On February 23, 2009, veteran Black Freedom movement leader Ruby Sales had a conversation with Vera Leone, SOA Watch organizer, about state violence and white violence against people of color in the United States, and the implications of that historical and present context for our continuing organizing to close the School of the Americas and dismantle the racist system of violence and domination which it represents.You can listen to the audio file here .
Vera: Can you tell me a little about your work with Spirit House these days?
Ruby: One of the things we definitely are working on with Spirit House is police execution and violence towards African American men and sometimes African American women. And we are looking at it within a long historical trajectory that is linked to the lynchings and burning of black male bodies, where police and sherriffs participated, in the late 19th and early 20th century during the lynching period in America. So that when we look at police execution of Black men as a means of social control, we realize that this is not a new phenomenon. It is deep -- deep -- in the heart of state history, and represents a long trend towards state violence against African American men, Native American men and Latino men, especially Puerto Rican men.
Vera: Can you speak to this means of social control, what you see as ... why it's being used?
Ruby: Well, it's being used because of the great fear that white males have of other males, as being in a position to equally challenge them over the question of power. And so that when you execute Black men, you send a very powerful message to other Black men that they will be executed and killed, that they're in danger by the police. And the only people that they can kill are each other.
And so, this is really an attempt to really curtail the activism, the dignity and the engagement of Black men in questions about their lives. And we see that an atmosphere is created by these white supremacists in the public sphere that justifies the murder of Black men. For example, the most recent cartoon in the [New York] Post that depicts President Barack Obama as a gorilla, as an ape, comes out of the same long history of saying that Black men are animals who pose a clear and present danger to law and order, and to the decency and morality of society, and that they're animals who when allowed to roam free will devastate, rape and harm white women. And so that therefore, it is ok to take them down and take them out like animals. And it doesn't matter if they have an education from Harvard, it doesn't matter if they are half white and half Black, because that Black part of them represents the savage, animalistic part that makes them by nature gorillas and animals.
And this kind of attitude, this rhetoric has existed throughout American history about Black men, and it creates the environment where the police and vigilantes could murder and torture and deface Black men's bodies without any kind of accountability or reprisals. And that many white people thought in their minds that Black men deserved it because they're animals. So you have to really put this in a context. This is very deep in American history, the execution of Black males by the state.
Vera: I am interested in learning more about the resistance that movements of color have always put forth against this, but I also don't want to turn from this discussion of the violence itself and of the real ugliness.
Ruby: Do you understand the history of lynching and the desecration of Black bodies in this country?
Vera: It's something I don't understand, but it's something I remember--
Ruby: Have you read about it?
Vera: No. I remember speaking with you about it.
Ruby: Well at the closing end of Black reconstruction, and the closing end of the 19th century, where white men organized across class lines to re-institute white supremacist power that they thought that they had lost during the abolitionist movement and the Black reconstruction movement, they used lynching and violence, lynching and torture as a means of holding Black people, most particularly Black men, in their "place." And as a rallying cry for white unity. And so you have thousands of Black men being lynched, in the early part of the 20th centry, all the way up to Emmitt Till, who was lynched in the 20th century, in the 1950's.
Vera: I remember from our previous conversation that I was learning from you that this was a community activity, that it was not just a select few of white people who were participating in this, not just the sherriffs, not just the police.
Ruby: No, it was a whole body of white people. For example in 1930 a lynch mob of men, women and children in Meriam, Indiana mutilated and lynched Tom Ship and Abe Smith and lynched them. And they also burned their bodies, and then after their bodies were burned, white men, women and children tore off the victim's clothes and ripped apart their genitals to keep as souvenirs and reminders of their power over Black lives and bodies.
And as the crowd lynched Will Brown, they set up a cheer. And the white representatives of the criminal justice system that were sworn to uphold the law colluded with these crimes. And although when you look at those historical pictures you see the faces of the criminal, the criminal justice system never charged or punished them for these heinious crimes. Very much like police operatives today getting away with this kind of execution.
And then in 1918, a white mob lynched Mary Turner in Brooks County, Georgia. A mob of about several hundred people, and she was 8 months pregnant, and the mob tied her to a tree, took a knife and split her wide open and her unborn child fell from her womb to the ground, where the mob proceeded to crush the baby's head with the heels of other members of the mob. And then they riddled her body with bullets and set her afire with gasoline. And no one was punished for mutilating or murdering Mary Turner. And in the crowd, of course, there were policemen, and the policemen in these small counties knew exactly who had done it, and they never brought charges against them.
