Sunday, November 29, 2015

The GOP's Christian Fascist Litany of Hate

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Now that the GOP has declared open season on human rights its surrogates are out in full force, shoring up the Party’s ground game with the deadly zeal of an old time Christian tent revival.  After months of anti-abortion backlash from Republicans on Capitol Hill, yet another right-wing influenced anti-abortion terrorist gunned down and murdered several people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. After weeks of Fox commentators demonizing Black Lives Matter organizers, several activists were shot during a peaceful demonstration in Minneapolis.  And after a steady drumbeat of post-Paris anti-Muslim tirades from Donald Trump and his GOP clown car compatriots, members of a local mosque in Fredericksburg, Virginia were verbally attacked by residents for being part of an “evil cult”.  While the GOP vilifies the dark Other of heartland nightmare, the national security threat of armed red-blooded white American males—the NRA’s “good guys” with guns—remains unaddressed. 

The GOP’s racist, sexist, xenophobic platform of religious extremism has created a climate in which the public rhetoric and apparatus of state violence are in perfect alignment.  Trump has been the Party’s most potent mouthpiece for Christian white supremacy.  His call for a national registry to track Muslims, as well as surveillance of “certain” mosques, is merely the natural progression of the nativist platform he articulated this summer.  As has been widely noted, his vociferous stance on immigration almost singlehandedly shifted the debate to a national security pissing contest over which Republican candidate is macho enough to take on the border, and now, ISIS.  In a recent CBS poll, Republican voters say that, “ISIS has become a litmus test for candidates … and immigration a deal breaker”.  The increasing “hawkishness” of the Republican electorate has ominous overtones for a renewed military push in the Middle East. 

Yet, nipping at Trump’s heels is radical right attack dog Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  Due to his strong coalition building among Christian evangelicals and bully pulpit in the Senate, Cruz poses a more credible long term threat than Trump.  According to new polls, Cruz has surged to number two in Iowa.  The Paris attacks have made early voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina more receptive to his slicker brand of demagoguery.  As Trump’s loyal wingman, Cruz has reportedly been biding his time until Trump falters.  Aping Trump, Cruz’s rise would seem to validate his toxic Christian fascist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda.

Once viewed as a third rail candidate, Cruz is now a “viable” prospect to take up Trump’s mantle, enlisting his evangelist father Rafael Cruz to solidify his lead with Christian fundamentalists.  It was Cruz, after all, who tried to force a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.  In the Senate, Cruz was one of the loudest voices demanding that Planned Parenthood should be prosecuted for its alleged mining of fetal body parts for profit.  On the campaign stump this summer, Cruz and the other GOP candidates viciously maligned Planned Parenthood and called for blood.  Nationwide, hundreds of Republican-sponsored bills that place draconian restrictions on abortion and contraception have put women’s lives and health in jeopardy.  Because of the GOP’s attacks on women’s right to abortion and contraception, Missouri only has one abortion clinic left in the entire state.

As per the claims of most violent religious extremists, “God” is on the GOP’s side.
In his bid to lock up the white evangelical vote, Cruz has announced plans to organize a “national prayer team”. According to Cruz, this group would “establish a direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord.”  With this “direct line” of communication to Christian soldiers, Cruz is consolidating the faith-based audience for his bigotry. In the propaganda wars, the biggest national security menace is the GOP and its loyal surrogates, fanning the flames of religious hate in “secular” America.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, Black Women Matter

California Historical Society

By Sikivu Hutchinson*

They didn’t “drink the Kool Aid”.  They came from all over the United States—black teachers from Los Angeles, white Pentecostals from Indianapolis, black Southern transplants at the tail end of the Great Migration, Vietnam vets and ex-hippies from San Francisco. Mostly though, they were African Americans of all backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations and political persuasions, bound by family, spouses and soulmates, seduced by the collective vision of racial utopia and adventure embodied by an activist church called Peoples Temple. 

