January 27, 2011

Assange, Manning--and Binayak Sen?

The plan by the US government to extradite and try Julian Assange of WikiLeaks appears to have crashed and burned in the face of global protest. Now dedicated civil liberties activists in the US have pushed into the headlines and evening news broadcasts the name of Private Bradley Manning, currently being psychologically tortured at Quantico Marine Corps Brig for allegedly leaking embarrassing US government documents and videos to Wikleaks,

You probably know these names. Here’s one more to be outraged about: Binayak Sen.

“Who dat?” I hear you cry. Binayak Sen is a physician and human rights activist whom the government of India recently railroaded to a life sentence on sedition charges. The case has kicked up a shitstorm of protest in that country. This article is a brief introduction to the frameup of Dr. Sen and a call for folks in the US and around the world to lend their voices to the groundswell of protest in his own land.

Binayak Sen

Some of the passion with which Indians have taken up the case of Dr. Sen is directly due to his well-deserved reputation as a selfless advocate for the Indian poor.

After leaving medical school and residency in the 1970s, Dr. Sen went with two other recently graduated MDs to help a new iron miners’ union in what is now Chattisgarh State. Working with miners’ leaders, they helped found the Shaheed Hospital, which was--and remains--owned by the miners themselves.

Binayak Sen went on to purse his specialty, pediatrics, among the children and families of the desperately poor Adivasi peoples (usually referred to bluntly in mainstream Indian society as “tribals,” reflecting their longstanding marginalization in a predominantly Hindu culture) in the area. A friend of theirs characterizes the approach of Sen and his wife Ilana thus:

Any health care is by its nature political. By providing health care within a working class movement, every activity (from clinical work to training a health worker) that might otherwise be considered reformist (merely tinkering with the system) assumes a revolutionary potential, and the capacity for bringing about fundamental changes. Work in such contexts creates a culture counter to that perpetuated by present-day medical institutions and enables the empowerment of the working class.
In addition to direct work in the community, Dr. Sen worked with various institutions of the state government to improve health delivery, notably the Mitanin Programme, which trained tens of thousands of Adivasi women to deliver direct primary health care in their communities. He was scathing in his exposure and denunciation of widespread malnutrition in India, especially among children, even in Chattisgarh, India’s “rice bowl.”

From his days in medical school forward, Binayak Sen has also been a powerful advocate for human rights. He serves as vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, one of the India’s pre-eminent civil liberties organizations--and one which maintains its independence by forbidding more than 10% of its members to belong to any particular political party and refusing any governmental funding, local, national or foreign.


How does this respected physician and advocate of liberty come be targeted as an enemy of the Indian government? Through his work at the intersection of supporting the resistance of the Adivasi peoples and in defense of civil liberties in India.

Over the last decade, the Adivasi have found themselves in a position that will seem awfully familiar to anyone who knows anything about North America’s “tribals”---our own “Indians,” the indigenous peoples of the First Nations. The Adivasi communities are located in remote, isolated forest regions of India--regions, which, it turns out, are rich in deposits of bauxite and other valuable minerals. Naturally, they are being forced from their traditionally, communally-owned lands in the name of the great deity Progess.

Despite various expressions of protest, much of it mere lip service, from within mainstream Indian society, by far the most effective resistance has been organized by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) whose members are leading a guerilla war which has turned large Adivasi areas into liberated or contested zones.

By being effective, the guerillas have changed the calculus. A growing number of intellectuals are following the lead of noted writer and intellectual Arundhati Roy, who speaks out in defense of the guerilla war. After actually traveling with fighters in the guerilla zones last year, Roy lit into urban armchair types who prescribe Gandhian methods for the Adivasi:
How do the people whose women were raped and saw their houses being burnt protest? They cannot go on hunger strike because they are already hungry. They too cannot launch non-violent agitation because nobody will see them in dense jungle.
By effectively challenging the inevitability of capitalist developmental “progress,” the Naxalites, as CPI (Maoist) fighters are known, have driven the transnational corporations like London-based Vedanta, homegrown monopolists like the Tatas, and the state and national governments that serve them into a frenzy.

