Friday, November 30, 2007

Queer Democrats Fail to Endorse for President


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Club-endorsed City Council District 1 candidate Sherri Lightner

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club met on Thursday, November 29 and failed to endorse in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination — not surprisingly, given the depth of the Democratic field and the intensity with which many members have already committed to one candidate or another. But the club did pass a resolution expressing disappointment in veteran Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein for her votes to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general and Leslie Southwick as a federal judge, and it also endorsed a Democrat, Sherri Lightner, for the District One seat on the San Diego City Council.

Instead of inviting representatives of each Presidential campaign to make presentations about their candidate, the club’s vice-president for political action, Jeri Dilno, suggested that club members themselves speak in support of their chosen candidates. Dilno, who chaired the meeting due to the illness of club president Andrea Villa, asked the members to agree to some changes in the club’s normal endorsement rules. Speakers weren’t supposed to attack other candidates but only speak positively about the virtues of their own choice. Ironically, the club almost didn’t debate the Presidential race at all; before it can consider which candidate to endorse the club must first vote on whether or not to make an endorsement, and the motion to endorse a candidate for the Presidential nomination passed by just three votes, 18 to 15.

Gloria Johnson, who was president of the club in the late 1970’s and has been active with it ever since, spoke for Hillary Clinton. “I’ve waited for a qualified woman candidate for President for 35 years — and for one who can be elected,” she said. “Hillary is the only candidate who has a full-time LGBT [Queer] outreach person, Mark Walsh, on her staff. Hillary isn’t afraid of us.”

Craig Roberts, another former club president, also endorsed Clinton. “She’s the farthest from what we have now,” he said — meaning President Bush. “She knows her way around the White House. National Stonewall Democrats [the nationwide organization of Queer and Queer-friendly Democrats of which the San Diego Democratic Club is a chapter] has not and will not make an endorsement, but its co-chairs, Steven Driscoll and Laurie McBride, have endorsed Hillary Clinton. A lot of us went to her campaign office in August and got a good response from Walsh, who’s not only openly Gay but also openly HIV-positive.”

Club member and constitutional law professor Bryan Wildenthal spoke for Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. “He is a remarkably experienced Senator and is willing to draw a red line in the sand and defend our Constitution against the most lawless Presidential regime ever,” Wildenthal said of Dodd, noting that he’d voted against the confirmation of Mukasey and several of Bush’s Right-wing judicial appointees.

Speaking for former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Glen Jensen called him “the most articulate, well-focused person on every issue.” Jensen said that once Edwards is President, “we’re going to get rid of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ restrictions [on Queers in the military] and limits on the ability of Gay and Lesbian families to adopt children. There will be no exceptions to health care coverage under Edwards’ plan. I’m all about health care because I have a son with a major lung disease.” Jensen also cited Edwards’ commitment to fighting poverty and protecting the rights of workers to form unions.

Club member Brian Polejes, who works for the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) in San Diego, also spoke for Edwards. Polejes said he was particularly impressed at how fast Edwards responded to the anti-Queer remarks by former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace. Like Jensen, Polejes was also impressed by Edwards’ commitment to reducing economic inequality in the U.S. “The damages the country has suffered from wealth and poverty go back to Reagan,” Polejes said. “We need a clear progressive direction. Edwards is consistently progressive, but he has appeal in the Border and Midwest states.”

Bryan Wildenthal, who had previously spoken for Christopher Dodd, also put in a few good words for former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. “He filibustered against the Viet Nam war and is one of two candidates, along with Dennis Kucinich, who supports same-sex marriage.” Marilyn Riley, who had previously spoken for Edwards, also praised Gravel, saying that unlike Kucinich, Gravel has always been pro-choice on abortion.

Steve Powlen, the volunteer coordinator for Kucinich’s campaign in San Diego, spoke on his behalf and pointed to all the progressive issues he’s raising that other candidates are not. “He’s talked about NAFTA and has taken a stand for impeaching both Bush and Cheney,” Powlen said. “He’s the real deal.” Addressing the issue of Kucinich’s viability as a candidate, Powlen said, “Great social movements look impossible for a long time. For me, a wasted vote is a vote for anyone else. … A lot of you support Dennis in your heart, and I ask for your vote in the primary.”

The speakers in support of Barack Obama, club legislative director Alex Sachs (who in the 2004 race was for John Kerry early while the club and most of its leaders were supporting the stillborn candidacy of Howard Dean) and special events chair Tom DiCioccio, stressed his ability to draw new people into the political process. “At the last Obama meeting I attended, four Republicans raised their hands, and they’re going to remain Republicans but they’re for Obama,” DiCioccio said. “There are people who haven’t campaigned since John F. Kennedy ran but are campaigning for Obama.”

“Tom did a good job talking about the kinds of people being brought out of the shadows to support Obama,” Sachs added. “I spent 10 years in Washington, D.C. and the partisanship and lack of commitment to progress in this nation was disconcerting. That’s not the way Obama is.” Addressing the recent controversy over African-American minister, gospel singer and self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” Donnie McClurkin’s benefit concert for Obama, Sachs said that Obama “has tried to start a discussion with African-Americans who haven’t supported LGBT equality,” including building bridges between them and Queer African-Americans.

One long-term supporter of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he’d become disenchanged with the candidate because of an answer he gave on one of the televised debates in which he refused to commit on whether Queers are “born or made.” Marilyn Riley rose to speak for Richardson, but her speech quickly turned into a slashing attack on Kucinich’s former opposition to abortion and an accusation that any Queer person who supports Kucinich is “turning your back against women.” Dilno, who had previously asked that all comments be positive, ruled her out of order.

Stephen Whitburn, former club president and current candidate for the District Three seat on the San Diego City Council, urged the club not to make a Presidential endorsement at all. “There’s a real distinction between what we do as individuals and what we do as a club,” he said. “What we do as a club becomes a message about LGBT equality, and it would be odd for us to support a candidate who does not support marriage equality” — which includes everybody in the Democratic field except Kucinich and Gravel — but, he added, “We should not endorse a candidate who’s not viable, either.”

The club took two ballots on the Presidential race. With a 60 percent vote needed either to endorse a candidate or take a formal position of “no endorsement,” the first ballot featured 14 votes for no endorsement, eight for Hillary Clinton, seven for John Edwards, three for Barack Obama and two for Dennis Kucinich. On the second ballot, with Obama and Kucinich disqualified, 20 members voted for no endorsement and there were seven votes each for Clinton and Edwards. Since the vote for no endorsement fell 1.1 percentage points short of the 60 percent threshold, acting chair Dilno declared a “failure to endorse.”

Club Neutral on Most Propositions

The Presidential race wasn’t the only controversial issue facing the club November 29. The club also had to consider positions on seven ballot measures that will be on the same ballot as the February 5 California Presidential primary. Ironically, the club was able to come to a firm position on only one of them: Proposition 91, which seeks to prevent the state legislature from diverting gasoline tax revenues from transportation-related projects to bolster the state’s general fund. The club overwhelmingly opposed this measure on the ground that it would artificially tie the hands of legislators at a time when they need maximum flexibility to deal with the collapse of the state’s housing market and the resulting severe drop in state revenues.

The club at first appeared willing to support Proposition 92, which would write into the state constitution guarantees for community college funding similar to those offered to elementary and secondary education now. Not surprisingly, the youngest members were strongly in favor of this, but other club members portrayed it as a food fight between labor unions representing community college teachers, university professors and K-12 teachers over the state’s total education budget. Other members also opposed so-called “ballot-box budgeting” — passing initiatives mandating that certain parts of the state budget be spent in certain ways, thus ensuring that spending cuts fall disproportionately on health, social services and other programs that aren’t protected by voter-passed initiatives. In the end, the club endorsed a neutral position on the measure.

The club also unexpectedly voted for a neutral position on Proposition 93, even though that’s one of the state Democratic party’s top priorities for the year. This measure would alter the term limits on California state legislators, reducing the total number of years a person could be a legislator from 14 to 12 but allow all of them to be spent in the same house. (Now legislators are limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the State Senate.) Opposition split between club members who want to see term limits eliminated entirely and those who thought the proposition was being pitched under false pretenses. One member pointed out that the Democratic majority in the legislature originally promised to pair this with a measure to change the way legislators’ districts are drawn to make them more competitive, then had reneged and put the term limits measure on the ballot without a redistricting plan.

Perhaps the most controversial measures before the club were Propositions 94 through 97, a series of referenda placed on the ballot to cancel four new compacts the state has negotiated with Indian tribes seeking to build and run casinos. A yes vote on these propositions is a vote to allow the casinos; a no vote is a vote to ban them — a point which confused even some of the club’s politically savvy members. Supporters pointed to America’s historic genocide against Indian tribes and exploitation of their lands; opponents cited the refusal of casino-owning tribes to stay neutral when unions attempt to organize their workers. In the end, the club voted for a neutral position on these propositions, too.

A Tale of Two Women

The club also debated a resolution criticizing California’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, for her recent votes to confirm Bush appointee Michael Mukasey as attorney general despite his refusal to define waterboarding as torture, and to confirm Leslie Southwick to a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit despite Southwick’s anti-Black and anti-Queer rulings as a state appeals court judge in Mississippi from 1995 to 2006.

