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Brett Kavanaugh: Law, Politics, and Judicial Ideology

by Patricia J. Williams

Published in The Nation Magazine, July 13th, 2018

Recently, a friend asked me why it matters whether Supreme Court nominees are “liberal” or “conservative.” She understood those words to refer only to party politics: “Aren’t legal questions confronting judges supposed to be above politics?”

I could understand her confusion. The way many media pundits have been discussing judicial ethics often conflates what is meant by liberal-conservative in the jurisprudential realm with what it means in the political realm.

My friend was quite right, of course, about the principle of separation of powers: Laws are the result of political decisions made by legislatures, and the judiciary construes and interprets the applications and limits of those laws. Thus, in order to ensure impartial decision-making, a judge’s ethical responsibility must be to place enacted law above his or her “personal political beliefs”—indeed, it’s a mantra of judges during the approval process.

But in practice, judges’ thinking is shaped by various jurisprudential movements and philosophies of interpretation, some of which have become no less contested and divided than party politics. Within the law there are theories of reading, a bit like biblical interpretation. Think of the divide within the Church of England: Nigerian bishops’ take on Anglicanism has tended toward highly literal readings of particular Biblical passages, for example, denouncing homosexuality as near-unpardonable sin. In contrast, retired Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England Rowan Williams has argued that “orthodoxy should be a tool, not an end in itself.”

Just so, some judges, like orthodox religionists, read the law literally, strictly, with no allowance for connotation. Other judges read the law as Williams might, “as a tool” not an end; they read for law’s meaning in particular contexts, or based on what they deem a reasonable penumbra of attendant meanings, or expand the meaning beyond its original meaning to encompass situations not anticipated by the law’s authors or enactors at the time originally written.

For example, when constitutional protections against search and seizure were made law, there were no telephones or internet or satellite surveillance. How then, do those technologies—of bugging or data collection—fit within the meaning of privacy protections conceived long ago? Some jurists would say Congress has to make specific new laws to cover anything that is not within the original meaning of the original document as understood by the original legislators. Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, maintained that the death penalty was legal simply because at the time that the Eighth Amendment was passed, execution was considered neither cruel nor unusual. Originalists tend not to want to go beyond the meaning of the founding fathers unless Congress writes specific laws to expand that original meaning. That’s what’s at issue at the more conservative end of constitutional jurisprudence.

At the more liberal end, theories of reading tend to be looser, bending a bit to allow what the original spirit of the law was meant to cover. It asks what the authors or enactors of particular laws would or should have done had they been confronted with this contemporary issue or that new situation. (As in: Is or is not this new-fangled telegraph machine akin to delivering messages via a high-speed pony express?) Their allowance for situational ethics—i.e., interpreting a law contingent upon the service of justice—is what is generally called liberal.

But while what I have just described is exclusively about juridical modes of interpretation and construction, these semantic leanings also largely reflect and overlap with the political world views that divide Republicans and Democrats. As a very general matter, Republicans tend to advocate orthodoxies of “law and order” and strict penological enforcements like the death penalty that leave little room for context or forgiveness or changed values.

By the same token and again as a general matter, Democrats have, at least in recent history, been more associated with more capacious or inclusive meanings that expand notions of polity and citizenship beyond the category of the “white male property holders” who were the original and only enfranchised citizens allowed by the original Constitution.

Thus, while judicial ideology and political parties are technically separate realms, there is a literal-versus-connotative, right-versus-left thread that is strong and predictive, whether in the juridical or political realm.

What’s at stake right now is that Brett Kavanaugh, the man our president has just nominated to the highest court in the land, isn’t a mid-range “conservative” in the tradition of Anthony Kennedy; rather he’s an originalist, of the Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia sort. And if the executive, in nominating and endorsing originalism, joins power with a newly configured Supreme Court of committed literalists—i.e., an insuperable majority of ultraorthodox—and if this new alignment really proceeds to take the Constitution back in time, it means that Congress is going to have to pass new laws to explicitly keep in place our civil rights and social reforms, particularly when it comes to race, gender, sexuality, labor, public accommodation, immigration, and equal protection. I simply do not see a Republican-dominated Congress prepared to step up to that plate.

