Terror, Torture and Imprisonment: A Chicano Perspective
Issue #71, December 2004
The disturbing, infuriating images of the widespread torture of Iraqi civilian women and men revealed to the world in April 2004 provide a contemporary example of a recurring practice in U.S. colonial history (see May 31, 2004 issue of The Nation). Since the founding of the colonies and the Spanish conquest of Aztlán (Mexico's Northern territories prior to 1848; today's U.S. Southwest) the systematic rape of indigenous and African women, attacks on whole communities using lynching and other forms of racist terrorist violence, massacres of Vietnamese villages, School of the Americas training of murderous South American military officers, and high-tech, torture chamber, supermax prisons, all speak to this pattern of U.S. colonialism. Only rarely do the texts of U.S. national culture such as found in public educational materials, popular culture, media, holidays, myth and ritual describe the racist violence and torture that has been essential to the founding, expansion, and, now, global domination of elite, overwhelmingly, white men of the United States. The dominant corporate media serve as the first-line of defense/offense for imperial exploits. The corporate media privilege the voices of the rich, powerful, and/or famous and state agents (politicians, certain government employees) over the voices of people of color, working-classes, and victims of state violence, torture, and terror. Often, as in the current case of U.S. government pressure on the nation of Qatar to censor Al-Jazeera television and the bombings of its offices and killing of a news correspondent, the state actively suppresses information from the colonized populations. Because our public school systems and our news media neglect to inform us of the perspectives of the colonized and marginalized we "learn" to assume the colonizer's perspective and deny the existence of colonized voices.
It seems as if there is no one to tell the history of colonial conquest and colonial torture. Fortunately, popular culture has over the centuries retained a history and cultural memory of U.S. colonial violence. Mexican/Chicana/o oral forms such as corridos and pinto poetry tell of the power relations between colonial occupying forces or police state apparatuses and people of Mexican descent in the United States. They tell of the terrorist state violence, murder, imprisonment, and "law enforcement" experienced by Mexicans/Chicanas/os. Corridos tell of the pinche rinches (damn Texas Rangers) and other occupying forces that violently subjugated and forced Mexicans/Chicanas/os under the economic and political control of gringos. The settler population and government forces used extreme levels of violence to subdue the native Mexicans. José Saldivar reminds us that Mexicans living in the US/ Mexico borderlands from the 1850s to the 20th century suffered murder and assaults that rivaled the treatment of African Americans in the South. Later, pinto (prison) and some Chicano Movement poetry described the horrific tortures of imprisonment and the specter of police abuse during the 1960s-1990s.
Today, street poet/MCs like Krazy Race, Psycho Realm, el Vuh and Aztlán Underground invoke the spirit of the Mexican/Chicana/o oral tradition and record the sentiments of Chicano males as they witness and experience the horror of the current U.S. imperial endeavor. El Nuevo Xol (The New Sun) sing and rap about Los Angeles Police Department violence linking it to a long history of the murder of people of color by agents of U.S. occupying forces (Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Police Department, LA County Sheriff's Department, Marines, Special Forces). Their reggae/dancehall song, "L.A. Roots," appears on the benefit compilation cd, The Never Ending Battle (TNEB, 2003, www.5thbattalion.com). The opening chant offers their perspective on ongoing police murder of people of color:
Cuz in LA another bredren [brother] them gun down today/they don't got right to shoot/no way/.../cuz in LA another sis them gun down today...
To this police murder El Nuevo Xol suggests resistance, both musical/spiritual and physical:
Don't be afraid/we come to chant the Babylon down... we not gon pretend/that we afraid of no Babylon…we not gon run from the dirty policeman/I'd rather die upon my feet than live my life up under the ground...we send them all to dem graves/down near Babylon way
Through spiritual uplift via Rastafarian chanting, El Nuevo Xol hopes to raise consciousness and spirits in order to engage in anti-colonial, resistance. They affirm their strength in the face of the new "Babylon" (the evil, immoral Empire of the New Testament that Rastafarians and others have used as metaphor to describe European colonial powers). Invoking the spirit of Emiliano Zapata they pronounce their desire to live with dignity or die trying to eliminate the occupying armies of U.S. colonialism ("we send them all to dem graves").
