Showing posts with label Martin Luther King Jr. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Luther King Jr. Show all posts

18 December 2014

Absolute Powerlessness

Back in August of 1970, when I was 16 years old, I got caught up in a riot in Los Angeles. Wrong place, wrong time. At the time, I had no idea what had sparked it. All I knew was that I was on foot, alone, in a part of the city I didn't know, and couldn't get out of except on foot. (No buses were running, and I didn't have taxi fare even if I'd spotted one.) Meanwhile, there was a lot of action, everywhere I looked, and none of it looked good. There were cops with sticks, cops with guns, cops with tear gas, people throwing bricks, everyone screaming, running, tripping… And then, as night fell, the scavengers came out, and things got very bad.

East LA riots

I was lucky: I found shelter. One of those strange blessings that I could never use in a story (truth is always stranger than fiction), a man came out of a building and said, "You need to get off the street. Now." And gave me his apartment for the night. For free. He even went somewhere else. I spent the night, barely sleeping - I didn't really trust my good luck with him or the mob in the streets - but in the morning, it was safe to get out and go back to my base.

Ruben Salazar (1928-1970)
A few days later I was told that it was all about the death of Ruben Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist, back from reporting in Vietnam, and who had turned his attention and articles to the unjust treatment of Chicanos by the LAPD. Naturally, he was hugely unpopular with the LAPD. Anyway, he'd been covering a Chicano march/rally against the Vietnam War and slipped off to have a quiet beer in a local bar. What I was told at the time was that the police had firebombed the bar, killing him, and then claimed they thought he was a drug dealer they were looking for.

What really happened? Well, for whatever reason the LAPD decided to break up the rally, despite the fact that everyone agrees it was peaceful. The police claimed they'd gotten reports that a local liquor store was being robbed; reason enough to declare the rally (20,000+ people) to be an illegal assembly and call out the riot squads. Tear gas, guns, the whole nine yards; the marchers retaliated; 150 were arrested, and 4 killed - including Salazar, who was having a quiet beer in a local bar when a deputy sheriff lobbed a 10-inch, wall-piercing tear gas missile (designed for barricade situations according to Wikipedia) into the bar, hitting Salazar in the head and killing him instantly. The LAPD claimed that they thought the robber had gone into the bar; then they claimed that there were drug dealers there. The deputy sheriff was never indicted or even reprimanded. That part of Los Angeles burned for a while, but that was nothing new. Nobody cared.
"It is a cliche that 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Like all cliches, it has a considerable element of truth. Nonetheless, one of the major purposes of any AVP workshop is to empower the participants, and to teach them to share power in community for the benefit of all. This is essential because the negative side of the old cliche is as true as the positive: 'Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.' All people need, for survival, a measure of power over their own lives and over their own environment... If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power they will use what power they have destructively and with violence." — Alternatives to Violence Project Basic Manual - p. C-2, my emphasis added.

I've been thinking about the underlined passages above for a long time. I've been thinking about it because of everyone raised in homes are virtual prisons of alcohol, addiction, or abuse, as tightly controlled as a tomb. I've been thinking about it because of all the slaves in history, from the days of Gilgamesh to current-day human trafficking. I've been thinking about it because of all the subject peoples of military empires in history, from the Sumerians under Sargon the Great to the current day economic and political empires. I've been thinking about it because of all those who believe, deep down in their hearts, that some people just should not be allowed to have any power, any rights, any pleasures. And work very, very hard to make sure they don't get any. And then are horrified and appalled when the worms finally turn.

Look, fear, intimidation, bullying, all work very well at getting obedience. So does suborning the judicial process, whether within the family or in the town or on up the food chain. You can strip away every shred of power from someone and virtually (if not literally) own them. But rebellion will out. And when there is absolute powerlessness - where there is literally nothing you can do against whatever or whoever is controlling you - rebellion can come in some very strange forms. Rage. Cutting. Depression. Rage. Anorexia. Hostility. Aggression. Rage. Rioting. Burning. Rage. Things will happen.

