Brown, Peltier, Melaku-Bello, Abu-Jamal, and Assange

Lost Yet connected in Time, Part 1

No, because the face of a little girl in Bangladesh, or a little boy in Cambodia, and the thought of a nuclear blast going off close enough to them for them to lose their life, is enough. Again, this is a love letter. This is a love letter to all the civilians of the planet. — Philipos Melaku-Bello, in response to a question from Jacob Morgan of Slate Plus about whether he had ever thought about ending his now-41-year-old anti–nuclear vigil outside the White House gates. 

It’s Time: a work in progress; pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

In conjunction with Stan Cox’s “In Real Time” monthly dispatches with City Lights Books, I am working on an artwork titled “It’s Time,” starting with a central image and adding drawings that expand the work outward, in concentric ovals, tracking the pivotal events of the next two years, month by month. As part of “It’s Time,” I am also including images that portray people and events that have been either deliberately or lazily almost lost to the popular historical imagination but are still very much part of and connected to the existential kismet of the inhabitants of this heating Earth.

These portraits of human persistence are not actually lost, of course; rather, they serve as connecting threads to the present state of things. Both Tariq Ali and Gore Vidal wrote about this hole-in-history phenomenon and gave it their own labels: respectively, “The Extreme Center” and “The United States of Amnesia.”

The dark center of the overlapping clocks is perhaps where the lost in time yet connected have always been. 

These threads, frayed and forgotten as they are, must be acknowledged for their timeless place in history, and repaired. Because if we fail to do that, we can’t move forward in creating a fairer, more just world. Reparations and justice are part of the same tapestry. Justice for the past goes hand in hand with justice for the present and future.

The first five portraits that I’ve placed in this dark center of the “It’s Time” series are those of John Brown, Leonard Peltier, Philipos Melaku-Bello, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Julian Assange. 

If you notice, all of these five men, aside from having been thorns in the side of a state machinery that would rather they disappear from the annals of a dark, white-elitist history, happen to also have long gorgeous hair and/or beards. As if now there’s physically more of these five men for the state to disappear. In this age of unrestrained, ecologically destructive growth, the one kind of growth I can wholeheartedly support is this nonviolent, defiant growth on the face and scalp!

Stan and I live in the heart of the conterminous United States. And as we all know, this heart was beating fast and hard on August 2nd when Kansans flocked to the polls and voted no on an amendment that would have stripped women of their right to an abortion. All eyes and ears of the country and the world were on Kansas that evening as the results were coming in, and we demonstrated via the ballot box that women’s rights are human rights. 

John Brown

But this wasn’t the first time that Kansas voted “No” on a moral issue of great consequence. On August 2, 1858, 164 years to the day before the abortion referendum, Kansans voted down a ballot initiative that would have legalized slavery in our then-territory. Which brings us to the first of these portraits, that of John Brown, who carried out his militant abolitionist action in Kansas in the three years leading up to the slavery vote, the era of “Bleeding Kansas.” Brown said “No!” to slavery and was hanged for it in December, 1859, a year before his vision was partially achieved and Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a free state.

Leonard Peltier

We all know of Leonard Peltier, America’s longest-held Indigenous political prisoner, who was wrongly convicted of the deaths of two FBI agents in June 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement, was there that day protecting his people against the white supremacists of the time and was handed two consecutive life sentences for it. Many witnesses whose testimony was used to convict him later admitted that FBI agents had coerced them into lying. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton considered granting clemency to Peltier, but he was hounded by hundreds of FBI agents marching pathetically around the White House, so that put a stop to that.

It is quite possible that Philipos Melaku-Bello was present at the north side of the White House that December day as the agents marched. But how many of us have heard of him? I certainly did not know of him until this past Juneteenth weekend when Stan and I went to DC to join the Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. After the march, we saw Mr. Melaku-Bello and what he calls his “makeshift tent” outside the White House fence. He sat in a wheelchair wearing a Rasta cap and Freedom Bus Riders t-shirt, surrounded by human-rights and earth-rights photos, posters, and mementos going back decades. He had a needle and thread and was darning a black pouch adorned with pink and white hearts. 

