Thursday, July 28, 2016

On the vengeance of a divided country, 1992 and 2016

Associate professor, The Ohio State University

Violence in the Middle East. Upheavals in Europe. Anxieties about American decline. Economic fears. A recent recession. Police brutality caught on video. Interracial conflict. Attacks on the police. A Clinton presidential campaign.

The year was 1992, although it could just as easily be 2016.

On the first night of the Republican National Convention in Houston 24 years ago, primary challenger Pat Buchanan took the stage to deliver his famous “Culture War” speech in which he argued that he and his supporters, the “Buchanan Brigades,” were fighting a religious and cultural war “for the soul of America.” He conceded to his bitter rival, President George H.W. Bush. Although the historical details might be different now than those more than two decades ago—the Persian Gulf War had just ended; Europe reeled from the Bosnian War; the trade war was with Japan; the Cold War ended; Black motorist Rodney King was physically beaten by four White and Latino police officers, the act of which was caught on a home video camera, and Los Angeles burst into flames after their acquittal and mistrial—the anger and frustration of the Buchanan Brigades was a palpable and surprisingly large minority of Republican primary voters.

This minority has grown in influence, from substantial fringe to king-making majority. In the 2016 election cycle, the bulk of Republican voters channeled that particular anger and frustration into the GOP presidential nomination of Donald J. Trump—not just a surprising primary challenge of a sitting president as in Buchanan’s case in 1992. One liberal pundit has characterized Trump’s supporters as deploying vengeance and revanchism. Although revanche is French for "revenge," revanchism has the historical connotation of reclaiming lost territory that is felt to be rightfully one’s own nation’s, specifically the Alsace-Lorraine province of France that was lost to Prussia in 1870. Geographer Neil Smith has connected revanchism to the decades-long gentrification policies that justified the removal of poor people (of color) from cities (see: Neil Smith).

This vengeful logic appears as the ubiquitous slogan that supports causes from all over the political spectrum: “Take Back America.” In 1992, Buchanan ended his blockbuster speech with his own version of this call to not-entirely-metaphoric arms. He talks of how a young group of soldiers who, having recently returned from the Persian Gulf War, protected a senior convalescent home during the Los Angeles Rebellion and how their bravery should inspire citizens through this presidential election and beyond: “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” For Buchanan, we must take back America from “the mob” using “force” albeit “rooted in justice.”

As the antagonists were then in 1992, so they are in 2016: America has been overrun with and must be "taken back" from terrorists, from criminals, from immigrants, from protestors.

Often referred to as backlash politics, much of this anger has been attributed to the perception that America has lost (or will lose) its unequivocal global dominance, no longer the undisputed winner of the Cold War as the lone, unassailable global superpower. The 1990s were riven by such concerns as “balkanization” and interethnic strife that had shaken and toppled governments around the world in the post-Cold War era.

The logic of backlash politics fuels what I call racial equilibrium (see: Chapter 3, "The Territorialization of Civility, the Spatialization of Revenge"). If one group appears to win, then another should lose; eventually the losers win and the winners lose with a net gain zero. To understand racial politics in this way is a reductive, dangerous, and false equivalence. The fatal shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are often argued to counterbalance the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, implying that the deaths of the police officers by Black men now supersede the deaths of Black men by police officers. These deaths ostensibly represent a false choice between support for law enforcement or support for their killers. As my colleague Treva Lindsey writes, “One can mourn the loss of life in Dallas and fight against racist policing. To be clear, these are not opposing positions.”

Comments on the shootings of police in Dallas by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a public intellectual who has been celebrated for his self-professed centrist politics, captures how even the center-left have found common cause with the right:

“Civilization rests on the rule of law, and that rests on respect for officers of the law. I have never liked hearing marching crowds that chant slogans such as 'No justice, no peace.' That is a not-so-veiled threat against the basic rules of civil society. We all rely on the police and other elements of the criminal justice system to maintain order, which is the building block of justice. Look at countries such as Iraq and Libya today, where order has collapsed. The rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle.”

The criminal justice system leads to order, which leads to justice, which grounds civilization. To disrespect police officers, as an element of the justice system, thus destabilizes civilization. The problem with Zakaria’s point about civilization is that he creates a false dichotomy, an implicit us versus them: those who respect officers of the law and support civilization, and those who don’t respect officers of the law and support instead some putative “law of the jungle.” However, if justice is the bulwark of civilization, and the merits or strengths of a civilization is judged by the justice it dispenses, then where there is little justice, there is little civilization even with respect for officers of the law.