Both in the U.S. and in Iraq continuous imprisonment of men and women of color extends U.S. imperialism as immoral (as all imperialism). The prison industry serves U.S. imperial projects in several ways. Psycho Realm (brothers Sick Jacken and Duke Gonzalez) documents some of these in "Palace of Exile" (A War Story, Book II, www.psychorealm.com, 2003). First, the prison industry has grown rapidly providing riches to a select few. Private corporations and individuals benefit from mass incarceration of people of color through government contracts and prison labor. Jacken raps "if in jail get petty money for labor skills/ while stock holders sell and make money off shit you build." Jacken's observation has been documented and further corroborated by, among others, Angela Davis (Are Prisons Obsolete?) and Christian Parenti (Lockdown America).
Second, mass incarceration serves to keep under near total control rebellious and potentially insurrectionary populations. These populations are disruptive and threatening forces to U.S. imperial elites precisely because they are its victims. The U.S. media and political spin doctors label this population in Iraq Baathists (members of Hussein's criminal party), Islamists or jihadists (foreign Arab Muslim fundamentalists), or followers of the "radical Muslim cleric," Muqtada al Sadr. In the U.S. they are men of color, Chicanos, gangbangers, criminals, and/or foreigners. Psycho Realm compares the population for whom "the palace [prison] was built" with the elite who benefit from it. Jacken raps "they make us out to be antagonists/worst, while they're the fabulous/we're the broke and scandalous/who'll never know what lavish is." Far from being the antagonists of this violent colonial drama, the urban working-class Chicano for whom the prisons are built are young men attempting to survive in the contemporary colonial situation.
In the second verse, Duke continues that many of them are desirous of luxury, money, homes, and perceived economic freedom. These young men attempt to attain wealth, power, fame, and consumer goods by doing on a very small, personal scale what the U.S. government has done and is doing in Iraq today on a grand scale. Duke says "Through the glass I make my escape/want what I don't have and that's the shit that I'll take/from the hands of any man/ you retaliate and my blade sinks in you like quicksand." In describing a breaking and entering and robbery Duke reminds us of the history of U.S. colonial violence. In 1848 the U.S. military broke into Mexico to expand the US territorial base gaining ports, valuable farmland, and other resources. In 1898 the US robbed Spain of its imperial possessions. The US stole Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Phillipines along with their geopolitical importance, sugar cane and beach front property. In the 1950s and 1960s Vietnam was a resource-rich and geographically significant Asian country inhabited by people of color striving to throw off the yoke of French imperialism. The terrorist crimes unleashed on the Vietnamese by the US government included chemical warfare, psychological and physical torture, village massacres, free-fire zones and strategic hamlets (see the new documentary, Fog of War, for recent description of the war crimes committed by U.S. agents in Vietnam). In the Iraq of the new millennium the U.S. elites covet "black gold" and the world domination that is secured by its control. While Psycho Realm's "broke and scandalous" robber engages in violence to get what he needs and wants but doesn't have, the murdering, plundering, imprisoning and torturing in Iraq proceeds so that super-rich white men can get more of what they don't need (and certainly don't deserve).
Besides critiques and descriptions of the prison-industrial complex Chicano rappers discuss other contemporary imperial horrors. Krazy Race asks questions about President George Bush's acquaintances and immoral behaviors in "Illuminati" and "Fact or Fiction?" off of his 2004 CD, New World Games. El Vuh and Victor E. (1/3 of El Vuh, along with E-Rise and Zero) similarly criticize elite politics and economics on their CDs, Jaguar Prophecies, Black and Red Ink, and Knowledge and Wisdom. On TNEB artists including Terminal Madness ("War"), N'Cognito ("Die Piggies," "Die for Nothing"), and JDubs ("Distorted Nights") describe many of the effects of today's Empire.
