Saturday, January 30, 2010

Arresting Gandhi

“Violent Clashes” and the Arrest of Abdullah Abu Rahma

He's a Palestinian man, and he has one of those very Muslim-sounding names with “Abu” in it (it means “father of”). Any time his name is mentioned in the media it tends to be quickly lined up with phrases like “violent clashes.” If the article is more than one paragraph long then somehow or other the topic of suicide bombing will make its way into the discussion. And the Israelis have charged him with weapons possession and have arrested him (the weapons are an assortment of used bullets and tear gas canisters that have been fired at Abdullah and his family, but no matter). Many readers will by then have decided by then that it's all pretty scary and complicated and they'd best move on.

The Israeli military's “tougher line” on “West Bank protests” made its way into the New York Times last Friday and mention was made of some of those arrested, injured and killed by the Israelis in the course of the weekly Friday protests that are now happening in a number of villages – villages like Bil'in, where Israel's massive new wall is being constructed just outside the town, cutting the village off from its farmland, its water and the livelihood of its residents. As part of their “tougher line” the IDF been arresting protest organizers, or in many cases killing them, always claiming the killings are accidental. Basem Abu Rahma, for example, was recently killed by a high-velocity tear gas canister shot directly at his chest, the same type of weapon that nearly killed American activist Tristan Anderson months before.

And now Abdullah is in jail. The overwhelming majority of the world community doesn't know, and why should they? After all, the Palestinians have yet to find “their Gandhi” – Bono said so, among others. And the IDF spokesman quoted by the Times says of the weekly protests, “these are violent, illegal, dangerous riots.” Therefore there is justification for the hundreds of Palestinian children killed by the IDF over recent years – sometimes they were throwing rocks. Let's stay with the logic here a moment. Take their land and build walls around it, arrest their parents for organizing nonviolent protests, kill their children for throwing rocks (while arresting their parents), call all that “violent, illegal, dangerous riots” and do it all again the next day.

Spokespeople for Israel like to say that if people in, say, Europe had to deal with this sort of thing the Europeans would be doing the same sorts of things as the IDF, except worse, since as everybody knows (or at least as all Israelis have been told repeatedly by their leaders since birth), the IDF is the most moral army in the world.

For what it's worth I'd like to try to put all this into some kind of context. I have been to Bil'in, I stayed at Abdullah Abu Rahma's house, and I witnessed the “violent clashes.” I have also been in the midst of many far more “violent clashes” in Europe than what I witnessed in Bil'in, and I think the contrast is completely relevant.


The Israeli military's new tactic (if “new” is even remotely applicable here) is nothing short of breaking down doors in the middle of the night and arresting the pillars of the community for the crime of being pillars of the community. If Abdullah Abu Rahma were in a different context, say in some equally small town in Massachusetts, he's undoubtedly the sort of guy who would be an active member, and perhaps occasionally president, of the local Rotary Club. He's the sort of guy anybody from anywhere would recognize in their community – a reliable, gentle man without any grandiose ambitions in life, a family man, content with village life. But due to circumstances he finds himself on the front lines of an ever-encroaching, ever-expanding process of annexation and settlement -- the land-hungry state of Israel. So instead of presiding over Rotary Club meetings he spends his time trying to get foreign media attention on what is happening to his village. Instead of giving his second house to his children he uses it for young people from around the world who come every Friday for the weekly protests he organizes against the wall.

Abdullah is very familiar with Ramallah, only a half hour drive from Bil'in (depending on the ever-present possibility of the IDF's moving checkpoints). He knows where every office of every media outlet is in this little capital city, and when I visited in 2005 he took me to every one of them, encouraging the reporters for Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabia and others to come cover this week's protest. The weekly protests often feature visiting dignitaries of some kind, and this week it was two musicians – me and an elderly classical pianist from the Netherlands who was a Jewish holocaust survivor and an outspoken critic of Israeli policies.

At first the protest in Bil'in followed a familiar format. We held a small rally involving a couple speeches, a song and an instrumental piece on the piano. Then we marched towards the site where the wall is being built. More speeches and music. The military, in riot gear, began clubbing and arresting people and firing tear gas.

What followed that was a departure from what might be called the normal European script. Children as young as ten began throwing stones, popping out from behind buildings to throw a stone, then ducking back again, while the soldiers fired rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas canisters and other projectiles at them.