It is not only the much-discussed right to abortion that is at issue. We are going to see many, many important measures—regarding the rights of the poor, of the working class, of women, of children, of LGBTQ, of the environment, of whoever is currently deemed nonwhite—struck down by the high court. And I fear there will be insufficient political will to bring those measures back to life through legislation.

All of that said, what’s most troubling about Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Kavanaugh is not what I have described thus far. Rather, this particular nominee has publicly stated that he thinks a president should not be prosecuted either civilly or criminally. That doesn’t accord with any judicial or political philosophy I’m familiar with. It’s terrifying. Kavanaugh seems to endorse a more-Nixonian-than-Nixon theory of absolute executive power. Such a proposition was not really taken seriously when Nixon attempted to raise it during the time of Watergate. Yet now it seems entirely possible that this theory could become reality if Trump were to assert it, for any such a claim of immunity would undoubtedly have to go before the Supreme Court, whose tremulous balance would be weighted irretrievably toward not just conservative jurists but originalists. (Not all of this is Trump’s magic either: The court’s looming ultraconservative majority has been the decades-long work of political operatives and organizations like the Federalist Society.)

In sum, it is very sinister that no matter what the Mueller investigation may find about criminal activities before or during this presidency, our Supreme Court might have sufficient power to say it simply doesn’t matter.


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Blood, Soil, and Sorrow: The Intergenerational Trauma of Family Separation

by Patricia J. Williams

As recently as last year, Republican Congressman Steve King was considered an outlier when he opined that “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” Now the Trump administration has endorsed this politics of blood and soil, full bore.

“They’re not innocent,” says our president of children torn from their parents at the border. “These aren’t people” is how he describes adolescents about whom he knows nothing but their nationality. Immigrants “are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and a rate that’s never happened before,” Trump adds. Their children will be put in “foster care or whatever,” according to the White House chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly.

Those children may come from abroad, but they are our babies. They represent the legacy of American policies that go back decades. After all, it was the United States that financed the infamous US Army School of the Americas and trained genocidal warlords, such as Efraín Ríos Montt, who went on to destabilize all of Central America. If countries like Guatemala and Honduras have fallen into chaos since the 1980s, it’s partly because those wars took a toll on their social structures: the trauma of families wiped out and entire villages disappeared. The refugees at our southern border are part of the blowback from the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people still seeking safety from US-financed violence.

War is one way to kill children; putting them in concentration camps is another. “Casa Padre” is where some of these children have been taken. Once a Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, the building has been converted to house nearly 1,500 boys under the age of 18. In the hallway is a huge graffito of Donald Trump’s head, oddly disembodied, looming larger than a minuscule image of the White House, above which he floats, godlike, in the sky. The mural includes a quote from The Art of the Deal: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”  Such a bizarre civics lesson–the very name:  Casa Padre. The daddy-state as superstore….

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has tried to wrap this barbarity in the sheep’s clothing of not just law but God’s law, invoking the Pauline Epistle of Romans 13. Sessions, whose very name summons two of the most notorious slaveholders of the Confederacy, uses a feint common in the antebellum South: It is God’s law, divine will, the “natural” order of things—not a policy dreamed up by President Trump and enacted at his command—that compels US government agents to treat immigrants like inventory.

