50 Hours of Peace: what I saw in Ferguson.

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by: derek dyson

Early Thursday morning I found myself glued to the live streams coming from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown at the hand of a local police officer. As I watched militarized police units reign down on protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, I was shook to the core. I became physically sick to my stomach and unable to sleep. By 4am I gave up on trying to sleep and instead loaded up my car and embarked on the six hour trek from Tulsa to this now infamous St. Louis suburb. As I drove, scanning the radio between a few college run NPR stations and the Right Wing radio talk shows that seem to dominate the area, I imagined what  it was going to be like on the streets of Ferguson. I pictured militant protesters clashing with with police in riot gear. Barricades and the beginnings of martial law. Essentially I assumed the worst.  In reality, that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth.

On the surface Ferguson is not unlike any other American suburb. Red brick houses with manicured lawns, strip malls, a quaint downtown district full of locally owned bars, restaurants and boutique shops. I couldn’t help but think that this could be the town I grew up in and this idea only solidified as the day went on. Across from the police station stood a diverse group of protesters holding signs and handing out food and water while they periodically chanted “hands up, don’t shoot”, a line reminiscent of eye-witness accounts depicting the last seconds of Michael Brown’s life. There were children playing tag, twenty-to-thirty somethings discussing Syria and Palestine, grandmothers picking up trash and handing out informative flyers. Every age, race and socioeconomic background was present. Not only were they present, but they were actively coming together as a community and literally embracing each other on sidewalks that only hours before were teeming with police officers dressed as if they were in a war zone.

Less than a mile away was a similar situation, but the backdrop was a bit more ominous. A burnt out gas station lingered behind large crowds on either  side of the street. The atmosphere was visibly charged, but the sentiment the same. An elderly man’s placard seemed astonishingly poignant.  “Fighting For Justice…Not Just Us”.  By chance I caught his eye’s from behind my lens and I was struck with the feeling that he had probably seen all of this before. The lump in my throat a testament to how far removed I have been from this situation and those like it. The pain and disgust, the fear, at this point all seemed foreign to me. Like I’ve never really felt it. Two blocks away sat a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street. Flowers and teddy bears scattered across the blood stained pavement where a teenage boy took his last breath. A vivid reminder of why these streets are, and have been for a week now, lined with outraged citizens, concerned bystanders and journalists from Al-Jazeera to Univison.

 

 

 

 

For the first hour I paced back and forth through the crowds on either side of Florissant Avenue trying to take it all in. I had participated in protests during Occupy and in college staged a protest at a local religious University that had been meddling in local politics back home, but I had never been around anything like this. I know I was originally drawn here by this fact, but it soon became obvious that this was not the Ferguson I had seen on the news. It was a far cry from the live stream I had watched the night before, all but forcing me to go see it for myself. Where were the militant youth that had supposedly hurled molotov cocktails at police? Where were the tanks? The riot shields? What had changed? As it turns out, on this day everything had changed.

Early Thursday morning Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had recused local law enforcement of their role in crowd control, putting an African-American State Trooper in charge. This was a man that had grown up in this very neighborhood and it showed. By all accounts the mood on Florissant had spun 180 degrees. There were no longer snipers perched on tanks. To the contrary, there were only a handful of officers in sight. At most I counted 5 black officers from various law enforcement agencies all in their day-to-day uniforms intermingling with those in the crowd. Hugging protesters. Spending hours shaking hands and answering questions from any and all that approached them. It was beautiful. A crowd that only hours before had been dispersed by means of rubber bullets and tear gas was now completely in control of the situation. The officers were mere bystanders as if their only role was that of support. They were just another face in the crowd.

Live broadcasts from the scene consisted of journalist after journalist praising the move by the governor and praising Captain Johnson. While I was instantly a fan of Johnson and his demeanor towards the crowd, to me the praise seemed forced. Misaligned even. It seemed fairly obvious who was keeping order in this massive crowd of people. It wasn’t law enforcement and it certainly wasn’t the governor. These streets were controlled, from the protesters to the traffic, by the passionate people of this community. College students, local leaders, political activists all took control of the situation and made every effort to ensure a peaceful protest. Essentially, the people were proving that local law enforcement were not needed on the scene at all. Not only were they not needed, but it was starting to look like they might have been at least part of the reason for disorder in the first place. This was the sentiment of nearly everyone I spoke with throughout the day. Something was different, and that something was the lack of police presence.

