Sunday, August 21, 2016


(Portions of this essay, “The Meanings of Ferguson,” appeared on August 20, 2014 in Diary of a Heartland Radical).

Harry Targ

In addressing violence, researchers, educators, journalists and religious leaders have usually concentrated on its most visible forms: murder and war. The central features of such violence include physical assault and killing. In our own day terrorism has joined war as the most popular common subject for study.

Over the years, peace educators have developed intellectual tools to uncover more diverse meanings of violence, their differences and their connections. Structural violence has been distinguished from direct violence. Researchers continue to analyze direct violence, physical assault and killing, but also study structural violence, the various forms of human suffering that take more time; impose pain, sickness, depression, and death on populations; and are perpetuated by leading institutions and relationships in society. Structural violence includes economic inequality, low wages and poverty, inadequate access to health care and education, and the psychological damage that economic suffering causes. These injustices, the concept of structural violence suggests, are embedded in economic, social, and political institutions.

It is possible to disaggregate further the structural violence that is embedded in institutions. Institutional violence refers to unequal distribution of power and influence in major societal institutions: political, criminal justice, and educational, for example.

Finally, cultural violence refers to the images, symbols, and educational materials that value some population groups over others. Culture refers to the public consciousness of history, traditions, and popular narratives that describe people. Stereotypes are short-hand representations of a culture.

In total then violence is direct, structural, institutional, and cultural. These kinds of violence may occur separately but in most cases are inextricably connected. It is this fourfold conception of violence that is relevant to the crisis that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri.

Ferguson, Missouri 2014      

The tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri came to national attention because of direct violence. A Ferguson policeman shot and killed an unarmed young African American male. In response to the collective expression of community outrage that followed, the local police initiated a multi-day barrage of tear gas, strong-arm arrests, and threatening street protestors with military vehicles and loaded rifles. The images on television screens nationwide were of a people under assault, parallel to Israeli bombings in Gaza and United States targeted air strikes in Iraq. The fear that young African American males in Ferguson have historically felt every time they stepped into the streets of their city escalated since the killing of Michael Brown.

Beyond the threat of direct violence in Ferguson is structural violence, less visible but as important. Brookings Institute researcher Elizabeth Kneebone (“Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty,”, August 15, 2014) reported that the community of Ferguson experienced a qualitative economic decline over the decade before the shooting. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 5 percent in 2000 to 13 percent by 2010. Earnings of community members declined by one-third. One-fourth of the population was living in poverty.

Kneebone indicated that poverty rates have doubled in suburban neighborhoods surrounding the 100 largest cities in the United States. “By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents lived in the neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent.” Of course, poverty is highly related to declining schools, inadequate access to health care, lessened prospects for jobs, and large-scale youth unemployment.

Institutional violence is reflected in a 300-year history of slavery and racism. Professor Clarissa Hayward, Washington University, said: “The St. Louis metropolitan area has been an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.” She pointed out that St. Louis geographically was at the nexus of the South, the Midwest, and the West and added: “The practices and politics of St. Louis created the problems that underlie the tension that boiled out in Ferguson this week.” (Puneet Kollipara, “Wonkbook: The Social and Economic Story Behind the Unrest in Ferguson,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, August 18, 2014).

In terms of the Ferguson political system, two-thirds of the community is Black and the local government has been almost all white. At the time of the shooting of Michael Brown, five of six city council members were white, the Mayor was white, and six of seven school board members were white. And fifty of 53 police officers were white.

Finally, cultural violence addresses the issue of ideology, consciousness, images of the other, and additional ways in which whites see African-Americans. Racist culture socializes the dominant class and race to reflect its superiority. For example, Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder said shortly after the shooting: “That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.” The mayor of Ferguson declared that his community was free of racism.

Since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police and politicians organized a campaign to demonize the victim of the police killing. The tall young man, an African-American, was a robber, a drug consumer, and violence-prone. Also, the days of protest in Ferguson were framed to privilege the peaceful, religious, mourning adults and to explain night-time violence not as police violence but violence perpetrated by outside agitators from New York, Chicago, and California. The fact that young African Americans left their houses at their own risk could not, the frame implies, engender outrage.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2016

And in August, 2016 Milwaukee, by many measures the most segregated and racist big city in the United States, experienced the police shooting of Sylville K. Smith followed by two days of frustrated rebellion by some residents of the Sherman Park neighborhood. State violence, poverty, and racial segregation have created a tinderbox of frustration and anger in that city. According to a 2015 NPR report, the state of Wisconsin invests more in prisons than education, incarcerating a higher percentage of Black men than anywhere in the country. “…in Milwaukee County more than half of all Black men in their 30s and 40s have served time.” In one zip code alone 62 percent of Black men have been incarcerated for some time by the age of 34. The prison population of the state has tripled since 1990.

