Punishing Speech: America and Whistle-Blowers

Today, as the country turned toward the Capitol to watch the State of the Union, my mind focused on the idea of speech. Who has the power to speak? When is that power taken away? What version of history is packaged and sold to the masses? Who benefits from this? Why do we so often fear the strength of our own voices?

I have always believed that one of the most pernicious effects of oppression is an internalized self-hatred. People are taught to doubt their own agency and dignity. People are taught that their voices are unimportant and inferior. The rest of society, those with privilege, are taught to buy into this hierarchy and develop implicit biases against the oppressed. This is true along so many lines – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.

But voicelessness is not just a feeling, it is a legally enforced condition – through censorship, voting restrictions, imprisonment, and murder. Tonight, President Obama stated, “We defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.” I wish this were true. But it is so clearly a lie. America does not want resistance. It does not want transparency. And it certainly does not want its mistakes aired.

Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all other presidents combined. Whistle-blowers are truth-tellers; they reveal to the public questionable and immoral acts of the government. We need whistle-blowers. Without transparency, there is no accountability, and democracy becomes a smokescreen. The government can run wild, unchecked.

John Kiriakou’s crime was exposing the CIA’s use of torture. He has served time, his wife was fired from her position at the agency, and his family is in an immense amount of legal debt. His five children see him only in prison. He is being punished for his conscience. Those responsible for the torture, those who harmed and violated other people, have not been held accountable. Those who murdered Gul Rahman and then hid his death from his family for seven years have not been held accountable. Speech is punished; violence is not.

The message is clear: open your mouth, and we will ruin your life; keep it shut, and you will be rewarded.

Kiriakou is not alone. There is the very public case of Edward Snowden. There is Chelsea Manning who revealed the truth about Guantanamo and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when she was on suicide watch at a military prison, she was forced to sleep naked and confined to a windowless cell 24 hours a day. There is Thomas Drake whose house was raided at gunpoint after he leaked information about an NSA program that was wasting billions of dollars and violating citizens’ privacy. There is Shamai Leibowitz who leaked documents because he feared a deadly Israeli attack on Iran. The names go on. Each of these people has lost their freedom and their careers. They serve as a warning to other potential whistle-blowers, and Obama is responsible for their destruction.

The history of the Espionage Act of 1917, which has been used to prosecute many of these truth-tellers, reads like a page from 1984. Passed after the U.S. entered World War I, it was used to prosecute Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. He was sentenced to ten years for making a speech that allegedly “obstructed recruiting.” It was used to support the seizure of a film that portrayed British violence during the American Revolution. The government feared this would create division at a time when England was a wartime ally. The producer was imprisoned and fined. It was used to persecute  Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for publishing the Pentagon Papers, exposing President Johnson’s lies about the Vietnam War. 

As Kiriakou states, “Washington has always needed an ‘ism’ to fight against, an idea against which it could rally its citizens like lemmings. First, it was anarchism, then socialism, then communism. Now, it’s terrorism. Any whistleblower who goes public in the name of protecting human rights or civil liberties is accused of helping the terrorists.” The Espionage Act is legal way to punish dissent.

If President Obama wants to urge Americans to “defend free speech and advocate for political prisoners,” perhaps he should lead by example. Our right to criticize the government is written into our Declaration of Independence and our constitution. It is fundamental to our freedom and to a just society.

I wanted to feel moved tonight by the State of the Union, but instead it rang deeply false. The past 15 years have been filled with secrecy and violence. It is time we expose the administration for what it truly is.

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The True Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

When I think back to what I was taught about Martin Luther King Jr. as a child, I remember a speech about a dream, a man whose voice was solid and unfaltering, a march that drew millions, and an end to segregation. We were led to believe that the Civil Rights Act solved this country’s greatest ills. We were taught that racism only lived in people who were part of the KKK. We never spoke about the violence of the civil rights movement. We never spoke about white privilege. We never spoke about King’s work with the poor or his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War. We never questioned how or why he was assassinated. We never even read his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The story we learned was uncomplicated, singular.

This narrative, like a powerful but tragic fairy tale, allowed us as young students to treat him as a relic of the past. We were not encouraged to ask the difficult questions: In what ways does segregation still exist? How did it morph and take on a new shape? What are the laws that support its continuance? What can we learn from King’s legacy about protest and action? Who were the bystanders in the 60’s? How were they also culpable? How are we acting as bystanders today? What are the roots of racism and economic inequality in America? What are the big systems that need to change? The questions today are endless…

As I learn more about the history erased from school curriculums, I feel an intense anger and resentment. By teaching students that the war has been won, we are breeding complacency. We must be able to see how the past lives on within us and within our society, otherwise we will never have the conviction to fight. I am only now beginning to clearly identify the parallels in every struggle and the patterns of oppression. I am finally learning to doubt everything sold to me by my education.

For example, if we had been more aware of the media’s vilification of King, perhaps we would be more critical of national portrayals of protests and leaders today. In his last speech to the striking sanitation workers, King said, “The press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.” Today, the same issues arise with media coverage. Protestors are deemed rioters, outsiders, extremists. Even King himself was deemed an extremist, but he found a way to embrace the term. “It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist — in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love,” King said. Students must be taught to question what they hear and read. What better way to teach them than by illuminating the media’s failures in the past?

Similarly, if we were taught that our legal system promotes hate and prejudice as a means of control, maybe we could forge true alliances. King knew that the system was built to divide and conquer. He openly discussed how Jim Crow laws were developed as a strategy for keeping wages low in the South. Following the march on Selma, King said:

You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

…The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.

We have all been raised in a racist culture, and to pretend that young people will treat each other without prejudice simply because a teacher said they should is naive. We must first become more aware of why racism exists. Only then can we fight against its perpetuation.

Furthermore, if as young people we were taught that our government actively tried to harm King, perhaps we would understand the danger of surveillance today. Instead, we are led to criticize other countries for their authoritarianism while remaining oblivious to the violence perpetrated by our own federal agencies. Only recently have I begun to research and understand programs such as COINTELPRO. I know so little about the revolutionaries that the State has murdered and imprisoned. We were not taught about Fred Hampton, who was shot in his bed. We are not taught about the false allegations made against Assata Shakur, imprisoning her for a decade. We are not taught about the countless undercover agents who worked to disrupt and dismantle Black Liberation organizations. And yet, even today, an undercover cop in Oakland was discovered at a rally trying to urge the protestors toward violence. When he was caught, he pulled a gun on the marchers. History repeats itself, but we cannot see the repetition if the history is intentionally hidden.

King knew the fight would continue for decades to come. He understood that the roots of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, and American imperialism, were deep within our economic system. He advocated for a safety net of guaranteed employment, livable wages, universal health care, quality education, and decent housing for all Americans. King argued that the profit-based focus of capitalism created hierarchy and injustices that could not be undone without an upheaval of the system. He believed Americans needed to undergo a thorough shift in values – promoting life, justice, and equality over profit and possession. When he was assassinated, he was planning a Poor People’s Campaign that involved camping out in DC, similar to the Occupy Movement of today. These are the lessons we must begin teaching our students. The classroom should be the antidote to mainstream media and consumerist culture. Advocacy, protest, and civil disobedience are the tools our young people need in order to fight injustice and create an America that lives up to its ideals. This is the legacy we should be celebrating.