Category Archives: Police

Ending Militarization Of Our Communities

From Stop The Militarization of Police Facebook page

In recent weeks Popular Resistance has focused on the escalation of US militarism around the world, especially in the Middle East with the assassination of General Soleimani, US troops staying in Syria to take their oil and the US refusing to leave Iraq despite being asked to leave. The US is in the midst of a potential escalation toward full-scale war in the Middle East once again.

However, militarism abroad is mirrored by militarism at home, especially in poor, black and brown communities. There is a long history of attacks on these communities. Now, the Department of Justice’s new Operation Relentless Pursuit threatens seven cities with more militarized police who view people in these communities as the enemy. This escalation of the war at home must be stopped and people are offering positive alternatives to militarization.

Join us at the conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition,
“Rise Against Militarism, Racism and the Climate Crisis Building Power Together”
February 21, 22, 23, at the People’s Forum in New York City

Trump Administration’s ‘Relentless Pursuit’ Will Ignite New Era Of Mass Incarceration

The US Department of Justice announced a new $71 million program, Operation Relentless Pursuit, which will escalate law enforcement in seven cities focusing on poor, black and brown communities. In addition to increased spending, the DOJ will bring enforcement personnel from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccos, and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, and US Marshals to Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Memphis, and Milwaukee.

These types of federal enforcement programs have a long history dating back to the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration that existed from 1968 to 1982, to the Weed and Seed program that began in 1997 under the Clinton Administration with $28.5 million and continues today. There are numerous similar programs and federal-state law enforcement task forces. They have resulted in increased arrests and mass incarceration without investing in communities or solving the root causes of crime.

In the graph below, the Sentencing Project shows how the number of people in prison in the United States took off starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mass incarceration is a direct result of changes in policy governing law enforcement and the judicial system such as the war on drugs and mandatory minimums for sentencing. It is also driven by the privatization of prisons. Prison corporations sign contracts with governments that guarantee a certain level of occupancy creating an obligation by the state to incarcerate people.

More Police In Communities Means More Deaths

The United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, both abroad and at home. Just as the US openly killed the foreign military leader of a country we are not at war with, in the US, police brazenly kill on average more than 1,000 people per year or about three people per day. Black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than white men. Latino men’s risk of being killed by police is about 40 percent higher than the risk faced by white men. Men are 10 times more likely to be killed by police than women. Racial inequality in risk extends across gender.

In fact, the total number of civilians killed by police in the United States greatly surpasses the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq where 39 soldiers were killed in 2019 and 48 in 2018.  China, whose population is 4.5 times the size of the United States, recorded 3 killings by law enforcement officers in 2018 and 2019 combined. Police in the US kills citizens at over 70 times the rate of other first-world nations.

Many people in heavily-policed communities do not feel safer when they see police in their neighborhoods. Too many feel like the police are an occupying force that gets away with murder. The violence of police leading to the death of civilians has become more widely known and understood as people developed the ability to report them through social media. Well-known killings such as Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner in New York City, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD and so many others have resulted in large nationwide protests.

In response, residents of some cities have elected prosecutors who seek to control police violence but they are running up against a system that thwarts their efforts. The Circuit Attorney in St. Louis, Kimberly Gardener, is suing the city, the police union and others using a law designed for the KKK for a “racist conspiracy to stop her from doing her job.” She is being attacked personally and her efforts to hold people accountable and reopen corrupt convictions are being blocked. In many cities where prosecutors are trying to reform the system, police unions are retaliating against them.

Ending Police Violence

Communities are organizing to rein in abuse by police. There is a growing campaign for community control of the police in which residents would decide who polices their communities and how they do so. They would be able to fire police who are abusive, racist or violent and make sure police are trained to ‘protect and serve.’ People are seeking to put in place  Civilian Police Accountability Councils that give broad powers to a democratically-elected council. This would replace the charade of civilian police review boards, which are appointed and often do more to protect the police than to hold them accountable.

There are many solutions to police violence. The Police Use of Force Project proposes common-sense limits on the use of force that are proven to reduce violence. These include requiring officers to de-escalate situations, prohibiting officers from choking or strangling civilians, requiring officers to intervene to stop excessive force by another officer, restricting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, developing a continuum of force that limits the types of force and weapons used, requiring the exhaustion of all reasonable alternatives to deadly force, requiring police to give a verbal warning before shooting and requiring officers to report each time they use or threaten the use of force.

The project finds that these basic procedures are not widely used and that “the average police department would have 54 percent fewer killings and a police department with none of these policies currently in place would have 72 percent fewer killings by implementing all eight of these policies.” They also find those police departments with these policies have less likelihood of police being killed, assaulted or sustaining an injury. Restricting police violence has not lead to an increase in violent crime.

Invest in the Poor, Not Police, and End the Drug War

Jacqueline Luqman, whom we interviewed on Clearing the FOG, points to basic solutions that would reduce crime by investing in poor communities instead of investing in more police. In our city, Baltimore, the police receive more resources from the city government than the health department and schools combined. Luqman says:

There are some pretty common-sense responses. Provide people jobs. Stop taking people’s homes. Make sure that people have affordable places to live. Increase the number of truly affordable housing and provide some type of tax benefit for working people so that they can keep their homes. Definitely invest in public schools. Provide resources and programs for kids and recreation centers. Restore the recreation centers that were closed especially in places, like Baltimore. Provide subsidized mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment for people who need it. If we do those things, crime will go down.

Listen to our interview about Operation Relentless Pursuit with Jacqueline Luqman here:

New Federal Police Surge Targets Poor And Black Communities.

Luqman highlights that another driving force in crime is the illegality of drugs. Drug use has been treated as a police issue for many decades, resulting in mass arrests and mass incarceration with a racially disproportionate impact on black and brown communities. Police are not equipped to solve the health and social problems of drug abuse.

Rather than continuing to use the same mistaken policies, the US needs a new approach to drug issues. So far eleven states have legalized adult use of marijuana and prosecutors in some cities are no longer prosecuting low-level marijuana offenders. The Atlanta Police Department is disbanding its special Narcotics Unit and reassigning officers to other units to address violent crime. Homicides in Atlanta for 2019 were up 9 percent over 2018, and 19 percent over 2017.

In addition to refocusing police resources on violent crime, positive programs to deal with drug abuse are needed. The US needs to move from zero tolerance and mass arrests to harm reduction programs that use a public health approach to reduce the damage from drug abuse. There is a wide range of harm reduction programs that reduce deaths from drugs, the spread of disease and crime.

Legal access to heroin or public injection facilities as well as controlled access to heroin have had dramatic impacts on crime and health. Studies conducted in six countries – Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany,  Canada, and England – show many positive benefits. These programs have reduced crime related to the acquisition of drugs, reduced drug markets, and public drug use, lowered the cost of health care and criminal justice as well as promoted employment and family life. Where people can purchase legal heroin for 10 percent of the cost of illegal heroin, it resulted in a 50 percent reduction in crime for those in the program as well as reductions of homelessness, unemployment and drug use.  As a result of people stabilizing their lives and forming positive relationships, people stopped their heroin use so this approach is now called Heroin Assisted Treatment.

With the United States imprisoning almost twenty-five percent of all people imprisoned in the world, even though we only have 5% of the world’s population, it is time to demand these commonsense, effective and humane approaches. Programs such as Operation Relentless Pursuit pour more money into a failed approach that terrorizes oppressed communities, breaks families apart and murders residents. We need to recognize that a country that recklessly murders people abroad will do the same at home. We need to end all wars by investing in programs that provide for people’s basic necessities instead of investing in programs that are designed to kill.

RCMP are Now Blocking Access to Wet’suwet’en Territory

RCMP are now blocking access to Wet’suwet’en territory, and only allowing hereditary chiefs that THEY approve to enter our own unceded lands. Our Wet’suwet’en people and family members are being blocked off the territory, while RCMP say that they are in a position to decide who is and who isn’t a chief.

Police have blocked media and supplies out, and they are enforcing a modern day pass system — forcing people to identify themselves in order to come and go from our own unceded lands.