What if instead we were to understand the protestors’ chants of “No Justice, No Peace” as a description of the experiences of entire communities, numbers that continue to grow beyond the loved ones that Castile and Sterling left behind? The “not-so-veiled threat” that Zakaria identifies is the protesters’ bringing these injustices and rights violations to the broader U.S. public and forcing these wider audiences with little firsthand experiences to include these injustices as part of the America to which they belong. The more accurate dichotomy, then, is between those who feel they have had justice and peace that can be disrupted by the protesters and those who feel they have never had justice or peace in the first place. In other words, if we feel that our experiences have largely been about justice and peace, then we have been lucky enough to have lived in a world that has been relatively protected from the daily lived experiences of the protesters and the victims of police brutality. The question remains whether we will respect and recognize these experiences as part of the everyday America we live in and the history we claim as our own.

This division indicates the “two societies” toward which we have moved, not “one white, one black” as the original 1968 Kerner Commission Report read, published after years of urban unrest had sparked across the nation, taking lives and burning out neighborhoods. Instead, our nation today is divided between those who believe the U.S. system of justice is fair and those who do not. These divisions force us to answer hard questions about whether our society and civilization will be marked by the inclusiveness and understanding that so many politicians, policymakers, and pundits insist American society to be. Will our concept of America include and understand these experiences of injustice and unwarranted state violence so that we will protest the killing of one of our own, whether civilian or police?

Now, with consequences far greater than this presidential election, we get to choose: which America will we take back, the one of division or inclusion?


Lynn Mie Itagaki is author of Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout. She is associate professor in the departments of English and women's, gender, and sexuality studies and the Program Coordinator in Asian American Studies at The Ohio State University.

"Lynn Mie Itagaki’s book is an incisive critique of the civil racism that has become dominant in both liberal and conservative discourses of race in the post-Civil Rights era."
—Daniel Kim, Brown University

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empire in an age of robots and drones

Lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow

On July 7, 2016, police forces in Dallas attached a small explosive device to a robot and sent it to kill Micah Johnson, the gunman who shot five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally. Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended the lethal action, insisting, “We saw no other option than to use our bomb robot . . . Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

The remote-killing was the first of its kind on U.S. soil, and generated intense debate about the ethics of using robots to destroy humans. Did Johnson pose an imminent threat at the moment of explosion? What about due process? And when should a robot perform an exceptional act of state violence? These questions mirrored established concerns about drone warfare. For more than a decade, the U.S. military and intelligence communities have killed by proxy.

Outside of “hot battlefields,” from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen’s deserts, Predator and Reaper drones have hunted from above. Hundreds of strikes and thousands of deaths have crystallized a new way of waging war. Bruised by nearly a decade of billion-dollar skirmishes, the White House slowly pivoted to the robotic. Drones circling in the clouds, rather than soldiers scrambling on the ground, became a nonhuman solution to a very human problem. As troops withdrew from Afghanistan after fighting the longest military operation in U.S. history, drones stayed behind: unblinking sentinels in the sky. In Syria and Iraq, Reapers continue to provide the military with a high-definition picture of below. At the outset of the war on terror, the U.S. military had a handful of drones. Now, more than 11,000 unmanned vehicles constitute a robotic armada, from hand-thrown Ravens to the large Global Hawk drone. How can we describe this cyborg imperium?

For millennia, empires have risen and fallen. They are an enduring feature of human history. After launching the war on terror, empire was a term widely used to describe the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoconservatives and liberals alike embraced the idea of a distinctly American empire. In their eyes the world was now a battlespace and the U.S. military a beacon of order. The network of military bases installed in the Cold War expanded to serve a vast military manhunt. Yet as the years passed and the death count rose, the specter of another “Vietnam Syndrome” seeped into the corridors of Washington, D.C. Bogged down in a vicious counterinsurgency, the war on terror had slowly transmuted into a forever war. The Obama administration subsequently oversaw a drawdown of U.S. troops. Behemoth bases were mothballed, and the number of Americans in foreign lands fell.

But did this mean that empire was fading or simply changing?

This question is crucial. Is “empire” still a relevant term to describe the “small footprint” approach enabled by robotic prosthetics? I think so, but the empire of today is unlike anything before. Although empires have always relied on technology to project their power—from Roman roads to British ships—we now live in an age of advanced artificial intelligence, supercomputers, robots, the Internet, and satellite communications. An artificial skin has been grafted on the planet, with earthlings joined together in electromagnetic communion. This has profoundly changed the spaces, subjects, and apparatus of state power. Violence, although a distinctly human activity, is increasingly conducted by proxy. The rise of the Predator drone at the dawn of the war on terror enabled the U.S. military to project power without projecting human bodies. The interface between American imperium and its enemies was mediated by robot. And this continues to materialize a transition away from a labor-intensive American empire to what I call a machine-intensive Predator Empire.