Using weapons honed in “advanced” countries like the US, the Indian government and much of the media there have whipped up a terrorism scare and a flagwaving patriotism designed to paint anyone who opposes government policy as a seditionary bent on the overthrow of Indian “democracy.”


Several Indian acquaintances of mine have independently cited in conversation the McCarthy period in the US as key to understanding Binayak Sen’s persecution at the hands of the Indian government. Their feeling is that the heavy charges and life sentence are designed to frighten those who are tempted to lend public support to the Adivasi struggle and the Naxalite fighters.

The main charges against Binayak Sen draw from two periods in India’s long history. The first, the draconian Section 120 of the Indian Penal Code dates from 1860, and was a direct and brutal response by England to the heroic Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, an armed uprising that sought, similar to the American Revolution, to free India from British colonialism. The second, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, known as UAPA, was updated in 2008 to incorporate a 2002 anti-terrorism law which resembled the USA PATRIOT Act in defining “terrorism” so broadly as to give police and other state officials a free very hand to tar protest as terrorism and to penalize it.

The specific accusation against Sen is that he met with a jailed CPI (Maoist) leader and brought written messages from him to a merchant. Well, he did visit the prisoner--officially and in the presence of prison officials--as an advocate for his health and civil liberties. The alleged messages were presented in court with no police chain of custody, and no evidence was submitted by the state that they had ever been in Dr. Sen’s possession. Here’s where UAPA came in handy--Dr. Sen did possess documents (freely available on the internet) from an organization banned by the Indian government. So do millions of other Indians.

His case in under appeal, but this could drag on indefinitely, given the notoriously snail-like pace of the Indian criminal justice system. In the meantime, Binayak Sen is out of circulation, unable to advocate for other in prison whose rights are being violated, for the Adivasi facing relentless pressure to, well, disappear, or for the malnourished children of India.

Repression FAIL!!!

The response of Indian progressives and intellectuals has been stunning. Programs and picket lines have been organized the length and breadth of India. Famous cultural figures and academics have protested. So have a whole layer of educated young people who are supposed to be “the new middle class of a modernizing nation.” I learned a lot about the case from being on the Facebook group some of them set up, the Binayak Sen Solidarity Forum. I have never experienced a Facebook cause with this volume of posts!

Interestingly, this upsurge of protest has opened up further issues. Binayak Sen is far from the only Indian progressive or leftist in jail for life thanks to these laws and the state of panic in ruling circles. Some activists are pointing out that the demonizing and criminalizing of opposition to the government is eroding the space of civil society in India, and turning the state into an authoritarian one. Others are using the occasion to urge that Sen’s supporters learn about and take up the case of other political prisoners doing life bids, including CPI (Maoist) leaders.

A final thought for those of us here in the US. The US media cannot be relied upon to report on injustices like this, or on the deeper contradictions rending Indian society, like the deep and growing gap between the rich and the desperately poor. We have to inform ourselves and our friends and neighbors of what is happening in India--in part, because it provides another lens to look at what is happening here.

What the Indian State is doing to Dr. Binayak Sen is what the US government is trying right now, though on a less brutal scale, to do to 23 anti-war and solidarity activists from the Midwest being targeted in an FBI/grand jury witch hunt. I plan to go to a picket line for Dr. Sen at the Indian consulate Friday (I’m fortunate being in New York, so I can do this) and I damn sure am not going to stop trying to halt the railroad of the Midwest activists.

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January 26, 2011

FBI! Memphis SWAT unit! All for 20 people at a meeting!!

Yesterday, January 25, was a national day of action to protest the ongoing FBI/Grand Jury witch-hunt against anti-war and solidarity activists in the Midwest.

We in Memphis, like people in nearly 50 cities around the country, felt it important to do our part. We had no idea we ourselves would wind up in the middle of what appears to have been a surreal exercise in state overkill directed at free speech and political activism.