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As the sun set Thursday night the protest shifted into what could accurately be described as a street party. Thousands lined the sidewalks chanting, clapping, celebrating as cars passed with their horns blaring. This lasted well into Friday morning and if you were to have asked me at the time I would have said the violence was likely over. The community had suffered enormously, yes, but maybe allowing this community to control their own destiny was just the kind of healing they needed. Maybe treating people as equals as opposed to criminals was the key. Or maybe just removing a militarized force of officers was what turned the tide.  Either way, what happened on Thursday was a rare glimpse of humanity that everyone in this country needed to see and I’m honored to have been a part of it, if only for a short time.

Sadly, sometime after midnight on Saturday morning the party was over. A handful of militant youth were said to have broken in and set fire to a convenient store that was the alleged scene of a video that earlier in the day Ferguson police had released (against the wishes of the Department of Justice) depicting Michael Brown presumably stealing cigars minutes before he was shot. I’ll admit that I can’t speak to that video or how the citizens of Ferguson responded to it. I can’t speak to the motives of the few young people who turned to violence Saturday morning or to how the State Troopers handled the situation. I can’t speak to these things because I was no longer there. What I can speak to is what I witnessed on Thursday night. Masked youth taking orders from leaders of the National Black Panther movement in a pure show of respect. Local church leaders directing congested traffic that could rival that of Times Square. Young college students handing out food and water to their peers and playing with children as their parents looked on without fear. Cars full of people driving up and down that road in righteous jubilee. That night I saw a thousand people in mourning turn a street plagued with violence on one day into a celebration the next. This wasn’t the work of the local police. This wasn’t the work of politicians or presidents. And although he played an important role, this wasn’t the work of Captain Johnson. No, this was a celebration for and by the people of Ferguson and no one was going to take that away from them. The world knows they deserved every minute of it.

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All pictures owned via copyright by Derek Dyson and Project Freethought.

 

Death and Justice in a State of Decay.

 by: derek dyson 

Oklahoma and it’s predisposition for capital punishment have recently come under scrutiny after a series of events spanning the State Supreme Court, a stay of execution, a Governor’s veto, and eventually the injection of an untested drug cocktail lead to the prolonged and seemingly excruciating death of a convicted murderer. While the specifics of this case will undoubtedly have Constitutional ramifications on how a state can administer the death penalty while staying in compliance with the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, in the paragraphs below I will be dealing solely with the moral question at hand. If a society places human life at the top of its moral hierarchy, can a state purposefully end a life as a means of social control and still be considered just?

The oldest and most common argument for capital punishment is it’s use as a deterrent. The line of thinking goes that any given human will value his or her own life to the degree that the fear of losing that life in retribution of a crime committed will prevent them from committing said crime. Although there are centuries of statistical data that refute this assumption, for the purpose of this argument I am going to focus solely on the flawed reasoning at the heart of this theory.

If the primary rationale for capital punishment is as a deterrent, it’s reasonable to assume that displaying death as a public spectacle is the most effective way to maximize its potential. The more people exposed to the horrors of the hangmans noose, the more people dissuaded from committing crime. This was the norm for most of human existence and early on it may have been effective to some degree, but as humanity progressed so did our collective moral compass. Public executions slowly came to be considered inhuman for a civilized society and are now unheard of in the West. Today executions (in what few Industrialized Nations still allow them) are carried out in closed rooms, viewed only by small groups consisting of family members, legal representatives, government officials etc. This is because modern executions are no longer a viable deterrent, but instead act as a simple act of revenge carried out by the state in an attempt to right a wrong in the hearts and minds of a select few. Revenge is merely an emotion, a violent natural instinct, and the antithesis of modern laws which lay their foundations in reason above all else. By in large the propensity of vengeance is not considered a positive attribute, but even if we were to relegate some moral capital to vengeance, it would never outweigh the virtue placed on human life itself. This means that a widows quest to avenge the murder of her husband cannot justly end with another act of killing. It may have taken us thousands of years to get to this point, but eventually the Bronze Aged idea of an “eye for an eye” gave way to a more compassionate, more egalitarian “turn the other cheek” mantra. Ironically, those who believe most deeply in one of the original sources of that mantra also tend to support the death penalty.