NPR also quoted a study finding that Milwaukee has the second highest black poverty rate in the country with an unemployment rate four times higher than whites (Kenay Downs, “Why is Milwaukee So Bad for Black People?” NPR, March 5, 2015). A Madison, Wisconsin group,  the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition, after defining the idea of a “neighborhood,” found that 31 of Wisconsin’s 56 Black neighborhoods are jails and an additional 21 neighborhoods are apartment complexes or section 8 housing or both. Prisons and poverty dominate the life of Black communities (YGB, “31 of Wisconsin’s 56 Black Neighborhoods are Jails,”

Summing up the situation in Milwaukee, Alderman Khalif Rainey said: “The Black people of Milwaukee are tired. They’re tired of living under this oppression. This is their life.” (Tanzina Vega, “Milwaukee’s Staggering Black-White Economic Divide,” CNN Money, August 17, 2016, money

So from police violence--killing, gassing, beating--to economic despair, to lack of political representation to cultural rationales for state violence, the basic characteristics of American society are uncovered. And once again, the victimization of people of color, as well as workers, and women, suggest the following conclusions:

--the root cause of exploitation, racism, and sexism is structural violence (capitalism).
--physical violence is used to crush rebellion against class exploitation and racism.
--unrepresentative political institutions are dominated by the wealthy and powerful.
--dominant cultural stereotypes and specific narratives about society reinforce the economic system, the political system, and justify the police violence in the St. Louis area, Milwaukee and all around the United States.

Black Lives Matter

But between Ferguson and Milwaukee a new social movement has emerged, Black Lives Matter, led by young women and men representing over 60 organizations around the country. Recently they issued a powerful programmatic statement “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice, The Movement for Black Lives ( It presented six demands, each with detailed recommendations:

-End the War on Black People
-Economic Justice
-Community Control
-Political Power

These demands represent African Americans, Women, Workers, and all oppressed peoples. They address direct violence—Stop the Killing—and structural violence—Redistribute Wealth and Income, Political Power, and Opportunity for Human Development for All. The struggles continue.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Harry Targ

And yet Americans are more ignorant of the nature of the Cuban Revolution and U.S.-Cuban relations than are the people of almost any other country in the world. Except for those few Americans with access to a handful of liberal and radical publications the people of this country have been subjected to an unrelieved campaign of distortion, or outright slander of Fidel Castro and the revolution he leads. The determined hostility of American leaders to the Cuban Revolution, the implementation of a system of economic harassment, and the threat of military intervention, not only endanger the Cuban Revolution, but increase the tempo of the cold war at home and abroad (Editors, “The Cuban Revolution: The New Crisis in Cold War Ideology,” Studies on the Left, Volume 1, Number, 1960, 1).

This statement was published in the summer of 1960! Fifty-six years later the same assessment of the Cuban revolution is still widely believed in the United States, even by those who support the ending of United States hostility to the island nation.

The story of the Cuban revolution needs to be retold as we move ahead to establish a new United States/Cuban relationship.

Cuba was a colony of the Spanish for 400 years, an economic vassal of the British and the United States for more than 100 years, and a slave state from the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.

The domination of the island by foreigners, juxtaposed with a culture enriched by African roots (the indigenous people were largely obliterated by the Spanish), led to repeated efforts to resist colonialism before 1898 and neo-colonialism after that. Slaves, Afro/Cubans, and Spanish born landowners seeking freedom from the Spanish crown often rose up to overthrow the yoke of imperialism.

Cuban Revolutionaries, inspired by visionary poet Jose Marti, were on the verge of defeating Spanish colonialism in the 1890s. The United States sent armies to the island to defeat the Spanish and establish a puppet government to insure its economic and political control.  To secure support for the war at home the American media and popular music were filled with images of Cuba as the “damsel in distress” and bungling Afro/Cuban revolutionaries. The dominant ideology of the United States, manifest destiny and white Christian duty, drove the argument for war on Spain.

After the 1898 war, the United States military, with the support of small numbers of compliant Cubans, created a government that would open the door completely for United States investments, commercial penetration, an externally-controlled tourist sector, and North American gangsters. The U.S. neo-colonial regime on the island stimulated pockets of economic development in a sea of human misery. Responding to grotesque economic suffering in the 1950s a band of revolutionaries (led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Celia Sanchez, and Haydee Santamaria) defeated the U.S. backed military regime of Fulgencio Batista.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 began in the nineteenth century and was driven by 400 years of nationalism, a vision of democracy, and a passion for economic justice. This vision was articulated in Fidel Castro’s famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech presented before being sentenced to prison after a failed military action against Batista in 1953. He spoke of five goals of his revolution: returning power to the people; giving land to the people who work it; providing workers a significant share of profits from corporations; granting sugar planters a quota of the value of the crop they produce; and confiscating lands acquired through fraud. Then he said, the Revolution would carry out agrarian reform, nationalize key sectors of the economy, institute educational reforms, and provide a decent livelihood for manual and intellectual labor.