Wet’suwet’en lands are unceded, untreatied, and unsurrendered. We maintain full jurisdiction, and the right to decide what happens on our lands. Our chiefs have unanimously asked RCMP to pack up and leave their remote detachment, but instead RCMP are increasing their presence — in anticipation of using violence against our people to force their way onto our lands.

Call to action: https://www.yintahaccess.com/

Canada’s Cops Were Ready to Shoot Indigenous Anti-Pipeline Activists

RCMP officers were instructed to use as much violence as they wanted at the blockade of the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Kanahus Manuel, an Indigenous activist in British Columbia, said it’s part of Canada’s long colonial legacy.

Colombia: Where Life has to Defeat Death

In one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota, Belen, I saw two people bleeding in the middle of the road. One person was clearly dead. A group of onlookers was moving frantically, shouting loudly. There was an attempt to resurrect an injured man. I asked the driver to inquire whether our help was needed, but he was told something insulting by the locals, and insisted that we leave the scene immediately.

Was it a traffic accident? Or a murder? The driver did not know. He actually did not want to know.

“Look,” he said. “You may be a Russian or Chinese Communist, or whatever, but here, in the middle of this slum, you kind of look like a gringo, and that is a damn big disadvantage to both of us, and to my car. So, if you don’t intend to bury your bones here, we should not stop in the middle of this neighborhood, for too long.”

“I thought they love Gringos in Colombia,” I uttered, sarcastically.

“Down there, yes,” my driver waved his hand towards the financial center of Bogota. “But not here. Not up here.”

Before becoming a driver, this individual used to be a top manager at one of the biggest South Korean electronics companies operating in Colombia. I have always been having good luck with my drivers. During the Dirty War in Peru I once was driven, for weeks, by a retired and thoroughly broke army general, and in Bulgaria, after the East European collapse, by a former ambassador to the United Nations.

Neo-liberal Colombia has some of the greatest and most bizarre disparities I have witnessed anywhere on Earth.

After filming and photographing in the middle of various tough slums that have mushroomed along the hills ‘above’ the capital, I returned to my hotel.

Just a few kilometers away from the misery-stricken dwellings, in a coffee shop of my hotel, a group of upper-class Colombians from Cali was having a casual dinner. The people were loud and I could not avoid overhearing their conversation. They spoke about their dogs having diarrhea, regularly, and how it could actually be stopped or prevented.

“It is outrageous,” one of them lamented. “Poor animal has been shitting and shitting. What is it telling us about the quality of Colombian food and water?”

*****

Obviously, someone had enough of such contrasts. Or more precisely, few millions of Colombian people decided that the situation is, should we say, “indigestible”.

And, so, on November 21, 2019, Colombia exploded.

Like Chile did, a few weeks earlier.

The explosion has been spontaneous, angry, and for the extreme right-wing government of President Iván Duque Márquez, very embarrassing. Some would say even, scary. His approval rating hit the bottom, 26%. Not as bad as in Chile, where the admirer of Pinochet’s dictatorship, President Pinera, ended up with just a pathetic 10% support from his citizens. Not as bad, but bad enough.

Colombia and Chile united in rage

Imagine that you are presiding over a fundamentalist neo-liberal country with hardly any public education or healthcare, with monstrous disparities, with some 9 U.S. military bases (it really depends how you count them; could be bit less or more), and with a foreign policy which has been shamelessly dictated from the North. Imagine that you still have those semi-active left-wing guerilla movements on your territory, but at the same time your government is simply super-hostile towards anything socialist, Communist, red or pink or even slightly progressive. And that many people in your own country actually strongly dislike the direction in which you are moving the nation.

Imagine that you have all sorts of problems at home, and that the left-wing guerilla movements are not the only issues you have to face here: you also have fascist militias which are murdering and disappearing people, you have those narco-mafias which sometimes have better social programs for the poor than your government does, and you also have the anti-imperialist Venezuela fighting for its survival immediately next door; a country which the United States has been trying to destabilize, ruin and turn into a regressive, oppressive Gulf state.

You have hundreds of thousands of the Venezuelan ‘refugees’ on your territory. Some say millions. People who have been escaping from the monstrous U.S. sanctions and from the outright U.K. and German theft of the Venezuelan gold, and monetary assets. It is scary, isn’t it? You have no idea who these people are. Are they really against the Venezuelan President, Maduro? For decades, millions of your people, Colombians, were crossing the border, escaping misery, seeking a better life in Caracas and Maracaibo. You know why it is now the other way round: because Venezuela has been raped, plundered by your masters in the United States and Europe. And it was done with your help, Mr. Duque. Now nobody knows what is coming next.

Your people are waking up, rising and starting to demand your resignation, or even the demise of the entire Colombian regime.

What do you do; how do you react?

First you pretend that you are listening. Even that you have some sympathy with your own people. But when you see that the protesters think that all that you offer (actually, not that much) is not enough, you deploy the special forces; you do it the Chilean way; you start using brutal police and military contingents, as well as under-cover para-military units. That is what your masters in the North tell you to do, and you are a good obedient servant of the U.S. government and those several “international organizations” controlled by Washington, including the Organization of American States” (OAS), World Bank, IMF, to name just a few.

You get a clear and loud message from Mike Pompeo in Washington. You can go ‘all the way’. You can kill, without being criticized. You can torture. This is all in the frame of the Monroe Doctrine, or, as some say, of the Second Operation Condor. As long as the killing and torture are done by the “right” people, against the “wrong” ones, they can never be criticized.

You begin frightening people. People begin getting injured, or even dying.

Where Dilan Cruz was killed, torn Colombian flag

You killed a boy. A young kid. His name was Dilan Cruz. His entire life was ahead of him. He was only 18 years old. Your forces shot him in the head with a bean bag round.

I went there, where it happened. People waved torn Colombian flags where Dilan was murdered.

That’s where Colombia is at this moment.

National strikes are shaking the capital and other major cities. Smoke and teargas are filling the air above several major streets. The atmosphere is tense. Nihilist, frightening graffiti is everywhere. The glass at your idiotic, overpriced ‘public’ transportation system (just glorified buses, nothing else) is shattered.

It may be just a beginning. Most likely it is.

Your regime is waiting. Will the demonstrators get tired and return home? If they retreat, fine. If not, it is likely that the state is ready to protect the status quo by crushing them; by killing many, injuring thousands, like in Chile.

In neo-liberal Latin America, which is governed by the U.S. and its “Monroe Doctrine”, human lives are worth nothing. What people demand is listened to, then analyzed, and in the end, used against them.

*****

In Bogota, in front of the building of the Attorney General of the Nation (Procuraduria General de la Nacion), hundreds of protesters, mainly indigenous, were blocking a square, despite a heavy police presence in the area.

Mainly indigenous protesters

One of the protest leaders, Mr. Felix Rueda, spoke to me, in front of the camera, while the notorious Colombian police force, “Esmad” (the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron), was slowly closing in on us, controlling all the nearby streets:

We are victims of the armed conflict. We are people who were hit hard by violence; something we thought would never happen again in this country. I represent the victims. And I fight for human rights. All these people around here are victims of the armed conflict.

A lady behind him begins to shout:

Here, almost all of us are victims. We are peasants, with no protection, whatsoever.

Mr. Rueda continues:

These people are victims of the state violence; perpetrated by the armed groups.

I asked him why there are no mass media outlets covering their plight.

Sometimes they come. But mostly just when we break down some doors, or when someone dies. One person has already died during the last weeks. Many were injured. Again, Colombians are now fighting against Colombians.

Another woman from the crowd screams at me:

There are also rapes; girls are being raped, even boys…

Police, military and the para-military response to the protests in Colombia has been so outrageously tough, so violent, that even some mass media outlets in the West had no choice but to notice and to report the gravest excesses. The Guardian wrote on 11 December, 2019:

For the past three weeks, Colombia has been racked by demonstrations triggered by widespread discontent with the proposed economic reforms of the rightwing president, Iván Duque, whose approval rating has dropped to just 26% since he took office in August last year.