Most recently in 2007 in Logan County, West Virginia, Megan Williams was hospitalized after six white men and women held her captive and tortured her for days. They tortured her, they sexually abused her and forced her to eat rat droppings. They choked her with a cable cord and stabbed her in the leg while using white supremacist language designed to dehumanize her. According to Megan Williams, these white supremacists poured hot water over her and made her drink from a toilet. As of this writing, representatives of the criminal justice system both locally and nationally have decided not to charge Megan Williams' torturers with these crimes.
And then of course we have the murders of Adolf Grimes, who was murdered most recently in New Orleans, where the police for no apparent reason at all pumped 14 rounds of bullets in his body. And of course we have Oscar Grant in Oakland/San Francisco, most recently, who was shot by the police as he lay on the ground with his hands cuffed. And we of course have Sean Bell who was shot multiple times by the police in 2006 as he came from a bachelor's party that preceeded his wedding the next day. And of course you have 17-year-old Billy Joe Johnson who died mysteriously in the hands of the police. And on the day that he died, the police would not permit the parents to identify or see his body. As a matter of fact, the parents did not see his body for five days later. And when they returned the body to the parents, Mr. Johnson said that his son had been butchered like a pig. And later on we discover that his brains, tongue and the right side of his jaw were missing.
Vera: It's an overwhelming history and present of --
Ruby: Well, it's like the death squads of Latin America. That's exactly what they did. They cut out people's tongues in El Salvador. So this continues a trajectory of state violence against oppressed peoples, whether you're in Latin America [or not]. That was my thing, that people could make the connection in El Salvador, but they couldn't bring it back home to this country that has had a heinious history. The trainers of the death squads were able to teach them to do this because they had practiced it domestically at home. That's why they came to this country to be trained in how to commit these heinious crimes. Because this is what had happened in this country with African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.
Vera: And because in this country, the state had this whole body of white people who were supporting them, either silent, and/or perpetrating it themselves.
Ruby: And when the Dyer Bill that came up in Congress against lynchings, that had been fought to bring to the national forefront by Ida Wells Burnett, most white Congressmen voted against the Dyer Bill. Voted against the bill to stop lynching in this country, and that was in the 20th century. That was not in the 18th century.
And I can tell you the story of Will Brown, whose body was broken and charred, after a white mob lynched him and hung his dead body from a telephone pole in 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska. They shot several hundred bullets into his lifeless hanging body. They then cut the rope and then tied his body to a car, and dragged it through the street. Next, they poured oil on his body and burned him. And once again, although the faces of members of the white mob are clear in the photographs, the white representatives of the criminal justice system that was sworn to uphold the law ignored the crime and no one was ever charged.
And what I'm trying to say is that this has always been a community event within white society. And white people have been told that this kind of blood letting and killing and lynching and torture of African Americans are essential to protect law and order and to protect the perogatives of the white community. That left untouched, Black people would destroy civilization and everything that's good in it. And so white people have been taught to fear African Americans. And they have most of the time bought into this.
So when we talk about torture abroad, you must understand that torture abroad that America is involved with begins at home. Even water boarding is not nothing new. The tactic was a little different, but it was water boarding when you unleashed water hoses on demostrators, water hoses that were going about a hundred miles a minute.
Vera: I'm wondering how to stand where we are and push against this. As a white person, I feel a lot of responsibility for pushing other white people, and myself, to see this and to study this and to understand this, but also to work in community with communities and leaders of color, to push against this. I'm wondering if we can speak about that a little bit?
Ruby: Well, one of the reasons why the movement here against death squads in El Salvador and the violence and terrorism in Nicaragua never gained hold among the African-American community here, because it rung with deep hypocrisy. We were living in the heart of police and state violence, and there seemed to have been on the parts of white people no recognition of this and no willingness to admit the truth about the country that they lived in and how their silence accelerates and sustains this police state that Black people have lived in for years. So it seemed weird to go running somewhere else without making a connection between that somewhere else in this community. And so Black people, when confronted with this situation, really saw white people as real hypocrites and that's why -- it's not that we didn't care about what was happening in Latin America, but we simply could not work with people who would deny what was happening in this country and who insisted on remaining ignorant about it. When there have been hundreds of books written on the subject.
So part of what I think needs to happen is that I need to bring young activists together in a kind of school, a movement history of militarism so that they can do their work within the context of a historical frame of reference. Because right now it's ahistoric.