The problem of the land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education and the problem of the people’s health: these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve, along with restoration of civil liberties and political democracy (Fidel Castro, “ History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive,

Almost immediately the revolutionaries who had seized power in January, 1959 began to implement the program envisioned by the Castro speech. Over the next fifty years, with heated debates inside Cuba, experiments--some successful, some failed--were carried out. Despite international pressures and the changing global political economy, much of the program has been institutionalized to the benefit of most Cubans. 

Education and health care are free to all Cubans. Basic, but modest, nutritional needs have been met. Cubans have participated in significant political discussion about public policy. And Cuban society has been a laboratory for experimentation. In the 1960s Cubans discussed whether there was a need for monetary incentives to motivate work or whether revolutionary enthusiasm was sufficient to maintain production. Debates occurred over the years also about whether a state-directed economy, a mixed one, or some combination would best promote development; how to engage in international solidarity; and whether there was a need to affiliate with super powers such as the former Soviet Union. Central to the Cuban model is the proposition that when policies work they get institutionalized; when they fail they get changed.

The United States reaction to the Cuban Revolution has been as the Studies on the Left article warned in 1960. U.S. policy has included military invasions, sabotage, assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, an economic blockade, subversion including beaming propaganda radio and television broadcasts to the island, efforts to isolate Cuba from the international system, restrictions on United States travelers to the island, listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, and in the long-run most importantly portraying in government statements and the mass media the image of Cuba as a totalitarian state that oppresses its people.

On December 17, 2014 President Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S./Cuban relationship would change.  The United States and Cuba, President Obama said, would begin negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations, open embassies, and move to eliminate the U.S. economic blockade and restrictions on American travel to the island. This announcement was broadly celebrated by nations everywhere, the Pope who had lobbied Washington for the policy change, and Americans and Cubans alike. Of course, in both countries there were skeptics and the strong and vocal Cuban-American lobby immediately condemned the announced policy changes. 

Since December, 2014 the United States and Cuba have been negotiating the announced normalization of relations and several steps have been taken by both countries including:

 -freeing the last three of the Cuban Five by the United States and the release by Cuba of U.S. agents Roland Sarraff Trujillo and Alan Gross from Cuban prisons

-easing restrictions on remittances from Cuban/American families to relatives on the island

-using executive action in the United States to loosen restrictions on American travel to Cuba and reestablishing the capacity for banking connections with the island

-authorizing flights from the United States to Cuba by multiple airlines

-giving authority to some companies to invest in small businesses in Cuba and the increase in trade of selected U.S. commodities, primarily agricultural products and building materials

-taking Cuba off the State Department list of sponsors of terrorism

And President Obama deliberated with President Raul Castro at the April, 2015 meeting of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, communicating the image of the return to normal diplomatic relations.

Finally, Presidents Obama and Raul Castro reestablished formal diplomatic relations in the spring, 2016.

However, much needs to be done to complete the normalization of diplomatic relations.  The U.S. economic embargo has not been lifted. The Helms-Burton Act, which prohibits foreign companies from having commercial relations with the island and then the United States, has not been repealed. And in 2015 the House of Representatives passed a resolution that challenges President Obama’s executive authority to expand the categories of U.S. citizens who can travel to Cuba without applying for a license from the Treasury Department. In addition, many issues of relevance to the two countries such as those involving immigration, control of drug trafficking, and cooperation on disaster relief are yet to be resolved.

Most Americans, including Cuban/Americans, support the full normalization of relations. But a small number of politicians from both political parties who oppose normalization of relations are using their legislative and public political leverage to reverse the will of the American and Cuban people. One example is the misrepresentation of the case of Assata Shakur, who has lived in Cuba for over thirty years. Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party was tried and convicted on dubious grounds of murdering a police officer in New Jersey and who fled to Cuba in 1984, is being used by anti-Cuban activists to resist the normalization of relations, claiming that Cuba is harboring “terrorists.”

The dramatic gestures by Presidents Obama and Castro have set the stage for the normalization of diplomatic relations, but more work needs to be done.