Chicano rappers don't simply describe the crimes of the colonial oppressor and see themselves as its victims. Like the corridista (corrido composer) who tells of heroic men who fought back "pistol in hand," radical underground Chicano rappers offer strategies for change and hopeful possibilities for a better future. JDubs argues for a united insurgency against colonial forces on "Distorted Nights." First, he describes how he would resist so that "when our seeds [children] grow they'll never know misery":
"I'm coming back with bats, knives and glocks [automatic weapons]/stop at City Hall and level three shots/sticks and stones get thrown at microphones in front of politicians trying to feed us deception...kidnap nominees during election/treat these United Snakes like an infection..."
He, then, encourages others to join him rapping "I'm sending out a call to arms with this flow/look around and wake up to the facts/refuse and resist and then attack."
Many artists on the Ollin Project (1999) and TNEB compilations speak of organized social protest and other forms of resistance. Indigenous/Mexica artists like El Vuh and Aztlán Underground critique U.S. militarism, racism, white supremacism, and capitalism. Like Ngugi Wa Thiongo's musings on "decolonizing the mind," these artists argue that mental and spiritual struggle is crucial to the development of a new just society. Victor E. proclaims that "this is our existence/one of resistance/ against ignorance/take a stance." E-Rise recalling Raul Salinas' famous pinto poem, "un trip through the mind jail," describes a need to escape the "mental penitentiary" created by contemporary U.S. colonial culture epitomized by miseducation, popular culture and modern technology used to hide essential truths about U.S. society and Chicana/o history, tradition and culture. El Vuh, Aztlán Undergound, Los Nativos and Groundkeepers implore us to examine our ancient traditions in order to develop an indigenous, anti-colonial identity and spirituality that will help usher in a new society.
Some Chicano rappers offer a picture of what our society might look like after we win the anti-colonial struggle. Psycho Realm label the second half of A War Story, Book II as "Postwar Era: The Reconstruction." After the revolutionary upheaval they describe in the first part of the album and its predecessor, A War Story, Book I, a new society must be created out of the ashes of the old. Chicanas/os and other colonized peoples will be responsible for constructing a new, more just society than that of the U.S. empire. On "First Day of Freedom" they repeat "the time has come for some freedom/end of the revolution, we won/if we don't get what we want we fight on." Later, Jacken alludes to the responsibility of rebuilding society rapping "freedom for now the next step's reconstruction." Subsequent songs such as "Poison Rituals (PowWow)," "Soul Sacrifice," and "Concrete Jungle" describe the difficulties faced by a new society that feels the effects of the old." Drugs and violence continue to plague war torn societies. On the other hand, freedom, autonomy and self-governance bring a better quality of life and fun on "Good Times" and "Lifestyle." The chorus to "Good Times" sums up their post-independence state of mind: "I like to have a good time/joke a little, toke a little/drink a little wine."
The U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, far from being an uncharacteristic mistake made by unruly, criminal youth are the continuation of a long history of U.S. extremism and terror. In Iraq soldiers follow the orders and examples set by military officers, the Secretary of Defense, President Bush, and our history of dehumanizing people of color and committing atrocious acts of terror against them. Their racism and xenophobia connect their actions to those of historical U.S. terrorists such as Colonel John Chivington (leader of the Sand Creek massacre) and General Nelson Miles (officer in charge of the Wounded Knee massacre) and their men, the Texas Rangers, the Ku Klux Klan, Lt. Calley (the only soldier convicted in the My Lai Massacre trials), former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Darryl Gates and his CRASH units, and countless other agents of U.S. imperialism and racist terrorism. While the media and our schoolbooks "teach" the glorious military past and present of the United States of America and misguide a nation concerning its own history and current affairs, the expressive culture of people of color and the working-classes reveal another history. This history from the perspective of colonialism's victims is part of a mountain of evidence that indicts the entire history of U.S. founding and expansion as criminal or as Krazy Race puts it in "Illuminati," "America the beautiful was one big crime...the land your standing on right now was fucking stolen."