Vera: I remember you speaking a little bit about this School of Wills?
Ruby: Well, what I've been trying to do as I've gotten my grounding here, I've been trying to at least conceptualize a six-week program for young activists who are doing a certain kind of work in race, class, gender and violence. And because I realize that they have grown up totally within the context of the Culture Wars, where the Right wing declared war on progressives, declared war on communities of color and destabilized progressive institutions in communities of color that allowed them to resist the encroachment of white supremacy and violence.
And most young activists, having grown up in that environment, really are bereft of the history. I mean, look, not in any indictment, but look how hard you've worked against militarism, militaristic violence in other countries, and how you've not linked that up with the violence here. And don't really even know about the lynchings. Don't know that there was a campaign against lynching in this country because every five minutes, in certain periods of this history, a Black man was lynched. Or a Black woman was raped.
So I think it's important that we make the connections. We often say that we live in a global world. Well, the USA is a part of that global story.
Vera: And if it's not the root, it's at least one of them.
Ruby: Well, most importantly, the root. And I also would just ask you to remember Saddam Hussein, and the way in which he was hung. That was a lynching. He was lynched. In the collective memory of Black people we were horrified because it resembled the lynching. We were horrified. Every Black person that you'd talk to over a certain age talked about the fact that he was lynched. And many activists were totally out of the loop on this. They didn't understand what that raised up in the consciousness of oppressed communities in this country.
Vera: And we've, I think as white activsts, I think intentionally kept ourselves ignorant.
Ruby: Right. Because how can you be the Great White Saviors going over and "saving" Latin America when you've got these issues in your own backyard that are really threatening, because you've really got to take a position and say which side you're on.
Vera: And so if we want to work to shift that identity from one of imagining ourselves some kind of weird master/helper into something more real and human and in partnership with people here at home and abroad, then there's--
Ruby: Well, I don't think it's in partnership, I think it's we work in coalition to get rid of a militarism that diminishes all of our humanity. When you participate in silence as a white person and give them consent to shoot people down 86 times, you are complicit in that murder in the same way that we said that Germans who didn't speak up were complicit in the Holocaust with Jews.
Vera: And so we need to educate ourselves and to speak out.
Ruby: Yes, one needs not only to be educated but also be willing to hear the truth about oneself and how you have behaved in relationship to other people. It's just not enough, because people know racism exists but they're not willing to work to change it within themselves. And within the nation. And so we operate from a Balkanized way of organizing, we separate Nicaraguan history from the history that happens in this country. We separate out the history, the death squads in El Salvador from the Ku Klux Klan death squads that existed in this country in coalition with oftentimes with military camps that never said a mumbling word when Black people were murdered. Or the Brownsville incident that happened on a military base, where Black men were murdered.
Let me ask you a question. Let's turn this around a bit. Given what we've been talking about and what you're hearing, and the lack of understanding of these connections, what do you think would be the best thing to offer young activists, or older people who have forgotten this history and need to make a re-connect?
Vera: Well I think there's a couple of things. And I appreciated what you said about how education is one piece, but there's a whole nother piece of being willing to listen to the reality of my behavior as a white person, and my group identity as a member of this white group that has committed so much violence. And so I think there's two pieces, one of which is that historical piece, and one of which is a real more internal spiritual work about working to acknowledge.
Ruby: Is this something that SOA Watch would be interested in? By the way it's not just white people today, it's also the Black elite. And the Native American elite. Elites have joined forces with the white rank. And so I would like to propose a conference that looks at white American violence, European-American violence from Christopher Columbus up to the present. Military and state violence. I'm always trying to get something going.
Vera: And thank goodness for it, that's what we need, right?
Vera: Last weekend, SOA Watch had our ... we have a strategy meeting every year, and in that strategy meeting there was a critique raised by people of color, young people of color in the room, and another white woman in the room who really brought up this hypocrisy of a movement that focuses on state violence abroad without any understanding of how racism is working within our own organization and without making coalitions with groups of color in the US who work on these same issues here at home. And so I think there's a real ... and while it was not received well, it was a very difficult conversation that a lot of the white folks in the room were not, I think responded very poorly to. There is this moment, this crisis moment of opportunity and so I'm hoping to bring more resources and open up more spaces like this.