First, activists must continue to pressure their legislators to repeal the Helms-Burton Act and oppose any efforts by their peers to re-impose legislation that will stop the process of change. Lobbying should be complemented by rallies and marches. Support should be given to those organizations which have been in the front lines of Cuba Solidarity for years such as Pastors for Peace. In addition, people to people exchanges, community to community outreach, and high school and university study abroad programs should be encouraged.

Second, those in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution should support economic reforms being introduced on the island that reflect the best principles of the Cuban Revolution: independence, democracy, and human well-being. The clearest manifestation of these principles is reflected in the development of work place cooperatives in both cities and the countryside. Cubans are being encouraged to engage in work that produces goods and services for their communities in ways that empower workers and decentralize production and decision-making. Educating the American public to the fact that Cuba is embarking on new economic arrangements that encourage work place democracy contradict the media image that the people are embracing entrepreneurial capitalism.

Third, the solidarity movement should continue the process of public education about Cuba, explaining the realities of Cuban history, celebrating Cuban accomplishments in health care and education, and recognizing the richness and diversity of Cuban culture. Ironically, despite the long and often painful relationship the Cuban people have had with the United States, the diversity of the two nation’s cultures are inextricably connected. That shared experience should be celebrated.

Finally, solidarity with the Cuban people provides an opportunity to educate Americans to the reality that the United States is not “the indispensable nation,” but one among many with virtues and flaws. Cubans have celebrated their own history and culture but have done so without disrespecting the experiences of other nations and peoples. We in the United States could learn from that perspective.

(Revised from a June 19, 2015 essay to celebrate the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro).

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"AMERICA NEVER WAS AMERICA TO ME": From the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter

Harry Targ

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
(From Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” 1938)

Fifty years ago, in 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Party inspired African American and white leftists who were beginning to see capitalist exploitation and racism as central to the American experience. The BPP saw the need for Black people to organize to defend their communities; to develop a theory that would help Black people understand their subordinate condition; to construct institutions, particularly health care, education, and food distribution, to serve the people; and to act in solidarity with liberation struggles on a worldwide basis. To articulate its goals the BPP wrote a 10-point program that would serve as a guide to programs and action for party members (

The BPP program included demands for community control, access to “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace,” and an end to police violence and mass incarceration of Black people. In each issue of The Black Panther newspaper, all 537 of them, the platform was printed. The dramatic escalation of state violence against the BPP and the Black community in general by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies testified to the fact that the Panther program resonated in urban communities around the country, particularly among the young. 

The Party encouraged grassroots activism and community control basing its appeal on the idea that it would serve the needs of the people. Establishing free breakfast programs for children, health clinics, and education, had enormous appeal. And with growing violence against the community by the police the BPP advocated collective self-defense.

Fifty years later a new movement, Black Lives Matter, has emerged to address the unfulfilled dreams articulated in the BPP vision. The immediate impetus for BLM, as with the BPP, was defense against state violence. Mass incarceration, criminalization, indiscriminant police killings, creating police occupation armies with high technology weapons, and growing economic devastation of whole communities in 2016 very much parallels the racism that motivated Newton and Seale to pick up the pen and the gun in 1966. Economic inequality; massive poverty; lack of access to quality education, healthcare, housing, transportation; and political marginalization plague African Americans today almost as much as was the case fifty years ago.

Black Lives Matter issued a detailed platform on August 1, 2016 resulting from the deliberations of at least 50 organizations whose membership includes thousands of Black people around the country. It comes at a time when the visible incidences of police violence have been experienced everywhere and young women and men have been hitting the streets expressing their outrage. The capsule summary of “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice” includes six core demands (The Movement for Black Lives, Portside, August 4, 2016; the BLM website is 

            End the war on Black people
            Economic Justice
            Community Control
            Political Power

Since so many of the problems that animated the rise of the Black Panther Party unfortunately still exist, the core demands of Black Lives Matter remain all too familiar. But, in addition to the remaining core problems of racism, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and police violence the more recent statement wisely expands its vision and agenda. For example, the introduction to the document declares that “We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim, formerly and currently incarcerated, cash poor and working class, differently-abled, undocumented, and immigrant. We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming women and intersex people face.”

The statement acknowledges its domestic focus but declares that “Patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution that the BLM platform makes is in its detailed 40 demands for change, each of which comes with an explanation and policy proposals. Whereas the BPP platform concentrates on a critique and demands for revolutionary changes, the BLM platform adds doable intermediate changes in public policy. “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us toward the world we envision….We are dreamers and doers.” 

And the BLM movement recognizes that it is linked to the long history of struggle for liberation. “This agenda continues the legacy of our ancestors who pushed for reparations, Black self-determination, and community control, and also propels new iterations of movements such as efforts for reproductive justice, holistic healing and reconciliation…” (A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,