The next issue focuses on the premium that we as a society place on human life. If we collectively hold human life sacrosanct, reserving our most strict punishments for those who deprive a fellow man of that right, how then can we justify allowing the state to freely commit this most heinous of crimes against humanity and do so in our name? States have throughout history been governed by flawed men with a predisposition to corruption, greed and injustice. Are we somehow expected to blindly trust these men to be flawless in their rationale, in their prejudice, in their constitution when considering this most important of issues…who lives and who dies? What reasonable person would willingly put this decision in the hands of the state? Under what moral authority is the state suddenly immune to guilt if it were to take the life of a citizen?

If we are to accept human life as the most supreme of the rights of man, then no man can justly deprive another of this right. If we accept this notion, the only person that can justly end a human life, is a person that ends his or her own. No state, no vengeful party, no wronged neighbor and no aggressor can justly end a mans life. This leaves us with only one acceptable option as punishment for heinous crimes. Confinement of guilty parties is both humane and effective. Indefinite imprisonment for the most serious offenders acts as a deterrent to crime, provides the endless possibility of justice for those who may have been wrongly accused and most importantly, preserves the most basic of rights, the right to life, to even our most wicked of citizens if they are indeed guilty. This right is not dependent on class or color or past aggression. It is inalienable.

Simply put, the state has no more right to end a life than an individual actor has. Either may choose to do so, but it is impossible to do so justly. This philosophical outlook has nothing to do with constitutional law or real world statistics that may or may not refute the use of capital punishment as an applicable response to crime. It only assumes that the preservation of all human life is paramount. Any argument for capital punishment must make the same assumption but it will fail miserably in it’s application. While it’s possible that public executions were an effective form of social control in early human history, this possibility was quickly vanquished by our post-Enlightenment sensibilities. If no longer a viable form of social control, capital punishment is reduced to pure vengeance, which by definition is unjust if it leads to the taking of another mans life.

This line of thinking is largely a simplified synopsis of 20th century French Philosopher Albert Camus’ treatise titled Reflections on the Guillotine in which he lays out his case against capital punishment in post World-War I France. Despite his best efforts, the last French execution by guillotine was in 1977. Capital punishment was abolished under French Law in 1981. Although the political and social climate of postwar France in Camus’ time is by no means identical to that of modern day America, his philosophy on the death penalty and justice still stands.

In a time of partisan divides, rogue Governors and undermined Supreme Courts; all residing in a State where the “value of human life” is an impassioned Right-Wing battle-cry in one instance, then ignored in a complete lapse of reason in the next, we as a society must fight against this moral hypocrisy with our dying breath. If for nothing else, to ensure that that final breath can be drawn freely by all men equally. Free of gurneys. Free of experimental drug cocktails. Free of governments that will take a life before considering the possibility of saving one.

Vetoes in the UN Security Council: The U.S., Israel and the hypocrisy of the Syrian conflict.

