexts but then essentially carved out exceptions for national security and immigration. And much like terrorism, national security is an extremely broad concept that can be misused and is being misused against protest.
DJT: These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God.
HS: The thing here though is that these are massive infrastructures and claimed authorities that were put in place purportedly for a narrow and what may seem an understandable purpose, which is to prevent terrorism, that have been and can be turned, much like authorities in the civil rights era, against Black, brown, and other communities of color in this country to suppress and monitor dissent and that is what Trump and Barr said that they would do.
JS: Hina, I wanted to ask you briefly about the military and intelligence surveillance systems that have been deployed — and these are just the ones we know about because they’ve been reported, and I think it’s important to say that we don’t know the full extent of the surveillance and may never know it but hopefully we do. The New York Times recently reported that “The Department of Homeland Security deployed helicopters, airplanes, and drones over 15 U.S. cities where demonstrators gathered to protest the murder of George Floyd.” What are your thoughts on the increasing and expanded use of military and U.S. intelligence surveillance systems to monitor domestic protests, including drones flying over U.S. cities?
HS: It is, again, dangerous, and in some sense, because it hasn’t been stopped or prevented in ways that communities of color have long sought, it feels chillingly inevitable. And again I want to take us back to what we’re talking about here in terms of militarized policing and over militarized policing. And so much of the wisdom of what people have come to realize in this massive sort of protest and uprising, as you described it, is a recognition that modern policing is rotten at its core. Communities, Black communities, communities of color have lived under persistent threat. Now combine that with something else that has been a trend in American national policy and foreign policy, which is, at the foreign level, our national response to real and perceived threat is a militarized response. And so what we have here is continued and excessive militarization, most recently reflected in DHS’s — Department of Homeland Security’s — use of militarized aircraft to surveil protest and dissent. And that is wrong. It shouldn’t happen and that is part of what people calling for an end to these policies and practices and programs — the divestment, the defunding — are asking for.
JS: You know, this also raises the question, and you and I both have done a lot of work exploring the assassination programs that have been built up under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that have at times been used to target and assassinate American citizens, including American citizens who were not charged with any crime of terrorism whatsoever. And I was thinking about all of that work in the context of Trump and Barr moving to have Antifa, which is not actually an organized group but a designation — anti-fascist, and you have some anarchist activists that they’re probably talking about specifically — but in general, they’re talking about applying a vague label of Antifa to people they want categorized as domestic terrorists. And I’m wondering if you see a potential danger for the kinds of lethal operations we’ve seen abroad under the same kind of broad labeling of people as terrorists or suspected terrorists now in the United States as this administration seeks to use a broad designation of terrorist to apply it to certain types of protesters.
HS: I’m going to go back to what you’re saying with respect to designating Antifa, for example, as a terrorist organization. What that shows, yet again, is that terrorism is a inherently political label. It is absolutely easily abused and misused. When the president asserted that he would designate Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, he doesn’t have that legal authority because there is no domestic terrorist organization designation scheme. But what does exist is what we were talking about, which is the authority to investigate using all of the massive weight of the federal government’s expanded post-9/11 powers to investigate and over-prosecute, as has been done, these new and inspiring generations of racial justice and civil rights advocates who are demanding the right of Black people to live.
JS: You know, I wanted to ask you, Hina, about a few international developments that I don’t think have gotten the kind of attention that they deserve and one story, in particular, I’m talking about is the Trump administration’s posture towards the International Criminal Court. And before we get into the specific position of the Trump administration, I think it’s only responsible to point out that throughout modern U.S. history, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been extremely hostile to the notion that U.S. soldiers, officials, spies, personnel should ever be held accountable criminally for their actions in war or in undeclared wars. But the Trump administration is sort of taking it to a different level. And just this month, Trump signed an executive order that approved financial sanctions against investigators with the International Criminal Court as they were investigating the United States for war crimes in Afghanistan.
Michael Pompeo: The ICC’s recent decision to authorize an investigation into the conduct of U.S. personnel who were fighting to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan and bring peace and prosperity to the Afghan people validates our long-standing concerns about the ICC.