On November 18, 1978, nine hundred and nine Peoples Temple members (including over three hundred children) lay dead in the Jonestown, Guyana jungle settlement named after the church’s white founder, the Reverend Jim Jones. After a night of terror, spurred by an investigative tour led by U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members died from a lethal cocktail of cyanide and Flavor Aid; some by choice, some by force. Nearly fifty percent of Jonestown’s dead were black women.

As the largest murder-suicide in American history, the Jonestown massacre has become an indelible part of cultural myth, shorthand for blind faith and a cautionary tale about religious obsession.  The graphic sprawl of the Jonestown victims’ bodies, notoriously memorialized in photos that sent shockwaves across the world, is marked as grotesquely “other”, parodied in crude pop culture jokes and lore.  But hidden beneath the psycho cult clich├ęs is the power of black women in the Peoples Temple movement.  As the largest demographic in Peoples Temple black women have seldom been portrayed as lead protagonists in popular representations of Jonestown.  Despite the horror of Jonestown’s demise its representation cannot be separated from dehumanizing cultural representations of black people in general and black women in particular.  While Jonestown as cultural “artifact” is perversely sexy—the object of near necrophilic projection and fantasy—Peoples Temple is a historical stepchild; its legacy an unwelcome reflection of the race, gender and class divide in “New Jim Crow” America. The inequitable conditions that compelled black women to commit their lives to the church and its mission are still relevant today.   

Founded by Jones in Indianapolis in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was initially a Pentecostal congregation.  Early on, Jones actively recruited African American parishioners, arousing the ire of the white Indianapolis religious establishment. African Americans played a key role in the church’s growth as a social welfare provider for the poor, elderly and indigent. Jones’ social gospel message dovetailed with that of the civil rights movement, attracting elderly black women members like sisters Zipporah and Hyacinth Thrash (the only survivor left at Jonestown the morning after the massacre). Through their wages, Social Security benefits and property, black women provided the economic base of Peoples Temple, as well as Jonestown.

When Jones prophesied nuclear holocaust in the sixties he relocated the congregation to California, establishing a churches in Ukiah, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Settling in San Francisco’s predominantly African American Fillmore District, the church took on gentrifying developers and challenged the city’s attempts to push out poor people of color through eminent domain.  Ditching old school Pentecostalism for a secular “apostolic” socialism, Jones actively courted the Bay Area liberal political establishment, and Temple members’ votes reputedly helped George Moscone’s 1975 mayoral victory.

Yet, although there have been numerous portrayals of PT’s shrewd politicking, the racial politics of gender in the movement have gotten relatively short shrift.  In my book White Nights, Black Paradise, Peoples Temple is not only symbolic of progressive black social gospel traditions but of a racially divided secular women’s movement.  It is no secret that white women called the shots in Peoples Temple and that their leadership was resented by some of the black rank and file.  The movement’s veneer of interracial “sisterhood” was compromised by the reality of white female paternalism.  Survivor Leslie Wagner-Wilson alludes to these tensions in her book, Slavery of Faith.  And in White Nights, Black Paradise black women’s suspicion of white women’s dominance is symptomatic of the racial fault lines in second wave feminism.  As with the power struggles of the women’s suffrage era, the largely white middle class leadership of the women’s movement (represented by groups like the National Organization for Women) was willfully ignorant of if not downright hostile to the intersectional experiences of women of color.  At the core of second wave white feminist ideology was Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, a text which universalized the experiences of white middle class women pushing back against the narrow confines of domesticity, marriage and motherhood. 

While revelatory for many white women, the Feminine Mystique didn’t address the realities of women of color who not only had to work but often served as maids and domestics in white women’s homes.  Unspoken in white women’s critiques of gender and power in the home and workplace was the fact that postwar wealth massively advantaged white families.  New Deal institutions like the Federal Housing Administration, the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration agency allowed working class and “ethnic” whites to move from inner cities or working class suburbs into more affluent suburban subdivisions protected from the dark other.  Further, while suburban white women took advantage of job opportunities opened up by the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, black women were shut out.  This fact was compounded by redlining policies which excluded blacks from buying homes in suburban communities with greater access to white collar jobs.  As a result, when it came to equitable access to homeownership and professional jobs, black women were only nominally more “liberated” in the Promised Land than they were under Jim Crow.