According to the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way, “In 2001, Southwick joined a ruling that upheld a chancellor’s decision to take an eight-year-old girl away from her mother and award custody to the father, who had never married the mother, largely because the mother was living with another woman in a ‘Lesbian home.’ Southwick went even further by joining a gratuitously anti-Gay concurrence which extolled Mississippi’s right under ‘the principles of Federalism’ to treat ‘homosexual persons’ as second-class citizens. The concurrence suggested that sexual orientation is a choice and stated that an adult is not ‘relieved of the consequences of his or her choice’ – e.g. losing custody of one’s child.”

The resolution as introduced said that “the San Diego Democratic Club expresses its profound disappointment in both the rhetoric and actions of Senator Feinstein, who, by taking positions contrary to our community, has ignored her constituency and disregarded our shared Democratic principles of liberty, fairness and equal opportunity.” Bryan Wildenthal didn’t think the wording was strong enough, however. He offered an amendment to change “expresses its profound disappointment” to “censures and withdraws its support” for Feinstein. After a long debate, Wildenthal’s amendment was voted down, 24 against to six in favor, and the original resolution was passed 27 to five with one member abstaining.

In contrast to the rest of the meeting, the opening item — considering an endorsement in City Council District 1 — was virtually a love-fest for the only Democratic candidate in the race, Sherri Lightner. A long-time community activist in the effort to control development in La Jolla, with a quite long list of boards and commissions she’s served on, Lightner pointed with pride to her first two endorsements from elected officials: State Senator Christine Kehoe, an open Lesbian and the first openly Queer person elected to any office in San Diego County, and City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate Donna Frye.

“The seat is now held by [moderate Democrat] Scott Peters, and I want to keep the seat Democratic,” Lightner said. “It will not be easy. I have two Republican opponents who are heavily personally funded” — meaning that they are both extremely wealthy and can donate virtually unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns. “We deserve a better San Diego than we have. For much of my life, I have been a mechanical engineer. I look at facts and figures. I understand accounting and know the city has to make tough decisions about its finances and not push them off to our children and grandchildren. I know how the city runs now, and how it should run.”

Lightner’s endorsement passed without any voting member opposing or abstaining — a rare degree of unanimity in what was otherwise a quite contentious meeting of the San Diego Democratic Club.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Fires of Class


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

I had a weird experience during the wildfires that swept the northernmost and southernmost parts of San Diego County late last October. Virtually nothing happened to me at all. The local TV stations aired wall-to-wall coverage of the fires, complete with ample footage of the actual burning — which had a strange, savage beauty all too obviously at odds with the real harm these fires were doing to life and property — and yet I felt strangely alienated because, living in North Park, the fires weren’t coming anywhere near me. Reports on the national news made it seem as if “all San Diego county” was burning, and my roommate, my partner and I all got phone calls from our families desperately seeking reassurance that we were all right — which we were.

It took me a while to realize what was going on, but it finally dawned on me that the reason the mainstream media were reporting that “all San Diego county” was burning was that most of the fires were centered in Rancho Bernardo and other similarly affluent areas. Maybe the entire county wasn’t burning, but the parts of it that matter were — just as the coverage of the fires in L.A. County similarly fixated on the threat to the Hollywood colony at Malibu. It was an odd window into just how class-conscious a society the U.S. has become — how over time we’ve accentuated and intensified the barriers between classes even as the European countries on whom we modeled our civilization have slowly broken many of theirs down — and how, despite our much-vaunted commitment to egalitarianism and “equality of opportunity,” we’ve become a society where some people “matter” and the vast majority don’t.

The fires of class can be seen quite brightly when the media response to the San Diego disaster is compared to the way Hurricane Katrina was covered two years ago. Though Katrina was by all objective measure a far worse disaster than the San Diego fires — the loss of life, the destruction of property and the displacement of people from Katrina were about a hundred times worse than in San Diego — it was seen very differently by the wealthy, (mostly) white people who run things in the U.S. and the media that report the world their way. San Diego’s fires were gripping tragedy, covered in personal terms that encouraged our emotional identification with our supposed “betters” and their losses, while the victims of Katrina — especially the African-Americans in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — were presented as a faceless mass. While few people went as far in public as Congressmember Richard Baker (R-La.), who actually said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans; we couldn’t do it, but God did,” a lot of the Katrina coverage had the patronizing implication that good would come out of the disaster because all those annoying poor people would be either dead or moved and the city fathers could rebuild it as a lucrative tourist trap, a theme park for Cajun food and traditional jazz.

The contrast between San Diego in 2007 and New Orleans in 2005 has become a major cautionary tale for the propagandists of the Right. Even while much of New Orleans was still underwater from Katrina’s floodwaters, Right-wing radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh were portraying it as a message from above that God will punish your city if you dare to elect Democrats. Today, the Right is portraying San Diego’s white Republican establishment as having shown the wogs the proper way to respond to a disaster, in contrast to the alleged failings of Louisiana’s Democratic establishment in general and its African-American mayor in particular. Local talk-show host Roger Hedgecock said in so many words that the white victims of the San Diego fire showed individualism and self-reliance in getting out of town when the reverse 911 calls told them to, while the African-Americans of New Orleans showed the corrosive effects of decades on the public dole and waited around for the government to help them.

Nonsense. The biggest single factor determining whether you got out of either New Orleans or San Diego in time was whether or not you could afford your own car. Neither city had any clue how to get people out who couldn’t load up their cars and drive themselves. The death toll was lighter in San Diego partly because the disaster was centered in less populated areas — rich people tend to live higher up than poor people, which gives them a leg up in floods (because water flows down) but puts them in the crosshairs of wildfire (because fire and the air currents that drive it often move up) — and partly because the rich people had their own transportation. The not-so-rich people in the paths of the San Diego fire — the undocumented immigrants who were roasted alive trying to cross the border and hide out from La Migra in the Harris fire and the North County farmworkers (also largely undocumented Latinos) who were forced to keep working in the fields despite the dangers of fire and smoke inhalation — were as likely to die, or nearly so, as the not-so-rich people in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

What’s more, just as Republican politicians in Louisiana and Mississippi saw Katrina in part as an opportunity to “cleanse” their states of poor (especially poor African-American) people, so some civic leaders in San Diego saw the fires as an opportunity to cleanse the county of undocumented immigrants. The San Diego County sheriff’s office set up checkpoints both on the evacuation routes in North County and in and out of the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium, detained people who couldn’t show proper ID and turned them over to the Border Patrol for possible deportation. Not all people who couldn’t show proper ID were detained, of course; just … well, in the words of Firestorm, a report prepared on the response to the fires by the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium (IRC), Justice Overcoming Boundaries and the San Diego/Imperial Counties ACLU, “In no instance did any witness report that a Caucasian evacuee was detained, interrogated, inspected, surrounded, intimidated or accused of looting.”

A few African-Americans at the evacuation centers were hassled by authorities — notably a mother of three who was accused of stealing supplies by two San Diego police officers after she was seen taking more stuff than they thought appropriate — but the people on whom the hammers came down hardest were mostly Latinos. Ironically, the heroic and overstressed firefighters of San Diego County got help from at least 60 Mexican firefighters who crossed the border and joined in the efforts to stop the blazes, while Latinos at the evacuation centers were being awakened in the middle of the night, ordered to show documents, and thrown out if they couldn’t provide the right ones.

Needless to say, the Right-wing propaganda machine took over big-time to “spin” these stories. Roger Hedgecock went on the air in mock indignation at the accusations that certain people without documents or proof of residence, including homeless people who’d been camping in fire-vulnerable areas, were thrown out of Qualcomm or not admitted in the first place. “We set up these centers for people who had lost their homes!” Hedgecock said (I’m quoting from memory), denouncing the homeless, migrant and undocumented people who had sought shelter there as interlopers trying to crash the North County homeowners’ private party.

While San Diego was still burning, thousands of miles away in Pellston, Michigan a retired brigadier general named Richard W. Mills was touting a new service being offered by his current employer, an 18-month-old company called Sovereign Deed. Started by a founder of Triple Canopy — one of the leading competitors of the far more famous Blackwater in supplying mercenaries (so-called “private security contractors”) to the U.S. in Iraq — Sovereign Deed offers, for a fee, to protect your home in case of a natural disaster (or a terrorist attack) while leaving your non-paying neighbors to go hang. The service isn’t cheap; Mills described it as a “country club-type membership fee” and quoted a price for “basic service” of a one-time $50,000 initiation fee plus $15,000 per year.

As reported by Eartha Jane Melzer in the October 25 Michigan Messenger, Mills said his service was needed because the government does not have the tax base to provide services to everyone in the event of a major catastrophe. “The reality of FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which performed so spectacularly badly in New Orleans and held a fake ‘press conference’ in San Diego on how well they were supposedly doing] is that it has no infrastructure, and a lot of our National Guard is elsewhere fighting the war [in Iraq and Afghanistan]” Mills said. “You never know what could happen. A hurricane, a terrorist attack, a nuclear power plant going bad — it doesn’t matter, you make concentric circles, you get a plan.”

Mills’ speech attracted protesters, organized as a group called “Do We Need Sovereign Deed?” Spokesperson Carolyn Belknap said the plan for privatized disaster response for paying customers only “flies in the face of democracy” and added that she was particularly suspicious that Mills claimed his company will have access to advance intelligence on terrorist threats. Belknap said she was troubled by the close relationship between the private security industry and the political system — exemplified by the ties between Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater, and the Bush administration and the Christian Right — and told Melzer, “I think that when we dig deeper we are going to find that they are all connected. We’ve got to follow the money.”