We had planned an indoor event at the offices of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center (MSPJC, long housed at the First Congregational Church) from 4 until 6 PM. The featured activity was to be folks present filling out official Freedom of Information Act forms requesting copies of any FBI reports on them.

Things started getting strange around 2:30. Three men in suits identifying themselves as FBI agents dropped by the MSPJC offices. MSPJC's organizing coordinator posted to Facebook: "Just had a visit from the FBI.......they claimed that they wanted to alert me that some Anti War activist were planning something around my building....I paused and tried not to laugh..when i said..."Uh..yes sir..these are the offices of the Mid-South PEACE and Justice Center." They promptly left...."

At 3:00, organizers, notified of the FBI drop-in, showed up an hour early for set up. It was kind of hard to miss the marked Memphis Police Department cruisers patrolling the area, to say nothing of the six identical Black SUVs with heavily tinted windows parked in a perimeter around the church.

At 5:00 a dozen or so of us armed with phone cameras and two flip cams headed out to face down th' popo. We were joined by veteran Memphis newsman Marc Parrasquia, who knows a little something about police spying--his stories for the Memphis Commercial Appeal last year exposed Earnest Withers, a beloved Civil Rights Movement photographer, as an FBI snitch.

We confronted the commanding officer on the scene. He informed us that they were "a support unit" sent to "protect us" and mentioned something about "traffic." We told him it was an indoor event, needed neither security nor traffic direction, and asked him to leave. He refused, while denying any knowledge of the earlier FBI visit. All the cops had the Cobra insignia of the MPD Tact Unit [sic]! Described on MPD’s website, the Tact Unit is an “elite unit, specially trained to respond to various emergency situations, is responsible for handling barricade situations, hostage rescues, counter terrorism, and high risk felony apprehensions.”

We demanded that his supervisor come down. The tactical team supervisor scurried down to the scene, claiming to be unaware of the FBI visit and said "a concerned citizen" had made some sort of call to the Union Avenue station and they had been dispatched to "protect" the action. MSPJC staff made calls to the mayor's office, and ultimately spoke at length to the assistant police chief, who admitted having given the order to dispatch the small-arms carrying unit. He also claimed to know nothing about the FBI visit and gave the same story about the call into the precinct.

While all this was unfolding we learned that Shelby County sheriffs had pushed into least two homes of progressive Memphis area activists earlier that day, citing (but not showing) warrants for individuals. In one case not only had the individual not lived there in years, the cops felt it necessary to go room to room with guns drawn for a “failure to appear” charge in traffic court.

One very good result was broad media coverage. Right from the start of the madness, we began re-calling press outlets which had responded to our earlier generic notifications and followup calls about the event along the lines of "Ho-hum. Well, maybe, but don't you know there's a snow emergency on?" The magic letters FBI turned out not only the Commercial Appeal but also the local ABC and Fox affiliates, all of which ran stories on the confrontation. And more media calls are coming in today.

The problem ain’t a mis-use of law enforcement

At the moment, we are demanding further information about the nature of the mystery phone call (which raises the interesting question of what exactly does one say in a phone call to a precinct cop that turns out the Tact Unit normally reserved for scenes out of a Die Hard movie) and contacts between the FBI, the MPD and the Shelby County Sheriffs Office. We are also collecting further information on the raids and other actions law enforcement made or may have made at other Memphis area activists and exploring our legal options.

We are also beginning deeper investigation of the daily actions of the Tact Team and local law enforcement generally. When they aren’t staked outside a church to provide surveillance on a group of mostly white anti-war activists, which communities in our city are they harassing? Are these psycho-drama style tactics their usual MO? In the end, the issue isn’t if these cops could have been better used elsewhere in the city during a rare snowfall, but if the resources that get spent equipping these paramilitary thugs could be better used by our communities.

Until and unless we learn something different, the progressive community in Memphis is taking this as one more example of the ramped-up repression of free speech and assembly in this country. And a challenge to unite in earnest with struggles in our city against wide-spread police brutality and daily police oppression. We are determined not to be intimidated.