Protesters are also angry at the lack of support for the historic 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which formally ended five decades of civil war that killed 260,000 and forced more than 7 million to flee their homes.

In a country which not long ago suffered the highest kidnapping rate in the world – and whose security forces have themselves been implicated in forced disappearances – the videos of police snatching protesters evoked disturbing memories.

According to the national victims’ agency more than 150,000 people were forcibly disappeared between 1986 and 2017, with up to 80,000 still missing. Combatants on all sides of the conflict engaged in the practice.

Police in slums protects or scares?

Since the beginning of the protests, Colombian forces have been disappearing people from the streets; something that is bringing traumatic memories to the citizens. In one case, a young woman protestor, was grabbed and pulled into an unmarked vehicle. Two people jumped into their car and chased the vehicle, persistently, until the victim was released. This was a well-documented case: “a young woman dragged into an unmarked Chevrolet”. But I was told that there were many other cases, that went unreported and almost unnoticed.

*****

I flew to Barranquilla, a city on the majestic River Magdalena. This is where this great Colombian waterway joins the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

This is where one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, Love in the Time of Cholera, written by the Colombian Communist writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, took place. This is where Florentino Ariza waits for the love of his life, Fermina Daza, for fifty-one years, nine months and four days. This is where he makes love to her, finally, on a river boat, at old age. Looking at the surface of this majestic river, Garcia Marquez, finishes his novel. I always thought that the book was fully connected to Cartagena, but I was explained to, that no; it was linked inseparably to the Magdalena River.

Constanza Vieira and her partne

And this is where my friend, one of the most important Colombian journalists, Constanza Vieira, lives.

She picked me up at the airport, together with her partner, drove me to the long, new riverside, where we sat down and spoke for hours about Colombia; her beloved and tortured land.

Her father had met Mao, on two occasions. She knew all about the negotiations between the government and FARC. She is a walking encyclopedia, when it comes to Colombia. But this is not what I wanted to know this time.

Latin America was in turmoil. The Bolivian government was overthrown in a brutal, fascist coup. Chile and Colombia were rising. Venezuela was fighting for its survival. Where was this country going?

Constanza spoke about corruption under Duque, about Uribe’s crimes, and about the grave violations of human rights in her country:

Colombia in a setting of South America, is a conservative country; very conservative. It is suffering from one right-wing government after another. Here, the inequality is tremendous, one of the greatest in Latin America. When the protests had erupted here, the governments negotiated with the protesters, but never delivered on what they agreed. Colombia is a neo-liberal country. Now it is being shaken by huge protests. In this context, we have to thank Chile. Because whenever in the past Colombians were demanding true changes, our government would tell us: ‘look at Chile! Chileans and all of us have to be thankful to General Pinochet. The country is so prosperous. Capitalism works!  So, the uprising in Chile, where people are rejecting neo-liberalism, is having a tremendous impact on Colombia.

The situation in Colombia is truly grotesque, and the cynicism endless. Constanza mentions just one example, which would be hard to even imagine in most of the other countries on the continent:

In this country, corruption is just enormous. And so are violations of human rights. Now imagine: the government of Duque decided to pay compensation to the victims of human rights violations, as well as victims of corruption – from the budget allocated to public universities!

Joint US-Colombian Air Force Facilities

I asked her about the U.S. military bases.

You see, it is not as simple as it used to be. United States is not staffing the bases with its own soldiers, permanently. The soldiers who come here are usually under-cover. It is often an intelligence unit or two, or these are soldiers who come and go, using local military bases only when they need them.

As we are parting at the airport, late at night, her partner, a writer, goes back to the “basics” – to Simon Bolivar:

If you talk to people all over Latin America, the great majority will say that they admire Simon Bolivar. Our great Liberator! But if you listen and look closer, you soon realize that the Bolivarian ideals are being betrayed, almost everywhere, all around us.

*****

Colombia is boiling. There is not just one problem that the country is facing; there are dozens, perhaps hundreds.

While indigenous people have been marching on Bogota, protesting and struggling for their rights and culture to be respected, the coca leaf cultivating farmers (most of them indigenous families) are demanding that their crop finally gets legalized.

All this, while the Colombia peace court is exhuming some 50 bodies in extra-judicial killings cases, presumably committed by the military.

As recently reported by Reuters:

False positive killings numbered at least 2,248 between 1998 and 2014. The majority of the murders took place during the term of former President Alvaro Uribe, according to the attorney general’s office.

People were defined as dying in combat, but in reality, they were victims of extra-judicial killings.

Misery and shame

Extreme poverty, extra-judicial killings, corruption, unemployment, an embarrassing foreign policy, police brutality, extremely high crime rate – everything is inter-connected. Everything seems to be explosive.

*****

One night, all around rebellious Bogota. Graffiti everywhere. Police on high alert. Clusters of people, assembling, then disappearing into the night.

Behind the airport, in the center of a town called Fontibon, there is a meeting of the committee which is organizing one of the strikes. I am being taken there by David Curtidor, a prominent Colombian activist.

He introduced me to Ms. Luz Janneth Zabaleta, a professor of mathematics, who is deeply involved in the organization of the protests. She explained to me:

Until now, all those government’s so-called reforms were made against the workers, indigenous people and students. This uprising will change everything.

 Her comrade, Arturo Partilla Lizarazo, a labor lawyer passionately supported her words:

Now Colombia is entering a huge struggle; it is fighting for the dignity of human beings, inhabiting this country. Neo-liberal policies have failed, here and elsewhere. And Colombia is ready to defeat those neo-liberal policies, which have already destroyed so many lives of our people.

We talk about the former government of President Uribe, which according to both, was basically following a policy of war. We also discuss the awful plight of the common Colombian people, of millions of starving children, the horrendous unemployment rate among young people, and the unimaginable hardship endured by elderly, retired people.

Later, at Parkway, which is a narrow park in the center of the city, I witnessed protesters waving Colombian and Chilean flags. There is live music. Young people are dancing. Units of the riot police are moving along the edges of the park. Are they going to attack? If yes, when? Nobody knows.

I drive through the now empty Bolivar Square, then near the Presidential Palace, barricaded, blocked by the military. Several government buildings are covered by black, protective curtains. Somehow, they look like a funeral halls.

Right next to the government district, there is a red light district’; full of sex workers, pimps and police units. In Colombia, power and misery shamelessly coexist next to each other.

*****

On my last day, before departing Bogota for La Paz, Bolivia, I was visited by a legendary educator, German Vladimir Zabala Archila, a liberation theologist who used to work with, among others,  Ivan Illich.

Still very active all-over Latin America, helping to set up revolutionary educational systems in various, particularly indigenous-majority countries, Vladimir is promoting the so-called “Pedagogy of Otherness” (Pedagogia de La Otredad).

Vladimir is an eternal optimist. He believes that Colombia, as well as the entire Latin America, are undergoing tremendous, irreversible transformations:

We are in the middle of great cultural changes. I can see it even in my own middle-class part of the city. My neighbors, whom I thought were very conservative ladies, are these days banging their pans in the middle of the street, in what is clearly a protest against the system and the government. We call it here “I am scared, but I am marching!”

One of our previous presidents used to say: ‘All we have to do is to become part of the United States.’ Colombian paramilitary groups infiltrated Venezuela, on behalf of the West. But look now. There is growing solidarity among black and indigenous people in such places like Cali. And even Evo [Morales] was here, marching with us. He is beloved by the people of Colombia.

“And now?” I asked Vladimir. “Evo… How does it all look from here?”

He does not hesitate:

We didn’t expect this coup. We were quite certain that Evo’s popularity in Bolivia would protect him. We were confident in Cuban intelligence. We did not think that Santa Cruz would succeed, with its horrible Nazis like Camacho, who are connected with narco-traffickers, and backed by the West…

But Vladimir is still optimistic, and so am I.

Latin America is waking up. United, as they say here, people can never be defeated. And slowly, reluctantly, Latin American nations are finally trying to unite.

*****

Things will not change overnight in Colombia, but they will eventually change.