Philipos Melaku-Bello

Just beside him was a poster on which the number ‘40’ had the ‘0’ whited out and replaced with a ‘1’, thereby announcing, “41 YEARS 24/7 ANTI-NUCLEAR PEACE VIGIL. Surviving thru: Rain or Shine; thru Hurricanes; Sleet; Hail; Blizzards; Tornados; H1N1; Coronavirus; 3 BLM Closures. Holders of the 24-Hour Permit for the Black Lives Memorial Fence.”

Philipos told us that he’s been sitting there since 1984, manning the William Thomas Memorial Peace Vigil, which was established in 1981. He has volunteers that help him maintain the vigil day and night. But the Feds are waiting, he emphasized in an interview with Slate Plus. “They’re waiting for it to be abandoned by way of snowfall, blizzard, hurricane…That’s the way it can be taken away, by abandonment.”

To me that 4-by-4 foot area that Philipos legally occupies holds within it everything that the moneyed elite of the post-industrial world have had a hand in perpetuating, to the point of no return. Everywhere I looked in that small square I saw messages and images seeking justice for the earth, the “civilians of the planet,” for Peltier, for Indigenous, and Black and Brown people, for Palestinians, for the poor, for the countless victims of war and displacement, and yes, for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange. They were there too.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

We know that Mumia will be free. We just want to delay Mumia’s release as long as possible. — Maureen Faulkner, wife of Daniel Faulkner speaking at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.

Mumia’s fight for justice has been going on since 1981, the year Philipos’ anti-nuclear peace vigil was established. He has been appealing for a new trial in the shooting of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner since then. Just a couple of days ago I got a newsletter from Mumia supporters at Prison Radio, which read that “the current delays are a tactic designed to prevent justice and delay accountability… Fighting to keep Mumia in prison is all about limiting exposure. It is all about preserving the fiction that decades of mass incarceration prosecuted by former Philadelphia police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo and former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell are not tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct. The goal is to prevent the white hot spotlight on Philadelphia’s long sordid racist history.” Having had double bypass surgery in 2021, Mumia has a life-expectancy of 5 years. He will be back in court on October 19.

The United States uses the whole earth as a petri dish for its bottomless extractive and exploitative pursuits and leaves people like Brown, Peltier, Melaku-Bello, Abu-Jamal and Julian Assange, respectively, with a noose; 45 years behind bars and counting; a 4×4 not-to-be-abandoned liberated space; 41 years behind bars and counting; and a possible jail term of 175 years for exposing U.S. war crimes to the world.

Julian Assange

“What they couldn’t tolerate was when Julian Assange was sent video footage which showed an Apache helicopter in Baghdad killing civilians. Ordinary people. That is the principal reason, the exposure of war crimes that caused outrage especially in the intelligence agencies of the United States. — Tariq Ali, AlJazeera, August 15.

Was it any coincidence that Assange was clutching a book titled ‘Gore Vidal: History of the National Security State’ in his hand as he was being physically dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London and into a police van in April, 2019? He was trying to send a message. Is it a coincidence that Melaku-Bello was sitting there like a cuddly Rasta Buddha repairing an old pouch? Maybe it was a subconscious message telling us that we need to repair the present and the past for a fairer, more just future.  

Whether it’s criminalization of abolitionism or criminalization of abortion, it isn’t hard for one to connect the dots of time to see a pattern emerge. A pattern extinguishing any sparks of accountability for the status quo.

According to the IPCC, actions we take in the next ten years will largely determine whether a future catastrophic heating of the Earth can be prevented. Given America’s apparent descent toward control by an authoritarian regime friendly toward the fossil-fuel industry and hostile toward any form of climate mitigation, the question of whether we will have an opportunity even to work for, let alone achieve necessary federal legislation within the next decade could be decided in just the next two years or so. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Death by hanging for being an abolitionist; 45 years and counting for being Indigenous; an open air jail cell for a non-violent civil disobedience vigil; 41 years and counting for being Black; and possibly 175 years for exposing war crimes. That’s American justice for you. And how many years does the state give the earth for exposing climate crimes? We’ll know in less than two years won’t we?

