Archives for November 2009

Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America

Julie Mazzei
University of North Carolina Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




The Georgia-based School of the Americas has been the convergence point for many years for activists concerned about the United States’ impact on Latin American policy. The SOA, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has reportedly trained hundreds of military officers and has been blasted for years for allegedly aligning itself with death squads. A new book on Latin American paramilitary groups provides a good reference point to understand the complex relationships between the state, arms and privilege, and potentially to understand the current rise of North America’s own resurgent militia movement.

In Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America, author Julie Mazzei presents a thorough examination of paramilitary groups, their use and how official power tolerates their existence amid diverse domestic insurgencies. Looking at Colombia, Mexico and El Salvador, Mazzei says the prominence of armed non-state factions — in Mexico, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional; in Colombia, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; and in El Salvador, the Frente Farabundo Martí Para la Liberación Nacional — prompted, in almost all instances a backlash among conservative political elites in each country. With money, loyalists and a cause (be it opposition to reform, anti-Communism or fears of socialist takeover, land seizure, etc.), paramilitaries came to pass as the state apparatus found itself, due to varying circumstances, unable to respond, suppress or extralegally liquidate such rivals to its hegemony. In cases such as Mexico, where leading officials were unable to simply execute activist clergy, paramilitary groups handled the job, as they did in Acteal in 1997.

Paramilitaries gained notoriety as well with needs among the powerful, from drug lords to old moneyed classes in Latin America, to defend land from guerrillas. With that, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? is a fearless examination of centuries-old class fights in Latin America, though the traditional haves/have-nots liberal/conservative dichotomy is hardly as simple as it seems. In Colombia, paramilitaries declared an array of individuals to be collaborators with subversives, and thus legitimate military targets. Moderates and hardliners in 1970s’ El Salvador offered contradictory paramilitary solutions to fight the guerrillas. In Mexico, paramilitaries were just as easily populated by the poor who either sought a paycheck from the wealthy or opposed the leftists on ideological grounds. Social justice activism today would do well to understand the interrelations in Latin America that developed in response to progressive forces. It is not unreasonable to believe some of Mazzei’s studies could not be applied more broadly.

Given the simmering cauldron that is white rage in the United States, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? may also offer a glimpse at our own future. Mazzei’s work is particularly poignant given recent reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others attesting to the reestablishment of the dormant North American paramilitary movement. So-called citizen militias gained national headlines in the 1990s, during the term of Democrat Bill Clinton as U.S. President, and now during the reign of another Democrat, Barack Obama. In her study, Mazzei demonstrates the appeal of paramilitary groups the worries they exploit, and just how terrifying their power can be.

Mazzei’s scholarship, from the studies of three countries that have wrangled with the strength of paramilitary groups to what their presence says of relations in those countries, is necessary not only for understanding Latin America, but also how power shapes nations’ present in times of conflict.

Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War

Scott Melzer
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




I was listening to a radio talk show recently where a caller complained about getting a National Rifle Association telephone ‘poll’ that consisted of one question, with the phrasing being something to the effect whether participants believed Hillary Clinton and friends were coming for their guns. The host and caller laughed about the misleading essence of the poll, but what was at issue — the way the NRA positions itself as a guardian of American values, and, more vitally, how it portrays its reputed opponents — did not really get a treatment.

Liberals generally think of Second Amendment types as gun crazies, intent on saving their rocket-launching M-16s at the cost of schoolchildren. And certainly the gun rights movement, in making ambiguous statements after tragedies like the Columbine massacre and the Virginia Tech shootings, does itself few favors. A new book gives a 360-degree look at the movement’s views, which give basis to opinions of others, like Vice President Joe Biden (during a debate as he campaigned for President), who think some gun rights supporters need professional help.

Scott Melzer’s Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War (New York University Press, 2009) offers one of the best contemporary subcultural studies available, about the NRA or otherwise. His study, the result of numerous interviews with NRA hard-core and general-support membership, is unlikely to change progressive or conservative perceptions of the organization or its participants. However, his excursions into this alternate universe, where gun control is seen as a left-wing culture war salvo in a crumbling society, are eye-opening explanations of the severity of these social schisms.

Melzer conducted research at NRA events, finding interviewees among the true believers, as those who stood by the NRA on all issues and actively supported the group, to casual supporters, who attended an event because it was in the area, but might differ on some NRA topics. His subjects, by the author’s admission, were overwhelmingly white, male and conservative; he chalks this up to the NRA’s base (at one point, Melzer recalls being able to count the number of people of color among an attendance of thousands on just two hands). What brings them together is a unified vision of the world, one in which each is called on to save America from threats foreign and domestic. Such a vision is almost apocalyptic in its fear and seriousness, and must be acknowledged in the political discourse today.