graphic courtesy of gbtimes.com

By: Derek Dyson

At a routine press conference in London a young female journalist sat with bated breath as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out his country’s justification for military intervention in Syria. For weeks prior the Obama administration had been heavy handedly proposing “strategic air strikes” on the Assad regime and his chemical weapons stores that were the alleged cause of more than 1400 civilian casualties in and around the suburbs of Damascus on August 21st. Citing the Syrian military’s failure to follow “international norms” the administration has said that it is justified in taking unilateral action against “any direct threat to the US or it’s allies” and will be forced to do so because of the inability of the U.N. Security Council to take action on this issue. This, because of an all but certain veto by two of the five permanent members of the council, most notably coming from Russia and to a lesser extent China. With all of this information lingering in the back of her mind, CBS correspondent Margaret Brennan waited for an opening as Kerry closed with a plea for support from the British people. At this moment she stood up and after making remarks about a lack of evidence concerning the source of the chemical attack, utters what might be the most important phrase of her journalistic career.  “Is there anything at this point his government [Bashar al Assad] could do or offer to stop an attack? ”. What happened next could possibly go down in history as the best diplomatic accident of our generation. Kerry, in a dismissive and off the cuff manner answered “Sure”, saying that if Assad would hand over Syria’s chemical weapon stores and manufacturing facilities to the U.N. they could avoid military intervention, adding “but he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done”. Within hours of this statement Russian and Syrian diplomats come to an agreement and inform the International community that they accept this new diplomatic offer by the U.S. and will work through the U.N. Security Council to implement it. In a very strange twist of fate John Kerry had accidentally diverted war in favor of an international diplomatic approach. This is truly the sort of thing that Political Science professors salivate over. Quirky historical accidents that make young undergraduate eyes open widely in disbelief as they realize how easily history can be swayed. Like the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand starting WWI or the ticker tape malfunction that started a global depression…this off the cuff remark, a simple “sure” uttered in a press conference could be the only thing standing between diplomacy and all out war spanning the entirety of the Fertile Crescent.

The main caveat that all of this will be hinged upon is the phrase “could be” because this is still going to come down to vote in the Security Council, which will depend on a resolution that can make it past a Russian veto. At this point the U.S. is pushing for language that would leave military action on the table if Syria fails to meet demands or if it is proven that the Assad regime was the source of the attack. In a New York Times Op-Ed written by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was made clear that a diplomatic approach would be the only acceptable answer if it were to involve a Russian vote, saying that he was not protecting the Assad regime but much more importantly, protecting international law. This is because any act of aggression or threat of war proposed unilaterally and without the approval of the U.N. Security Council is by definition against International Law and the Charter that was set into place at the formation of the United Nations shortly after WWII. This is the roll of the Security Council above all else, which has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. This is done by a panel of 5 permanent Security Council members: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, any of whom can utilize sole veto power to stop any resolution that finds itself in front of the council, and 10 rotating members who have voting rights but no veto power. Historically this veto power has been a source of contention in the international community, often being used to protect economic or diplomatic allies who would otherwise be condemned by key members of the council. There is no better example of this than the relationship between the United States and Israel. In the last Forty years the U.S. has used its veto power in the Security Council to stop economic, diplomatic and military sanctions and/or official condemnation against the State of Israel by the International community on 45 separate occasions. This is in stark contrast to the three Russian vetoes used during this same time period in support of Arab States.

When a single country uses its veto power to undermine actions taken by the United Nations, an organization that was put into place largely to uphold peace and international law, it can easily undermine the authority of the entire organization. While the United States is not alone in it’s utilization of veto power, in last few decades it is without a doubt the most prolific veto invoking nation on the council. Most recognizably through relentless support of the State of Israel despite illegal military conquests and humanitarian crimes against thousands of civilian women and children, the U.S. has shown that it’s power on the world stage is almost limitless and largely unchecked by international law.

Given the United States track record on the Security Council it stands to reason that the international community would be outraged by the current situation in Syria. In stark contrast to it’s foreign policy concerning the State of Israel when it comes to the UN Security Council, up until John Kerry’s slip up, the United States was refusing to seek U.N. approval because of a likely veto from Russia. Why is it acceptable for the United States to to protect its assets in Israel at all costs, but unacceptable for Russia to do the same? Why do U.S. officials believe they have the authority to take unilateral action in Syria, fully aware of the fact that if the international community were to have taken the same action in regards to the State of Israel, that country would not only be geographically unrecognizable today, but would have also been writhing from nearly 40 years of diplomatic, military and economic sanctions imposed by United Nation member States? Most importantly, what events lead to a practice that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations on a daily basis, harkening back memories of what eventually lead to the dissolving of the League of Nations, it’s predecessor?