JS: Explain this.
HS: Absolutely. And Jeremy, you’re so right to point out that this has existed for quite a while, amongst Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s essentially that deeply flawed construct at the heart of American exceptionalism, in many ways, which is justice for the other countries, not for me. The executive order that Trump issued earlier in June essentially authorizes sanctions, asset freezes, and family travel bans against International Criminal Court officials who are investigating U.S. personnel or would be investigating U.S. personnel and the personnel of U.S. allies. And there, Pompeo — Secretary of State Pompeo — very much emphasized Israel.
MP: We’re also gravely concerned about the threat the court poses to Israel. ICC is already threatening Israel with an investigation of so-called war crimes committed by its forces and personnel in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Given Israel’s robust civilian and military legal system, and strong track record of investigating and prosecuting wrongdoing by military personnel, it’s clear the ICC is only putting Israel in its crosshairs for nakedly political purposes.
HS: And I think it’s important to emphasize that the ICC is the world community’s response to systemic war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity. You know, the crime of aggression, for example, and it was set up to provide justice as a court of last resort if a country’s own authorities do not actually carry out genuine investigations into war crimes and other incredibly serious human rights violations. And the reality is that the United States hasn’t done that with respect to its own war crimes and massive rights violations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including by the military and the CIA, and it is refusing and now dangerously taking a step that no other country or administration has taken this way, which is to impose this real chilling threat upon the ICC.
JS: Talk a bit more about Pompeo’s role here.
HS: Mike Pompeo has a dual role here. His role under the executive order that Trump has given him is to decide who to designate for these massive potential sanctions, in conjunction with Bill Barr and the Secretary of the Treasury. He also had a role as the head of the CIA during a period of time, and this still happens, where the CIA has backed Afghan paramilitary forces that have committed very, very serious abuses in Afghanistan, which can amount also to war crimes. So in essence, Mike Pompeo is acting in this dual role.
JS: Last month, Airwars reported that the U.S. Defense Department admitted that “U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia had, between them, killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019.” Talk a bit about these ongoing wars, the ongoing drone strikes, the civilian death toll that is increasing under this administration that we don’t hear much about.
HS: The U.S. program of lethal strikes continues in multiple countries around the world. The Airwars investigation that you just mentioned is the latest in a valuable series of investigations providing some level of information to us in the absence of meaningful information from the U.S. government about the really, truly harmful consequences to human life: civilians abroad. Now we’ve talked about this period of time and it’s no longer in the front pages the way that it used to be and really should be, the lethal strikes, the killing is happening under Trump without even the kind of weak safeguards that Obama put in place at the end of this administration, with ever greater secrecy. And as I look ahead and try and think about where we might go from here if, for example, there is a Biden administration, or seeking, as so many people are, to rethink what the world looks like and what we need to change in response to the pandemic and the militarization, one key thing about this program is that we need a wholesale change and response in approach so that the next administration, if it is a Biden administration, does not do what, for example, Obama did, which is seek to carve out the authority to conduct lethal strikes as something that they think is exceptional and will only be wisely used because that’s where we were before. Look at where we are now. And that’s the kind of wholesale change and reform that we need so that the U.S. does not respond at home or abroad with excessive force, lethal force in response to real and perceived threat. And the other thing that I would add there, which is something that we and others have been calling for for a long time is just to recognize the connections in terms of race, right? We are having a welcome re-recognition, I hope, of the connections in terms of the racism of policing and other agencies at the federal level, the state level, the local level, at home, and we should be applying that same analysis when we’re thinking about approaches that turn foreign policy into a militarized response largely in Black and brown countries abroad.
JS: Hina Shamsi, as always, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.
HS: It was a pleasure to be with you again, Jeremy. Thank you.
JS: Hina Shamsi is the director of the ACLU National Security Project, which is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the U.S. Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights. You can follow her on Twitter @HinaShamsi.
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. 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. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.