As I drive through Bogota, I see anti-government graffiti, I see damaged buildings, the remains of the battles fought between protesters and the security forces. But I also see some strange attempts to infiltrate the rebellion, like the clenched fists that look just too familiar; like Otpor, a symbol of the Western-backed “Color Revolutions”.

It is too early to draw conclusions, but Colombian rebels have to be vigilant. While people are fighting for a new South America, while they are getting injured, while some are even dying, the West is plotting, together with President Duque and his regime; they are analyzing and trying to figure out how to keep things as they have been, for those long stagnant decades. If the government can get away with it, it would give absolutely nothing — zero.

This will be a long and difficult struggle.

Colombia is one of the most damaged places in Latin America; one of the most turbo-capitalist, and one of the most sold out to the West.

On the other hand, its opposition is vibrant and diverse. Its people are amazing; many very brave, educated and determined people.

*****

My last day in Bogota, as I was falling asleep, I heard some loud gunshots right in front of my hotel.

After years in Beirut, I was used to such sounds. ‘Celebratory shooting into the air’, I thought, half asleep. But people were screaming, too. Exhausted, I fell asleep.

The next morning, on the way to the airport, I was told by my driver: “At night, they killed a French man, right in front of the entrance to your hotel.”

‘Too many corpses’, I thought. ‘Too many people are dying in Colombia. For whatever reasons, but dying unnatural deaths.’

At Bogota Airport hundreds waiting for hours in line while officers playing and chatting

At the airport, passport control check took almost two hours. Immigration officers were showing absolute and open spite towards the passengers. They were chatting with each other, banging into their mobile phones, even eating. While people waited in endless lines, like cattle. Absolute impunity.

On the Avianca flight from Bogota to La Paz, my neighbor was a typical US lady-apparatchik.

“Where are you from?” she asked me in an arrogant tone of voice, right before take off.

“Russia,” I said.

What?”

“Russia.”

“What’s that?”

“Russian Federation”.

“Oh, Ru-siah!” She gave me a bizarre, pre-programmed, aggressive look.

I was leaving an old US colony for a new one, recently ‘acquired’ one.

The woman who was sitting next to me on the plane was radiating the unmistakable chill of death. My body began shaking slightly. But then I recalled the last words of Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novel, written on the shores of the Rio Magdalena:

The Captain looked at Fermina Daza and saw on her eyelashes the first glimmer of wintry frost. Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.

My body relaxed. And I was suddenly certain that it will be life, as well as the great passion for it, that will finally liberate Colombia from the appalling embrace of death.

First Published by 21WIRE

All photos by Andre Vltchek

Police in Hong Kong Brutalized by Rioters While Attacked by the Western Press

It is much more than what you are allowed to see. The Hong Kong police force are heroically fighting both the rioters and a complex and extremely dangerous international network which is aiming at destabilizing the People’s Republic of China.

Uighur, Taiwan, USA, EU – united against socialism and China

I never saw such cynicism before; such a vulgar media set up as in Hong Kong. I am talking in general, but also about what took place particularly on Sunday December 22, 2019. Rioters, waving blue Uyghur, Taiwanese, British and U.S. flags were shouting “independence” and “China is terrorist” slogans, in the middle of the city, just two blocks away from the International Financial Center while the police stood by, peacefully, in their full protective gear.

Journalists, real and fake, foreign and local, were there, in full force, clearly setting the stage for the ugly confrontations ahead. I observed “media outlets” working, and I ended up photographing and filming their involvement.

The truth is, they were nor reporting; not at all. They were participating, arranging things, provoking and manipulating actions.

All camera lenses, and all lenses of mobile phones, were pointed directly at the police, never at the rioters. Meanwhile, the rioters were shouting at the police, brutally insulting the men and women in uniform. This part was, of course, edited out; never shown in New York, Paris, Berlin and London. Often not even shown in Taipei or Hong Kong itself.

“Media” people were clearly advising the rioters what action to take and when, from which angle to throw things, from where to attack; how to make things “effective”.

At one point, rioters started charging, throwing bottles and other objects at the police.

Hong Kong police in spotlight-provoked

Eventually, the police would have little choice but to react; they would begin moving against the rioters. And that is when all cameras would begin to roll. That was the moment to start “reporting”.

As a professional, I could clearly imagine how the results of such twisted “coverage” would look like on television screens and on the front pages of Western newspapers: “An unprovoked, brutal police force charging at poor, peaceful, freedom and democracy-loving protesters”.

The insanity, madness of all this had no boundaries. Next to me, just two meters away, several members of the “press corps” were “helping each other from teargas poisoning”. They were frantically washing their faces with water, kneeling in the middle of the street, pretending that they were sick. I felt no teargas effects at first, and only after few minutes, I detected something very, very mild in the air. I photographed journalists, and then I photographed my own face, to show that my eyes were not affected.

It was all a great setup, perfectly polished, designed to manipulate public opinion in the West and in Hong Kong itself.

Media gaga in Hong Kong

Of recent I felt real combat tear gas in places like France, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia. That stuff breaks you in half; makes you fall to your knees, shout, fight for your life. In Hong Kong, the police force has been using the mildest gas I have ever detected anywhere in the world. But police actions here have been described as “outrageous” by individuals such as Benedict Rogers, a so-called human rights activist and chairman of the UK-based non-governmental organization “Hong Kong Watch”.

As in the past, Mr. Rogers has been calling Hong Kong police force actions, which are aimed at defending the city against the multi-national hostile coalition, as “police brutality”. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, fired back, declaring that “Christmas in Hong Kong was ruined by protesters”. The Hong Kong government said that there had been arson and police had been attacked with petrol bombs.

*****

During my recent work in Hong Kong I realized that the situation has been dramatically deteriorating, and the police force is now facing much greater challenges than it did in September and October, 2019. While the number of rioters is decreasing, those who remain on the streets (and in the underground cells) are much better organized, and better funded, particularly from abroad. Both the funding channels and propaganda support for the rioters are functioning professionally, and they are amazingly well coordinated. The funding from the West is massive.

For Hong Kong and its police force, the situation is increasingly dangerous.

Fake staged gas alert

The external forces operating on the Hong Kong territory are diverse and often very brutal. They include Taiwanese right-wing organizations, Japanese religious sects, Western-backed Uyghurs, fascist Ukrainian militant groupings, as well as European and North American propagandists, posing as press corps. There are several Western anti-PRC NGOs stirring hatred towards Beijing, all around Hong Kong and the region.

The rioters themselves are more and more radicalized, now often resembling extremist Islamic groups in the Middle East. They are thoroughly brainwashed, they use comfort women, and they are consuming narcotics, including “ice”, amphetamines and certain so-called “combat drugs”, which have been already injected into places such as Syria and Yemen, by the West and its Saudi allies.

As a war correspondent who regularly works in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (all these countries have been damaged and later destroyed by Western assaults or occupations), I am shocked to see the West using the same destabilizing strategies in Hong Kong; strategies which have been used in the Middle East and Central Asia.

It is obvious that the desire of Washington, London and others to harm China is too great, and will not stop, no matter what the price.

The hidden truth is that the Hong Kong police force is now facing a tremendous and extremely dangerous group of adversaries. It is not just a bunch of hooligans with black scarves covering their faces that are threatening the safety of the city and the entire People’s Republic of China. Those are only a vanguard – what you are allowed to see. Behind them, there are complex and diverse international right-wing forces: political, religious and yes, terrorist.

At this moment, the heroic Hong Kong police force is the only thin blue line which separates the city from anarchy, and possibly from imminent collapse.

* First published by China Daily, Hong Kong

• All photos taken by Andre Vltchek

The Police are Bad for Your Health

Police are bad for our health. It is up to all those who strive to improve societal well being to oppose the violence the institution of “law enforcement “continues to perpetrate on us all.

APHA members rally in front of the conference center before the APHA vote on the policy statement (Image from Medium)

I was recently starting an overnight hospital shift, when I received a text from a medical colleague working in a hospital in New York:  “The NYPD are here harassing a gunshot wound victim who is a minor with no family present […] So much so that the family of the patient next door came to us complaining about how they were manipulating [the patient] and twisting his words.”