Belknap told Melzer that her group is working with the residents of Potrero, the small unincorporated community that was the epicenter of the Harris fire, in their struggle to keep Blackwater from building an enormous “training center” in their backyard. Meanwhile, Blackwater seized the opportunity to build good will in Potrero — and possibly influence the outcome of the recall election against the local planning board members who approved their project — by bringing in huge quantities of food and other relief supplies and setting up a tent to house evacuees.

The San Diego fires — both the fires on the ground and the fires of class that have followed them — have shown just how far away the U.S. has moved from any notion that we’re all in this together, that every man’s death diminishes me, that (as the founder of the religion George W. Bush and Erik Prince supposedly believe in said) as you do to the least of thee, you do to me. As a society, we have ceased to believe that “all men are created equal.” Instead, we now regard the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as conditional on how much money you have and how much financial value you contribute to the capitalist economy.

It’s the old fallacy of aristocracy, given a thin veneer of respectability by pseudo-intellectuals like Herbert Spencer in the 19th century and Ayn Rand in the 20th: the idea that — as one Navy officer told CNN in the middle of the San Diego fires — “we have different classes of people,” and some people are simply “worth” more than others and therefore are entitled to more rights. The fires of class are burning away the egalitarian pretensions under which this country was born (and yes, I know a lot of our founding documents, including the one I quoted above, were written by people who owned slaves) and revealing just how class-bound and upwardly immobile a society we’ve become.

Transgender Day of Remembrance Honors 15 Dead


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

They ranged in age from late teens to their 50’s. They were shot, beaten, stabbed, struck with blunt instrments. Usually their killers just left them to die, but sometimes they tortured or raped them before they killed them and, in at least one especially gruesome case, dismembered them and put the pieces on public display in tribute to their sick idea of God. Some of the victims were sex workers, possibly meeting their ends when their last clients discovered a little something extra between their legs and reacted far more violently than just throwing up in a toilet like the guy in The Crying Game. They were the 15 reported victims of Transgender-related hate crimes in the world thus far in 2007, plus the no doubt far greater number whose deaths were never reported to the authorities at all.

They were honored worldwide in a series of events called the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held on November 20 every year. The event is held in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder in 1998 kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” Web project,, and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Since then, the event has grown to encompass memorials in dozens of cities across the world. San Diego’s contribution included a candlelight march through the streets of Hillcrest and a subsequent rally and commemoration at the LGBT Center, which included volunteers from the audience reading the names of the victims and telling, in stories written in the first person, how they died.

Perhaps the most intense story was that of Hasan “Tamara” Sabeh, who was killed January 11, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Ironically, her birth name was the same as that of the legendary medieval Afghan gang leader who invented a resinous derivative of marijuana which his gang members smoked when they weren’t killing people for hire. The words “hashish” and “assassin” both derive from the original Hasan’s name.) The 21st century Hasan/Tamara was a middle-aged professional in Iraq’s fashion industry — it’s an indication of how far Iraq has fallen since the U.S. invasion that under Saddam Hussein, despite his brutality, there was enough personal freedom in Iraq that it could have a fashion industry — who was murdered by a gang of Shi’a Muslim “morality enforcers” who subsequently cut her body into pieces and exhibited them publicly. When Tamara’s sister-in-law tried to intervene, they killed her too.

Other victims included Keittirat Longnawa of Rassada, Thailand, who was beaten by nine youths who then slit her throat; Moira Donaire of Viña del Mar, Chile, who was stabbed five times by a street vendor; Michelle “Chela” Carrasco of Santiago, Chile, who was found in a pit with her face completely disfigured; Ruby Rodriguez of San Francisco, who was strangled and found naked in the street; Erica Keel of Philadelphia, who was repeatedly run over by a car driven by the man who had picked her up for sex; Bret T. Turner of Madison, Wisconsin, killed with multiple stab wounds; Victoria Arellano of San Pedro and Maribelle Reyes of Houston, both people with AIDS who were denied treatment; Oscar Mosqueda of Daytona Beach, Florida, who was shot to death; and someone listed only as “unidentified male clad in felame attire,” who died in Kingston, Jamaica of gunshot wounds to the chest and lower back.

At least three of the victims, Aldomiro “Tatiana” Gomes, Manuela di Cesare and a woman identified only as Stefania, were killed in Italy — which probably says more about the Italian government’s willingness to take these crimes seriously than any special vulnerability for Transgender people in Italy.

Ironically, for an event dedicated to commemorating the struggles and sacrifices of Transgender people, surprisingly few Transgender people actually appeared at the Center’s rally. Connor Maddocks of the Transgender Advocacy and Services Center, who was originally scheduled to MC, had to drop out at the last minute due to a family emergency. Caroline Desert, the Center’s public policy coordinator, filled in. The featured speaker was also a longtime community activist, Mama’s Kitchen director Alberto Cortes, but he too was a “Trans Ally” — as the buttons many attendees were wearing proclaimed them — rather than a Transgender person himself.

Cortes began his speech by comparing anti-Trans hate violence to similar crimes based on race and sexual orientation, including murder victims James Byrd and Matthew Shepard as well as “hundreds of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11.” He said that hate crimes based on gender identity have been especially invisible because all too often Transgender people themselves have been invisible. He quoted pioneering Transgender activists Ralph “Jenny June” Werker — who 85 years ago asked “whether you are at last ready to demand justice for the androgyne” — and James Cromwell, who wrote in a poem, “I have been told I am a figment of my own imagination. … They may keep me out of the bounds of their imagination, but I refuse to be invisible.”

“I must know myself first,” Cortes said. “What are my biases and assumptions about Transgender people? How do I react to people in my community with mixed-gender appearance? Do I know the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity? Do I understand that they see traditional gender terms as repressive? Do I know that most Transgender murders are unsolved, and many Transgender people have died at the hands of lovers, medical personnel, police and even parents? Do I know what message it sends when anti-Transgender attackers receive light sentences? The questions are more abundant than the answers.”

Cortes called for “comprehensive laws against hate crimes and discrimination in employment and housing that include Transgender people” — a cause that recently faced a setback in the U.S. Congress, where at the last minute the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was passed by the House of Representatives, but only after protection for Transgender people had been removed from the bill. “Until we educate our own community, including our LGBT [Queer] community; until we have a society that provides equal access to happiness without fear of violence and death; we still have to mourn and weep for the loss of our Transgender brothers and sisters. Let us remember our fallen.”

The event ended with Leon Powell’s reading of a poem by 13th century Persian poet Rumi, “Gone to the Unseen,” which ended, “Now the words are over/And the pain they bring is gone./Now you have gone to rest/In the arms of the Beloved.”


SDSU’s Queer Student Leaders Speak on Campus Controversies


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

The inspiration for this article came on October 11, 2007, when San Diego State University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Student Union (LGBTSU) was holding their annual barbecue in connection with National Coming-Out Day. It was an extravaganza of free food, elaborate costumes (this year’s event was done with a pirate theme, a departure from the sexually risqué themes used for previous events) and a win-a-date auction. But there was a minor problem: for fear of disturbing students and teachers in night classes, LGBTSU was unable to use a P.A. system. As a result, Ben Cartwright, former LGBTSU president and current director of the Associated Students’ LGBT Resource Center, literally had to yell himself hoarse to make himself heard by the crowd of up to 150 students and supporters. They had been allowed to have a boom box at the back of the event, near the food tables — but even that had been a major concession, grudgingly granted by the school administration.

I couldn’t help but wonder if other groups on campus had to do their events under similar restrictions, and then and there I determined to interview the current leadership of the LGBTSU. I also wanted to give media exposure to Queer activists at SDSU other than Ben Cartwright, who did a lot to reinvigorate the organization but is no longer an undergraduate and therefore isn’t formally active with LGBTSU. Alas, the LGBTSU president, Isaac Castro, and secretary and acting vice-president, Nikki Tjarks (pronounced “sharks”), are so busy we couldn’t get together for an interview for another month — and by that time the issues we were going to talk about had changed significantly.

First, in September a demonstration for marriage equality for same-sex couples near campus had been harassed by anti-Queer students, at least one of whom threw an egg at the participants. Then, during the night after the barbecue, LGBTSU’s rainbow flag was stolen for the fourth time in five years. By November 14, an anti-Gay slur against fraternity/sorority coordinator Doug Case had been published in an independent student newspaper, the Koala, and the regularly scheduled Wednesday night LGBTSU meeting morphed into a town-hall meeting to coordinate an event and build a rally on campus, scheduled for Monday, December 3, noon to 3 p.m., at the Free Speech Steps on campus. See for up-to-date information on this and other Queer events at SDSU.

Zenger’s finally met up with Castro and Tjarks in the campus’s Cross-Cultural Center after the big meeting on campus November 14. They talked about the alleged hate incidents and what they feel is the real grievance Queer students face at SDSU: an attitude from the administration that regards the Queer presence on campus as an embarrassing secret to be tolerated but not publicly acknowledged or supported.

Zenger’s: Could you start by telling briefly how you got involved in the LGBTSU?