Most fascinating here are Melzer’s interviews, which paint a picture of white male views of American status, race and equality. Amid fundamental changes in the country, from immigration to global power shifts to Affirmative Action to feminism to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered rights, the power, status, values and identities of white, heterosexual, middle-class men is seen as under attack. Melzer points out many interviewees see themselves as victims of liberal culture, marginalized second-class citizens who now come together as patriots, defending the last vestiges of individual rights and constitutional freedoms.

On another level, Melzer delves into how differently liberals and conservatives see social development, and, more deeply, the clash over freedom. Liberals, he writes, see freedom from fear as an opportunity to thrive, while conservatives in this study resisted efforts to compel actions because they felt they personally were the best of judges of needs. These eternal differences between both political ideologies play how with firearms, but with the injection of lobbying money and elections, have far more deadly consequences.

The belief systems of ‘gun crusaders’ is one in which they are being displaced by a society in which role expectations are not as clear-cut as they once were, and racial diversity, now forced through government regulation, has sealed a sense of losing the country. The solution to this societal shift? A return to frontier masculinity, which may take the forms of everything from public executions to violations of international law in pursuit on American interests. The so-called ’social terrorists’ who seek to undermine white, heterosexual men, in this climate, are empowering others to destroy the United States. For these patriots, gun rights are one of the last, but losing, refuges to what is left of America.

Though not every firearms enthusiast’s perspective is nearly so bleak, Melzer provides a revealing look at how such views have shaped the gun subculture and inform the views put forward by the NRA itself. Gun Crusaders is engrossing. Those interested in the gun rights movement and gun lobby will learn a lot from Melzer’s research.

Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice

Alexandra Natapoff
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Incidents such as that of activist Brandon Darby informing on fellow activists, and the Tulia, Texas drug arrests scandal are but two examples of a trend that law enforcement has increasingly relied on as a method for policing, but which is increasingly returning disastrous results. The use of individuals to provide information leading to arrests, in exchange for lesser charges, but whose offered details are often fraught with inconsistencies, is the subject of Alexandra Natapoff’s searing read Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Use of snitches has been going on far longer than the Darby affair. African-American communities have seen law enforcement use informants to combat drugs and urban blight at the cost of community cohesion. In these neighborhoods, Natapoff says, police methods are more intrusive and the penal process treats young Black men harshly. Such tragedies make informants plentiful. The result of snitch culture in the Black community is essentially that police permit informants to engage in criminal activity, foment distrust in neighborhoods and encourage retaliation. In the end, informants do little more than destabilize Black communities and undercut police legitimacy as well as individuals’ belief in fairness.

However, it is the stories of desperation that dot Natapoff’s writing which are incredibly striking. Fundamentally, the author reminds us, informants are people trying to escape long jail sentences by providing assistance to police. Such a relationship lends itself to producing information as a matter of self-preservation, and that their continued performance will keep them out of jail and presumably able to break the law so long as they are of use to law enforcement. Therein lies the criminal justice conundrum, of what reliance on snitches says about the justice system itself.

The hip-hop culture is the best-known proponent of the ’stop snitching” phenomenon. The character of ’stop snitching,” the author suggests, is a symbol of the Black community’s distrust of police in the wake of the War on Drugs and the long sentences young Black men receive for what is often faulty testimony. Exploration of that relationship is offered here, and is probably one of the best presentations of why the music culture has been so associated with resistance to snitching.

The author acknowledges social movements have long known the problems caused by informants. In Snitching, Natapoff points out informants end up acting with impunity, and their use raises important constitutional questions related to interference with organized groups’ First Amendment rights. Political organizers should carefully note the behavior sanctioned for informants, as the actions now famous in the Darby case — most importantly accusations the two activists arrested were coaxed into illegal activity — have long been permitted of informants.

To be clear, the author is not opposed to the use of police utilizing plea bargaining of the nature described in the book. However, Natapoff argues law enforcement’s rampant use of informants has implications that threaten transparency and in some ways democracy.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther

By Jeffrey Haas
Lawrence Hill Books (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Among some circles, Fred Hampton is a luminary without peers. Though new generations may only catch his reference in a song, his legacy in Chicago and to the Black liberation movement is without question. The charismatic Black Panther Party chapter leader demonstrated a natural gift for reaching people, and marshaled young people into political action for the first time. His brutal murder — in which Chicago police, after wounding him as he slept, delivered two rounds to the head, killing him — horrified the world. He was just 21 years old.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther is the account of attorney Jeff Haas’ fight to ensure justice for the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, killed in the police raid spun by authorities at the time as repelling a Panther attack. It is also a chilling chronicle of the depths authorities will sink to silence dissent and to cover it up.

Haas and three other lawyers set up the People’s Law Office in 1969, and he defended many social justice activists since then. The Hampton case, however, drove Haas. It dragged on for years, facing defeats along the way, until a settlement. The book is as much about the commitment of scores of people, who poured in their time and energies to see that justice was done, as it is the quest to hold the police officers and establishment involved accountable.

