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Land of the free?

September 28, 2001 | Page 12

TO GEORGE W. Bush, the explanation for the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington is simple. "They hate what they see right here in this chamber," he told a joint session of Congress September 20. "They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Since the attacks, political leaders have constantly referred back to the image of the U.S. that everyone learns in grade school--that America has always been a beacon of democracy, a "shining city on a hill."

But as LANCE SELFA shows, U.S. history tells a very different story.

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"WHAT, TO the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity…your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."--Frederick Douglass

IN HIS angry speech on July 4, 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass challenged the most appalling hypocrisy of U.S. democracy. A country whose founding document, the Declaration of Independence, stated that "all men are created equal" treated millions of human beings as property.

The U.S. Constitution declared Black slaves to be three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress, and it established the Electoral College to assure that the slaveholding states in the South had a disproportionate role in choosing the president.

The South dominated the federal government of the U.S. until the Civil War--with every "democratic" institution of the U.S. kowtowing to the slavocracy. And none more so than the U.S. Supreme Court--where three-quarters of justices came from slave states until the Civil War.

The Supreme Court produced the low point of American democracy in 1857 when the justices ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Blacks shouldn't be considered U.S. citizens, even if they were free. "[Blacks have] no rights that the white man is bound to respect," summarized Chief Justice Roger Taney.

Only the overthrow of the slavocracy in the Civil War extended citizenship to African Americans. Yet within a decade of the defeat of slavery, this expansion of democracy to African Americans had been rolled back with an onslaught of night-rider terror in the South--and federal neglect.

Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of Blacks--not to mention most poor whites--took root across the South and would last for another century. The development of Jim Crow in the South took place as the U.S. was becoming an industrial power on a world scale.

The U.S. began to build its own international empire after its victory in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century--in which it took over the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines.

And U.S. bosses made sure that democracy didn't get in the way of their fortunes in the U.S. either. When their workers tried to organize for better conditions, U.S. bosses lashed out with a level of violence matched only by the Tsarist dictatorship in Russia.

U.S. robber barons set up private armies and networks of spies to crush attempts to organize unions. As a result, the main industries of the U.S. weren't organized by unions until the 1930s.

Even today, laws protecting workers' rights are barely honored. "In the United States, millions of workers are excluded from coverage by laws to protect rights of organizing, bargaining, and striking," a 2000 Human Rights Watch report concluded.

"For workers who are covered by such laws, recourse for labor rights violations is often delayed to a point where it ceases to provide redress. When they are applied, remedies are weak and often ineffective. In a system replete with all the appearance of legality and due process, workers' exercise of rights to organize, to bargain and to strike in the United States has been frustrated by many employers who realize they have little to fear from labor law enforcement through a ponderous, delay-ridden legal system with meager remedial powers."

A "democracy" where most couldn't vote

THE MOST basic right in a democracy is the right to vote. But for most of U.S. history, most people in this country couldn't vote.

Blacks, for example, didn't gain real voting rights until the victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s--a century after slavery was ended and African Americans gained paper rights as citizens.

Women couldn't vote until 1920.

And property restrictions kept millions of poor white men out of the electorate in the 19th century, too.

Voting-rights scholar Alex Keyssar estimates that the U.S. finally achieved universal suffrage--the right to vote for all--only in about 1970!

But even universal suffrage doesn't give voters the right to choose the president, as the U.S. Supreme Court made crystal clear in its Bush v. Gore decision last year.

"The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for the electors for President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College," the five conservative justices who installed Bush in the White House wrote. "[I] f it so chooses, [the state can] select the electors itself."

Crackdown in times of war

TIMES OF war and crisis have always put the U.S. government's supposed commitment to democratic ideals to the test. More often than not, civil rights and liberties lost out.

As far back as 1798, the administration of President John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it a crime to write or say anything "false, scandalous and malicious" against the government. Ten people went to jail for this "crime," and the Supreme Court upheld every conviction.

During the First World War, Congress passed the Espionage Act, making it a crime to oppose U.S. involvement. The war was unpopular, and thousands of people turned out at antiwar meetings and demonstrations. The government used the Espionage Act to cut off this growing opposition. Nine hundred people, including the socialist leader Eugene Debs, went to prison under the Espionage Act.

The U.S. government went to similar lengths during the Second World War, even imprisoning 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps for no other crime than their race--an action that the Supreme Court declared constitutional.

All of these measures have been justified by politicians as protecting America's "security." But the real goal has been to crack down on opposition and dissent.

That's why the end of both the First and Second World Wars were followed by government-led witch-hunts against radicals and labor activists that wrecked the lives of thousands of people and hammered left-wing organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party.

When the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements revived the left in the 1960s, the feds relied on their old tricks. The FBI spied on Black leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and its COINTELPRO program infiltrated radical organizations with agents provocateurs.

In the heart of American "democracy," the FBI organized the assassination--under cover of "police shootouts"--of dozens of leaders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In 1969 alone, police killed 27 Panthers and jailed 749.

We had to fight for our rights

THE U.S. government and its representatives like to give speeches about democracy and freedom. But they've been only too willing to toss these out the window when it suits their purposes.

What rights and freedoms Americans have today weren't granted from on high. They're the result of the struggles of ordinary people--against the politicians and business leaders who so willingly wrap themselves in the American flag.

Working people owe their right to organize and speak out in part to the IWW's "free speech" fights around the country in the 1910s.

We have free trade unions because generations of working-class activists have stood up to bosses' threats.

African Americans smashed Jim Crow and won the right to vote with mass protests and defiance of the law in the 1950s and 1960s.

Antiwar protests and organization helped to convince a majority of people in the U.S. of the injustice of the Vietnam War--including the rank and file of the U.S. armed forces.

As Gregory Palast, one of a handful of reporters to expose the fraud in Florida that put George W. Bush in the White House, put it: "The American tradition of democracy doesn't come from 'Great Men' like Thomas Jefferson. It comes from the streets. People have been organizing for years. Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act come out of that mobilization. Democracy is not based on what was granted to us from above. That's what makes America democratic."

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