Empire abhors a vacuum, and the U.S. homeland—long a target of police militarization—soon saw Predators deployed along its national borders. The killing of Micah Johnson was therefore the latest case of robotic blowback. Robots from the battlefield are routinely transferred to police departments across the U.S. Financed by the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, together with funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, around 1,000 ground robots have joined a cache of war gear that has spilled onto U.S. streets. And that’s in addition to police drones that are starting to swarm in cities and suburbs.

Robots, whether in warfare or policing, on the ground or in the sky, are clearly changing the conduct and spatiality of U.S. power, politics, and violence. And we are only beginning to understand the meaning of this artificial regime for what it means to be a human. A key battleground will be how democracy, legitimacy, and accountability function in a world where decisions—and the ancient art of killing—are severed from humans.

Ours, after all, is the age of alienation. A toxic individualism rips through the planet, splintering lifeworlds and entrenching a pervasive paranoia. It is little wonder that the machinery of imperialism today reflects this system that birthed it: a grinding war of all against all. In her essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt warned that governments who feel legitimate power slipping away from them “have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.” My fear is that governing by consent, a victory hard-won over centuries, is at risk of being radically overturned by governing by violence. Shoveling billions of dollars within the belly of the Predator Empire risks such an inversion. This would represent a Hobbesian Leviathan shorn of any pretense to protect a unified commonwealth: a state apparatus whose sole duty is to police segregation. A new social contract for the robotic Leviathan of the twenty-first century.

Empire has not disappeared. In the twinkling of satellites, the snaking of undersea fiber-optic cables, and the whir of data storage facilities, a robotic imperium thrives. Perhaps it is more difficult to see than legions of Roman phalanxes, but the Predator Empire exists. It never sleeps or blinks in its attempt to secure a splintering planet. Our task is to wake up to a brave new world marching into a future without us.


Ian G. R. Shaw is author of Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. He is lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow.

"A compelling account of the geopolitics of the drone as it haunts ‘policing, predation, and planet.’ Ian G. R. Shaw's book is as attentive to the historical and cultural geographies of the unmanned aerial vehicle as it is to the preemptive foreclosure of political futures."
—Louise Amoore, author of The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability

Friday, July 15, 2016

The UAW Local 879, 75 years ago: Ford, FDR, and the hard-fought battles behind the launch of this legendary labor leader.

Local 879, seen in this solidarity march in St. Paul, was a national leader
during the 1980s and 1990s in promoting workers' rights and fair trade.
Image from the author's collection.


Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, vowed on many occasions that he would never allow a labor union. When workers at a plant in Buffalo, New York, walked out in a wildcat strike in 1912, he shut the facility down. No one ever doubted his resolve.

So how did the United Automobile Workers (UAW) manage to organize the Ford Motor Company seventy-five years ago? It took the concerted efforts of tens of thousands of workers, the determination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Walter Reuther of the UAW—and most importantly, an ultimatum from Ford’s wife, Clara, who was desperately trying to save the company for their son, Edsel.

On July 18, 1941, UAW Local 879 received a charter to represent workers at Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Various organizations, including the UAW, had been struggling for decades to improve working conditions at the Ford Motor Company—and paying a high price for their efforts. At the Ford Hunger March in 1932, which started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan, four workers protesting unemployment during the Depression were shot and killed by police and Ford service agents. Dozens more were injured.

This Newsweek Magazine cover from June 5, 1937,
has the caption "Dearborn: No Trespass!"
Image from the author's collection.

FDR’s New Deal programs brought hope to the workers of America but apprehension to Henry Ford, who suspected a plot to unionize his workforce. He refused to go along with the National Industrial Recovery Act, setting up a confrontation with Roosevelt—the first of many. Ford was disqualified from bidding on federal projects in 1934. The following year, Roosevelt secured passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier for unions to organize. In 1937 the UAW introduced a new tactic, the sit-down strike, and organized General Motors and Chrysler. Buoyed by that success, Reuther led a march in Dearborn to distribute flyers at the Ford River Rouge plant, which had about 85,000 workers. The marchers were met by a contingent of Ford agents in what became known as the Battle of the Overpass. Reuther and other union organizers were severely beaten, and many bystanders were hurt. Newspapers and magazines published a number of iconic photographs of the mayhem, including one that received a Pulitzer. These images showed a shocked nation what the Ford service department had become: a gang of thugs. Henry Ford was oblivious to the harsh criticism and continued to oppose virtually all of Roosevelt’s programs. David Halberstam wrote in The Reckoning of Ford’s bizarre behavior: “No one could reach the old man anymore. It was a spectacular self-destruction, one that would never again be matched in a giant American corporation. It was as if the old man, having made the company, felt he had a right to destroy it.”