Subsequent investigations of Fred Hampton’s murder would reveal involvement by a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant and collaboration with local police that resulted in the organizer’s assassination. Few knew it at the time, but what occurred would be shown to be part of a sophisticated federal effort, labeled COINTELPRO, aimed at disrupting, demoralizing, dividing and exterminating Black activism primarily among social justice tendencies. It wasn’t until activists burglarized a Pennsylvania FBI office and released documents in 1971 that COINTELPRO was exposed. Operative William O’Neal, working through the bureau’s Racial Matters unit, provided key information just hours before the murder. His work, and the war the FBI waged on Black revolutionaries, figures prominently in the book.

Those familiar with writings that trace legal trajectories will find The Assassination of Fred Hampton cuts a familiar path, yet one that takes on a particular heft given the case. The final days of Hampton’s life is imparted, but it is the excruciating detail with which the murder is told that is where Haas’ legal background brings the story out. Culled from volumes of testimony, research, released documents and other sources, Haas compares what happened with conflicting police testimony and justifications. His writing presents a penetrating image of law enforcement bent on protecting its own, even if some recognized the fault in their actions. Indirectly, the book shows the determination of the Hampton and Clark families as well as the legal team to counter the coverup in court and in the community.

Though contemporary political movements in the United States have few comparisons quite like the Fred Hampton case in terms of severity today, Haas’ book is a primer on how a movement can challenge official misconduct through a diversity of efforts. The Assassination of Fred Hampton stands out, just as Hampton himself did all those years ago.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution

Michael O. West, William G. Martin and Fanon Che Wilkins (Eds.)University of North Carolina Press (2009)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton perhaps explained Black revolutionary nationalism best when he drew lines against what he called reactionary nationalism. Revolutionary nationalism is a force that sees capital and the ruling order in a fundamentally different way; rather than grouse over what piece of the power structure can be reformed or what privileges can be maintained, the revolutionary nationalist sees the challenge is in upending the dynamics as a whole.

Though in some sense, the struggle of Newton’s day is gone, the spirit of what he envisioned has not disappeared from communities or consciousness. Be it noncooperation with police (a symptom of generations-old antagonism of the Black community by law enforcement) or local mobilizing for justice, resistance is alive as it ever was. However, with so many former radicals and intelligentsia invested in existing power via academia, grant cycles and so forth, a look at the grassroots social movements from which emerged Black internationalism is as exciting as it is instructive.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution relays the story of Black anti-imperialism, a tradition explored exquisitely by Gerald Home among others, but rarely elsewhere in a method that frames the intellectual current as married to the upheavals of many periods. Edited by professors Michael West, William Martin and Fanon Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac transverses the histories of many important Black internationalist movements. The editors deliver a superlative recounting of history that organizers today should learn about and from.

Of special note are the writings on transnational organizing among Blacks between the United States, Haiti and a constellation of African nations spanning centuries. Whether is was the impact of the Haitian Revolution on North American activism or exactly how profoundly figures like W. E. B. DuBois would shape political philosophy on global African liberation, the editors ensure they deliver a serviceable presentation of stories that have been, in some instances, told exhaustively. Elsewhere, the real treasures in this book are the details that convey to new students of Black internationalism how deeply embedded the struggle’s aspirations were to people most incorrectly do not associate with political activism. The spread of Pan Africanism in the early 1900s, in one passage, is traced back to sailors and international ship travel; those seeds would reach apartheid South Africa and eventually lend energy to the toppling of white rule across the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s association with Black struggles in the United States and elsewhere are sketched out as well.

The editors do a solid job presenting Black internationalism in the United States as well. The influence of Black communists, particularly people like Harry Haywood and Claude McKay, on modern ideas of self-determination and racial diversity in white-dominated movements are weighty, and offered here. The Comintern’s involvement in drawing support for the Scottsboro campaign as well as agitating against the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy are significant activist insurgencies highlighted with richness.

From Toussaint to Tupac wanders into shakier territory when it comes to the spin on hip-hop. Utilizing an oft-repeated premise — that hip-hop traces roots to a mix of influences, from griots to Malcolm X — the book tries to close with a telling of the international (though less internationalist) reach and organizing potential of the music and culture. Fair enough, but following writings about the Black Panther Party and West Indian revolutionary fervor, the conclusion feels unsatisfying. However, in all, From Toussaint to Tupac is a good introduction to an overlooked history.

Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools

By Luis Urrieta
(University of Arizona Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




A peculiar tension has always existed between activist educators working in public and higher education. Maybe it is the contradiction of cultivating consciousness of youth while being on the payroll of institutions (and certainly the state) that seldom believe in such politically minded pursuits. Or perhaps, as Luis Urrieta asserts in Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools, it is the self-awareness of being essentially a tool for a system that wants to (and, in many cases, will) assimilate students into white-dominant mainstream America. What this means for Chicana/o teachers in the Southwestern United States, and the movements from which those teachers hail, is at issue for a subculture of educators.