This Is No Time for Climate Complacency

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 5

With a melting of all the Earth’s ice cover, the coastline of eastern North America would retreat dramatically

The Inflation Reduction Act is being hailed by the mainstream climate movement, Congress members, and the media as the most important climate bill in U.S. history. That’s a pretty low bar, and it says more about our government’s long record of failure on climate than it does about whether this law can prevent dangerous temperature increases in coming decades.

The lion’s share of spending in the IRA is directed toward producing new capacity for generating and distributing energy and for developing new technologies that consume energy. There is only small funding for environmental justice, affordable housing, and insulation. And it doesn’t mandate a reduction in use of fossil fuels. Indeed, rather than shutter gas- and coal-fired power plants, the government will reward them with subsidies or tax credits if they keep operating and capture the emissions. And rather than ban further drilling for oil and gas on federal lands, the bill guarantees that plenty of new oil and gas leases will be issued. 

But wait! There’s more! In exchange for his essential “yes” vote on the IRA, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) extracted the promise of a second bill that would streamline the permitting of energy infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines and coal mines. Manchin’s chief aim in this new bill was ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline through his state of West Virginia. Once in use, the pipeline will be responsible for 90 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, while imperiling hundreds of streams and wetlands.

IRA boosters claim that the emissions prevented by the IRA will far outweigh the emissions that its pro-fossil-fuel measures will engender. That assertion rests on economic modelers’ speculative assumption that the new law will work through market forces to steeply reduce the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the IRA contains no provisions for a direct, surefire phase-out of fossil fuels; therefore, no one can guarantee that it will reduce emissions by 40 percent. Yes, our society is better off with the IRA having passed than we would be without its passage. But if we don’t find a way to snuff out fossil fuels, directly, on a crash schedule, the climate emergency will only intensify. 

Why Climate’s Off the Stovetop

General excitement over the IRA has not dispelled a heightening sense of dread and discombobulation throughout our society. The weather’s going haywire. Representative government and human rights are under increasingly violent threat from extremists, many of them public officials. States are stripping away women’s right to bodily autonomy. The economy of the 1970s has returned, and systemic racism never left. 

Humans can pay close attention to only so many crises simultaneously, so we perhaps should not be surprised that several surveys show climate change falling lower on the list of public concerns. To make matters worse, passage of the IRA may engender a dangerous new sense of complacency on climate: “Oh, good! That’s one problem solved!” 

All of this prompted me to speak with some perceptive climate writers and activists who continue to urge that movements unite across issues to confront all of these crises—including climate—all at once, however daunting that prospect may be.  

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has written seven books, most recently Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions about Climate Justice and Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, both from Beacon Press. When I asked her about the seemingly perverse, widespread apathy about climate, she said, “I think there’s still a strong sense that, oh, well, our institutions are going to take care of it. OK, maybe that’s the case with issues like abortion or gun violence that seem to have very clear and simple solutions that can be solved by our elected officials, if we just elect the right people.” But, she noted, greenhouse-gas emissions are deeply embedded in myriad ways throughout society and can’t be eliminated without a thoroughgoing transformation—and most politicians are allergic to that idea. 

“To me, there’s no candidate who has an adequate platform on climate anywhere in the United States. So, as a voter, why should I rank climate as an important election issue? I’d be much more likely to vote for someone who’s going to protect abortion rights, because that’s something where I actually see there’s a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” With that kind of calculus driving opinion-poll responses, Chomsky says, “I don’t think it necessarily means that people don’t care about climate.” 

(This difference in tractability between climate and other issues was illuminated a few days after Chomsky and I spoke, when my adopted home state, deep red Kansas, voted in a landslide to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away the right to an abortion. Needless to say, the probability of such a sudden, dramatic victory on eradication of fossil fuels is microscopic.)