The Friday I was there several were arrested but no one was killed or seriously injured. Other occasions have been far more lethal, and in the course of identical scenarios over the past months and years in the West Bank and Gaza many hundreds of children have been killed by the soldiers.

Stones are certainly potentially harmful things to have thrown at you, no doubt, but in the context of soldiers in riot gear armed with machine guns and usually hiding behind tanks and armored bulldozers, stones are a symbolic protest, meant to evoke images from Jewish mythology, of little David taking on the invincible Goliath.

The children are killed for throwing stones, and what are the consequences for the killers? Nothing other than the pangs of their own consciences. Why? Because Israel is only a democracy for Israeli citizens, and the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are occupied subjects, not citizens. And in the minds of so many Israeli Jews the Palestinian children are just future “terrorists” and not worth defending from the soldiers -- from their sons, brothers and fathers who are doing the killing.


Contrast can be illuminating. Seeing the stone-throwing youth I am reminded of many scenarios in which I have found myself in Europe. Except in Germany and Denmark the youth throwing the stones have been older, mostly in their older teens or twenties, and there are more of them, many more. The police are dressed in riot gear like the Israelis, but they don't usually have guns, and if they do they almost never use them. They fight rocks with clubs and tear gas. They charge and they retreat. As in the Israeli media, the European media derides the youth with stones as misguided and violent. The youth are arrested, sometimes jailed for months for their offenses.

The differences are many. The European stone-throwing youth are charged for their offenses, unlike the Palestinian kids who are often held indefinitely without charges. Also, the European youth are rarely killed, and when they are, there are consequences. Why are there consequences? Because in Europe there is something more more closely resembling democracy than in Israel. Mass movements of citizens in the streets and voters in the voting booths have made sure over the decades that the police are not allowed to use whatever weapons they want and kill citizens with impunity. When Carlo Giuliani was killed in Italy during the G8 protests nine years ago, hundreds of thousands of regular Italian people poured into the streets across the country to protest the killing of this 23-year-old anarchist youth. Several months ago in Greece a teenager was killed by police in Athens and since then the whole country has been rocked by massive protests and riots against police brutality.

But Israel, some will say, is a victim of “terrorism.” By extension these stone-throwing youth are somehow “terrorists” and therefore different standards apply. But it's not true. In recent years in Madrid and London scores of people have been killed in suicide bombings, but this has not led the Spanish or British militaries to start killing en masse Spanish or British youth who may be (and often are) misguided enough to throw rocks at the police in the course of a protest.


In Denmark there is a group called Parents Against Police Brutality. These are people who tend to see the police as often playing a provocative role (for example in destroying the anarchist social center, Ungdomshuset not long ago) and they go to protests more or less as observers to make sure the police aren't hurting their children. They're not there to tell the kids what to do, they're just there to make sure the police don't hurt them. Whereas in the western media the question is rhetorically asked why the Palestinian parents allow their children to go throw stones at tanks, nobody asks why the parents of Denmark let their kids go throw stones at cops. The Danish parents would generally just prefer that the police would stay home in the first place and not give their kids such an obvious and deserving target for their frustration (since they weren't born yesterday and they remember that it was the police who destroyed their social center, for example).

In Germany, following the fairly sizable riots during the G8 meetings in Rostock, some conservative politicians were complaining that the police, a number of whom had suffered broken bones in the melee with protesters, needed to be better armed. The politicians said the police should be given tasers, pellet guns, and whatever else. The police chief responded that they didn't want projectiles, as this would escalate things in future confrontations with angry citizens.

It's been years since there's been any significant Palestinian-led violence against Israelis, and Israel is increasingly at risk of being seen universally, maybe even eventually in the US itself, as the aggressor. Shooting children looks especially bad when the kids don't have suicide vests on, if all they're ever doing is throwing stones at tanks. Knowing that if they suppress peaceful protest by arresting people like Abdullah Abu Rahma, Jamal Juma, and many others, this will help encourage other, less peaceful forms of protest, the Israeli leadership seems to be doing its best to foster a more violent opposition, hopefully one just violent enough to give Israel the justification it needs to continue to keep the Palestinian population controlled through wanton brutality.

