This week’s Notes is about war in Syria, and the reporting thereon. There’s also a little followup on reparations, commemoration, and indigenous people. The violence in Charlottesville VA occurred after this issue was already written, so there’s nothing this week on that subject. But I will write about it before long, as it offers a great opportunity to reflect on how digital media can shape our understanding of the issue of white supremacy (and everything else). An understanding of white supremacy, in turn, invites us to look a bit more deeply into the power of symbols to maintain systems of domination. Look for more on this in these pages in the near future.
In the meantime, I always love hearing from readers, so drop a note if you are so moved.
“In the face of hatred and vitriol from the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalists, we support the people of Charlottesville who are advocating against fascism and antiBlack racism. As we have organized over the last four years in the interests of protecting all Black lives, we have also sought to make clear that the State harms Black people and other marginalized folks on a regular, daily basis. The white supremacist violence we are witnessing in Charlottesville is not new; instead it is constant, ever-evolving and a staple of American culture and society. While the images from Charlottesville make this sort of violence plain, it is the more insidious forms it takes in everyday life through the dehumanization of Black communities, the lack of access to healthcare and affordable housing, and the targeting and criminalization of Black bodies that must also be addressed. Charlottesville is putting on display some of the ways in which white supremacy is fueling a genocide against Black people, both in this country and across the world.”
That’s from a statement on the Black Lives Matter Facebook page, posted after the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12.
On June 8 the New York Times ran an article headlined “U.S. Airstrike Near Aleppo Was Legal, Inquiry Finds.” And here’s the opening paragraph: “The Defense Department said on Wednesday that its investigation of the American airstrike on a mosque complex near Aleppo, Syria, in March found that it was legal and appropriate, and that it resulted in one possible civilian casualty, not dozens as human rights groups had asserted.” The complex was in a town called Jinah, or al Jina.
Once again, the U.S. military investigates itself and finds itself innocent, a finding which earns a headline in the Newspaper of Record of the country whose government is accused of the killing. Later in the article the Times acknowledges that “human rights groups” don’t agree about either the “legal” or the “appropriate” designations. So for the Times it’s a case of “One side says this. The other side says that.” This is known in the trade as “balance.” So let’s have a look at this phony balance.
Let’s start with paragraph six of the Times story, in which we meet Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager, who led the investigation:
“General Bontrager, deputy director for operations at the military’s Central Command, said that investigators ‘considered media reports that indicated a large number of civilians were killed, but our investigation did not uncover evidence to support those claims.’ But he acknowledged that investigators did not visit the scene or talk to people on the ground there.” [Emphasis added by Nygaard.] So, that’s one side. How about the other side?
We’ll start with Human Rights Watch. In contrast to the Pentagon’s investigation, HRW “interviewed by phone 14 people with first-hand knowledge of the attack, including four who were in the mosque at the time of the attack; eight local residents, first responders, and local journalists who arrived at the site shortly after the attack; and two medical personnel who treated people injured in the attack. In carrying out the investigation, Human Rights Watch used some of the research provided by the open source investigative group Bellingcat, which analyzed video footage and photographs from the attack, and Forensic Architecture, which created models of the mosque and a reconstruction of the attack.” HRW concluded that “The attack completely destroyed the service section of the mosque and killed at least 38 people.”
The website Bellingcat, mentioned above, has more details than you can imagine on the March 16th strike.
A couple of days after the airstrike, on March 18, the Washington Post ran a story headlined “Claims Differ on U.S. Strikes”, in which we learn that “The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring network, described the scene in Jinah as a ‘massacre,’ saying the dead were mostly civilians. Photos from the area showed rescue workers pulling mangled bodies from a mound of rubble.”
“‘Whether U.S. drones directly targeted the mosque at al-Jinah, as some allege—or it was instead caught up in a U.S. drone strike in the immediate vicinity—a significant number of civilians died at the scene, according to the White Helmets, local media and casualty monitors,’ said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a Britain-based group that tracks allegations of civilian casualties.”
The Post went so far as to quote “Residents in Jinah”, who “said that at the time of the attack at least 200 people were gathered in the mosque and a nearby building for religious instruction.”
Perhaps the best easily-available summary of the massacre is found on the website of the independent monitoring group Airwars, the group quoted above. Check them out. For the specific report on this airstrike, go HERE and look for “Al Jina town, west of Aleppo.”
An independent media would report this Pentagon “investigation” as the charade it is, rather than as a credible study. For context, the London Guardian reported in June that “Civilian casualties have increased sharply in the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with nearly 60% of the officially acknowledged deaths from the three-year war being reported in the first three months of the Trump administration.” Were the Times to report such context, readers would be better equipped to decide whom to believe, the Pentagon or the rest of the world.
The larger context here is the ongoing decline of the U.S. Empire, which neither Trump nor any other president can reverse. Yet, despite the overall decline, the U.S.’s capacity for violence remains high, as the attack in Aleppo and other attacks illustrate. Exposing this violence, and the lies and rationalizations offered up by its perpetrators, should be the job of the media in a functioning democracy. What we don’t need is uncritical reporting of Pentagon “investigations.”
The last Nygaard Notes was supposed to be the final installment of my series about reparations for indigenous people. But a friend and longtime reader wrote to me after the series had ended, saying that the information “really breaks my heart, and I’m not sure what to do about it right now.” So here’s a short post-script in response to that comment.