What are police officers—members of a racist, murderous institution founded on the legacy of slave patrols—doing anywhere near an institution whose one, singularly proposed, job is ostensibly to be addressing the health and well-being of an individual? I am a physician who went into the medical field to better the well being of the public. As I see increasing police presence in our hospitals, health clinics, schools, subways, it leads me to ask the question: Are the police good for our health? 

In New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent hiring of 500 new police officers to fix “quality of life” issues on the subway is juxtaposed with multiple horrendous episodes of police brutality. This is combined with the police recent harassment and arrest of subway vendors selling churros or candy. We are continually told the police make us safer, but their presence often creates or escalates violence.

Direct Violence

Police threaten the health of communities—particularly black and brown communities—in a multitude of ways. Open up the computer or turn on the TV and there is no shortage of cases from which to choose. Recently, Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed— by a police officer called by a neighbor to do a “wellness check”— while playing video games with her nephew inside of her own home. Botham Jean was recently murdered inside of his own apartment when off-duty officer, Amber Guyger, “mistook” his apartment for hers. The murders of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Michael Stewart, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Quintonio LeGrier, Philando Castile and countless others prove time and again that police are a threat to the literal living existence of black and brown people throughout the U.S. New studies confirm the risk police officers pose to the lives of black and brown people showing “in the U.S., African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. For black women, the rate is 1.4 times more likely.”

While police officers’ use of excessive force disproportionately affects people of color, their excessive use of force threatens the lives of us all. As reported by MintPressNew’s John Whitehead:

In recent years, Americans have been killed by police merely for standing in a “shooting stance,” holding a cell phone, behaving oddly and holding a baseball bat, opening the front door, running in an aggressive manner holding a tree branch, crawling around naked, hunching over in a defensive posture, wearing dark pants and a basketball jersey, driving while deaf, being homeless, brandishing a shoehorn, holding a garden hose, and peeing outdoors.

Unfortunately, examples of police directly killing individuals only touches the tip of the iceberg. It is virtually impossible to cover even a significant percentage of nonlethal police violence perpetrated on the public. Cases such as that of a 15-year-old quadruple amputee tackled and pinned to the ground by a Sheriff’s Deputy in Arizona show officers truly have no limit to the violence they will exact on the public.

The Less Discussed Health Effects of Being Policed

Police officers also serve as a conduit for the country’s ever growing prison industrial complex, again most severely affecting black and brown communities. The U.S. now has the world’s largest prison population per capita, with more than 2 million people incarcerated. Since 1970, the number of individuals in jails or prisons has risen by 700% largely as a result of a racist war on drugs and three strikes laws. This system leads to direct violence and various other forms of trauma for those in prison, while also destroying family and social ties. Regardless of whether a person enters jail or prison, contact with the criminal justice system can affect a person’s employment, housing, and parental rights leading to negative health outcomes. According to New York City Health Commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, “the data show that involvement with the criminal justice system — even brief contact with the police or indirect exposure — is associated with lasting harm to people’s physical and mental health.”

Studies have shown there are various health effects of mass incarceration spilling over into communities. For example, a 2015 study by Schnittker et al. showed “US states that incarcerate a larger number of people show declines in overall access to and quality of care, rooted in high levels of uninsurance and relatively poor health of former inmates.” Other studies show correlations between aggressive police tactics and negative effects on the mental health of young men.

Furthermore, the trauma and chronic stress that comes with having a loved one abused or killed at the hands of police violence cannot be ignored. Atatiana Jefferson’s father, Marquis Jefferson, died of a fatal heart attack just weeks after his daughter’s killing by the police. After his death, a family spokesman said “I can only sum it up as a broken heart.” Soon after Eric Garner was killed by police his daughter Erica Garner also died of a heart attack at the age of 27.

As medical research has shown, grief-related stress can increase blood pressure and heart rate, while raising blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to constriction of blood vessels and disruption of cholesterol plaques that line arteries. This leaves individuals at risk for heart attack and other conditions. There is even a medical condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy aka broken-heart syndrome where increased stress causes the heart to pump inappropriately. When the police kill or physically harm one member of a community, they are hurting more than just the individual. In the cases of Atatiana Jefferson and Eric Garner, it could be said the police killed two people in each instance.

An Increasingly Militarized Police

In the U.S. in particular, police forces have become more militarized which poses health implications of their own. In 1990, faced with a bloated military budget, Congress passed the  National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1208—later replaced with the current section 1033 in 1996—of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to

transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.

One of the driving ideas behind this program was a crackdown on illegal drug use in the U.S. There was an idea that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like “drug warriors,” it should equip them like warriors. The program encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics in communities throughout the US. In their 2017 study, “Militarization and police violence: The case of the 1033 program,” researchers showed that more militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more police violence and more civilians killed by police each year. The study even found communities with increased militarization have increased numbers of pets killed by police.

Why are Physicians Still Calling Police for “Help”?

the disconnect? This comes partly from the relative position of privilege physicians comes from in the U.S. Physicians tend to come from upper-middle or upper class sectors of society. This makes them less likely to have had the negative interactions with police officers that other communities experience. Physicians are therefore more likely to associate police with their positive experiences even if they have some understanding of the prison industrial complex or mass policing. There is a widespread idea that the police are present “to protect,” so why wouldn’t one call an officer if he feels the need for “protection”?

To Serve and Protect?

For many communities, the police do not exist to “protect and serve.” Instead their presence is associated with terror and violence. Contrary to popular belief, the police officers in the U.S. do not even have the required job of “protecting” the public. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, most recently in 2005, that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect the public from harm. Furthermore officers are in no way trained to appropriately respond to calls for help, even if that was their true desire, as evidenced by their continual violent and punitive responses to requests for help by those experiencing mental crisis.

This begs the question: if the police do not exist to protect the public and continue to threaten the health of communities throughout the country, why do we continue to spend millions of dollars in taxpayer money on police forces? Focusing again on the history of policing can be helpful in answering this question. As Alex Vitale writes in his book “The End of Policing,” police forces were not created to protect the public. Instead, they were organized by propertied classes to maintain control over the “dangerous classes,” i.e. slaves, the poor, or political dissidents. Police today exist to protect the wealthy at the expense of the health and well being of the rest of us, period. The record of “Law enforcement” whether it be the FBI or local police, has shown time after time that this is true. During the 1960s and 1970s, various law enforcement groups through programs such as COINTELPRO targeted left-wing groups such as the Black Panther Party and assassinated community leaders throughout the U.S. More recently, local law enforcement, state governments, and federal agencies coordinated to destroy Occupy encampments nationwide. Civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter were categorized as “security threats” by law enforcement groups in the US.

These dangerous classes Vitale references are any organizations that challenge the power of the corporate elite. This is an often unseen way the police negatively impact the health of the public. By working to subvert, co-opt, and destroy popular movements of individuals coming together to challenge corporate power, the police allow for, and even facilitate, the continued capitalist onslaught in every social area of our society.

The People are Rising

Fortunately, the public is waking up to police terror’s direct and indirect negative effects on public health. Recent mobilizations of communities throughout New York City to resist racist police terror on the subways are just one example. People are rising and stating openly that the police do not, “serve and protect” and instead are a threat to public health. This phenomenon is extending to countries around the world, where communities are resisting militarized law enforcement agencies that serve only to protect the rich and powerful.

In health care, the role of the physician is to diagnose the source of a patient’s disease and then to combat that source. It is clear that ongoing terror and violence perpetrated by law enforcement agencies is a societal disease hurting us all. Police are clearly bad for our health. The only solution is to eliminate the disease and abolish the police and the racist structures from which they come.

The Whole Damn System Is Guilty As Hell: Taking Control Of Police

Stop killings by police protest (Credit: William Widmer of the NY Times)

The entire system of policing in the United States is in crisis. Police murdering civilians has become a too common nightmare across the United States. The police murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner in New York City, Walter Scott in Charleston, SC, Tamar Rice in Cleveland OH, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, MD, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, IL and so many more have spurred a movement to transform policing.