Nikki Tjarks: I got involved at the beginning of my freshman year of college, two years, three years ago. I saw a sign for the Queer Orientation, and I decided that I would go. I went by myself, and ever since then I’ve been increasingly involved in the organization until recently, when I couldn’t get any more involved.

Isaac Castro: I started coming towards the end of my first semester, beginning of my second semester. I initially went because I felt that something was missing in my life. I wanted to seek more things out to see like what other things our campus had to offer. It was after the first semester that I started getting more involved. I got increasingly involved the same way as Nikki did, and now I’m here.

Zenger’s: My initial impetus for interviewing you was to discuss some of the roadblocks you’ve had with the college administration in putting on events, like at the Gay barbecue you couldn’t have any amplified sound. Could you tell me about some of the problems? And, to your knowledge, do other groups on campus have similar problems in getting their events sponsored, or do there seem to be ways in which the LGBTSU is singled out?

Tjarks: Other organizations also face most of the difficulties that we encounter. Other organizations are not allowed to have amplified sound unless certain conditions are met. Putting on the barbecue is very difficult because of the process you have to go through with food inspections and safety things that have to be taken care of. All the logistics that you have to organize as far as the room reservations and getting the actual event approved, once all of this other approval has taken place. But this isn’t something that other organizations don’t have to do.

Ours would be more difficult in that putting on something that you’re titling, “It’s O.K. to Drop the Soap,” or —

Castro: “Tan Your Buns.”

Tjarks: — is a lot more difficult to put on. We used that because it attracted the attention of the Gay community. This semester we tried something new, less controversial, because our barbecue is already so well established we feel we don’t need to make that extra ploy on sexuality. We’re also very interested in diversity issues and cultural issues, which is something that we don’t usually address in our organization.

We run into trouble when it comes to off-campus activities like the Pride Parade. On campus, the university has to support us to a certain degree. But not things like the Pride Parade or AIDS Walk.

Castro: There are other parades the campus does participate in.

Tjarks: The MLK Parade — the Martin Luther King parade —

Castro: There’s a double standard. They always get support.

Tjarks: The Cross-Cultural Center will sometimes go to certain organizations and ask if there’s something that they’re doing for that month, some kind of remembrance or heritage or history month. They’ll go and ask, “What is it that you’re doing? How can we help you? Are you going to be involved in this event, a familiar San Diego or perhaps nationwide event, and how can we help you do that?”

That rarely, if at all, happens for us. We usually get something in October because it’s National Coming-Out Month, and we always have our barbecue on the same day: National Coming-Out Day, October 11. People have come to know that, expect it, and therefore act upon it, but only to a certain degree. We didn’t receive any funding from the Cross-Cultural Center, though I don’t that that was any fault of their own. I love the Cross-Cultural Center. But things, for example, like the Pride Parade that takes place in July. It’s a huge event. It’s enormous. There are hundreds of thousands of people there.

Castro: The largest parade in San Diego.

Tjarks: We go as LGBTSU and represent, not LGBTSU, but San Diego State. We’re not representing the Gay community per se, but the university community. We march in the parade wearing red and black, we paint our cars, and we ask that university officials and representatives join us in this parade and provide us funding so we can decorate our floats with SDSU themes and Gay themes, and that we have some kind of like backing and support from the university.

But very rarely do we get that. We have to pull teeth to get an important person in the hierarchy to show up and sit in our floats. We don’t ask them to walk. We don’t ask them to do anything. All they have to do is show up, sit down and look like they’re having a good time. It’s very hard even to get that kind of support from the university. And funding for it is really difficult. I think this past year we were able to get $150 in store credit from the bookstore, and a couple of flats of water from the Aztec Shops.

Castro: What support we do get, is only because in those departments there are LGBT people working there. So when we go ask them for stuff, we get at least some sort of support from them, which helps.

Tjarks: Right, and they make an extra effort to help us out because they realize what we’re facing. And things like the Martin Luther King parade in San Diego, a much smaller parade, gets much more funding. University officials always attend this parade. I don’t see how that’s fair, and I believe — correct me if I’m wrong — it happens in December.

Castro: January.

Tjarks: January? So people aren’t even around. Most of the time they’re on campus break.

Castro: In years past, when we proposed that the campus take on the Pride Parade, there was a concern like, “Oh, it’s not during school session.” But they give much support to the MLK Parade, and that parade is not during school session either. This year they started helping out more, and next year they decided to take it on. But we’ll see exactly what gets done.

Tjarks: And we’ve got nothing to compare it to as far as AIDS Walk goes. But AIDS Walk is a huge thing for our entire campus, actually.

Castro: It’s for everyone.

Tjarks: LGBTSU takes a special interest in it, but I know that other underrepresented student organizations on campus also do, like A. B. Samahan, which is the Filipino organization on campus; and APSA, the Asian-Pacific Student Association. Again, anything that we do throughout the community, on average, is done as members of SDSU, not LGBTSU, mainly because we’re doing LGBT-issue events and they know that. But we represent a larger campus, and LGBTSU realizes that, so we recruit other members. And we’re still not receiving support. I think one of the stipulations with AIDS Walk this year — we did get some funding from the university, but they had some interesting stipulations.

Castro: I wrote a proposal for them saying how they could help fund our registration fee, which is $35 [per person] this year .They asked, “How many people are going to be registering with you guys?” I told them that I wasn’t sure how many people were going to register with me, because it depended on how many slots, how many people we could pay for. So in the end they gave us registration for 25 people, and they gave it to us really late. It was two weeks prior to the walk. By then most people already have most of their walkers signed up. They’re just looking for donations now. So it was really hard going out and finding people who hadn’t signed with groups already, but in the end we got 25 people. That was great.

Tjarks: And didn’t they stipulate that they had to be from other departments? It couldn’t be just LGBT. It could be anyone.

Castro: Which was fine with us, because we just wanted to walk as SDSU, and we wanted to invite everyone from our campus to go. And another concern was that it’s hard to get representation out there, because like a lot of campuses, they’ll donate stuff to them. Mesa College gets T-shirts donated from the college that say, “Mesa College AIDS Walk.” We wear whatever SDSU T-shirts we get. We don’t get specialized AIDS Walk shirts. They weren’t going to fund that this year.

Zenger’s: I’d like you guys to take me through the chronology of some of the recent events that were discussed tonight. A lot of these things I hadn’t heard about. I heard about the flag being stolen. Just today I saw Ben [Cartwright]’s e-mail about the piece in the Koala. I hadn’t hears about having eggs thrown at you during the marriage equality demonstration.

Tjarks: I think the throwing of eggs at supporters of Gay marriage was the first known, tangible hate incident we can document this semester. That was early on in the semester.

Castro: I think it was September 15 or 16, I don’t remember. I’m sorry if I get the date wrong, but that’s about the time. The second one was the flag, which happened between October 10 and 11, during that nighttime, because they’re not sure exactly what time it was stolen. It falls over a two-day period. And the last one was the article about Doug Case, whom we work with and we know very well. So he’s part of our community.

There are other things that have happened, too. Some stuff that’s been reported that people don’t even know about, like with the sorority group that we have on our campus, because they deal with a lot of issues being a proactive Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and allied sorority.When they need halls, fraternities are told to go through one doorway and sororities are told to go through the other doorway. The sorority with the Queer-active women, which is called Gamma Ro Lambda, were told they can go through any door that they wanted.

Some people could thing that it’s a good thing, but they felt, “We’re a sorority. We’re going to go through the sorority door. It shouldn’t make a difference which door we go through.” They also get name-called when they’re sitting there, stuff like, “Oh, I hope I don’t have to go and sit beside the Lesbians,” and such.

Zenger’s: Were you two actually at the demonstration where eggs were thrown?

Tjarks: No.

Castro: I wanted to be, but I was at work. I wasn’t even expecting the eggs to be thrown, because we’ve done little demonstrations like this before, with other groups.

Tjarks: None of us were expecting eggs to be thrown!

Castro: I don’t think anyone expects eggs outside. Supporters went with posters and everything, and then the people across the street, there’s an apartment across the street. They could see what was going on, so they made their own little posters to retaliate against the rally. That was fine. They have the right to rally about whatever issues they want, too. After a while, I guess, they escalated. They went back inside their apartments and came back with eggs. People were actually hit with eggs.

Zenger’s: Did you make any kind of report on that to campus security, and what happened?

Castro: Yes, we did. The next day there was a report sent to Chief (John) Browning, and he responded quickly. From there, there was an exchange of e-mails and such, because I think the issue happened with the police officer that they saw there. They went up to him, and someone had a poster that was for Gay marriage or something, and someone told me that he chuckled and drove off.

Zenger’s: So the next thing, the theft of the flag, there was a reference at the meeting to the flag being torn, but that’s not correct, was it? It was just stolen. And Ben Cartwright had told me the last time this happened that the flag had been stolen four times in the last five years.

Tjarks: That was correct. I can only speak about the current one and the one that happened in 2006. We just noticed one day that it wasn’t up. I was going to collect it from Meeting Services, the people that put it up. I discovered that they didn’t have it, and we didn’t have it, and therefore it was stolen. We searched throughout Meeting Services to see if we could locate it, and if it had just been misplaced somewhere, and it was nowhere to be found.