The American Indian Theory of Justice that I summarized in Part One included “a sequential process consisting of seven distinct stages.” Stage 4 was “Commemoration,” which takes many forms, including monuments, place names, cultural centers, historical displays, and other aids to remembering our shared past. The word “commemorate” has to do with how we remember things, and whom we choose to celebrate and honor. One definition of “commemorate” is “To mention as worthy of remembrance; to make eulogistic or honorable mention of.”
ART: Engagement with issues of the commemoration of historical events happens all the time, although it’s not often labeled clearly. One example that hits close to home is the recent controversy here in Minneapolis in which a modern-art museum attempted to include an “art” piece which consisted of a two-story model of a scaffold, a model that was based in part on the scaffold used in the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota people here in Minnesota. That hanging was, and is, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, a fact which remains largely unknown to white Minnesotans. (I grew up about 25 miles from the site of the hanging, for instance, and never heard about it until well into my forties.)
While the white artist who created the scaffold says he intended his piece to be a commentary on racism in the criminal justice system in the United States, he—and the Walker Art Center—failed to include any indigenous people in their decision to include the enormous sculpture in the newly-renovated outdoor sculpture garden. The ensuing controversy most assuredly DID include indigenous voices, who initiated a dramatic re-thinking of the project, and ultimately the destruction of the piece. Along the way, Minnesotans of all backgrounds got to witness, and often participate in, a very public re-education of decision-makers in the “modern art” world. Many people began to consider questions like: Who has the power to convey images of historical injustice? and, From whose point of view will they be conveyed? Google the words “Walker art center scaffold” for more on this remarkable process.
LAKES: In Minneapolis—known as The City of Lakes—there is a very popular lake that in my lifetime has officially been known as Lake Calhoun. That name honors a 19th-century U.S. vice-president named John C. Calhoun, whom Minnesota Public Radio tell us was “not only . . . an ardent supporter of slavery, he was also an architect of the Indian Removal Act, which President Andrew Jackson signed in 1830.” The new name, once many bureaucratic steps are completed, will be Bde Maka Ska. Actually, that’s the old name, as it is what Dakota people have called the lake for nobody-knows-how-long. Minnesota already recognizes many Dakota names on the official maps—the word Minnesota itself is a Dakota word: Mnisota, for heaven’s sakes!—so the discussion about “un-honoring” a racist white figure from our history and honoring the original people of the area is just an example of the ongoing education of many of the current residents of the city and state. Read about the Indian Removal Act.
SPORTS: Another example of a public debate about who we commemorate is the ongoing debate about the use of indigenous names and images in sports. There is a long history of using racist and demeaning words and images to publicize or celebrate sports teams at every level. The National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media was formed in 1991 here in Minneapolis to challenge such practices. On their website, NCRSM explains that “The American Indian community for 50 years has worked to banish images and names like Cleveland’s chief wahoo, Washington redskins, Kansas City chiefs, Atlanta braves. We work to remind people of consciousness of the use of the symbols resemblance to other historic, racist images of the past.”
The owners of the Washington professional football team, despite ongoing protests by NCRSM, and others, have refused to change the “Redskins” name. The U.S. trademark office ruled in 2014 that the name offends American Indians and canceled the team’s trademark. Then, just this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court said the trademark office could not do that, ruling that “the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes on free speech rights,” as reported by ESPN. In a June 20th article, ESPN reported further that “Redskins owner Dan Snyder said he was ‘thrilled’ with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and team attorney Lisa Blatt said the court’s decision effectively resolves the Redskins’ longstanding dispute with the government.” But it doesn’t resolve the issue, as Snyder and his friends in high places must know.
These are three examples—the art center protests, the lake name-change effort, and the sports campaign—of positive efforts at healing racial trauma that are already underway. Support them, or find examples in your own state to support.
Editor’s Note: I had already written the above piece when the news broke about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA. Needless to say, this is another story that illustrates the emotional power of commemoration and symbols, and how we remember our history. I’ll be writing more about symbols, power, and denial in a future Nygaard Notes.
Native people may be the least visible of any group in the daily news cycle. And this applies to the independent media as much as commercial media. For those who wish to be more informed about the news from “Indian Country,” here are a few resources to check out.
As an aid to re-orienting away from the entire worldview that lies at the root of Indigenous invisibility (which necessarily involves challenging the origin myths of the United States), I recommend a 2015 book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz called An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning American History).
Once equipped with the tools provided by that book, here are some news sources you may wish to include in your media universe:
* The news site “Indian Country Today” is actually a sub-site of the parent site Indian Country Media Network, which has much more than news. Go look around.
The website for Indianz.com features “Native American news, information and entertainment.” The layout of the site is a bit confusing, but there is a lot of news here. And there is a Special section on the Cobell Land Buy-Back Program that I’ve been talking about.
The Tennessee-based Native History Association has a lot of links to history that U.S. public schools don’t teach us.
Native American Netroots is, as they put it, “An ongoing series sponsored by the Native American Netroots team focusing on the current issues faced by American Indian Tribes and current solutions to those issues.” It’s not a “news” site, exactly, but it’s full of interesting posts, both historical and contemporary. I would meander over there if I were you.