Martin Luther
Of course, none of them are the right things. Whenever there has been an attempt at redress of grievances by the underlings, the people in power have always considered it outrageous, unjust, ridiculous, insane, criminal, animal, and generally unacceptable. Violent protest is ipso facto proof that the protesters are wrong, aren't capable of reason, and should not be listened to, only punished. I read the comments on-line calling the Ferguson protesters dogs who should be shot, and it didn't surprise me at all: In 1525, during the Reformation, when the German peasants revolted against their lords, Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet telling the nobles to kill them: "It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you." Yes, Luther was a social conservative. No, nothing much changes in history. During the American Revolution, the "Sons of Liberty" were seen by the British as "truly nothing but a drunken, canting, lying, praying, hypocritical rabble without order or cleanliness" who needed to be shot on sight.

Mr. Gandhi
Nonviolent protest doesn't earn any more respect. Listen to Winston Churchill on Gandhi: "It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir [which Churchill pronounced faker] of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Martin Luther King, Jr. received constant insults, arrests, death threats, and was eventually assassinated, as were Medgar Evers and others. It's no better on the family level. The person who leaves is always a selfish traitor who should have stuck it out to the end; the one who tries to live a separate, different life is stuck-up and needs to be brought down a notch. And, if it's an abusive marriage we're talking about, there's a good chance that the spouse who leaves will be harassed, assaulted, stalked and even killed.

So basically, from the point of view of power, neither violent nor nonviolent protest are acceptable: instead of protesting, trust the existing system to dole out rights, etc., as the system deems appropriate. And, of course, if there is no protest, then nothing is wrong, and nothing needs to change. "But you never complained..." "You never said a word about this when you were a child!" "She never said no!" "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!" "S/he never told me to stop…”

And that is what makes people crazy.

Meanwhile, there is the alternative of "shar[ing] power in community for the benefit of all." That's hard for many people, who see life as a zero-sum game, and are terrified of having to share their toys, their power, their breathing space. But we had all better be prepared to do this, because no one - I repeat, NO ONE gets to hang on to all the cookies forever. Every empire has collapsed and/or been conquered. Every tyrant - whether they ruled empires, countries, kingdoms or families - has died. And there are no U-hauls behind hearses. When the last rattle comes, we are all absolutely powerless.

drawing © by Allan Fishe

24 January 2014

MLK and Navajo Voting

The great Martin Luther King Jr.

 Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day—even here in the great state of Arizona, which was a bit late on the uptake.

The great Tony Hillerman
 Additionally:  Over the years, I’ve tremendously enjoyed Tony Hillerman’s series of mystery novels set against the backdrop of the DinĂ© people and their Navajo Nation, as well as its surrounding states. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee need no explanation here, certainly. And I’m sure you are as impressed by Hillerman’s knowledge of Navajo (DinĂ©) lore and custom as I.

 Thus, at the close of this work week, which kicked off with the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, I think it appropriate to mention—here on Sleuth Sayers—the impact I recently learned Martin Luther King’s work had on the lives of Navajos, and other Native Americans, in my own state of Arizona.

 I was surprised to learn, this week, something I’m ashamed I didn’t already know. And, it’s something I don’t recall having read about in Hillerman’s work (though he may actually touch on it, because, as frequent readers know, my memory can be a bit faulty at times).

 Prior to this week, however, I’m embarrassed to tell you, I didn’t know that Navajos were not permitted to vote in state or federal elections, in Arizona, until 1948. In fact, NO American Indians living on reservations in Arizona were able to vote until then.

 It might be pointed out, incidentally, that this was years after many Navajos and other tribal members had fought for our country in both world wars. Even more unsettling, Navajos did not generally turn out to vote (or even register) in large numbers, until after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

And, with good reason! 

To understand why, we need to take a quick tour through the history of Native American citizenship.

 Much of the problem stems from the fact that “Indian Reservations” were established in a manner that made them, legally speaking, sovereign nations within the borders of the United States. This is how the phrase “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes,” found its way into the constitution.

 For this reason, until 1924, Native Americans living on reservations were not recognized as United States citizens. Prior to this time, American Indians were denied citizenship (including the right to vote) unless the tribe they were part of arranged a special treaty or agreement with the federal government, or they underwent a process of individual naturalization, which required renouncing tribal citizenship, severing tribal ties, and demonstrating that the person in question had assimilated into what one might call “Euro-American” culture.