On June 5th, 1967 the Israeli military initiated a “preemptive” military strike on Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian military outposts and air bases, in what has since been known as “The Six Day War”. By the 10th of June Israel had expanded its land holdings to three times what it had been only days before, effectively occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in former Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the Golan Heights in Syria. The aftermath of this land grab left nearly one million Arabs, the majority of whom were Palestinians, under Israeli rule and set into motion the most contentious post WWII military and humanitarian conflict of the 20th century or what is now known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. The United Nations Security Council quickly condemned the attacks in Resolution 242 and called for Israeli forces to secede the land taken by military conquest, a practice that had been condemned by international law by way of the Nuremberg Principles at the end of WWII. Israel failed to comply with this resolution as well as the vast majority of more than 200 Security Council resolutions that would eventually stem from this conflict. While some of these resolutions passed with unanimous support, many of them were blocked outright by a sole veto by the United States. In fact, the U.S. has exercised this unilateral veto no less than 45 times since 1972 in favor of it’s Israeli allies and in opposition to international outcry for justice on behalf of the displaced Arabs of the region.

Illegal Israeli land expansion after 1967 war. Image courtesy of the bbc.

If we are going to compare the United States use of Security Council vetoes to that of Russia, we must first look at the history of America’s support of Israel to that of Russia’s support of the Arab nations surrounding it. After the war in 1967 the USSR solidified its role as arms supplier and adviser to many of the Arabs states in the region, as did the U.S. to Israel. Dual superpower involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict only intensified the contentious nature of an already unstable Arab Peninsula, and added yet another layer of distrust between two countries well into the throws of the Cold War.

While the U.S. and Russia have shown unwavering support for their opposing allies since 1967, it would be disingenuous to assume that the support provided by each side is somehow equal. Israel has the 17th largest military budget in the world at just under $15 billion, roughly 20% of which is directly subsidized by the United States.  Contrast that with the Syrian military which ranks in at number 52 with a total budget or roughly $2 billion, none of which is subsidized by Russia, though they are the supplier of the majority of arms and support utilized by the country.

As stated above, the United states has invoked its veto power in the Security Council in favor of Israel 45 times since 1972, an astonishing number when compared to Russia’s veto count, which sits at a grand total of 3 vetoes since 1967 in favor of any Middle Eastern country involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All 3 Russian vetoes have occurred in the last 3 years. This obvious unbalanced support of Israeli foreign policy by the US has come at the cost of civilian casualties and humanitarian disasters that number in the thousands, not only in Palestinian settlements but also in border regions of Syria and Lebanon. So much so, that roughly 48% of the country specific resolutions passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council have been in condemnation of Israeli human rights violations against neighboring countries. Israel has yet to comply to diplomatic, military or economic sanctions imposed by resolutions under the U.N. Charter which number the 100’s and because of this has received official condemnation requests 22 times since it’s formation in 1948.

Shortly after the Six Day War ended the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling for a draw back of Israeli forces in the occupied territories. Israel, Egypt and Lebanon eventually agreed to abide by the resolution (Syria abstained until 1974, refusing to acknowledge Israel as an actual state) but the opposing sides interpreted the resolution in drastically different ways. While the Arab countries (along with the international community) assumed the resolution would return the land that was taken from them by the Israeli military, the State of Israel contended that the resolution left the boundaries neutral and expected displaced Arabs to migrate to surrounding countries. With the help of U.S. vetoes in the Security Council Israel has maintained control of these areas and eventually allowed its citizens to settle in these territories as their population has multiplied over the last 50 years. The wars that followed have lead to a long list of Security Council Resolutions against actions taken by Israel, many of which were vetoed by a sole vote by the United States.

In December of 1975 the U.S. used its first veto in support of Israel when the U.N. “deplored Israel’s defiance to resolutions demanding their withdrawal from Lebanon”. In June of 1976 it again uses its veto power, denying the Palestinian people diplomatic representation on the world stage. In April of 1980 the Security council proposed a resolution to reaffirm earlier stances by the council, mainly that Israel should withdraw from all Arab territories obtained in 1967. The United States was again the lone veto.

