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Occupying Occupied Land

Four hundred years ago, the Dutch acquired the island of Manhattan for $24 according to some estimates. Over the next several hundred years, colonists from Western Europe would continue to invade the rest of the continent with settlements, lies, and force. As protesters take to the streets and occupy parks around the world, many have pointed to the fact that this land is already occupied, and some say it should be taken back.

In November of 1969, several activists tried to do just that, and in so doing they started a movement. After the prison at Alcatraz Island was closed, many Native Americans in the Bay Area wanted the island returned to natives. There were several attempts to occupy the island, and although two attempts were foiled, the activists were not prosecuted. On November 20, about 80 activists ferried their way to the island in the middle of the night and began their occupation, demanding that a Native American Studies center and museum be built on the island. They offered to pay for the island in order to make it legitimate. They offered the government $24 worth of blankets and beads.

The occupation became a community, with many living in the warden’s house and boats carrying food and supplies running regular routes. They set up a tribal council and school, and quickly began daily broadcasts on the radio. Early in the occupation, members of the American Indian Movement visited the occupation to learn more about the action. Later, AIM would use these tactics in huge actions like the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.

Despite wide support, the occupation ran into trouble. The fuel, electricity, and telephone lines all broke over time. A fire broke out, destroying the warden house that many called home. And some drug addicts had moved to the island, giving it a bad image. Over the months, the population began to dwindle until government officials evicted the final fifteen activists.

The occupation had lasted 19 months, raising awareness of native rights and the movement for more recognition. It sparked a movement that eventually led to several legislative victories, even if they did not achieve everything they set out to do.

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After the Bonus Army

The political tool of occupation is becoming more and more well-known with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite having been a tactic in the U.S. for a very long time. Activists in America have had occupations in their arsenal from the Bonus Army of the Great Depression to the May Day action during Vietnam right up to California student activists over the past couple of years. Today I wanted to highlight one of the more well-known occupations in our history.

After fighting in the Great War, veterans that had suffered through years of the Great Depression decided to take action. In 1924 they had received certificates that would not be redeemable for two decades, and with the Depression hitting them hard many demanded they get paid early. Nearly 20,000 veterans and their families, the so-called Bonus Army, descended upon Washington and occupied the Anacostia Flats. What everybody knows about the Bonus Army is that they were routed by the U.S. Army, led by Douglas MacArthur. When the army attacked the camp to evict the protesters, several veterans were wounded and a baby died, allegedly due to use of tear gas. The incident is often cited as one of several final nails in the coffin of President Hoover’s reelection campaign. But what happened afterwards?

What most text books don’t cover is that the Bonus Army returned when Roosevelt was President. During the campaign, Roosevelt had also criticized the protesters, but as president he did not resort to using force to oust them. Instead, he placated them by erecting a camp in Virginia to provide them with food and shelter. He eventually made room in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was intended for young, unmarried men, for the veterans to find work. Eventually, Congress would overwhelmingly support an authorization to pay the veterans in 1936, overriding Roosevelt’s veto.

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A Man Was Lynched Yesterday

circa 1938, from the Library of Congress

In 1920 the NAACP began to hang this flag outside of its New York City office whenever a black man was killed as the result of racial violence. They used it until 1938, when they had to remove it to keep their lease. A man was lynched yesterday.

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Who is Ralph Nader?

Ralph Nader and his young advocate followers - Nader's Raiders - at the Capitol.

I just finished watching An Unreasonable Man, a documentary about Ralph Nader. What’s interesting is how his image has changed so much with time. His actions from the 60s to the 90s have been eclipsed by his work in the 21st century. For most people of my generation, the sole memory of Nader is the story of how his bid in 2000 handed Gore’s victory to Bush, and to that he disrupted Kerry’s run as well, albeit to a lesser extent. I myself didn’t even now about Nader’s prior work until I got to college. But the true work of Ralph Nader was to work within government to protect Americans from corporations. I decided to watch the documentary just to learn a bit more about this time, but it also has quite a bit dedicated to the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Ralph Nader began his crusade for automobile safety after a colleague of his was rendered quadriplegic in a car crash. In the 1950s, automobile manufacturers were hesitant about the costs of implementing safety measures on their own, but they were even more worried about the government trying to impose regulations on them. Nader quickly became the center of the automobile safety push.

Up to then, car companies tended to blame drivers for operating vehicles in unsafe ways when in reality the vehicles were structurally dangerous to drive. Reporters, advocates and whistle blowers all gravitated to Nader. And the more they rallied to him, the more opponents accosted and threatened him. General Motors even sent people after Nader to try to find out if he was involved in any illegal activities, calling his friends and trying to seduce him in grocery stores. GM ultimately apologized in a Congressional hearing. At the same congressional hearing, Nader said that “I think the thing that has persuaded me to continue in this area is that I don’t want to have a climate in this country where one has to have an ascetic existence and steely determination in order to speak truthfully and candidly and critically of American industry.”

Nader would soon open a case for invasion of privacy, and the money he won in that case helped fund his subsequent campaigns in the name of consumer protection. After a few students reached out to Nader, a movement formed with students working in small groups on different commissions and revealing the problems in each one. Especially in the 60s and 70s this was a huge change in the way that people tried to alter the system – it was a testament to the power of the individual citizens not just in protesting on the streets but also in the corridors of power.