 After Native Americans served in World War I, however, popular opinion led the U.S. Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Though this act technically granted U.S. citizenship to American Indians living on reservations, several states still managed to refuse them the vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests were just a few of the ways states accomplished this.

 In Arizona, however, a different method was applied. Shortly after the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, the Arizona Supreme Court, in the case of Porter v. Hall, upheld a state-wide prohibition against Native American voting, stating that American Indians living on reservations were wards of the federal government, making them “persons under guardianship.” Since “persons under guardianship” could not vote, it was a slam-dunk; Navajos and other American Indians living on reservations in Arizona were denied the ballot.

 This embargo would remain in effect until the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the Porter v. Hall decision, in 1948. At which point, the state imposed a literacy test to deter American Indians (among other minorities) from going to the polls.

And, things stayed this way until 1965. 

Though the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—which Martin Luther King was so instrumental in helping to bring to fruition in August of 1965—may certainly be felt to have deep roots in Selma, Alabama, the law also applied to important areas of Arizona that had large numbers of Navajo voters.

 At the time the VRA was passed, only those American Indians who could (1) read the United States Constitution in English and (2) write their names, were eligible to vote in Arizona polling places.

 The VRA, however, included Section 5: a temporary prohibition of literacy tests in certain jurisdictions. Consequently, Navajo, Coconino and Apache Counties, in Arizona became covered by Section 5 of the VRA, and literacy tests were suspended.
If you compare the map of Arizona counties, above, with the map of the Navajo Nation, below, you should get a good idea of how the reservation lands overlap the counties in question.

 But not for long, because the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia soon held that Arizona’s literacy test had not been discriminatorily applied against American Indians in the last five years.

 This ruling would stand until the VRA’s Section 5 was amended in 1970 to include a nationwide ban on literacy tests. And, Apache, Navajo and Coconino Counties—along with five other Arizona counties—once again became covered under Section 5 of the VRA, throwing out the use of literacy tests.

Yet, more struggles were to come.

 In 1972, in Apache County, the first reservation Navajo ran for public office in a non-reservation governmental body in Arizona. Apache County’s population was predominately Navajo at the time. And, when Tom Shirley ran for the District 3 seat on the Apache County Board of Supervisors, he decisively defeated his white opponent—only to find himself blocked from taking office.

 Officials argued that Navajos weren’t really U.S. citizens (that sovereign nation thing again) and thus could not hold office. The court battle dragged on until the Arizona Supreme Court ruled, in September of 1973, that American Indians living on reservations were fully qualified to hold public office. Thus, the first Navajo member of the 3-person Apache County Board of Supervisors finally took office nine months after his term was supposed to have begun.

 Though Shirley did not run for re-election in 1976, he was instrumental in fighting an attempt to gerrymander the county’s districts—a plan clearly designed to limit future Navajo representation on the Board of Supervisors. A federal court finally stepped in, citing the VRA, and Shirley’s fight was won. Consequently, the results of the 1976 election saw two of the thee Supervisor seats filled by Navajos.

 In 1974, federal observers monitoring the election in Apache County, for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, noticed a lack of polling places and a greater need for ballot translation. According to the report, these problems resulted in long lines that made people wait hours to cast their ballots, some waiting until after midnight.

 Congress amended the VRA to address these issues in 1975.

 The problems, however, continue. Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, was quoted in a recent Arizona Republic article as saying: “It’s not history. There’s still a mentality that Indians need to stay on the reservation.”

 She added that the Arizona Speaker of the House, in 2003, asked the state attorney general if Navajos could legally serve on state commissions. “It’s just a very odd, backward way of thinking,” she said.

 Perhaps the Speaker had never heard of the Arizona Supreme Court decision dealing with Tom Shirley. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t either, until this past week—though, as a guy who’s part Choctaw and Chickasaw, I’ve also never thought American Indians “need to stay on the reservation.”

I’ll see you in two weeks!
— Dixon