In January of 1982 the council proposed a resolution to “take appropriate measures” in removing Israel from occupied territories in the Golan Heights of Syria, a territory they had held since 1967, and attacked not because of a military threat, but largely because of strategic resources found in the area, predominantly fresh water. The Golan Heights is now the principal source of fresh water for the State of Israel and is ironically the home of Israel’s only Ski resort. The US was the sole veto of this measure.

In June of 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to destabilize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Up to 8000 civilians were killed in the conflict (84% of the deaths in Beirut alone accounting for over 5,000 civilian casualties), forcing the Security Council to act once again. In this proposed resolution the Security Council called for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops out of Lebanon and a cease fire within 6 hours, where in the event of non-compliance the council would reconvene and take “appropriate action” which included military sanctions that would forbid the United States from supplying weapons to the Israeli military. The United States was the sole veto of this measure. The Israeli army did not fully withdraw from this territory until June 16th, 2000.

In December of 1987 the first major conflict between Israel and the Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip had begun. Known as the “First Intifada” the Israeli government deployed 80,000 soldiers to put down Palestinian protesters armed largely with rocks and molotov cocktails. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed while another 120,000 were arrested. The NGO Save the Children estimated that 7% of the Palestinian population under the age of 18 suffered from beatings, exposure to tear gas or worse during the first 2 years of this conflict. In the 5+ years this war was waged the United States vetoed 3 different resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations and obstructions to the Geneva Convention.

From the year 2000 on there have been 4 more wars between Israel and surrounding Arab countries resulting in an estimated 4,281 Palestinian deaths. The number of civilians killed in these conflicts are hard to calculate, but the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories estimated that 2,038 were non-combatant civilians. During this period the United States vetoed 10 resolutions proposed by the UN Security Council condemning Israel for human rights violations and failing to adhere to the Geneva Convention.

While the current situation in Syria is vastly different than the past conflicts involving Israel, mainly because of the use of chemical weapons and the sheer number of civilian deaths in the current civil war, International Law and the Security Council charters that govern war have been the same. Any attacks by the United States against the Syrian government without the backing of the U.N. Security Council would violate this charter, effectively undermining the authority of the entire organization and potentially rendering it useless.

The United States, acting as a rogue nation, has wreaked havoc on the world stage on numerous occasions. 40 years ago almost to the day, the United States lead a siege on the Parliamentary Democracy of Chile via the CIA that eventually lead to a military coup, placing a brutal dictator by the name of Augusto Pinochet into power for almost 20 years. He was responsible for the death and torture of tens of thousands of Chilean citizens before he was ousted. Similar action was taken in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950’s and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960’s.  Add to this list The Bay of Pigs, Grenada, Indochina, and most recently the 2003 invasion of Iraq and it becomes very clear that U.S. military unilateralism has always trumped International Law and it’s adherence Article VII of the U.N Charter.

The United States unwavering support for the State of Israel continues to be one of the largest sources of contention in the most dangerous region on the globe and there is no evidence that this will change anytime soon. These unilateral military actions, coupled with a failure of the United States to seek diplomatic solutions to conflict have destabilized entire regions of this planet for decades, all in an effort to protect American assets and allies at all costs. When framed in a historical context the current situation in Syria isn’t much different. Ultimately, an unstable Syrian government poses a threat to neighboring Israel which poses an economic threat to America, while an American threat to Syria poses an economic threat to Russia. Thus the Security Council vetoes will continue, as will the wars that they fail to prevent.

 

Update: On Saturday (9-14-13) after a two day deliberation in Geneva the United States and Russia brokered a deal based on Kerry’s “diplomatic option”. As of now it is unclear if military action will be on the table if Syria fails to comply with the mid-2014 deadline of handing over chemical weapon stores. While the wording of the agreement seems to suggest military action is an option, it would still fall under the jurisdiction of the UN Security Council and would likely be met with a Russian veto if the situation were to degrade to that level.