The power relationship between police and the community is out of balance. Militarized policing of black and brown communities resembles an occupying force. While many police departments use the slogan “protect and serve,” in too many communities, people do not feel protected or served. They feel threatened, harassed and abused by police.

The relationship between police and the people needs to change. While there have been some positive reforms like police body cameras, special units to investigate police and increased prosecutions of police, these are insufficient. The most promising transformational change is to put in place community control of police through a democratically-elected police accountability board.

Screenshots showing the police conflict and killing of Eric Garner

The Crisis

The constant police killings and shootings often caught on video and shared on social media have created a movement to transform policing. Associated Press described it, writing: “The videos — and the outrage that followed — helped ignite the most powerful civil rights movement since the 1960s.” The widespread police violence has become a national racial justice issue.

Police violence protest sign carried in the 1963 March on Washington, from Smithsonian Institution

Police violence has been a reality in the United States from the start. The poster above could be carried today, but it is more than 50 years old. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the I Have A Dream Speech, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Police violence has been part of centuries of oppression of Black people in the United States since they were first brought to the continent as slaves.

Slavery and racism are intertwined with policing, as Gary Potter, Ph.D., wrote in The History of Policing in the United States:

The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol” (Platt 1982). The first formal slave patrol was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704 (Reichel 1992). Slave patrols had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing “Jim Crow” segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.

The 1929 Illinois Crime Survey found that although blacks made up just five percent of the population, they constituted 30 percent of the victims of police killings. Police violence has been the spark for uprisings in black communities. Newark had one of the deadliest riots when in 1967 police officers beat a black cab driver leading to an insurrection where 26 people died over four days of unrest. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders investigated the causes of major uprisings concluding: “police actions were ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.”

The 1991 video of the bloody beating of cab driver Rodney King showed police brutality on television. Police hit King more than 50 times with their batons. When they were acquitted, the verdict led to an uprising that lasted six days, killing 63 people and injuring 2,373. The National Guard, US Army, and Marines were deployed in the community.

Today, the widespread acts of violence cannot be claimed to be isolated incidents of one bad apple. This violence is documented by the media like The Guardian and non-profit organizations like The Marshall ProjectMore than 1,100 people per year are killed by the police — more than four times the number of people lynched or executed by capital punishment in the worst of years — about one person every eight hours.

Police departments have become a violent occupying force in communities of color and against people exercising their political rights at protests. Police departments with military-grade equipment have become the norm in US cities. Images of police officers in helmets and body armor riding through neighborhoods in tanks accompany stories of protests, including when people protest against police violence.

Community Control of Police, thousands in Chicago protest against police crimes (Photo by Monique in Fight Back News)

Putting People in Control of the Police

In 2012, about 100 people met in Chicago to develop a plan for community control of the police. Now, 60,000 people have signed petitions and there are 19 members of the Chicago City Council, 40 percent of the council, who support it. This weekend, 1,000 people attended the re-founding of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression where the centerpiece of discussion was democratic control of the police.

We interviewed Frank Chapman, who has been involved in the work in Chicago to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) from the beginning, on our radio show.  Chapman puts the issue into context describing how, for a brief period after the Civil War, communities controlled their police. But the reversal of Reconstruction ended that. He says that communities getting control of police should be recognized as central to black liberation.

Chapman explains how they have organized to build support for the issue with grassroots activism, holding community meetings, going door-to-door and tabling, gathering signatures and electing people to the city council.

The centerpiece of the Chicago bill is democratic community control. The bill for a Civilian Police Accountability Council gives broad powers to the elected council. These powers include complete control of the police:

  1. Appoint a Superintendent of Police;
  2. Adopt rules and regulations for the governance of the Department of Police of the city;
  3. Serve as a board to hear disciplinary actions for which a suspension for more than the 30 days expressly reserved to the Superintendent is recommended, or for removal or discharge involving officers and employees of the Police Department in the classified civil service of the city;
  4. Promulgate rules, regulations, and procedures for the conduct of the CPAC’s investigations consistent with the requirements of collective bargaining agreements, due process of law and equal protection under the law;
  5. In those instances where CPAC’s investigation indicates that a member of the Department of Police has committed a crime, petition the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to convene a Grand Jury if one is not already convened, and present CPAC’s findings of criminal activity to the Grand Jury to get an indictment for Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law pursuant to 18 U.S. Code § 242;
  6. Review, approve and submit to the City of Chicago the annual budget of the Department of Police;
  7. Provide required educational opportunities for CPAC members to become familiar with citizens’ United States and Illinois constitutional rights, learn law enforcement oversight techniques, and undergo victims’ assistance, sexual assault and domestic violence certification training;
  8. Establish officers, committees, and subcommittees for the effective conduct of CPAC business;
  9. Protect the rights guaranteed to the citizens of Chicago by the United States and Illinois Constitutions;
  10. Review and sign off on all complaint investigations;
  11. Review and sign off on all new Department of Police policies and special orders;
  12. Disallow the use of the Department of Police by outside law enforcement agencies to commit crimes;
  13. Negotiate and approve contracts with the police unions; and,.
  14. Remap the City of Chicago police districts as needed as determined by the CPAC.

When asked what the difference is between the elected council and the increasingly common Civilian Police Review Boards, Chapman responds: “Accountability.” By being democratically elected, the Chicago model holds the council and the police accountable. Review boards chosen by the government too often include people who are friends or allies of the police.

Democratic control is essential

This November 4, the city of Rochester, NY passed a referendum creating a Police Accountability Board with 75 percent of voters supporting it. Between 2001 and 2016, citizens filed 923 allegations of excessive force. The Chief of Police sustained 16 of these allegations, only 13 led to discipline.

The board will be able to independently investigate civilian complaints, subpoena information for its investigations, and determine whether individual officers have committed misconduct. It will also create disciplinary guidelines, with an opportunity for input from the Chief of Police and the police union. If the board finds, after a hearing, that an officer has committed misconduct, the Chief of Police is required to impose discipline consistent with disciplinary guidelines. The board will also recommend changes to the Police Department’s policies, practices, and training. The police union is expected to file suit to stop this board from taking effect.

The board will be composed of nine unpaid Rochester residents: one appointed by the Mayor and eight appointed by the City Council; four of the Council’s appointees will be nominated by a coalition of community organizations, the Police Accountability Board Alliance. The potential Achilles Heel of this new law is the lack of democratic control by the people.

As a result of a November 2001 referendum supported by over 76 percent of the electorate, Miami created the Civilian Investigative Panel (“CIP”). Voters sought oversight because of a series of suspicious police shootings, throwdown guns and officers lying to grand juries. The CIP only makes recommendations to the police and has weak powers granted to its 13 members. They have lost their fight to be able to subpoena police officers due to the state’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. This approach has been judged as a failure. Sixteen states have a Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which gives extra protection to police under investigation and makes it impossible for police to be judged by anyone but other police officers.

Lessons from the experience with police oversight include the importance of the democratic selection of oversight boards, not boards appointed by elected officials, clear powers that are not merely advisory for the board and, in states where relevant, confronting the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Cities are spending large shares of their budgets on police at the expense of social services, health care, infrastructure, and other needs. Oakland spent 41 percent of the city’s general fund on policing in 2017. Chicago spent nearly 39 percent, Minneapolis, almost 36 percent, and Houston 35 percent. A recent study documents how a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons.

Democratic community control of the police transforms the power dynamic between police and citizens. Black communities policing the police in their neighborhoods to confront the long term racist roots of policing in the United States. Community control of police needs to become the unified goal of movements seeking to end police violence, create police who serve the community and liberate black communities.

“They’re killing us like dogs”: A Massacre in Bolivia and a Plea for Help

Photo by Medea Benjamin

I am writing from Bolivia just days after witnessing the November 19 military massacre at the Senkata gas plant in the indigenous city of El Alto, and the tear-gassing of a peaceful funeral procession on November 21 to commemorate the dead. These are examples, unfortunately, of the modus operandi of the de facto government that seized control in a coup that forced Evo Morales out of power.