Developing an International Movement
Chicanos aren't the only rappers examining U.S. imperial crimes. The current U.S. imperial project in the Middle East has lead many Arabs and Arab Americans to speak out against our foreign and domestic policies as regards Arabs and Muslims. In order for Chicana/o critiques of U.S. imperialism to become part of an international movement against injustice we must begin dialogues with our Arab brothers and sisters. Hip hop culture and rap music have proven viable means for crossing racial, ethnic and religious barriers. It is in this spirit that I began a dialogue with Palestinian American MC Iron Sheik.
Iron Sheik grew up in Arab American communities in and around Detroit, MI. The rapper-scholar-activist teaches political science in community college classrooms, on two compact discs, Camel Clutch (2003) and Yet We Remain (2004), on the web at www.ironsheik.biz and at hip hop shows. His music and lyrics examine Palestine, Zionism, media, Arab American life and culture, U.S. foreign policy, and the wars in Iraq. The recent upsurge in the criminalization of Arabs, the approximately 5,000 "disappeared" and incarcerated Americans of Arab descent, the incarceration and trial of Professor Sami Al-Arian, and attacks on free speech and scholarship critical of U.S. Middle East policy signals a society at war with itself and its Arab brethren.
Sheik's song, "Disappeared," from his November, 2004 release, Yet We Remain, tells the stories of three Arab Americans who have been detained as part of our government's "war on terror." Iron Sheik has graciously allowed us to reprint his lyrics for this issue of Bad Subjects.
Ali was a good soul
40 years old
he sold appliances at a local Sears store
came from Lebanon in 1984 for sure
in the south his home
two years before, Israel invaded
Ali barely made it
escaping death he was elated
to make it to the country he was persuaded
stood for liberty and freedom what he needed
America greeted him
hardworking immigrant in this new land that he's in
the war back home destroyed all that he owned
he came with only a two-tone suit he had outgrown
he met an American girl in this new world
he started a family, his new pearl
in 2002, Ali disappeared out of sight without a clue
the government detained him and
his family didn't know what to do.
cuz he disappeared in the middle of the night.
Coming straight from Yemen
America was like heaven
he worked to send loot back home
and he had grown with some success
Mahmoud first made a living selling carpets
in Detroit, Michigan
He threw caution into the wind
made a business with a friend
but just when he started getting into bigger deals
the government froze his assets for real
cuz he used Al-Barakaat to get money to the flat
his family lived at in Yemen
Al-Barakaat is a company for money transfer
with no reliable banking, it has to be the answer
to get money to a family in need
but the US shut it down with speed
in the name of the anti-terrorism creed
since Mahmoud was visible in the community
the government saw the opportunity to send a message to the Arab in Michigan,
they detained him to make an example of him
now he's in jail, no bail, his health is frail
and no one tells his tale
on CBS or NBC,
he's shown as a threat to national security
Mohammed from Pakistan
came to the States as an old man
he had a plan
and valued education
he was patient like a good Muslim
bustling to make a living
he was quite forgiving of the ignorance
it was dense
around him like a fence
his dark skin
he was a victim of hostility
impressively, he never got angry
never one to start
he developed a weak heart
but a strong mind and good soul
over 50 years old
still he was swept away late one day
while his family prayed
he died in detention
his health condition didn't get the attention
no one was fired for causing his death
finally put to rest as a so-called terrorist
he always did he best to stay calm
his palms didn't get sweaty
when he didn't get mad
when the guards got rough
in the end, he enough
and he disappeared in the middle of the night
Pancho Macfarland, who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from UT Austin, serves as a cultural studies instructor at Georgia College and State University and is working on a book on the history of politics of Chicano rap music.