Over decades, slavery hardened Americans to the tears, pleas, terror, and grief of a trade that put human beings on the auction block, took babies from their mothers and sold them to strangers. That system relied on rationalizations we encounter still: Certain classes of human beings are not “really” human; they do not feel pain to the same degree as “more civilized” classes; these “others” are incorrigibly predisposed to prevarication (or “acting,” as Ann Coulter recently dismissed the images of bereft toddlers). Above all, “they” are always kept at a distance. This “they”-making obliterates due process, equal protection, and individual justice. It justifies racial and ethnic profiling, as was done when rationalizing internment of Japanese Americans; indeed, Donald Trump has said repeatedly he thinks it’s “common sense” to punish in the plural.[1] “Go after the families,” he has said of those he deems terrorists, thus rendering extended communities of innocents mere instruments of vengeance.

We fail to recall America’s dark history at our peril. After the Civil War, juvenile-reform policies encouraged the removal of children from people deemed unfit, “feeble-minded,” “promiscuous,” or epileptic. These parents were disproportionately Irish immigrants, people of color, or unmarried women. During the first part of the 20th century, policy-makers championed not only the removal of “defective” black children from their equally “defective” parents, but also the confinement of those children in adult prisons. The rampant sadness and alcoholism that plagues American Indian reservations is related to the thousands of children who were removed from the care of their parents, who lost their mother tongues, and who were boarded at schools that “Christianized” them with neglect, beatings and sexual abuse.  Until recently, states sterilized thousands of women—and some men—for reasons that included ridding their tax rolls of the undeserving poor. Today, our government has grown indifferent to the cruelties of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, arresting kindergartners and routinely sentencing very young teenagers as adults.

The legacies of these policies are all around us. Still, our government argues that the deliberate separation of parents and children will serve as a disincentive to others seeking to cross the border. That alone is a crime against humanity. The United States is the only member of the United Nations that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child—a text worth reading for anyone who wonders why the world has condemned the Trump administration in recent weeks. Moreover, the construction of detention camps has been outsourced to profiteers who have snatched babies away so carelessly that their identities have been lost in the shuffle.

We know that children subjected to this kind of trauma suffer catastrophic damage to the very architecture of their brains. Children who were abandoned in Romanian orphanages, for example, were found to have grown up with less cerebral white and gray matter than their peers raised by parents. Or look at our own foster-care system: It is deeply scarring, even when children are separated from their families to protect them from danger. Forty to 50 percent of children who age out of foster care become homeless within 18 months. And fully half of the nation’s homeless population were foster children at some point.

We understand all of these things, and yet we are not supposed to scrutinize this manufactured tragedy as it unfolds. The camps are off-limits to the public. Even members of Congress have been denied entry without two weeks’ notice—and the locations of many of the detention centers have been withheld, making them hard to inspect or hold accountable. We go about our daily business, not looking because we do not want to know. We pass the abandoned Walmart, this parking lot for disposable despair, this factory for future fury. And we quarantine this all-American banality of evil as the problem of “someone else’s babies,” whose torture we disown.

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A Q&A With Law Professor Katherine Franke

by Patricia J. Williams

On March 6, 2017, the Israeli Knesset, by a vote of 46 to 28, passed a law banning entry to all foreign nationals “if he or she, or the organization or the body for which he or she operates, has knowingly published a public call to engage in a boycott against the State of Israel or has made a commitment to participate in such a boycott.” The law has stirred worry, both within Israel and without, for its seeming compression of the idea of supporting boycotts as political speech or intellectual expression, and the idea of boycotts as security threat. That much is the subject of healthy debate among Israeli citizens, in universities, newspapers, as well as in the Knesset.

For noncitizens of Israel, however, the debate about boycotts and divestment has carried a different toll: Since the law’s passage, a variety of foreign individuals, NGOs, and other organizations have been banned or deported from the country, including the American Friends Service Committee. One such banning that sparked particular international concern was the detention and deportation of Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke. I should disclose that I am also a Columbia Law professor and therefore a colleague of Franke’s. I interviewed her recently; the following is an edited transcript of the conversation. 

Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams: What happened?