Occasionally it would be standing-room-only at Local 879 Hall, with some
workers outside looking through the window (at rear). The building
is now owned by Erik's Bike Shop.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

As a result of the Battle of the Overpass and other egregious labor violations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Ford to stop interfering with the right of workers to organize. Ford refused and challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB in court. Even after the case was rejected by the Supreme Court on February 10, 1941, Ford still refused to comply. Fed-up workers at the Rouge plant walked out on April 1, eventually shutting down all Ford operations throughout the country, including the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. As the labor battles were ongoing, Roosevelt was preparing for a different kind of battle: war in Europe. American manufacturers were generally cooperative with the military preparedness effort but Ford was characteristically defiant, in part because of his pacifist beliefs. Roosevelt and the military made it clear that the country needed the industrial might of the Ford Motor Company. In August 1940, Ford was awarded a contract to build airplane engines, followed by orders for armored cars and trucks. This was strongly opposed by the UAW, which had still not organized Ford three years after GM and Chrysler. They claimed that Ford was anti-labor, unpatriotic, and a Nazi sympathizer. There was a perception that an increasingly senile Henry Ford was dragging his feet on fulfilling the military contracts. Roosevelt threatened to take over the company. In an effort to tame the “rugged individualist,” Roosevelt had employed federal procurement policies, labor regulations, and a threat to nationalize the company—all without much success. Ford finally capitulated after receiving an ultimatum from Clara to sign a labor contract or she would leave him.

A union election was held on May 22, 1941, which the UAW-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) won in a landslide. A broken Ford agreed to a contract that was signed on June 20. “The company granted the union everything it asked and threw in the union shop and check-off [dues collection] gratis,” the New York Times reported. The national contract would also apply to all branch plants after local ratification.

Labor activists in the Twin Cities were fortunate that they were not subjected to the violence that often accompanied organizing campaigns in Detroit. Several retired auto workers who participated in an oral history program in the late 1990s described the brutal working conditions at the Twin Cities plant in the 1930s, which were comparable to those at ten other Ford branch plants that had filed complaints with the NLRB. The CIO had sent an organizer to lead the local campaign. Clandestine meetings were held in living rooms, and at a Plymouth garage on Lake Street, Minneapolis, which was under surveillance by Ford agents. Workers knew there were company spies at the plant and that they risked termination if they were seen at any union meetings. The Twin Cities Assembly Plant reopened several weeks after the national labor agreement was signed in Detroit. On June 27, more than 1,200 workers attended an evening meeting in St. Paul and 900 signed union membership cards, giving it the needed majority. On July 18, 1941, the Twin Cities plant was issued charter No. 879 by the UAW-CIO. Local 879 opened an office at 444 Rice Street in St. Paul. Several weeks later a delegation from Local 879 met with Ford representatives in Chicago to learn the details of the union contract negotiated in Detroit.

UAW President Walter Reuther (shaking hands at right) presided
at the opening of the new Local 879 Union Hall on Ford Parkway,
St. Paul, in 1955.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

After many years of struggle to win the right to represent workers, the UAW had to abruptly redefine its mission. The first priority was to protect its members, as the plant was being converted from civilian production under Ford to military production under the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). As car production was being phased out, labor leaders at the local, state, and federal levels lobbied to keep auto workers employed in defense industries. On December 7, 1941, five months after the formation of UAW Local 879, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war.

Ford closed the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in 2011. The charter of UAW Local 879 was terminated two years later after it sold its union hall and transferred responsibilities for retirees to another UAW local in Minneapolis.


Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota, forthcoming later this year from University of Minnesota Press. A trained architect, McMahon has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture and has developed and designed several exhibits for museums and galleries in New York and Minnesota.

"Brian McMahon has done an outstanding job of showing how the top and bottom layers of the industrial hierarchy viewed reality—and how they saw and influenced each other."
—Peter Rachleff, Macalester College