The coup has spawned massive protests, with blockades set up around the country as part of a national strike calling for the resignation of this new government. One well-organized blockade is in El Alto, where residents set up barriers surrounding the Senkata gas plant, stopping tankers from leaving the plant and cutting off La Paz’s main source of gasoline.

Determined to break the blockade, the government sent in helicopters, tanks and heavily armed soldiers in the evening of November 18. The next day, mayhem broke out when the soldiers began teargassing residents, then shooting into the crowd. I arrived just after the shooting. The furious residents took me to local clinics where the wounded were taken. I saw the doctors and nurses desperately trying to save lives, carrying out emergency surgeries in difficult conditions with a shortage of medical equipment. I saw five dead bodies and dozens of people with bullet wounds. Some had just been walking to work when they were struck by bullets. A grieving mother whose son was shot cried out between sobs: “They’re killing us like dogs.” In the end, there were 8 confirmed dead.

The next day, a local church became an improvised morgue, with the dead bodies–some still dripping blood–lined up in pews and doctors performing autopsies. Hundreds gathered outside to console the families and contribute money for coffins and funerals. They mourned the dead, and cursed the government for the attack and the local press for refusing to tell the truth about what happened.

The local news coverage about Senkata was almost as startling as the lack of medical supplies. The de facto government has threatened journalists with sedition should they spread “disinformation” by covering protests, so many don’t even show up. Those who do often spread disinformation. The main TV station reported three deaths and blamed the violence on the protesters, giving airtime to the new Defense Minister Fernando Lopez who made the absurd claim that soldiers did not fire “a single bullet” and that “terrorist groups” had tried to use dynamite to break into the gasoline plant.

It’s little wonder that many Bolivians have no idea what is happening. I have interviewed and spoken to dozens of people on both sides of the political divide. Many of those who support the de facto government justify the repression as a way to restore stability. They refuse to call President Evo Morales’ ouster a coup and claim there was fraud in the October 20 election that sparked the conflict. These claims of fraud, which were prompted by a report by the Organization of American States, have been debunked by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Morales, the first indigenous president in a country with an indigenous majority, was forced to flee to Mexico after he, his family and party leaders received death threats and attacks — including the burning of his sister’s house. Regardless of the criticisms people may have of Evo Morales, especially his decision to seek a fourth term, it is undeniable that he oversaw a growing economy that decreased poverty and inequality. He also brought relative stability to a country with a history of coups and upheavals. Perhaps most importantly, Morales was a symbol that the country’s indigenous majority could no longer be ignored. The de facto government has defaced indigenous symbols and insisted on the supremacy of Christianity and the Bible over indigenous traditions that the self-declared president, Jeanine Añez, has characterized as “satanic“. This surge in racism has not been lost on the indigenous protesters, who demand respect for their culture and traditions.

Jeanine Añez, who was the third highest ranking member of the Bolivian Senate, swore herself in as president after Morales’ resignation, despite not having a necessary quorum in the legislature to approve her as president. The people in front of her in the line of succession – all of whom belong to Morales’ MAS party – resigned under duress. One of those is Victor Borda, president of the lower house of congress, who stepped down after his home was set on fire and his brother was taken hostage.

Upon taking power, Áñez’s government threatened to arrest MAS legislators, accusing them of “subversion and sedition”, despite the fact that this party holds a majority in both chambers of congress. The de facto government then received international condemnation after issuing a decree granting immunity to the military in its efforts to reestablish order and stability. This decree has been described as a “license to kill” and “carte blanche” to repress, and it has been strongly criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The result of this decree has been death, repression and massive violations of human rights. In the week-and-a-half since the coup, 32 people have died in protests, with more than 700 wounded. This conflict is spiraling out of control and I fear it will only get worse. Rumors abound on social media of military and police units refusing the de facto government’s orders to repress. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this could result in a civil war. That’s why so many Bolivians are desperately calling for international help. “The military has guns and a license to kill; we have nothing,” cried a mother whose son had just been shot in Senkata. “Please, tell the international community to come here and stop this.”

I have been calling for Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile, to join me on the ground in Bolivia. Her office is sending a technical mission to Bolivia, but the situation requires a prominent figure. Restorative justice is needed for the victims of violence and dialogue is needed to defuse tensions so Bolivians can restore their democracy. Ms. Bachelet is highly respected in the region; her presence could help save lives and bring peace to Bolivia.

• The author has been reporting from Boliva since November 14 2919.

Casualties of War: Military Veterans Have Become America’s Walking Wounded

Come you masters of war / You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know / I can see through your masks….
You fasten all the triggers / For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch / When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion / While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud.

— Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”, from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, spring of 1963

War drives the American police state.

The military-industrial complex is the world’s largest employer.

War sustains our way of life while killing us at the same time. As Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and author Chris Hedges observes:

War is like a poison. And just as a cancer patient must at times ingest a poison to fight off a disease, so there are times in a society when we must ingest the poison of war to survive. But what we must understand is that just as the disease can kill us, so can the poison. If we don’t understand what war is, how it perverts us, how it corrupts us, how it dehumanizes us, how it ultimately invites us to our own self-annihilation, then we can become the victim of war itself.

War also entertains us with its carnage, its killing fields, its thrills and chills and bloodied battles set to music and memorialized in books, on television, in video games, and in superhero films and blockbuster Hollywood movies financed in part by the military.

Americans are fed a steady diet of pro-war propaganda that keeps them content to wave flags with patriotic fervor and less inclined to look too closely at the mounting body counts, the ruined lives, the ravaged countries, the blowback arising from ill-advised targeted-drone killings and bombing campaigns in foreign lands, or the transformation of our own homeland into a war zone.

Nowhere is this double-edged irony more apparent than during military holidays, when we get treated to a generous serving of praise and grandstanding by politicians, corporations and others with similarly self-serving motives eager to go on record as being pro-military.

Yet war is a grisly business, a horror of epic proportions.

In terms of human carnage alone, war’s devastation is staggering. For example, it is estimated that approximately 231 million people died worldwide during the wars of the 20th century. This figure does not take into account the walking wounded—both physically and psychologically—who “survive” war.

Many of those who have served in the military are among America’s walking wounded.

Despite the fact that the U.S. boasts more than 20 million veterans who have served in World War II through the present day, the plight of veterans today has become America’s badge of shame, with large numbers of veterans impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, suicide, and marital stress, homeless, subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, and left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration offices.

According to a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017.

On average, 6,000 veterans kill themselves every year, and the numbers are on the rise.

As Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, observed, “For soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, coming home is more lethal than being in combat.”

Unfortunately, it’s the U.S. government that poses the greater threat to America’s military veterans, especially if they are among that portion of the population that exercises their First Amendment right to speak out against government wrongdoing.

Consider: we raise our young people on a steady diet of militarism and war, sell them on the idea that defending freedom abroad by serving in the military is their patriotic duty, then when they return home, bruised and battle-scarred and committed to defending their freedoms at home, we often treat them like criminals merely for exercising those rights they risked their lives to defend.

The government even has a name for its war on America’s veterans: Operation Vigilant Eagle.

As first reported by the Wall Street Journal, this Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program tracks military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and characterizes them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”

Coupled with the DHS’ dual reports on Right-wing and Left-wing “Extremism” which broadly define extremists as individuals, military veterans and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics bode ill for anyone seen as opposing the government.

Yet the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is taking aim at individuals trained in military warfare.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the DHS has gone extremely quiet about Operation Vigilant Eagle.

Where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be fire.

And the government’s efforts to target military veterans whose views may be perceived as “anti-government” make clear that something is afoot.

In recent years, military servicemen and women have found themselves increasingly targeted for surveillance, censorship, threatened with incarceration or involuntary commitment, labeled as extremists and/or mentally ill, and stripped of their Second Amendment rights.

An important point to consider, however, is that under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as threats to national security.

In light of the government’s efforts to lay the groundwork to weaponize the public’s biomedical data and predict who might pose a threat to public safety based on mental health sensor data (a convenient means by which to penalize certain “unacceptable” social behaviors), encounters with the police could get even more deadly, especially if those involved have a mental illness or disability coupled with a military background.