Katherine Franke: I was traveling to Israel and the West Bank as part of a 20-member delegation of civil-rights leaders from the United States. When we landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of April 29, 2018, four members of the delegation, including me, were detained, interrogated, and then deported. [The rest of the delegates exited the airport without issue and proceeded to Jerusalem to start the trip.] I was told that I would be banned from entering the country—one person said it was for life, another for five years. The deportation order I received did not clarify this.

PW: What was the purpose of your trip?

KF: First, I am the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and CCR had organized the delegation. The group included lawyers and activists working on Native American resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline; advocates fighting police violence in Ferguson; human-rights defenders in Puerto Rico; lawyers challenging the Muslim ban in the US; and the cochair of the Women’s March. We had scheduled visits with civil-rights advocates and others in Israel and in the West Bank.

Secondly, I was traveling in my capacity as Columbia faculty, to meet with two graduate students whose dissertations I am supervising. One is an Israeli citizen living in Haifa. The other is a Palestinian human-rights advocate in Ramallah who cannot get a permit from the Israelis to exit the West Bank. The only way for us to meet in person is for me to travel to Ramallah.

I had also scheduled a meeting with a scholar in Ramallah to discuss a possible collaboration between several law schools in the West Bank and Columbia for a joint human-rights masters program. Further, I had scheduled meetings with colleagues at Adalah, an NGO in Israel with whom the Center for Palestine Studies has been collaborating for several years as part of our Palestine and Law program. We had planned to discuss programming for the next academic year.

PW: Did that activity constitute the stated basis for your deportation?

KF: I was not given the opportunity to tell the immigration officer who detained me about the purpose of my trip as I just described it, because he was convinced that I was traveling to the region to promote the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement. I told him I have been to Israel a half-dozen or so times, the first time in 2000 and most recently last October. All of those visits had been for work-related purposes. Several years ago I was hired by the EU to do capacity building for the Women’s Committee of the Palestinian Bar Association. Last October I was invited by Adalah to speak about academic freedom at a Palestinian Law Students conference in Bethlehem.

After I told him this trip was a mix of work and tourism the interrogation took a more hostile turn: He yelled at me: “You’re here to promote BDS in Palestine, aren’t you?” I responded that I was absolutely not. He yelled again: “You’re lying!” He then asked me if I volunteered with any groups in the US. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, so I said I volunteer with many groups, including CCR. Then he barked: “You work for JVP, don’t you?” I said I did not work for JVP, which is true. “You’re making my job easy, you’re lying to me,” he said, at which point he showed me his cell phone, displaying what I believe was Canary Mission’s page on me. This went on for over an hour.


KF: JVP, Jewish Voice for Peace is a nonprofit membership organization based in the US that advocates for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. JVP has institutionally endorsed the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS). The BDS call came from civil-society groups in Palestine in 2005 as a way to engage the international community in their struggle for justice, borrowing a tactic that had been used by anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. The call asks the international community to boycott the state of Israel, divest from investments in all Israeli companies and from international companies involved in violating Palestinian rights, and that states impose sanctions on Israel until it comes into compliance with human-rights laws and norms.

The BDS movement has three primary goals: (1) ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem; (2) securing the rights of Palestinians living in Israel to full equality, and (3) recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees living across the globe to return their 1948 homes and properties as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 194. Prominent supporters of and organizations that have participated in BDS in the past include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Stephen Hawking, Naomi Klein, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, Connecticut AFL-CIO, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and several Quaker bodies.

Several years ago I served on the executive committee of JVP’s Academic Advisory Council, which has since been dissolved. I am not a member of JVP, but do work closely with them on issues of academic freedom, defense of free-speech rights, and other issues on an ad hoc basis. I am also a donor to JVP. None of this do I consider to amount to my being a “leader of JVP” or holding a “prominent role” with them. That said, even if I were a leader of JVP I would object to being banned from entering Israel on account of my political views or that of JVP.