I also spoke with Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and the author of fourteen books, most recently Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society, 2021). “Our ability to act at scale,” he said, “is being hampered by all this other stuff. Suddenly all these crises are coming at us from all these different directions. So doing something really big and long term [about climate and our transgression of ecological limits] gets pushed not just to the back burner, but off the stovetop altogether.” 

Heinberg said that in the 1970s, when some environmentalists were arguing that industrialized societies cannot be sustained over the long term without deep transformation, the environmental establishment’s response was, in effect, “Oh, well, we can’t really do all of that.” Therefore, he recalls, “Legislative efforts to fix the unsustainability of industrial society devolved down into little projects to target this area of pollution, or clean up that toxic waste site or whatever. I think the general idea was that all these little efforts would eventually add up to something major, which they really haven’t done.” Now, a half-century later, the political establishment remains stuck in “little efforts” mode.

Liz Karosick, a visual artist and climate activist with the group Extinction Rebellion in Washington, D.C. (XRDC), agrees that the urgency of fending off an array of political and human-rights disasters has, at least temporarily, kept climate in the background. “It feels like all of this is splintering us further in a lot of ways, because you have all of these specific problems that are intersectional and all feed back into one another. It’s like they’re just trying to keep dividing us. And that’s the last thing we need right now.”

We Don’t Have to Accept This

There could be a twist, though. The fact that we are seeing so much of what we value being imperiled all at once can be energizing. Says Karosick, “All of these threats are under the umbrella of an unjust system. It fundamentally has to be changed. And that’s why, with Extinction Rebellion, we’re disrupting business as usual.”

Chomsky also believes, based on her experience as a historian of Latin America, that cascading crises shouldn’t inevitably trigger despair and apathy. “Our culture of acceptance of capitalism,” she says, “just doesn’t exist in the same way in the formerly colonized countries; they see very clearly how much exploitation occurs in the capitalist system, whether it’s exploitation of labor, of land, of peasants, or of the natural world.” She believes that “the kinds of comforting myths about how capitalism works” that permeate our society just don’t work as well in regions like Latin America. And that opens up other, better routes to the future in those regions.  

“How,” for example, she asks, “have Latin Americans united and brought about fundamental social change, either through armed revolution, or through the ballot box, or through some combination thereof? And why does the left seem so much stronger, even when they’re in much more dangerous, difficult circumstances than the left in the United States?” 

Chomsky offers one answer: “In Latin America we see the real strength of peasant movements, indigenous movements, African-descended movements, peasant struggles for land against a corporate dominated economic model. You know, every Latin American revolution has had strong peasant participation. And every Latin American government has confronted the peasant struggle for land, which is a class struggle. And it’s a global struggle, because they’re struggling against not only local elites but also global corporations. That’s something we don’t have here in the U.S.” 

Karosick thinks she may see a ray of light through the gloom, even in the U.S.: “At this year’s Juneteenth celebration in D.C., one of the organizers was talking about how before Covid, there was so much momentum. So many people working across organizations, something really building, and then Covid really just took the wind out of the sails. But it’s interesting—there’s now a general sense that these relationships are coming back together, across organizations.” 

That same weekend, at the June 18 Poor People’s March on Washington, Karosick says, “You had all of these hundreds of groups coming together. And across the climate movement, specifically in Extinction Rebellion, we are joining with local residents and marginalized people who are being affected disproportionately by the climate crisis. There are definite opportunities to unite, and we’re definitely starting to sense that this is happening.”

Useful Pessimism?

In his recent writing, Heinberg has argued that in the affluent world, the ecological crisis is in part a result of what he terms deadly optimism. He described it to me this way: “We’ve now had seventy years or so of extreme optimism. Our public discourse has been dominated by the idea that we’re always going to enjoy ‘more, bigger, and faster’ because that’s good for business. But now we’ve reached the point where we can’t continue down that road. And a lot of bills are coming due from that era of excessive optimism—climate change, but lots of other things, too. So suddenly, we have a kind of pervasive pessimism sweeping society.” 