A rally was established the following week, and we had a ton of people here to support us in that. I believe it was two days later that it was returned. Someone anonymously turned it in to the information desk just outside Meeting Services. We never found out who took it. As far as we know, no damage had been done to it. And it was returned in fine condition, but we just found out that it was gone one day and got a little pissed about it. And then it was returned. We were going to kind of going through that same system. It was the same process of discovering it this past time.

Castro: We had the rally planned for this month, but then the fires occurred in San Diego, and so we felt it wasn’t right for us to rally against someone stealing our flag when something so tragic had just hit our county. So we had to push it back.

Tjarks: Right, and then this incident with Doug Case happened before we could ever get the rally back on its feet. So now it’s almost like a conjoined effort against everything, every hatred against LGBT people at SDSU.

Zenger’s: How did you guys find out about the incident with Doug? Do you pick up the Koala regularly and just happen to see his name in it?

Tjarks: I don’t know when we first picked it up, because I refuse to touch the paper. It was Adriana here in the Cross-Cultural Center that first showed me this particular blurb, article, whatever you want to call it. She shoved the paper in my face and said, “Read this.” I said, “No, I don’t want to touch that. I hate that thing.” She said, “No, you really need to read this.” So I read it, and that’s how it came to my attention. And then I spread the word to everyone else that I knew, and everyone that read it also spread the word to everyone else they knew.

Zenger’s: From what I read at the meeting, it seems like the Koala people are equal-opportunity offenders. There were some quite nasty things on that page about allegedly promiscuous straight women and that kind of stuff. But what really separated it for me was that Doug was the only person mentioned by name.

Tjarks: I asked the lawyer who spoke tonight [law professor and Gay & Lesbian Times columnist Rob DeKoven], I had originally thought that was slander. Mentioning a specific name, not a group of “people” and not an individual person identified by some sort of alias, but an actual, legal name. I had taken that for slander, and that that was against all Constitutional guarantees.

But the lawyer pointed out to me that it’s not slander, it’s a threat. I thought that was really interesting. There’s no direct threat in the article made towards Doug himself, but rather his poodle. And then some other really derogatory things were said. I don’t read the Koala frequently, but on the occasions when I have picked it up, it’s the first time that I have seen a name mentioned specifically, an individual person. And I find that horrendous.

Zenger’s: All in all, not just the specific instances we’ve been discussing, what’s the climate at SDSU towards Queer students?

Tjarks: I have problems saying that I don’t face discrimination. But I refuse to spend time with people that I don’t feel are of that quality or level of person that I want to interact with. For me, that constitutes open-mindedness and acceptance on all levels. So I won’t surround myself with people that don’t fall into that category. And I think that because of that, I don’t face any specific kind of discrimination.

In fact, most people are accepting and encouraging of my own sexual orientation. And I don’t find that the atmosphere is ever, like, way too heavy-handed. But then, we have a lot of religious advocates that come to school and either hand out Bibles or —

Castro: — pray for me.

Tjarks: Pray for me. I had someone today, in fact, ask me if there was a way he could pray for me today, with a knowing look in his eye that said, “You’re a dyke. How can I help you?” I’m still kind of shocked by things like that. But I don’t have a problem walking through the heart of campus, holding my girlfriend’s hand. I’m very, very open, and I’ll talk to anyone about my sexual orientation that wants to listen to it, because I’m very into educating and making people aware that homosexuality is out there, it exists, and it’s O.K.

Castro: For me, I try to do the same things as Nikki. I try to surround myself with people I know accept me. No one wants more drama in their life. But it seems, if you look at society, you think of LGBT people and the first thing that comes to mind is Gay men, usually because they’re more pronounced and out there. It seems that on certain levels, people are more accepting of Lesbians than they are of [male] Gays.

Tjarks: I agree. Being a Lesbian, I don’t have a problem walking through campus holding my girlfriend’s hand. But never in my history at San Diego State have I seen two Gay men holding hands walking down the street.

Castro: I would be scared. When I had a boyfriend, we would hold hands, but as soon as we saw someone, our hands weren’t touching.

Tjarks: I think that’s the way it is for a lot of Gay men at SDSU, because of all the Gay men in LGBTSU I’m aware of, I have never once seen them on campus holding a significant other’s hand. I think it’s a lot more accepting for women, and I believe it has to do with the Greek atmosphere here, and that whole idea of women together, because our campus is dominated by Greek life.

Castro: I work on campus, too. I work at the bookstore, and when I started working there it was interesting because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if there were any other LGBT people there, so when I started to work there I was more quiet and hesitant, cautious about what I said. I didn’t want to be outed, because I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be taken.

Since I work on campus, the people there know because I go to school with them, too. It’s not like I just leave work at work and school at school. But eventually I felt comfortable enough to come out, and most of my co-workers are fine with it. I still hear certain things, when they don’t realize I’m around, that shock me. I’ll hear things like, “Oh, you know, why you’re Gay,” and little jokes like that. They’re just joking, but I know they wouldn’t have said it if they knew I was around.

One time I was helping someone. It was during rush season, and the lines were really long because everybody was buying their books. Someone came up to my register from outside the bookstore, when there was a line, and he asked me, “Oh, do you sell parking permits?” And I said, “Yeah. You can go to the end of the line, and then I can ring you up at the registers.”

He wanted me to let him cut in front of the line. He said, “Oh, come on, no one’s looking.” And I said, “I’m sorry, sir. You’re going to have to get in line. It’s not fair for everyone that’s been waiting.” Then, as he walked by, he turned and said something like, “Oh, come on, don’t be a faggot.” I couldn’t do anything because he was walking away. I really felt like telling him something like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t stop being a faggot because I really am a faggot. I’m Gay.”

Zenger’s: One thing you’ve mentioned is that nobody from high up in the administration turned up for tonight’s meeting. Do you think that’s part of this pattern you’ve been talking about?

Tjarks: Yes, in short. I have nothing else to say about this. I am so fed up with hierarchy. It’s just — they’re just not representing or taking into account the LGBT community. I feel like we’re this dirty little secret that they just shove under the rug and try not to let people really know, stop or think about.

Castro: When you compare our campus to UCSD, UCSD is very proud to have an LGBT community there. They promote it on their application. One of the questions is, “Are you Gay,” so you can identify yourself as Gay or Lesbian, and such. And I don’t know all the stuff they have there, but here that’s not on our applications. UCSD promotes their LGBT Resource Center astronomically, and they have the largest one in the nation right now.

Our campus does not do that. When they’re promoting stuff on our campus, LGBT is not one of them. Which is sad, because it is a very big thing to promote, because showing that you are LGBT-friendly is a very big step in any institution.

Tjarks: I feel like we’re disproportionately unsupported. The various Asian organizations, the Black organizations, the Mexican organizations: I feel like they get so much more support from so many university avenues, whether that be the hierarchy or various departments on campus, etc., etc.

I feel like the only actual on-campus support that we ever receive as LGBT is through Counseling and Psych Services, and what does that say about us? They’re the only people that are consistently there for us and show faculty or staff representation at our meetings, or regularly in our offices. They’re the only kind of adult communication that we have, other than with Adriana in the CCC. And she, by the way, is a vital part of LGBTSU.

Castro: Our campus really promotes cultural diversity, and I always tell people that if our campus could only support one thing, I hope they would support LGBT issues, because that’s one thing that encompasses every cultural diversity and any backgrond.

Tjarks: Exactly. We’re not talking about white Gays or Black Gays.

Castro: Everything. And we don’t just limit our issues to just LGBT stuff. We attend events of other groups. One thing we do is we always go to the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which is not promoted as being just an LGBT film festival. Yes, they have a Queer segment, but we go so far because we think it’s a great foundation that brings cultural diversity to San Diego, and so we go show our support there.

Tjarks: Right. We encourage our members to go to other organizations and events.

Castro: If they come from an Asian background, we’ll tell them, “There’s an Asian-Pacific Islander Student Association [APSA] on campus, and I’m a friend of the president. You may be interested in maybe seeking them out too, and not just limit yourself to our organization.”

Tjarks: Not even joining other organizations, but just going to their events. APSA puts on an amazing fashion/talent show. A. B. Samahan puts on another wonderful cultural event. And we encourage our members to go to that. So it’s not just about Gay things. We want them to go to other organizations and seek out other issues that they can get passionate about.

Castro: Yes, because we alone can’t cover everyone’s background. It’s impossible to focus on every single person’s cultural background. We do our best, and that’s why we depend on other organizations. When they put on events, we say, “Oh, what do you need help with? How can we show you guys support?” We’re not limiting ourselves just to work with other LGBT people. We want everyone to work with us. That makes it easier, too, when their organizations seek us out. They ask, “Can you speak with us, to some of our members, about LGBT stuff, because we don’t think they know enough about that, those issues.”

Friday, November 23, 2007

Local Humanists Debate Morality at S.D. Library

National Director Speckhardt Lays Out Three Dilemmas


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

It began as a rather professorial lecture, but as soon as Roy Speckhardt, national director of the American Humanist Association (AHA), gave his overflow audience of over 70 people at the San Diego Public Library November 19 a chance to weigh in on three moral dilemmas, the meeting took on life as it became interactive. Ironically, though Speckhardt was speaking as the national director of a free-thought organization in a predominantly Christian nation, all the issues he raised involved Islam. They were the French government’s ban on female students wearing head scarves or other Islamic headgear in schools; the proposal at a Michigan public university to build foot baths into the restrooms so Muslim students can wash their feet before praying, as their religion requires them to do five times a day; and the recent controversy over the publication of 12 cartoon images ridiculing Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

“Our board is about to address issues like these,” Speckhardt said. “The first situation where both sides seem negative is the French ban on religious attire, as a reaction to the increasing population of Muslims. At the time [the law was passed], AHS rebuked France for attacking religious liberty. I’m not sure how I feel about this now that I’ve heard Steven Pinker [Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University] say religious attire creates in-groups, and others explaining the sexist oppression of head scarves. Then again, I’m still young enough to remember how high school is a cliquey place anyway, so maybe the harm is overrated.”