USACBI is a related campaign calling for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It asks academics and cultural workers to boycott any event or activity that is funded in whole or part by the Israeli government. Over 1,400 academics, myself included, and nearly 500 cultural workers have endorsed the academic and cultural boycott. This means that I will not participate in a conference funded by the Israeli government, for instance, but I do collaborate with Israeli academics and supervise dissertations of Israeli graduate students. I have not endorsed a boycott of all of Israel or all Israelis, but rather only the current Israeli government because of its human-rights record.

Nevertheless, when journalists have asked the Israeli interior minister about why I was deported the answer was: I am a prominent supporter of BDS and/or a leader of JVP.

PW: And what is Canary Mission, the site whose page you said that the immigration officers had on his cell phone?

KF: Canary Mission is one of a number of sites—AMCHA is another—that track thousands of academics and students in the United States and labels them anti-Semites based solely on their critique of Israeli government policies or their support of Palestinian rights.

PW: This is an official government site?

KF: We don’t actually know who is behind Canary Mission; the site is run anonymously.

PW: That sounds as though it may present problems of procedural fairness, if a private or anonymously sourced list of names becomes the metric for passing through a legal checkpoint.

KF: The current Israeli government seems to have outsourced the determination of who is an enemy of the state to unaccountable online entities and rumor mills, with no procedural mechanisms to counter hearsay or trolling. The individual gatekeepers—the border guards and airport security agents deciding who may enter Israel—seem to rely to some considerable degree on such sites.

PW: In recent years, universities—in Israel as well as the US—have become the sites of our most relentless head-butting about the possibilities and fears of censorship. Do you think the Law Against Damage to Israel Through Boycott poses a real-world test of those principles?

KF: It is a concern shared across boundaries, especially in Israel and Palestine. A core value of democracy is protection of academic freedom and the rights of political dissenters. Eighty Israeli law professors, representing all 13 law schools in Israel, have signed a letter protesting my deportation, stating: “Preventing a scholar from entering the country due to criticism the scholar emitted is an anti-democratic act that undermines freedom of expression and academic freedom.” Jewish law professors in the US have circulated a letter as well and a similar statement was issued by nearly 100 Jewish-studies scholars,

What is more, citizens of Israel are harmed by the denial of entry to critics of the government, denied the opportunity to meet with allies from abroad. Part of the purpose of our delegation was to meet face-to-face with human-rights defenders in Israel and Palestine in an effort to build bridges and strategies across movements.

Of equal importance is the fact that entry to Palestine is controlled entirely by the Israeli government. When scholars and advocates such as myself are banned entry into Israel, we are also effectively banned entry into Palestine, and the airport becomes nothing more than a checkpoint, a key instrument in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Thus, we cannot meet with colleagues at universities in the West Bank, such as Birzeit University outside Ramallah, Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, or An-Najah National University in Nablus. This is particularly problematic since residents of the West Bank cannot leave without being issued a permit from the Israelis, something that is very difficult to obtain. They are already systematically restricted in their ability to attend conferences and other academic gatherings in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Our ability to travel to the West Bank is essential to Palestinian academics’ ability to engage a global community of scholars.

Finally, it is essential that scholars and human-rights activists be able to document conditions in Israel and Palestine, and to monitor the state of human-rights compliance or noncompliance. By denying entry to its critics, Israel has essentially walled itself off from international accountability to human-rights monitoring. It is right to denounce the Egyptian and Russian governments when they refuse access to human-rights inspectors, and so too we should criticize Israel when it deploys similar measures.

PW: How Israel might patrol, protect, or occupy the vast penumbral range of its borders—particularly in Gaza or the West Bank—surely raises issues of international law. Yet why is it that American academics should expect protection of the constitutional traditions of First Amendment speech and academic freedom when seeking admission to another country?