After several decades of dealing with Republicans that opposed his efforts and Democrats that failed to sacrifice any political capitol to support him as they turned more and more to corporate interests, Nader decided to finally step forwards. His involvement in the 2000 election would ultimately overshadow the huge success of what he had done for consumer protection. But his success goes beyond seat belts and airbags.

Nader began his work in a time when people had utterly rejected working within Washington to bring about change and had taken to the streets. People were demonstrating against war, racism, and poverty everywhere. And it worked in many instances. But what Nader did was stay in the system and work hard to get the truth out, and he made huge gains for consumer protection and for citizen organizing.

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Two Memorials, One War

When I was in Washington, DC last month I had the chance to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall for the first time. I had never been to any of the war memorials in DC and was able to pass through on a cool and rainy morning with a friend. I had taken a course on the Vietnam War specifically in addition to other studies in American history, and I distinctly remembered pieces from this book on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Kristin Ann Hass’ book is about the quest to create the Memorial as well as the effects the Memorial has had on how Americans memorialize the dead. The whole book is well worth a read, but as we walked through the trees and the Wall came into view, I kept going back to the first chapter, which details the uphill battle that organizers faced in getting the Memorial actually built.

Today, almost thirty years after the memorial came into being, the monument seems to strike deep chord with most. I have relatively little connection to the casualties in Vietnam, compared to most – and yet I felt an emotional pull when I looked at the names on the granite. The memorial seems to stand as a stark reminder of the tragedy of war, etched into the ground on the National Mall. I can’t speak for others, but I feel like quite a few people experience the same feeling. But it wasn’t always that way.

When Maya Lin’s design was first approved (unanimously) by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund jury, it was seen as some as out of touch. The VVMF had required all submissions to “(1) be reflective and contemplative in character; (2) harmonize with its surroundings; (3) contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing; and (4) make no political statement about the war.” Lin’s design fit the bill, but it was definitely abstract compared to other memorials. According to Hass, many thought the design was “too abstract, too intellectual.” In other words, it belonged to the upper class – the class that was immune to drafts and war. Many thought that there was a lack of ownership for veterans and that the somber emotions it invoked paid lip service to the anti-war movement.

While there was also support both from the press, the jury, and all of the major veterans groups, the Memorial faced opposition among many in Washington. In the end, Secretary of the Interior James Watt refused to allow the plans to move forwards unless the VVMF also approved The Three Fightingmen sculpture. The leaders of the push for the memorial had no choice but to acquiesce. The three bronze men now stand a hundred feet away, facing the Wall. Walking across the grounds, I felt like the men and the Wall were worlds apart: one was a traditional sculpture of nameless soldiers cast in bronze, gazing across the grounds; the other was an emotional and imposing wall that drew you in, discreetly bringing you face to face with 58,000 stories. The Vietnam War is definitely a conflict with many faces and many perspectives. I think the memorials on the National Mall are a testament to that. The two monuments stand as a reminder to how divisive the Vietnam War was – even its memory was difficult to create.

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Take it to the White House

Last night was one of a long series of Joint Appearances by Presidential Candidates (thanks to whoever tweeted JAPCans months ago) for the GOP. There was a portion of the “debate” in which candidates were asked what they would bring with them to the White House if elected. Michele Bachmann said she would bring the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, prompting many jokes on Twitter.

It is more than just semantics to understand what an amendment is. The Constitution of the United States has been amended 27 times – the first 10 simultaneously. Each and every one of these changes is an addendum to the document. The Bill of Rights are indeed part of the Constitution. But it’s important to remember that so are the other ones.

Just because they aren’t written on old paper with a menial ‘s’ doesn’t mean that other amendments are any less important. You can definitely make your own hierarchy, to be sure, but I think the authors of the Reconstruction amendments hold a similar place to the authors of the Constitution. The end of slavery, the authority to tax income, the popular vote of senators, the definition of citizenship, the suffrage of blacks, women, and young adults – these are all as important as the right to bear arms and enjoy privacy and protest. It’s a shame that these latter amendments are often ignored in favor of the glory of the Bill of Rights.

So, if for some reason the White House doesn’t have its own copy of the Constitution – every President should print out the original with all 27 amendments and keep it in his or her pocket. Keep in mind that that means you have the founding Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and 17 other important P.S.s – even two that negate each other – all in one handy document called the Constitution.

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The Rules of a Rebel

Most of my reading on Uganda has to do with the Lord’s Resistance Army, but recently I’ve been reading up on their precursor, the Holy Spirit Movement. Like many groups in northern Uganda, the group had written rules for all participants. From an article in 1991:

The rules vary somewhat between testimonies but are consistent in their prohibition of wearing lucky charms, consulting other healers and mediums, sexual intercourse, alcohol, tobacco and certain foods (white ants, pork, sometimes mutton). Other prohibitions that appear frequently are on food cooked in saucepans, eating with anyone who has not been anointed, killing snakes, becoming angry, and theft. Additionally there are often instructions, such as ‘When we gather our- selves after battle, we must have water sprinkled on us before drinking’ and ‘When going to the front-line, we should sing, “Medicine give power, give me guidance. Anthill give me respect”.’ In some cases the lists of rules are presented in an explicitly biblical style, and those contained in the testimony obtained by Behrend even come complete with references, for example ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery or fornication (Deut. 5, 18: Gal. 5, 19)’. In addition there is occasionally a rule relating to the correct shape of the body, such as ‘Thou shalt have two testicles, neither more nor less’

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