For decades, Heinberg has been warning of what he’s now calling a “Great Unraveling.” In his book Power, he writes that in recent years, in his private conversations with scientists and activists, a common theme is that an unraveling looms in our near future. “We understand that a lot of our institutions are going to fail,” he told me. “We’re going into a difficult time and we’re going to have to adapt. But we have to be determined to exclude the worst possible outcomes.”

If, instead, we were to “just give up on doing whatever they can to make things better, if we were to spend all our effort only looking out for ourselves, the result would be a dystopian nightmare.” The best alternative to either deadly optimism or fatalistic pessimism, he says, is “sort of like what psychologists call ‘defensive pessimism.’” Those folks chose an extraordinarily unappealing term, so Heinberg has suggested alternatives, including “useful pessimism.” But whatever we call this stance, he suggests, “the motivating ideal . . . might be stated as ‘respecting limits and living well within them.’”

Chomsky also advocates for channeling pessimism constructively, and that, she believes, will require even more on-the-ground organizing: “I almost feel like we don’t even have enough of a critical mass in this country to engage in serious protest. We should be focusing on building that critical mass. In Witness for Peace, which I worked with a lot in Colombia, every time we had a protest or other activity, the question was, what’s the ask? In Latin America, street protest has been criminalized, yet massive street protests occur nonetheless. And they generally have very clear and coherent asks. And they’ve often been successful. If we achieve the critical mass, and if we have a coherent ask, we can do it, too.”

“Even though it looks grim, and it is grim for many already,” says Karosick, “every degree of warming we can prevent matters. So we can’t let up.” Pointing to a Yale University survey finding that 28 percent of voters would support nonviolent civil disobedience by climate groups, Karosnik said, “That’s huge. There is a sense that people are starting to get really frustrated with the government’s inability to do anything with this crisis, and are willing to push them harder. I think people are very aware of what the problem is,” and, she says, they’re coming to realize that “nonviolent civil disobedience is a mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”

Regarding movements like the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and Extinction Rebellion that are striving for critical mass and do have very clear demands for systemic change—even against what could be the longest of odds—Chomsky was reflective: “Yeah, I think we have no choice but to push harder despite everything, on two grounds. One, because even if it seems impossible, we’re making it impossible if we don’t do anything. And two, because we just have to. Even if there’s no hope of success, we still have to, if we’re to live with ourselves.”

Kansas Trusted Women

CODEPINK Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, August 1st, 2022

“There is something deeply immoral when you would be willing to use your power not to give people universal healthcare, not to protect a woman’s reproductive rights, not to provide people living wages, not to provide people voting rights. But you get up in the morning and say, the best use of my power is to give a rapist more power over a woman’s body than she has. You think the best use of power is to give somebody who commits incest more power over a woman’s body than she has. The best use of your power is to use it to give death more power over a woman’s body than she has. That is not a proper use of power. That is an abuse of power and we have to challenge it.” — Rev. Dr. William J. Barber 11, Co-founder of the Repairers of the Breach and Poor People’s Campaign, at the Planned Parenthood protest in D.C., June 30.

The “Vote Yes” side screamed at us that we wanted to kill babies. Their skillfully branded mother-and-child logo and cynical three-word slogan “Value Them Both” were everywhere here in Salina, Kansas. Always the same cozy white-on-purple image and soothing words on yard signs and banners, as if they were My Pillow or Hobby Lobby. On weekends, they would occupy street corners. Just a half-dozen or so actual humans accompanied by a much larger number of stars-and-stripes flags (almost certainly made in China) flying in the crazy Kansas winds (which are quickly going climate-change crazier).

To our forced-birth crusaders, a woman, a fetus, and a live child are commodities, like wheat or soybeans. The higher the yield, the higher their value.

But that’s not all we witnessed here in Kansas in the months since a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the banning of abortions was plopped onto the August 2 primary ballot. Diverting our eyes from the fields of purple and white ‘Vote Yes’ eye-candy, we could see lots of ‘Vote No’ messaging. It was bold and personal, visual and colorful, creative and diverse.