KF: While these values are embedded in our Constitution, they are not exclusive to it. Such notions reflect very basic aspects of human freedom. Free speech, liberty of movement, collective study, and exchange of ideas—these are essential to the very idea of democratic self-government and human flourishing, and are protected under international law regardless of the context. Banning the movement of scholars based on their research or political speech violates fundamental principles on which the legitimacy of any government stands.

PW: My final question: Could you say just a word about the similarity between Israel’s anti-boycott law and the growing movement to pass nearly identical laws here in the US, at both state and federal levels?

KF: As the BDS movement has gained momentum internationally, measures in the US to punish its supporters have been introduced in legislatures across the country. Since 2014, more than 100 anti-BDS measures have been introduced in state and local legislatures across the country. At least 24 states have enacted anti-BDS laws. These laws take different forms, but many of them, such as an executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a law passed by the Arizona legislature in 2016, bar any business or organization that supports the boycott of Israel from bidding on public contracts and requires the state to publicize a blacklist of their names. So, for instance, the Presbyterian Church would be blacklisted and prohibited from running homeless shelters with public money because of its decision to divest from companies involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes. These laws treat constitutionally protected political activism as a form of treason. A federal judge in Kansas recently blocked enforcement of an anti-boycott law in a case brought by a public-school math coach who cannot take part in a state program to train other teachers because she refuses to sign an anti-boycott certification.

Almost every social movement has at some point deployed boycotts as a tactic to advance its political goals, along with demonstrations, picketing, strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of direct action. Yet the ardent defenders of Israel portray boycotts as a kind of hateful, dirty trick—an ironic position to take given that American Jews convinced the World Jewish Congress to call for a boycott of German goods in 1936. And when the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of black citizens’ boycott of racist businesses in Mississippi in the 1960s, the American Jewish Congress submitted a friend-of-the-court brief coauthored by Nathan Dershowitz [Alan’s brother] arguing that “politically motivated economic boycotts have a long and honored history in America,” and that boycotts “are forms of expression undoubtedly protected by the First Amendment.”

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Nation Radio: The Legacy of Lynching

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Peace, Justice, Ida B. Wells-Barnett

by Patricia J. Williams,  Published in The Nation Magazine, May 2, 2018

Whenever I play the piano, I do so under the watchful gaze of the great civil-rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. A beautiful bronze bust of her sits atop my old spinet. I may play terribly, but she lends me courage in all endeavors.

Born into slavery in 1862, Wells-Barnett attended what is today Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The college was founded in 1866 by members of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, who came south after the Civil War to set up schools where it had so recently been against the law to teach slaves how to read and write. Many had feared that literacy among slaves would “excite dissatisfaction” (as North Carolina’s law expressed it) and lead to rebellion; indeed, Mississippi’s antebellum law against educating slaves required that freed blacks leave the state altogether.

This fear metastasized after Emancipation. Northern missionaries and reformers flocked to Southern states to establish primary and secondary schools as well as the institutions now referred to as “historically black colleges and universities,” or HBCUs. But white resentment of black empowerment ran deep and strong in the South, culminating in the emergence of terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The repressive backlash of the post-Reconstruction era would be formalized as Jim Crow.

It was during this period that Wells-Barnett came of age. As literacy spread among the former slaves, black journalism flourished across the nation. Wells-Barnett co-owned and edited the newspaper Memphis Free Speech. She urged universal suffrage, including for black men and women. Among other things, she refused to leave a first-class carriage from which a conductor tried to expel her, and filed an early lawsuit challenging whites-only railroad cars. And she launched what would become a lifelong crusade against lynching.

The latter is undoubtedly what she is best remembered for today: Wells-Barnett traveled across the South delivering searing investigative reports on the extrajudicial spectacles of hangings, burnings, and dismemberment. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892 for daring to open a grocery store that competed with a white business, she urged African Americans to pack up and leave Memphis. So many hundreds followed her counsel—among them my grandmother and her sisters—that civic leaders tried to persuade her to retract that advice because of the drain on manual and domestic labor. When she refused, a mob burned down the offices of her paper and vowed to kill her. She fled to Chicago and continued to write.