In both Los Angeles and San Francisco African Americans of all classes were tightly confined to working class black neighborhoods in South L.A., the Western Addition/Fillmore and Bay Point.  White privilege conferred the white women in Peoples Temple with mobility, prestige and decision-making power over their black female counterparts.

But if Peoples Temple was a political force, it was partly due to black women’s investment in it as an alternative to the staid conservatism of the Black Church.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation.  Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

Peoples Temple reflected this duality. When former Los Angeles member Juanell Smart joined in the early seventies, she “had given up on religion and ministers”.  Disillusioned with the moral hypocrisy of some churches, Jones’ criticism of abusive relationships resonated with her.  For Smart, Thrash, Wagner-Wilson and others who followed family members into the church, Peoples Temple provided a bridge between the radical politics of the Black Power movement and the waning civil rights focus of the Black Church.  The Temple forged strategic, if wary, relationships with the Nation of Islam (most notably at a 1976 Los Angeles event attended by then Mayor Tom Bradley and Angela Davis), the Black Panthers and progressive black churches.  African American members felt validated by its high profile organizing around affirmative action, affordable housing, police brutality, South African apartheid and the odious 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have denied gays and lesbians the right to teach in California public schools.

However, the Temple’s pro-black activism disguised a power structure largely comprised of white women fatally loyal to Jones, who loved to proclaim his “blackness” while playing the white savior. As the church grew more regimented and authoritarian, they became his henchwomen, sexual partners and enforcers.  Hit by multiple allegations of abuse and fraud in the late seventies, Peoples Temple uprooted for Jonestown.

The Jonestown settlement in the Afro-Indian nation of Guyana was intended to be an antidote to these “persecutions”, a self-sufficient commune and “Promised Land” free of racism. For black Temple members who’d sought refuge from Southern Jim Crow in California—only to experience racially restrictive covenants, job discrimination and state violence—Jonestown evoked African Americans’ diasporic quest for home and identity.

Once there, the church self-destructed, mired in a culture of tyrannical control created by the increasingly paranoid, drug-addled Jones. Tragically, Temple members were themselves complicit in the humiliation and torture of fellow parishioners. When Jones exhorted them to commit mass suicide on that fateful night, some truly believed they would be wiped out by the terrorists he claimed were igniting race wars back in the U.S.  On the so-called “death tape” documenting the community’s last hours, a courageous black woman named Christine Miller can be heard resisting these lies and is shouted down by the crowd; prelude to the brutal end of a fractured dream of self-determination.

Juanell Smart lost her four children, her mother and an uncle in Jonestown.  Her writings on her experience capture her ambivalence toward Jones while she was as a counselor and member of the Temple planning commission. Now an atheist, she remarked in an interview with me last year, “I grew up believing that there was a sky god and he was going to take care of me.  Then Jim came along and said that there wasn’t a god other than him.  Jim aped what the black ministers did but he added a caveat and I’ll just throw in this and be their savior.  Him calling himself God was a means to an end.  What picture have people seen of Jesus Christ?” She notes that, “I have always been a skeptic so it was hard for me to be a true believer for any length of time.”  Smart’s skepticism and questioning of authority led her to break from Peoples Temple before the mass emigration to Jonestown.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of White Nights, Black Paradise, the first novel to be written by an African American woman on Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

*Portions of this piece are excerpted from the Jonestown Institute Review

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Recy Taylor and the Terrorist Legacy of the All-White Jury