We had an outpouring of signs, banners, voices, stories, costumes, and slogans. Everywhere you looked, it was different, and original. Each ‘Vote No’ rally on the sidewalks and streets had its own energy. Here in Salina, we saw an array of brilliant homemade signs: 

July 24 rally, Abiline, Kansas.

Abort the patriarchy 

Not your incubator

Mind your own uterus 

It won’t stop at women! 

Separate cooch and state

Free vasectomy!!! for men who vote yes

This body is not a political battleground 

Sidewalk Gallery of Congress, election eve rally, outside Ad Astra Books and Coffee House, Salina.

Vote yes to destroy constitutional rights

Forced birth? Sounds like an alien invasion to me!

Not voting for women’s rights is small-dick energy 

Vaginas brought you into the world, and vaginas will vote you out!

and my favorite one: We are not livestock!! 

At one of our ‘Vote No’ rallies, I heard a women shout at us from her car that “Killin’ babies is irresponsible.” Agreed, but the premise of her statement was a delusion—a talking point that Republican operatives first ejaculated into America’s highly fertile evangelical movement in the 1980s.

Election eve rally.

Life does not begin at conception. But in the U.S., violence does. To treat a woman’s body like it’s a high-yielding 160 acres of Kansas farmland is irresponsible. And it’s violent. To not give a hoot about the health and well-being of a born human is violent. To criminalize miscarriage is violent; to make a woman feel so afraid that she would rather tie her tubes than bring a child into this unjust world is violent. To have a U.S. Senator as cruel and ruthless as Roger Marshall—Kansas’ mini-Trump, who likes to call himself “Doc” but believes in neither science nor democracy nor good health care for all—is violent.

But we showed ‘em, not with violence and Old Glory and branding, but with peace and color, and with our bodies and voices. We showed ‘em with two words, “Trust Women.” That was the motto of Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas abortion provider who was assassinated by a forced-birth extremist in 2009. 

On another momentous August 2, thirty-two years ago, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. Activist friends Janice Norlin, David Norlin, and Stan Cox rose up against that war; this was back when I still lived in India. They have been organizing and protesting United States’ illegal wars and regime-change interventions since the 1980s. But from Central America to the Gulf War to the forever-wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to systemic racism to the latest assault on the rights of the half of our population who can be compelled to give birth, nothing much had changed for the better here in Kansas. Until now.

July 30 rally, Salina; video by David Norlin.

As we got closer to election day here in Salina, there were more frequent rallies, and the honks and solidarity shouts from passing cars got louder and longer. Not just thumbs-ups. People were hanging out of windows and leaping up through sun roofs. We thought to ourselves, “We might have a fighting chance to defeat this thing.” But we did not anticipate this. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this landslide victory, not only in Kansas as a whole, but even here in little ol’ redder-than-red Saline County, where “Vote No” passed 55-45. Kansas voters sent out a clear message: We are not barnyard animals. 

Stan and I, and Janice and David, have protested one goddamn unjust law and policy after another for decades, fighting the same fights over and over again, and losing. But no, not this time. Not on this August 2. We did it. We won, and won big.

Art matters, not so much on walls indoors, but on the streets and sidewalks, in full public view. With that in mind, in 2018, I established a peaceful space of community art-making and dissent called Sidewalk Museum of Congress, located in front of the office of Kansas’ then-1st District Congress member, Roger Marshall, in Salina, Kansas. Over time, it came to be a place for free expression and for the peace community to gather spontaneously and interact with the general public. Now, four years later, when so-called American democracy is being hollowed out, one U.S. policy victim and one climate-chaotic day at a time, CODEPINK, Kansas is replanting seeds of justice for the victims of US empire, greed, patriarchy and fanaticism, in a new location and under a new name Sidewalk Gallery of Congress. So, who says Kansas is flat? Come, join us on the sidewalk, and let’s continue to plant pink-seeds of justice together.