Complicating the issue, Speckhardt explained, is not only the way the ban has been enforced differently in different schools — “Where concerns about the Muslim minority are hight, they’re rigidly enforcing the policy,” he explained — but the French government’s attempt to make the ban at least appear religion-neutral. “The ban covered head scarves, yarmulkes and large Christian crosses,” Speckhardt said — but everyone knew which group it was really targeting and, “To my knowledge, it was only enforced on the head scarves,” he explained.

Speckhardt’s next moral dilemma — the proposal to install foot baths at University of Michigan restrooms — is so controversial that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, usually allies on church-state issues, took different positions. “ACLU is defending it and Americans United is opposing it,” he said. “There’s also a safety issue that may have a religious root, in that a student hurt herself washing her feet in a bathroom sink, and so many people are using the sinks for this they’re pulling the sinks off the floor.”

The next issue Speckhardt raised was the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten, which followed the attempt of the paper’s editor to commission an artist to draw an illustration of Muhammad for a children’s book. Three artists he offered the job to turned it down flat, and a fourth agreed to do it but only if his name was kept secret. What they were afraid of was the Muslim rule that any visual representation of Muhammad is regarded as a “graven image” and strictly forbidden, and the fear that if they were publicly identified with a drawing of Muhammad they would be threatened with attack and possibly killed by a vengeful Muslim.

“We followed the controversy closely,” Speckhardt said. “At first, most people think of this as a free speech issue, but how do humanists and others connect it to free speech? The French saw it that way at first [a French editor reprinted the cartoons in his own paper]. Confusing this was a law in the United Kingdom that would have banned religious hate speech, and it only narrowly failed. Nobody seemed to be considering punishing the Danish newspapers. The Danish government said they could not interfere with free speech.”

Speckhardt acknowledged that “the reason it became such a moral issue” wasn’t the content of the cartoons themselves but “the violence that resulted,” as Muslims both in majority-Muslim countries and in western Europe rioted and people were killed over the cartoons and the controversy surrounding them. According to Speckhardt, the controversy over the cartoons didn’t start until several months after Jyllands-Posten published them, and it had more to do with the internal politics of Egypt than any matters of religious principle. “Islamists in Egypt thought this owuld help them elect fundamentalist candidates against moderate ones,” Speckhardt said. “It worked. It was used as a political tool — and we were the people used as the tool.”

One person cited Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that had avoided involvement in divisive issues like this. Speckhardt noted that, during the dictatorship of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Turkey instituted a draconian level of separation of church and state that would make even many progressive Americans blush, “but those changes are under threat” from the current Islam-oriented ruling party.

“The AHA board is looking at a humanist position on Islam,” Speckhardt said. “There are extreme views on different sides. There are people that believe we are in a war against Islam and we have to defend ourselves and our values, including [feminist, activist and apostate Muslim] Ayman Hirsi Ali and [free-thought author and Iraq War defender] Christopher Hitchens. On the other hand, there are people who believe we need to find a middle ground. This will really be a challenging position.”

Speckhardt raised the issues involving Islam in the course of an elaborate presentation aimed at answering the objection frequently made against atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers and humanists by religious believers: the alleged impossibility of establishing a moral system of right and wrong without reference to religious principles. “Ethical questions are more difficult for a humanist than for a religious conservative like President Bush,” Speckhardt conceded. “In many circumstances, unethical behavior is warranted, from Jean Valjean [the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misèrables] stealing to support his family to Oskar Schindler lying to the Nazis to save Jews.”

Where it gets complicated, Speckhardt said, is in considering the long-term implications of acting unethically not only on society but on the people who commit unethical acts. “If you respond to the annoying neighbor next door by shooting him, it would end the wild parties but you would end up in prison and lose your moral identity,” he said. “In launching a war, many things will result besides the positive ones you want.” Almost inevitably, Speckhardt cited the U.S. war on Iraq as his example. “Many people are still outraged that George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq based on lies,” he said. “Though the real reasons may have been money and power, the official reason was to ‘spread democracy’” — a belief, Speckhardt, that led many war supporters to ignore the warnings from opponents that attacking Iraq might increase, not decrease, instability in the region.

“Unethical actions may degrade the character of those who engage in them.” Speckhardt said. “An action as extreme as killing can permanently crush the character of the killer. Self-defense can provide an ethical and legal defense. Other justifications like faith and patriotism may protect the person, but continuing unethical behavior may break the person down. Lies beget lies, and the moral fiber of the person will break down. If we accept unethical means for ethical ends, this will degrade the character, and eventually the person may adopt unethical ends as well.”

So how do you define ethical behavior if you’re a humanist and don’t have an inflexible rule book supposedly written by God to do it for you? The answer Speckhardt came up with sounded an awful lot like the classic Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “Humanists can and must develop values that maximize human happiness and minimize human suffering,” he explained. “We don’t have to consult ancient books. We can rely on our principles, among which the first is unflagging allegiance to the scientific method. Humanists tend to reject dogmas and arbitrary ideas about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ We don’t disbelieve religious explanations, but we are skeptical of all unfounded claims.”

According to Speckhardt, the second core principle of a humanist morality “is a deep-seated respect for humanity at large. The purpose of the scientific method is to use science towards the end of benefiting humanity. We must create our own hopes. Humanists recognize altruism because it works, and embrace social policies that widely distribute wealth and political power. [We believe in] a commitment to compassion and an egalitarian sense of human worth. Acceptance of significant group inequality is incompatible with humanist aims. … Unlike the majority of today’s conservatives, humanists recognize the need to treat people equally.”

Speckhardt then discussed emotions, which he said were “where morality is felt.” He cited experiments in which it was documented that people who suffered damage to certain parts of their brains became “morally deficient” as well. “The foundation is permanent, the goal is critical and the process for developing human morality is literally child’s play,” Speckhardt said, citing an experiment by pioneering French education researcher Jean Piaget that showed children playing with marbles spontaneously developed rules and instituted them as they got older.

“We’re open to change, to finding new ideas and solutions,” Speckhardt summed up. “Our morality is not a regulated form and style, but a moral landscape that transforms our world and ourselves. … We must examine our own maxims and work out ways to apply our principles in our daily lives, enact justice and build meaning, then and now.”

Stopping America’s Next Imperialist War

Reese Erlich Calls for Mass Opposition to U.S. Attack on Iran


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

In 2003, independent journalists Reese Erlich and Norman Solomon published a book called Target Iraq, both an explanation of why the Bush administration was so intent on invading Iraq and a last-ditch attempt to help spark a mass movement to stop it. On November 17, the two men were re-teamed — sort of — at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest, in a meeting sponsored by Progressive San Diego that presented Erlich in person and Solomon on film, in a documentary called War Made Easy based on a book Solomon wrote and published in 2005.

The theme of both Erlich’s talk and Solomon’s film (actually directed by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp but featuring not only interviews with Solomon but original footage of many of the public statements cited in the book that helped “sell” Americans on the wars against Viet Nam, Grenada, Serbia and Iraq) was how Presidents who want to start wars consistently follow the same scenarios.

“U.S. Presidents, Democrats or Republicans, have a similar modus operandi, and Bush is using it now against Iran,” Erlich explained. “He’s said that if Iran even has the knowledge of how to build a nuclear bomb, that’s intolerable. Of course, they have the knowledge” — the scientific principles of how a nuclear weapon works have been in the public domain for at least three decades — “but there’s a big difference between that and being able to build a bomb, and an even bigger difference between having a bomb and being able to deliver it.”

Erlich has a new book out — like President Bush, he too is using the same strategy he did nearly five years ago — this time written solo, called The Iran Agenda. He said that like the war in Iraq, the threatened attack on Iran has nothing to do with stopping Iran from having nukes or bringing “democracy” to the country. “It’s really about overthrowing [the government of] Iran and bringing it back under U.S. control,” Erlich said. He noted that one of the arguments the U.S. uses against Iran is that, since they’re a major oil producer, they can’t really be developing a civilian nuclear power program, which is what they say they’re doing (and which they have a right to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty); the only reason Iran would want nuclear energy, the argument goes, is to build bombs.

Like much of the propaganda the U.S. government puts out in support of its wars, this argument ignores history, Erlich said. In the 1970’s — when Iran was still ruled by the U.S.-friendly but dictatorially oppressive Shah, installed in a coup against a democratically elected government by the CIA and British intelligence in 1953 — “the U.S. was insisting that Iran develop nuclear power because they would eventually run out of oil. And if the current Iranian government fell and a pro-U.S. government came in, the U.S. would love to sell them nuclear power — especially since it would make U.S. companies like General Electric and Westinghouse a lot of money.”