Ruby: I think what we have to begin to do, in all of our many different ways is to build a coalition of workers who are willing to look at this problem, and who are willing not only to look at it but to act about it, and to bring it to the attention of the nation -- it's not just the killing in Oakland but a national crisis that has polluted the American national soul since the beginning of this country with Native Americans, the genocide of Native Americans, the organized miliaristic genocide of Native Americans, the state genocide of Native Americans, as well as the militaristic genocide of Latinos in California and Texas, as well as the militaristic violence and terrorism against African Americans during enslavement all the way up to Southern Apartheid.
And also, not to mention, the militaristic state violence against workers who fought to organize in the early 1930s in this country. These are all the connections we have to make, because in El Salvador, much of the issues in these countries have been around economics. And who owns the labor of people when they work. And that has been the issue that galvanized the issue about enslavement, that galvanized the issue about the labor movement. Basically, what I'm saying is that there's not a great deal of variation on the issues, the themes and threads exist throughout the world, where one group of people try to be the dominators of other people and to grow fat off of their labor. That was happening all the way back in ... I mean, Isaiah talks about that. How people, how the new age will come when people will benefit from their own labor and live in houses that they build, and no longer shall people die prematurely. So this has been a long issue in the story of oppression.
Vera: And I think it's so important for people who are interested in the issue of solidarity, that solidarity does not mean any kind of helping of other movements, in El Salvador, or Colombia, or Mexico or Chile, that it's working on our own stuff here, working on solidarity with some other group means working on those same issues right where you live.
Ruby: And you know what that does when you do that? Because we live in the heart of the beast, when you are weakening the power in the thrust of the beast, it makes it safer for people who live in these other countries. Because we don't have the power to export that kind of violence. And so you really have to deal with it at home. You have to say, how come the police were allowed to shoot an unarmed man in New Orleans on New Year's Eve right outside of his family home, with multiple rounds of bullets, without anybody being charged with that crime? Or the young man that was dragged in Texas, beat and dragged in Texas, and then the following year another man was beaten and dragged in Texas.
So we have to begin to make these connections and explode the myth that America is nonviolent. And have this country come to grips with this history of genocide, and military violence and brutality and execution of people, of progressives and people of color. That's not something that's just in Chile. That's our history. Annie Pictou, who was part of the American Indian Movement, when she was killed, they cut off her fingers.
Vera: When was that?
Ruby: During the sixties. When the Wounded Knee Movement, the same movement that gave rise to Leonard Peltier. How do you organize without knowledge of this history? At best, your organizing is fragmented. It lacks the kind of depth that you need to create solutions that are not only for the short term but also systemic for the long term.
Vera: I believe that, and I hope to work, I am working to ..
Ruby: When I say you, it's not just you ...
Vera: It's me, in the singular, and it's other young and maybe not so young, uneducated --
Ruby: Not so young either, part of what this country has been mastermind at doing is creating dismemory.
Vera: Yeah, of course. There's no other way.
Ruby: Right, so. I would like for us to have one of the first conferences in this country, and especially among young activists that deal with these issues, that bring young activists together across colors, to really deal with the connection between police brutality and executions in this country and that deals with militarism and state violence as a long theme in American history. What will we do once we've had this conversation that takes it beyond talking to action? Will we develop a popular education site that teaches people about this? Will we develop a group of young activists as community educators on this kind of violence? What will we do? That's something that you have to think about.
So let me just conclude. I want to say something important about this conversation. So what we're saying in this conversation is that yes, it is true that we live in a global world and as such we need to make the connection between US violence abroad, in Iraq, and US violence in this country. And we also need to look at the tactics that dehumanize us, and animalizes people to create a climate that allows militarism, military violence and state violence against people. For example, when you reduce the Iraqis to "collateral damage" and you call them names that dehumanize them, in the American mind, and in the public's mind, it's ok to kill them because they're not real people, they're animals. They're collateral damage, they're insurgents. And when you call death squads freedom fighters, you reduce the meaning of their killing to some greater act of democratic justice and principles. So I think we have to take a hard look at this.
For additional resources on confronting racism and anti-oppression organizing, you can visit the Spirit House Project at www.spirithouseproject.org or the Anti-Oppression Resources on our website . Additional suggested reading and viewing, especially concerning lynching in America, could include:
- A Time of Terror, by Dr. James Cameron, who survived a lynch mob in 1930, in Marion, Indiana, when he was 16 years old.
- Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, edited by James Allen.
- Race, Rape, and Lynching : The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912, by Sandra Gunning.
- American Lynching , a Documentary Film by Gode Davis on Lynching in American History.