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In 1944, a young African American woman named Recy Taylor was brutally gang raped by seven white men in Abbeville, Alabama.  The investigation into Taylor’s assault was spearheaded by Rosa Parks and the NAACP; anchoring Parks’ lifelong commitment to civil and human rights activism.  Parks created the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, garnering support from black women activists like Mary Church Terrell, and mobilizing African American communities around the nation. Taylor’s rapists were eventually tried before an all-white jury.  During the “trial”, the jury heard the local police sheriff testify that Taylor was a prostitute who’d willingly participated in her own assault.  As with most cases involving the rape of a black woman in an era in which it was considered an oxymoron, Taylor’s assailants went scot free.  Her case became a major catalyst for black women’s civil rights resistance and the intersectional connection between sexual violence and state violence.

Over seventy years later, the outrage of this non-conviction reverberates in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma police officer accused of sexually assaulting and stalking multiple black women victims of all ages.  The selection of an all-white jury to hear Holtzclaw’s case has elicited national protest among black women activists and writers. As Kirsten West Savali noted in The Root, “an all-white jury—eight men and four women—was selected Tuesday to ensure that Holtzclaw receives a fair trial from his ‘peers.’ That Holtzclaw’s mother is reportedly of Japanese descent does not matter; once he put on that uniform, he became a beneficiary of a racist system that devalues and destroys black people as a matter of course and with impunity.  And there may be four white women on that jury, but if precedence has taught us anything, it is that white women, even so-called allies, have too often been complicit in justifying and/or inflicting violence against black women and girls. See McKinney, Texas.” 

Savali alludes to the role the criminal justice system, the police, and ordinary white citizens have played in preserving the purity of white womanhood by both promoting the image of the insatiable black rapist and the out of control, hypersexual black “bitch”.  When activist Ida B. Wells  began her campaign against lynching in the late 19th century there wasn’t consensus among African Americans that lynching was worthy of a national social justice movement, nor was there agreement about the terroristic sexual politics that motivated white lynch mobs. Wells was perhaps the first journalist to speak out on the racist and sexist implications of lynching. In her editorials she consistently blasted the hypocrisy of white savagery against black men accused of raping white women and exposed the long history of black female sexual exploitation by white men. Historically, while black men were lynched and “tried” by a racist criminal justice system, black women were lynched, raped, tried and character assassinated by a racist, sexist criminal justice system.  Indeed, as legal scholar and historian Dorothy Roberts argues, “For much of American history the crime of rape of a Black woman did not exist”. After Emancipation, black women rape victims still “had no rights a white man was bound to respect” under the law.  Police violence against black women was and is merely an extension of the brutal policing of black women’s bodies under slavery.  The “disreputable”, primarily working class black women Holtzclaw is accused of stalking and sexually assaulting are part of a violent legacy which stretches back from civil rights activist Claudette Colvin, to Recy Taylor to generations of unnamed black women victims whose sexual “degeneracy” validated white women’s bodies as protected space. 

The jury selection in the Holtzclaw case is an atrocity that would not have been countenanced if the situation were reversed. Over the past few decades, racial bias in jury selection has been vigorously challenged by civil rights advocates.  Last week, the Supreme Court heard a racial-bias-in-jury-selection case involving an African American Death Row inmate convicted of killing an elderly white woman in Georgia.  In the defendant’s 1987 murder trial, black jurors were dismissed from consideration by the case’s prosecutor.  According to the SCOTUS blog the prosecutor had identified black jurors in green highlighter and circled the word “BLACK” on the questionnaires of three prospective jurors.  A 2010 study by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative examining jury selection in eight Southern states “found significant racially discriminatory practices in jury selection”.  In Kentucky, Jefferson County Circuit Court judge Olu Stevens, who is African American, recently dismissed an entire jury that he deemed to be racially unrepresentative.
In 2011, decades after suffering a brutal sexual assault and violent attack on her morals and character, Recy Taylor received an apology from the Alabama House of Representatives. What she has yet to see is her attackers brought to justice. And generations later the Holtzclaw case is another sexually terroristic symbol of the Jim Crow legacy of the all-white jury.