Iran’s claim that they’re building nuclear reactors and enriching uranium only for power, not weapons, is backed up by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the same United Nations agency that reported accurately, before the U.S. invaded Iraq, that Iraq had no nuclear weapons program. “The IAEA says there is no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and the Iranians have agreed to full inspections of all their nuclear sites,” Erlich said. “The U.S. is not interested in allowing the IAEA to do their job in Iran” — any more than they were in allowing the IAEA to do their job in Iraq in early 2003 — “because that would screw up the argument” for war.

“Let’s say Iran is developing nuclear weapons,” Erlich added. “Even the CIA says they won’t have one until 2015, and then they’d have to figure out how to launch it.” He said that because this was an inconvenient conclusion for the Bush administration, Bush and Cheney rejected the CIA’s original National Intelligence Estimate from February 2007 and, like finicky diners arguing with a waiter over a wine selection, sent it back again in April “because it didn’t come to the ‘right’ conclusion” that Iran and its nuclear program were clear and present threats to the U.S.

Erlich then discussed the second propaganda point he says the U.S. is using to “sell” its people on the “necessity” of war with Iran: the allegations that Iran is supplying weapons being used to kill U.S. troops. “There’s no proof that Iran is telling its allies to kill American soldiers in Iraq,” Erlich said, adding that the so-called “Iranian” weapons — home-made anti-personnel bombs — “were first used by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in northern Ireland, and any machine shop can make one.” Erlich said that at one dramatic press conference in Iraq, U.S. officials unveiled rocket-propelled grenades and said they had been sent by Iran to be used in attacks on U.S. troops — but the grenades were labeled in English and the dates on them were written month/day/year, as is standard in the U.S., instead of day/month/year as is used in the rest of the world.

“Who is killing American soldiers? Who are the Americans fighting in Iraq?” Erlich said. “We’re fighting Iraqis, but the usual answer is ‘al-Qaeda.’ ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’ is a local terrorist organization with no ties to Osama bin Laden. The other argument is that we’re fighting Iranians. The advantage to that argument is we can blame it all on ‘outside agitators’” — a line that got a laugh from his audience, many of whom were old enough to remember that during the civil rights movement, Southern officials and other supporters of segregation said that their own Black people were perfectly content with their second-class lot and it was only “outside agitators” that were riling them up and getting them to protest. The use of the phrase “outside agitators” “disguises the fact that we’re fighting the Iraqi people,” Erlich said.

According to Erlich, Iran’s priority in Iraq is seeing a pro-Iranian government in power — and, ironically, the U.S. invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein has actually helped bring that about. When the much-ballyhooed constitutional elections were held in January 2005, the overwhelming winners were Shi’a parties closely allied to Iran, many of whose leaders had survived Saddam’s dictatorship by fleeing to Iran. He said that the leading Kurdish parties in Iraq also have close ties to Iran, and indeed Erlich began his talk with a bizarrely funny presentation on how the U.S. has declared the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization for its attempts to destabilize the Kurdish region of Iraq and declare independence — yet the U.S. is giving aid money and support to the PKK’s subsidiary, PJAC, because it operates inside Iran and attempts to destabilize Iran’s government with the same terrorist tactics.

“The U.S. is reaping what it has sown in Iraq,” Erlich said. “The parties it is working with are all pro-Iranian. In Iraq, Iran is funding some militias — and the U.S. is funding the same ones. Iran doesn’t want to see an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq; they want a gradual withdrawal so they can stave off the Sunnis. But if you want to attack Iran and you can say it’s ‘retaliation’ for Iran’s alleged attacks on U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, you don’t need a Congressional vote to authorize the war.”

Erlich went on to discuss the third set of arguments the U.S. is using to sell its people on war with Iran: the personal attacks on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This propaganda campaign, he explained, seizes on Ahmadinejad’s most extreme rhetoric to call him a “new Hitler” and claim he wants Iran to develop atomic weapons so he can obliterate the state of Israel and “start a new Holocaust.” Erlich said, “I’ve had conservatives ask me if we shouldn’t have taken out Hitler if we’d known in the 1930’s what we know now, and I point out that in the 1930’s their forebears were pro-Hitler” — not so much actively supporting him as hoping that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would get into a war, destroy each other and thus rid the world of both of them. (Some Right-wingers today, notably Pat Buchanan, still defend this analysis.)

Besides, Erlich reminded his audience, the real power in Iran lies with the religious leadership, as headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who took over when the Iranian revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died). “Ahmadinejad does not control his country’s military,” Erlich said. “He can’t launch anything. His quote that he wants to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ is an old quote from Khomeini, and it’s intentionally mistranslated to boot. The actual quote is, ‘The entity in Jerusalem should vanish into the pages of time.’” Besides, Erlich added, “If Iran is such a threat to Israel, why haven’t they already attacked Israel with conventional weapons? They have missiles and they’re claimed to have chemical weapons. They don’t because they have a policy against offensive wars, and because they realize that if they attacked Israel, the U.S. and Israel would utterly destroy Iran. The Iranian leaders are not crazy or suicidal.”

According to Erlich, in the 1980’s — when Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric was as intense, if not more so, than it is now — Israel was actually helping Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq. “While the U.S. was playing footsie with Saddam Hussein, Israel was supplying Iran with U.S.-made spare parts for their U.S.-made weapons” (the ones they’d acquired when the Shah was still in power and Iran was a U.S. ally). Indeed, the infamous Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration started out as an attempt to get Iran to free U.S. hostages in exchange for high-tech missiles the U.S. would have sent Iran through Israeli channels.

“In the last six weeks or so we’ve seen increased rhetoric from the U.S. calling for military attacks on Iran,” Erlich said. “Not an invasion” — even the most ardent neoconservatives are sufficiently in touch with reality that they understand a major ground war with Iran is not possible with so much of the U.S. military already committed to Iraq — “but air strikes against [alleged] nuclear facilities and Revolutionary Guard headquarters, which will kill a lot of civilians. Then the Bush administration will go on TV and declare a great victory, and get a bump in the polls. Some hawks believe they will inspire Iranians to rise up and overthrow the government” — which won’t happen, Erlich argued, any more than it did in Cuba in 1961 when the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion instead inspired the Cuban people to come together in defense of the Castro government — “while others say it will at least weaken the Iranian government.”

Other things will happen, too, if the U.S. attacks Iran, Erlich warned. “Gas prices will shoot up,” he said — thereby tanking the already strained U.S. economy overnight. “Israel and Hezbollah may go to war again, and all Iraqis will start shooting at American soldiers. There could also be terrorist attacks against Europe or the U.S.” Noting that by this time he was probably leaving his audience incredibly depressed, Erlich changed his tone abruptly towards the end of his talk, calling himself a “sober optimist” and actually suggesting that cooler heads in the U.S. government may prevail and short-circuit the war against Iran. He pointed to the recent demonstrations against the war on Iraq, which drew a total of half a million Americans into the streets of several major cities, and the skepticism of the supposedly “pro-American” governments in Britain, Germany and even France, whose newly elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy (a favorite of U.S. Republicans because he succeeded an unpopular incumbent from his own Right-wing party), ran on a pro-U.S. foreign policy platform but “is not going to urge the U.S. to bomb iran,” Erlich said.

“Russia and China are not going for more U.N. Security Council resolutions” targeting Iran, Erlich said, adding that IAEA is still inspecting “and the U.S. government has people in it who are aware of all this. They’ve cut the number of U.S. aircraft carrier groups off the coast of Iran from two to one. Congress, which has allocated $750 million to ‘promote democracy in Iran,’ recently moved this funding from the neoconservatives to the State Department. Third, the U.S. just released nine Iranian diplomats they’d been detaining in northern Iraq. These things are small concessions,” he said, adding that we’ll know whether the administration is backing off or continuing its threats against Iran by how Bush, Cheney and secretary of state Condoleeza Rice speak on the issue — and how the generally compliant U.S. media report on them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dahr Jamail Speaks in San Diego November 15

Independent Journalist Went to Iraq — Unembedded


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

In late 2002, Dahr Jamail was living a quiet existence in Alaska, making a living as a guide to tourists climbing Alaska’s spectacular mountains and a free-lance contributor to local papers. But living in the northernmost part of the United States gave him unusual access to media reports not only from U.S. sources but also from other countries as the Bush administration began its inexorable run-up to the war in Iraq. He noted that the U.S. media mostly repeated the claims of the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, had ties with al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations, posed a threat to world peace and needed to be removed from power, by force if necessary. By contrast, media in other countries were considerably more skeptical both of Bush’s rush to war and the claims being made in support of the upcoming invasion and occupation.

Jamail’s life changed when he decided that the only way he could resolve the contradiction was to go to Iraq and report on the war himself, not as an official journalist “embedded” with a military unit but on his own in the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi communities. It took him until November 2003 to raise the money and arrange the trip. For the next year and a half, he would spend eight months “in country,” interviewing witnesses to the U.S. sieges of Falloujah in April and November 2004 and exposing, among other things, how U.S. soldiers deliberately targeted health care, water and other infrastructure in one of America’s many violations of international law in prosecuting this war.

Though Jamail’s last tour in Iraq ended in early 2005, “The events that happened when I was there have a lot of effect on what’s happening now,” he told a packed audience of 200 in Bard Hall at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest November 15. It was Jamail’s second trip to San Diego. He had previously spoken here June 2, 2006 along with fellow independent journalist Mark Manning to promote Manning’s film Caught in the Crossfire, dealing with the Iraq war and particularly the sieges of Falloujah and the virtual destruction of this Iraqi city by U.S. forces. This time he was pushing a book of his own, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, collecting material he published first as e-mails to interested recipients, then as entries on a blog and later as articles in The Nation and other progressive publications.