It is in recognition of this determined advocacy that the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, has dedicated a space to her. The memorial is an evocatively beautiful structure composed of hundreds of suspended stelae, symbolic tribute to the thousands of men and women whose murders by lynching were meant to frighten African Americans into silence and submission. Its existence is largely due to the efforts of the extraordinary lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to challenging racial and economic injustice.

While nursing this project to fruition, Stevenson and the EJI began a campaign to label buildings that were once slave warehouses, put up signs where slave auctions took place, and make sacred the places where lynchings occurred. These markers are intended to remind and give pause, to stimulate contemplation of what has been suppressed and denied. They are designed to do the same emotional work as the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones“—small cubes inscribed with individual names, placed in the sidewalks of European cities to mark the last place where victims of Nazi extermination had lived.

Much of the coverage of the memorial’s April 26 opening focused on poignant interviews with the descendants of lynching victims. But there are at least three more topics that must be foregrounded to honor all that this project intends to evoke: first, the equally urgent, equally unsettling encounter that must be had with the descendants of perpetrators. Murderers wreak not just public forms of terror, but intergenerational havoc in intimate and domestic spheres as well; their victims include their own children, who were taught that unjust death was just life.

Second, we mustn’t forget that this memorial recognizes the diversity of the victims of lynching—which, while directed mainly against black men, spared few who defied white supremacy, including women, Jews, and those deemed foreigners.

Third, we need to think about the inexpressible horrors that have rendered it so hard to erect any monuments at all to the legacy of slavery other than sentimental paeans to honey, magnolia blossoms and the virtues of hard-work. This is not only about Confederate imagery:  the symbolic accumulation of things and people we commemorate speaks for itself: Of 152 national monuments, only three are dedicated to women; of 30 national memorials, not a single one is. That’s why it was so good to see Wells-Barnett honored at the national memorial in Montgomery. But perhaps that should inspire us to even greater ambition: Let’s remember that, in addition to being a courageous journalist and a Rosa Parks-before-her-time, the polymathic Wells-Barnett was also a schoolteacher, a businesswoman, a political candidate, a statistician, a sociologist, a wife and mother of six, an opponent of anti-miscegenation laws, and a feminist who fought for the right of women to vote (while refusing requests that she and other black women march at the back of suffragist demonstrations).

In short, Ida B. Wells-Barnett deserves a bigger statue than the one on my piano. Luckily, there’s a movement to build her a proper monument of her own in Bronzeville, on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent the latter years of her life. It will cost $300,000, only a third of which has been raised; if you wish to contribute, you may do so at Also, her descendants have set up a foundation to provide scholarships for needy students attending Rust College; contributions may be made at

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Leading and Bleeding

The attacks on the Parkland survivors are designed to humiliate, threaten, and dehumanize.

It has been unsettling to hear the language with which the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been attacked. They’ve been accused of being crisis actors, dupes, paid agitators, hooky-playing homosexuals, attention-seeking mental cases, pawns for the FBI, and communist traitors. If it is rare in American history to see upper-middle-class white children so viciously described, it would be wrong to consider it altogether anomalous. Looking at the list of epithets hurled at these young survivors—Emma González and David Hogg in particular—I am reminded of the hateful stereotypes used to demonize the young white Freedom Riders who challenged segregation nearly 60 years ago. And, perhaps predictably, the rhetoric has become even more vitriolic since a number of the students called attention to racial disparities in the media’s coverage (one could easily have assumed from the initial images that Stoneman Douglas was entirely white) and reached out to align their movement with the black youths who have advocated gun control under the broad umbrella of Black Lives Matter.