The tantalizing philosophical quandary Urrieta presents indirectly then is this: how much will students’ fates actually change through progressive educators on the tab of a system that, at best, wants to generally educate youth of color for ‘the future’ and, at worst, actively and systematically teaches versions of history that may swim against community self-interest?

The challenges of navigating identity, alienation, politics and agency are tackled head on by Working From Within, a book that asserts a positive history to progressive Chicana and Chicano educators seeking to impart to young people a clear understanding of their roles in society as well as their history. Such relationships, particularly in academia, are fraught with compromises and negotiation. The book shares efforts to organize Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapters, youth leadership development, cultural studies and other tactics. Just as vigorous to the storytelling is a backdrop of educators conflicted about the positions they occupy and their efforts to maintain their idealism in a system that generally does not see the world as they do.

Most telling about the involvement of progressive educators in academia is the ways definitions changed. Activism, in their lens, took on a postmodern feel, from community organizing and street actions to one in which they saw their employment as activism with a different scope, but lending to a social change few believed they would see in their lifetimes. Although one might say such a view could be a byproduct of Chicanisma/o and the complicated relationships it has had with white society for generations, it is doubtful such pretensions are isolated to Chicana/o instructors.

Other writings have criticized the tendency of those working in the academic and not-for-profit world to perpetuate themselves and their careers at the cost of serving the community, most visibly The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. Implicit to the critique is that, by buying off good organizers with jobs and lifestyles oriented in some way around their views, the struggle becomes not one of community building but ensuring those views have a home (and thus acculturated by some part) in the institution itself. By creating that space, one may win a victory in putting views forward, but ultimately it is argued that mainstream education wins because its own notions of academic freedom and discussion are reinforced.

In Urrieta’s view, such changes are emblematic of how movements grow and change over time. Unexplored is how militant Chicana/o activism has mostly vanished amid the rise of mainstream social action and nonprofits. It is debatable how good or bad the developments such movements have seen ultimately will be, but Urrieta’s research certainly ads more to an ongoing conversation.

The Will to Resist

Dahr Jamail
Haymarket Books (2009)
Reviewed by Paul J. Comeau




Haymarket Books’ 2009 release, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, by Dahr Jamail, is the most important nonfiction book published this year. In Will, Jamail captures the lives of our men and women in uniform, in their own uncensored words, as they relate the true situation of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He underscores the burgeoning resistance movement within the ranks of the armed forces.

Soldiers consistently face attacks from insurgents, supply shortages, and confusion about the purpose of their mission in Baghdad or Kabul. They question the ability of the US Military to push the restart button in Afghanistan, and Iraq is still a dismal place to be. Occupation duty is still in a dangerous region with a lack of infrastructure, clean water, or decent food.

The Obama White House promised to withdraw US forces from Iraq. That hasn’t happened to the extent people demanded. And while Defense Secretary Gates promised to review ’stop loss’ policies last year, the program continues to mean one deployment after another, longer tours, and exhaustion for men and women who have lost homes, spouses, and jobs in America.

All this leaves many US soldiers questioning the US war strategy and skeptical about the latest justifications from their superiors for remaining overseas. More potent forms of dissent arise, ranging from anti-war petitions to “seek and avoid” missions protesting the futility of their assignments. At their most resistant, soldiers refuse to deploy or seek to declare Conscientious Objector status. Jamail demonstrates that soldier’s stories are more than just isolated incidents of dissent, but rather, represent a growing resistance movement. Jamail cites a February 2006 Zogby poll that indicates that 72 percent of troops favored withdrawal within the year, and one in four favored immediate withdrawal.

The Will to Resist does more than reveal growing dissent against the wars within the armed forces. Jamail demonstrates resistance among service members to continuing social problems like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other dehumanizing conditions. Servicemen and women tell heartbreaking stories, and demonstrate that the institutions of the armed forces themselves perpetuate oppressive conditions. Meanwhile, the government does little to defend the rights of service members who find the courage to speak out against adverse conditions. Will also covers the struggle many veterans go through when they return from overseas, both to secure VA benefits, and to exercise their civil liberties. Says one soldier interviewed by Jamail: “There appears to be an ongoing effort by the U.S. military to censor overt displays of dissent by veterans upon their return to the United States.”

The Will to Resist is an essential read. Jamail captures the true conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan from the mouths of the American soldiers themselves, and the oppression they face from both the military apparatus and their fellow servicemen. The Will to Resist expresses our need to stand in solidarity with all active duty soldiers and veterans, in particular those who find the courage to speak out.

This review originally appeared on