Jamail remembered how his determination to visit Iraq started: when he heard Andrew Card, then President Bush’s chief of staff, say on September 6, 2002 that the reason the Bush administration hadn’t made its case for invading Iraq earlier was that, from a public-relations standpoint, “You don’t introduce new products in August.”

“I didn’t see much critique in the [U.S.] mainstream media about the use of PR to sell a war,” Jamail recalled. “But that’s exactly what Card did. The very next day, September 7, 2002, Bush and [British prime minister Tony] Blair said they had evidence from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iraq was six months away from developing nuclear weapons. No such evidence existed.” Jamail wondered, if he could see through that claim from a remote perch in Alaska, “Why did the mainstream media let that whopper go by? It’s my job as a journalist to monitor the centers of power.” Instead of criticizing Bush and Blair, however, on September 8 the New York Times published a ringing endorsement of their claims as a front-page news story by Michael Gordon and the now-disgraced Judith Miller, quoting “anonymous Bush administration officials” as saying that Iraq had stepped up its nuclear program — and then vice-president Dick Cheney appeared on TV citing that as a justification for the war and using the New York Times as his source.

“That was when my red line got crossed,” Jamail recalled. “I figured out how to go into Iraq. I didn’t know what a blog was. All I was going to do was send e-mails out. Then I started posting on various Internet sites and getting paid. I worked in and out of Iraq from November 2003 to February 2005. I was passionate because, as bad as the complicity of the mainstream media in selling the war had been, their coverage of the actual war and occupation has been even worse.”

One of Jamail’s biggest limitations in covering Iraq was that, despite his Arab-sounding name — acquired from a Lebanese ancestor who emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 — he did not speak Arabic. Throughout his book, he praises the dedication and courage of his interpreters, who enabled him to do person-on-the-street interviews and shared the risks he ran as an independent journalist outside the “embed” system. Though he wasn’t present for the actual U.S. attack on Falloujah in April 2004, he went to the city immediately afterwards and documented the attempts of Iraqis to care for the wounded — and the active targeting of hospitals, clinics and ambulances by U.S. forces.

Jamail calls March 31, 2004 — the day four mercenaries, so-called “contractors,” for the now-infamous private company Blackwater were captured and executed in Falloujah by Iraqi resistance fighters, who subsequently mutilated their bodies and put them on public display — “year zero, day zero” of the Iraqi resistance. Contrary to the statements of U.S. government and military officials, Jamail said, “Falloujah was not a pro-Saddam city. Before the invasion, he made a deal with the city, ‘You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.’ In 2003, U.S. soldiers who swept through Falloujah were not attacked. The tribes in Falloujah picked a pro-U.S. leader to work with Americans.”

All that began to change on April 29, 2003, Jamail said. That day, Falloujah residents staged a protest in front of a schoolhouse that had been taken over by the U.S. military as a command center. Concerned that their children would have no place to go to school, the protesters demanded that the military vacate the site and allow it to be used as a school again. The U.S. military responded by firing on the crowd of demonstrators. “The next day,” Jamail recalled, “there was another demonstration that was fired upon, and three Iraqis were killed.”

By March 2004, according to Jamail, the situation for the U.S. military in Falloujah had deteriorated so much that “the U.S. army couldn’t run a patrol for more than 30 minutes without being shot at.” So instead of doing the patrols themselves, they assigned the Blackwater mercenaries to do it for them. “By then,” Jamail said, “everyone in Iraq was aware of the private mercenaries with their white SUV’s and guns, shooting at everyone. So when they had an attack possibility on March 31, 2004, they took it, attacked the two-car convoy and did horrible things to their bodies. What wasn’t reported [in the U.S. media] was that every imam [religious leader] in the city condemned this as anti-Muslim and said that, given time, they would find these people and turn them over.”

The U.S. military commanders on the ground were actually willing to go along with the imams and see if justice could be done without an attack, but they were overruled by their superiors in the White House and the Department of Defense. “The order to besiege the city came from the White House,” Jamail said — and though he didn’t know why at the time, he said fellow independent journalist Jeremy Scahill’s exposé of the connections between the Bush administration and Blackwater has convinced him that Bush and his staff saw the attack on Blackwater mercenaries in Falloujah as a personal attack on them.

“I went into Falloujah because there were horrible reports of civilian casualties,” Jamail said. “We went in as part of a humanitarian mission sponsored by an Iraqi NGO [non-governmental organization], carrying rubber gloves and basic medicine and supplies. Several of us went, and we chose April 9 [to enter the city] because, according to the U.S. military, a cease-fire was in place and there was a truce.” That couldn’t have been more wrong. When they actually went into Falloujah on April 9 “I saw warplanes dropping bombs, helicopters strafing and sporadic fighting,” Jamail recalled.

“The U.S. military failed to take Falloujah in April 2004,” Jamail said. “In May, doctors told me 736 people had been killed in the siege, and at least 60 percent were civilians. On November 8, 2004 the U.S. started the second siege of Falloujah. Approximately 5,000 Iraqis died and most of the city was heavily damaged or destroyed. Some neighborhoods have no water, there are no vehicles allowed in the city, and Iraqis have to go through a biometric identification system, including fingerprints, retina scans and bar codes, before they can enter or leave the city. That is the ‘success story’ being held up as a model today for why things are more quiet in al-Anbar during the ‘surge.’”

Though Falloujah is the most extreme example he cited, Jamail brought facts and figures to show what an unmitigated disaster the U.S. occupation has been for virtually all Iraqis. “By every measure, the Iraqi infrastructure is worse than under Saddam and under the sanctions [imposed by the United Nations at the behest of the U.S. when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and not lifted until 2003], when 500,000 Iraqis died. Unemployment during the sanctions was 32 to 33 percent. Today it’s 60 to 70 percent. There hasn’t been one day [since the invasion] when oil exports were as high as they were under the sanctions. Child malnutrition has increased 90 percent, and 45 percent of the Iraqi population is living under dire poverty — defined as an income of less than $1 per day.”

Asked why the hope of Bush administration officials that Iraq would be able to pay for its own occupation with oil revenues hasn’t worked out, Jamail again cited that oil production statistic and added, “Just to have the occupation in place costs over $2 billion per week. Projected just a bit into the future, the cost of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is well over $2 trillion. The people who made that prediction didn’t think there would be a resistance. One priority of the Iraqi resistance is to block the oil privatization legislation [a major demand of the U.S. and one of the much talked-about ‘benchmarks’ for U.S. withdrawal and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty] and attack and sabotage pipelines. Another reason the oil profits haven’t materialized is corruption, both from Halliburton and the Iraqi government.”

Jamail cited recent reports that Ahmed Chalabi, the disgraced Iran-aligned Shi’a leader who was the Pentagon’s first choice for a post-Saddam Iraqi leader, is back in power and has been appointed to head the effort to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure — even though he was convicted of embezzlement in absentia decades ago in Jordan after a bank he owned there failed spectacularly.

Asked by Activist San Diego founder and director Martin Eder what sort of movement it will take to end America’s quest for empire in general and the Iraq occupation in particular, Jamail said, “We’re in very dark times. This country is in big trouble. We can look at what ended Viet Nam: a fierce Viet Namese resistance and a fierce GI resistance. By the end of Viet Nam half the troops wouldn’t follow orders, and that makes it hard to fight a war.” Though he acknowledged that resistance within the U.S. military to Iraq hasn’t reached nearly the level it did in Viet Nam — to the point where there were frequent allegations of soldiers “fragging” (killing) their officers — Jamail regards it as a positive sign that the membership in Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is doubling every year and half the members are active-duty military.

“I’ve interviewed GI’s in Iraq who say they’re doing ‘search and avoid’ missions,” Jamail said. “One said, ‘We were driving around to get blown up. Our commanding officer would get more medals the more people were being killed, so we’d park in a date field, listen to music and hang out.’ I interviewed another active-duty soldier elsewhere in Iraq at a different time, and he said much the same thing. That’s probably another reason why the number of U.S. troops being killed in Iraq is down” — a fact regularly cited in the U.S. media as indicating the “success” of Bush’s “surge” strategy.

Jamail offered little but contempt for the Democratic party and its inability or unwillingness to challenge the Bush administration on the war. He called the three leading contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards — “so-called ‘Democrats’” for refusing to rule out a combat role for U.S. troops in Iraq until 2012, when the next President’s first term will end. “Mainstream Democrats are saying, ‘We have to be reasonable, we can’t pull out at once or there’ll be a civil war,’” Jamail said.

By contrast, he cited polls of Iraqis themselves saying that 85 percent favor an immediate U.S. withdrawal — and only 1 percent support the current Iraqi government. (Jamail added that the joke around Iraq is that that 1 percent is the current Iraqi government.) “Before anything like peace and stability can happen in Iraq, three things have to happen,” Jamail said. “First, a total military withdrawal by the U.S. Second, refunding the reconstruction contracts so they go to Iraqi companies instead of Halliburton. Third, payment of full damages from the war and occupation. Only then can the reconstruction begin.”