Incredibly, as part of a proposal being considered by the Trump Administration, a new government agency HARPA (a healthcare counterpart to the Pentagon’s research and development arm DARPA) will take the lead in identifying and targeting “signs” of mental illness or violent inclinations among the populace by using artificial intelligence to collect data from Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echo and Google Home.

These tactics are not really new.

Many times throughout history in totalitarian regimes, such governments have declared dissidents mentally ill and unfit for society as a means of disempowering them.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag: A History:

The exile of prisoners to a distant place, where they can ‘pay their debt to society,’ make themselves useful, and not contaminate others with their ideas or their criminal acts, is a practice as old as civilization itself. The rulers of ancient Rome and Greece sent their dissidents off to distant colonies. Socrates chose death over the torment of exile from Athens. The poet Ovid was exiled to a fetid port on the Black Sea.

For example, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union often used psychiatric hospitals as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally through the use of electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures.

Insisting that “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” the psychiatric community actually went so far as to provide the government with a diagnosis suitable for locking up such freedom-oriented activists.

In addition to declaring political dissidents mentally unsound, Russian officials also made use of an administrative process for dealing with individuals who were considered a bad influence on others or troublemakers.

Author George Kennan describes a process in which:

The obnoxious person may not be guilty of any crime . . . but if, in the opinion of the local authorities, his presence in a particular place is “prejudicial to public order” or “incompatible with public tranquility,” he may be arrested without warrant, may be held from two weeks to two years in prison, and may then be removed by force to any other place within the limits of the empire and there be put under police surveillance for a period of from one to ten years. Administrative exile–which required no trial and no sentencing procedure–was an ideal punishment not only for troublemakers as such, but also for political opponents of the regime.

Sound familiar?

This age-old practice by which despotic regimes eliminate their critics or potential adversaries by declaring them mentally ill and locking them up in psychiatric wards for extended periods of time is a common practice in present-day China.

What is particularly unnerving, however, is how this practice of eliminating or undermining potential critics, including military veterans, is happening with increasing frequency in the United States.

Remember, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) opened the door for the government to detain as a threat to national security anyone viewed as a troublemaker. According to government guidelines for identifying domestic extremists—a word used interchangeably with terrorists—technically, anyone exercising their First Amendment rights in order to criticize the government qualifies.

It doesn’t take much anymore to be flagged as potentially anti-government in a government database somewhere—Main Core, for example—that identifies and tracks individuals who aren’t inclined to march in lockstep to the government’s dictates.

In fact, as the Washington Post reports, communities are being mapped and residents assigned a color-coded threat score—green, yellow or red—so police are forewarned about a person’s potential inclination to be a troublemaker depending on whether they’ve had a career in the military, posted a comment perceived as threatening on Facebook, suffer from a particular medical condition, or know someone who knows someone who might have committed a crime.

The case of Brandon Raub is a prime example of Operation Vigilant Eagle in action.

Raub, a 26-year-old decorated Marine, actually found himself interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys.

On August 16, 2012, a swarm of local police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s Virginia home, asking to speak with him about posts he had made on his Facebook page made up of song lyrics, political opinions and dialogue used in a political thriller virtual card game.

Among the posts cited as troublesome were lyrics to a song by a rap group and Raub’s views, shared increasingly by a number of Americans, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.

After a brief conversation and without providing any explanation, levying any charges against Raub or reading him his rights, Raub was then handcuffed and transported to police headquarters, then to a medical center, where he was held against his will due to alleged concerns that his Facebook posts were “terrorist in nature.”

Outraged onlookers filmed the arrest and posted the footage to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Meanwhile, in a kangaroo court hearing that turned a deaf ear to Raub’s explanations about the fact that his Facebook posts were being read out of context, Raub was sentenced to up to 30 days’ further confinement in a psychiatric ward.

Thankfully, The Rutherford Institute came to Raub’s assistance, which combined with heightened media attention, brought about his release and may have helped prevent Raub from being successfully “disappeared” by the government.

Even so, within days of Raub being seized and forcibly held in a VA psych ward, news reports started surfacing of other veterans having similar experiences.

“Oppositional defiance disorder” (ODD) is another diagnosis being used against veterans who challenge the status quo. As journalist Anthony Martin explains, an ODD diagnosis

denotes that the person exhibits ‘symptoms’ such as the questioning of authority, the refusal to follow directions, stubbornness, the unwillingness to go along with the crowd, and the practice of disobeying or ignoring orders. Persons may also receive such a label if they are considered free thinkers, nonconformists, or individuals who are suspicious of large, centralized government… At one time the accepted protocol among mental health professionals was to reserve the diagnosis of oppositional defiance disorder for children or adolescents who exhibited uncontrollable defiance toward their parents and teachers.

Frankly, based on how well my personality and my military service in the U.S. Armed Forces fit with this description of “oppositional defiance disorder,” I’m sure there’s a file somewhere with my name on it.

That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) these veterans is diabolical. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these veterans are being declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights.

If it were just being classified as “anti-government,” that would be one thing.

Unfortunately, anyone with a military background and training is also now being viewed as a heightened security threat by police who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.

Feeding this perception of veterans as ticking time bombs in need of intervention, the Justice Department launched a pilot program in 2012 aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans.

The result?

Police encounters with military veterans often escalate very quickly into an explosive and deadly situation, especially when SWAT teams are involved.

For example, Jose Guerena, a Marine who served in two tours in Iraq, was killed after an Arizona SWAT team kicked open the door of his home during a mistaken drug raid and opened fire. Thinking his home was being invaded by criminals, Guerena told his wife and child to hide in a closet, grabbed a gun and waited in the hallway to confront the intruders. He never fired his weapon. In fact, the safety was still on his gun when he was killed. The SWAT officers, however, not as restrained, fired 70 rounds of ammunition at Guerena—23 of those bullets made contact. Apart from his military background, Guerena had had no prior criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.

John Edward Chesney, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran, was killed by a SWAT team allegedly responding to a call that the Army veteran was standing in his San Diego apartment window waving what looked like a semi-automatic rifle. SWAT officers locked down Chesney’s street, took up positions around his home, and fired 12 rounds into Chesney’s apartment window. It turned out that the gun Chesney reportedly pointed at police from three stories up was a “realistic-looking mock assault rifle.”

Ramon Hooks’ encounter with a Houston SWAT team did not end as tragically, but it very easily could have. Hooks, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, was using an air rifle gun for target practice outside when a Homeland Security Agent, allegedly house shopping in the area, reported him as an active shooter. It wasn’t long before the quiet neighborhood was transformed into a war zone, with dozens of cop cars, an armored vehicle and heavily armed police. Hooks was arrested, his air rifle pellets and toy gun confiscated, and charges filed against him for “criminal mischief.”

Given the government’s increasing view of veterans as potential domestic terrorists, it makes one think twice about government programs encouraging veterans to include a veterans designation on their drivers’ licenses and ID cards.

Hailed by politicians as a way to “make it easier for military veterans to access discounts from retailers, restaurants, hotels and vendors across the state,” it will also make it that much easier for the government to identify and target veterans who dare to challenge the status quo.

After all, no one is spared in a police state.

Eventually, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we all suffer the same fate.

It stands to reason that if the government can’t be bothered to abide by its constitutional mandate to respect the citizenry’s rights—whether it’s the right to be free from government surveillance and censorship, the right to due process and fair hearings, the right to be free from roadside strip searches and militarized police, or the right to peacefully assemble and protest and exercise our right to free speech—then why should anyone expect the government to treat our nation’s veterans with respect and dignity?

Here’s a suggestion: if you really want to do something to show your respect and appreciation for the nation’s veterans, why not skip the parades and the flag-waving and instead go exercise your rights—the freedoms that those veterans swore to protect—by pushing back against the government’s tyranny.

It’s time the rest of the nation did its part to safeguard the freedoms we too often take for granted.

Freedom is not free.