One of the most disturbing features of this mockery is its calculated dehumanization. The most searing comments seem far less concerned with the Second Amendment than with personalized humiliation, designed to threaten, break, or even destroy young people who are protesting in the name of peace. This discourse far exceeds mere incivility. We have witnessed the massive circulation of allegations that March for Our Lives activists are profiting from the blood of their fallen classmates, dancing on their graves, and ripping up the Constitution. We have heard guitarist Ted Nugent calling the anti-gun-violence protesters “soulless” and “mushy-brained”; indie-rock performer Jesse Hughes—himself a survivor of the horrific slaughter at the Bataclan music hall in Paris—likened giving up guns to prevent violence to “chop[ping] off my own dick to stop rape.” Leslie Gibson, the now-former Republican candidate for Maine’s House of Representatives, has called González a “skinhead lesbian.” Actor Frank Stallone described Hogg as a “pussy” and a “headline grabbing punk” who “is getting a little big for his britches,” adding, “I’m sure someone from his age group is dying to sucker punch this rich little bitch.” At Arkansas’s Greenbrier High School, three students who walked out of class for 17 minutes were given “two ‘swats’ from a paddle.” (As Wylie Green, one of the students, later observed: “The idea that violence should be used against someone who was protesting violence as a means to discipline them is appalling.”) Most notoriously, Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Hogg as a “whiner” when he didn’t get accepted by his top four choices for college.

The statistics of who is actually dying in our society have been drowned out by all this cruel noise. But the combination of gleeful misogyny, gratuitous threat, and just plain bullying is its own culture of disgrace. Unfortunately, dehumanizing our youngest citizens isn’t a new feature in our most vexed political encounters: I am thinking of Ruby Bridges, who in 1960, at the age of 6, integrated the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans; she made her way each morning through hordes of angry white parents—mostly women—who spat at her, threw eggs at her, and threatened to poison her. I am also thinking of Linda Brown, who died on March 25 of this year; as a child, she was the beneficiary, along with her sister Cheryl, of the ruling ending “separate but equal” in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

I am also remembering a significant precursor to the March for Our Lives: the Children’s March of 1963. Fifty-five years ago this May, thousands of schoolchildren marched through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial inequality. Freeman Hrabowski, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was 12 at the time, and recalls encountering the infamous public-safety commissioner, Bull Connor: “My knees were shaking. He looked at me and said, ‘Little nigra, what do you want?’ I said, ‘We want to kneel and pray.’” Hrabowski and hundreds of others were thrown in jail before the day was out, and Connor went on to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the crowds. (The water pressure was so great that it not only tore clothing and flesh, but dislodged bricks from nearby buildings.) The brutality captured in news footage from that day endures as the symbol of repressive racial separatism in a city whose nickname—“Bombingham”—stemmed from the frequency with which black homes and churches were bombed by white vigilantes.

Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who spent her own youth on the front lines of the civil-rights movement, has written poignantly of the four young girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and of the “wounds that are less visible and harder to reconcile.” She writes that bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph, whose sister Addie Mae was killed, and who lost one of her eyes in the blast, “is seeking financial compensation for the extensive medical expenses she incurred after the attack. After suffering the consequences for the past five decades, she said, even after all these years, nobody remembers her.”

González, Hogg, Naomi Wadler, and the other speakers at the March for Our Lives are the most memorable of the young people affected by our scourge of gun death. But more than 187,000 students have been exposed to school shootings since Columbine in April 1999. Many remain in various degrees of physical or mental pain; they are a population whose remaining years will be etched with the stresses of catastrophe. And while many of the young leaders of this new movement are smart, strong, and media-savvy, we should never forget the toll taken on their lives—not only with regard to the unspeakable trauma they’ve already endured, but in the reiteratively staged depravity that sics hungry dogs upon those who kneel to pray, codes cruelty as freedom, and takes decency for weakness.

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Midi info – Audio fil du vendredi 30 mars 2018 11 h 41 | Cinquante ans après l’assassinat de Martin Luther King : Table ronde avec Greg Robinson et Patricia Williams


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