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January 16, 2011

UPDATE: POP Honors Dr. King's Birthday: March for Peace, Jobs & Justice!

UPDATE (1/20/2011):
Since this post went up, a YouTube video of brother Michael McPhearson's speech at the rally became available. Thanks to my friend Bondi for adding a link to this presentation. I've also added a link to the presentation from Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the NJ ACLU. It is below with the paragraph about her speech:
More than 200 community, labor, peace, social justice, immigration, education, and other activists braved the freezing weather on Saturday, January 15 to commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thanks to the support of Newark City Councilwoman Mildred C. Crump (who NJ State People's Organization for Progress Chairman Lawrence Hamm introduced as a dues paying POP member since the organization's inception 27 years ago), the march culminated in an indoor rally at City Hall in the Council Chambers.
Newark City Council Member-at-Large Mildred Crump addresses MLK Birthday Rally

Organized by the People's Organization for Progress, the march was also endorsed by unions and workers organizations, Veterans for Peace Chapter-21, immigrant's rights activists, as well as many community residents. Sponsoring organizations also included the New Black Panther Party, NJ Peace Action, International Longshoremen's Association Local 1233 and many, many others.

Chants of "Bring the Troops Home, Now!", "Martin Luther King, Live Like Him…", "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? NOW!!!", "Money for Schools!" rang out along Broad Street as the marchers urged Saturday shoppers to join their ranks. Many did.
As the marchers approached Newark City Hall, the popular slogan, "Martin Luther King, Live Like Him -- Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!" saw the names of many other revolutionary heroes swapped in for that of Dr. King. "Fannie Lou Hamer, Live like Her…", as well as Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, John Brown, Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, and many, many others, famous as well as nearly forgotten. This anticipated a repeated theme among speakers at the rally, many of whom spoke about Dr. King's lessons having been removed in favor of a commercial shopping holiday of "Post-Christmas Sales."
Deborah Jacobs, Executive Director of the NJ American Civil Liberties Union
Deborah Jacobs spoke about the POP campaigns that the  NJ ACLU has helped with, like eliminating onerous insurance requirements for street rallies (a $1 MILLION policy before POP member Mary Weaver could hold a memorial in front of East Orange City Hall, is one example), as well as the ACLU campaign challenging the Newark police and other Essex County  law enforcement organizations' murderous "Community Outreach Policing" policies (see the video of her presentation HERE).

POP NJ State Vice Chair for External Affairs, Larry Adams introduces the history 
of Dr. King's connections to the labor movement

The struggle for decent wages and dignity by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 is all but forgotten in the Martin Luther King -- Dreamer sanitized version of the legacy of Dr. King. Larry Adams, longtime president of the postal workers' Mailhandlers Local 300, spoke eloquently about Marin Luther King, Jr.'s revolutionary relationship with working and all oppressed peoples.

"And what was Dr. King planning after Memphis? He wanted to bring 1 million people; Black people from the ghettoes, Latinos from the barrios, Native Peoples from the reservations, poor whites from Appalachia, bring 1 million 
out-of-work low income people to DC for non-violent civil disobedience!" With these words, Larry Adams introduced the period of Dr. King's life that culminated in Memphis, Tennessee. 

1963 March on Washington veteran Clif Arrington, Chairman of the Bergen County 
Branch of POP, shares the perspective of his many years in struggle 
and his memories of Dr. King
Three veterans of the 1963 March on Washington spoke at Saturday's rally. Nat William, Clif Arrington and Aminifu Williams all shared their impression of the early Dr. King, as well as the Civil Right movement of that era. 

James Carey, Chair of POP's Union County Branch introduced Lutin Pierre. Mr. Pierre is the owner of an employment service that Home Depot has refused to work with since discovering that it is Haitian-owned.

Ras Baraka, Newark City Councilman representing the South Ward was the final speaker

To see additions photos, click here.

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