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News :: DNC : Human Rights : International
Speakers at Rally for Human Rights Wonder What the US Has Become
29 Jul 2004
As part of the on-going protests against the Democratic National Convention, on Wednesday, July 28, there was a rally of 500 people in Copley Square from noon to 2:00 pm. Sponsored by United for Justice with Peace, the main Boston-area anti-war coalition; Boston Mobilization, a local student activist group; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and the Kucinich for President Campaign, the rally was entitled, “What Have We Become?: From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.” Speakers decried the US government’s violations of human rights, the Constitution, and international law in its conduct of the war “against” terrorism, citing such examples as the on-going detentions without proper trial in the US military base of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the American-run torture chambers in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
Speakers at Rally for Human Rights Wonder What the US Has Become
by Matthew Williams

As part of the on-going protests against the Democratic National Convention, on Wednesday, July 28, there was a rally of 500 people in Copley Square from noon to 2:00 pm. Sponsored by United for Justice with Peace, the main Boston-area anti-war coalition; Boston Mobilization, a local student activist group; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and the Kucinich for President Campaign, the rally was entitled, “What Have We Become?: From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.” Speakers decried the US government’s violations of human rights, the Constitution, and international law in its conduct of the war “against” terrorism, citing such examples as the on-going detentions without proper trial in the US military base of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and the American-run torture chambers in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

The rally started with some powerful street theater. Lining the grassy area of Copley Square were people arranged in groups of three. Two people in black stood on either side of a third in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit; the prisoner held the bars of a cage in from on him- or herself, while the person to their right held a sign with the old quote, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. [. . .] And when they finally came for me, there was no one left to speak out”; the person to their left held up a mirror with bars across it, showing the faces of the passers-by in prison too. In the grassy area itself, a group of Women in Black--an international network of women, started in Israel, who hold silent vigils against all war-- stood in a circle, holding dolls representing dead children, while a bagpipe played mournful music and a woman held a sign saying, “Women Weeping: A Walking Lament for the Wounds of War.”

The rally featured a number of speakers, who criticized the Bush administration’s foreign policy and human rights violations from a liberal perspective, stressing the violation of the Bill of Rights and international law. Dr. Michael Gordin, a physician who deals with refugees suffering from trauma as a result of torture in their home countries, condemned the US government, which “has violated international law, the Geneva Conventions, the Convention on Torture, to which the US is a signatory, and its own Code of Military Conduct.”

Nancy Murray of the ACLU denounced Guantanamo Bay as a “totalitarian penal colony” that “should be causing outrage among Americans.” Commenting on the lack of outrage, she that it was because “either Americans don’t care or don’t know. It is entirely possible that they don’t know, given how poorly the media has covered Guantanamo.” She noted a number of little known facts: that most of the prisoners are confined in small, isolated cages almost twenty-fours a day, seven days a week; that many were not captured in battle by US troops, but kidnapped by bounty hunters who get paid by the number of people they turn in; and that the prisoners include elderly men, including one suffering from dementia, children, ordinary workers like farmers and taxi drivers, and Christians (who one hardly expects to be supporters of Islamic fundamentalism). Since the Supreme Court recently ruled that the prisoners in Guantanamo cannot be held indefinitely without trial, the military is rushing forward to hold military tribunals in which the prisoners will not have the benefits of a civilian trial, such as access to independent lawyers and the right to call witnesses (unless they are easily accessible).

Joshua Rubenstein of Amnesty International said, “Nothing in Abu Ghraib should have surprised us. Soon after 9-11, ideas were being floated by people in the intelligence community, either the FBI or CIA, about the necessity of torturing people. The only surprising thing about Abu Ghraib was the photos. Since the fall of 2001, the Bush administration has been backing away from its obligations under international law. Amnesty International has interviewed people who suffered human rights abuses at the hands of American troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. We didn’t hear about them until 2004 when CBS broadcast the photos.” He then castigated the US media for falling down on the job: “In a democracy, we expect more of the media. They’re job is not just to print press releases, but to ask hard questions.”

Shortly after the protest got under way, two counter-protesters arrived and stood behind the stage, bearing large signs, one calling on people to follow Jesus, the other making the claim that peace comes through military might--the implication being, as the MC noted, that Jesus wants us to bomb people. The media presence at the rally was heavy and much of the corporate media flocked to the counter-protesters, ignoring the speakers on stage. The rally organizers handled the situation well. They did not try to drive the men away (and thus end up looking like they were trying to suppress dissenting opinions on TV), but turned up the volume on the mike to drown out their shouts and brought two of the trios of people in black and orange up on stage to block the audience’s and (more importantly) the remaining video cameras’ view of the counter-protesters, effectively robbing them of much of their impact.

What was striking about the crowd of 500 gathered at the rally is that many of them were clearly Democrats, wearing Dennis Kucinich shirts or stickers saying, “Democrat for Peace and Justice”. Many of them were in fact delegates to the DNC. This is yet more evidence of the growing gap between the right-wing leadership of the Democratic Party and much of its grassroots base, which remains progressive--in some cases enough so that they are willing to turn out to a protest in part targeting Kerry. Although the speakers mainly pointed the finger at the current Bush administration, Rubenstein made it clear that Amnesty International, “had harsh things to say about the US government when Bill Clinton was president” and would hold John Kerry accountable as well, apparently quite ready for the fact that a Kerry administration would have a less than sterling human rights record. This call for keeping an eye on Kerry was received with cheers by the people at the rally, including the DNC delegates.

Although Rubenstein mentioned the complicity of past, Democratic administrations in human rights violations, there was also a thread running through the speeches--and also evident in the name of the rally itself--that all these human rights violations by the US government were some sort of aberration. Dr. Gordin said that a Rwandan refugee he worked with had once seen the US as an exemplar of human rights, but after seeing the pictures from Abu Ghraib had come to feel quite the opposite. Gordin stressed, “The US must regain its status as a legitimate leader in human rights, not a violator of them.” While it may perhaps be necessary (and I say perhaps) to treat these events as an aberration for the sake of reaching a more moderate audience, the ugly reality is that these human rights violations are not aberrations. As a country we have rarely been the shining city on a hill, a beacon unto the world we often like to imagine ourselves to be. Human rights violations reach back to the colonization of what is now the US by the first English settlers, with the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans--in some cases by supposedly idealists like the Puritans. This same mixture of self-righteousness and contempt for the lives of others has a long history in the US and can clearly be seen in the Bush administration. If we are really going to come to grips with what is happening in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, we need to come to grips with this ugly history.

This work is in the public domain