Maintaining a lack of democracy, keeping the Palestinian population in a state of fear, and maintaining at least a smokescreen of viability in the eyes of the west by having a legitimately violent menace to combat are all essential ingredients to keeping Israel Israel, or at least to keeping the West Bank for their settlers. The Palestinians most definitely have their adherents to Ghandian nonviolence, I have met many of them – and they are being systematically arrested.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alistair Hulett has died

Icon of Scottish folk music, international socialism, and Australian punk rock dead at 57

Today is my daughter Leila's fourth birthday, and while this occasion brings my thoughts back to the day she was born, the past 24 hours have otherwise been full of fairly devastating news.

If the left can admit to having icons, then two of them have just died. Yesterday it was the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing many stages around the US over many years. Much has been written about Zinn's death at the age of 87, and I think many more people will be discovering his groundbreaking work who may not have heard of him til now.

And then less than a full day later I heard the news that my dear friend, comrade and fellow musician Alistair Hulett died today. He was thirty years younger than Professor Zinn, 57 years old, give or take a year (I'm shit at remembering birthdays, but he was definitely still years shy of 60). Ally had an aggressive form of cancer in his liver, lungs and stomach.

I last saw Alistair last summer at his flat in Glasgow where he had lived with his wife Fatima for many years. (Fatima, a wonderful woman about whom Ally wrote his love song, “Militant Red.”) He seemed healthy and spry as usual, with plenty to say about the state of the world as always. He was working on a new song about a Scottish anarchist who had run the English radio broadcast for the Spanish Republic in the 1930's.

I first met Ally in 2005, at least that's what he said. I seem to recall meeting him earlier than that, but maybe it's just that I was already familiar with his music and had been to his home town of Glasgow many times before I actually met him. His reputation preceded him – in my mind he was already one of those enviably great guitarists who along with people like Dick Gaughan had done so much to breath new life into the Scottish folk music tradition. I had also already heard some of his own wonderful compositions, sung by him as well as by other artists.

In 2005 the Scottish left was well mobilized, organizing the people's response to the G8 meetings that were happening in the wooded countryside not far from Edinburgh. Alistair was involved both as an organizer and a musician, and we hung out in Edinburgh, in Glasgow, outside a detention center somewhere, and out by the G8 meetings in an opulent little town with an unpronounceable Scottish name.

I asked him then if he wanted to do a tour with me in the US. He took me up on that a year or so later and we traveled from Boston to Minneapolis over the course of two weeks or so, doing concerts along the way. Many people who came to our shows were already familiar with Alistair's music, while many were hearing it for the first time and were generally well impressed with his work as well as his congenial personality, despite the fact that many people reported to me discreetly that they couldn't understand a word he was saying.

Americans aren't so good with accents at the best of times, and to make matters worse Alistair was largely doing songs from his Red Clydeside CD, which is a themed recording all about the anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist rebellion that rocked Glasgow in 1917. Naturally the songs from that CD are also sung in a Glaswegian dialect which can only be understood by non-Scottish people in written form, if you take your time.

Alistair was determined to retaliate for my having organized a tour for us in the US, which he did three years later in a big way, organizing a five-week tour for us of Australia and New Zealand from late November 2008 until early January of last year.

Our tour began in Christchurch, New Zealand. This turned out to seem very fitting, since Christchurch is where Alistair moved as a teenager, along with his parents and his sister, in the mid-1960's. He resented having to leave Glasgow, which was at that time a major hotbed of the 1960's global cultural and political renaissance -- a renaissance which had decidedly not yet made its way to little Christchurch, New Zealand. Alistair described to me how the streets of this small city were filled with proper English ladies wearing white gloves when he moved there as a restless youth.

The folk scare came to Christchurch, though, as with so many other corners of the world at that time, and at the age of 17 Alistair was in the heart of it. Our tour of New Zealand included a whole bunch of great gigs, but it was also like a tour of the beginning of Alistair's varied musical career. All along the way on both the south and north islands I met people Alistair hadn't seen for years or sometimes decades. I cringed as someone gave us a bootleg recording of Alistair as a teenager, figuring wrongly that it would be a reminder of a musically unstable early period, but it turned out to be a fine recording, a vibrant but nuanced rendition of some old songs from the folk tradition.

After two weeks exploring the postcard-perfect New Zealand countryside, smelling a lot of sheep shit, and getting in a car accident while parked, we headed to Sydney. Upon arriving in Australia I discovered a whole other side to Alistair and his impact on the world. Though his Scottish accent never seemed to thin out much, he lived for 25 years in Sydney and was on the ground floor of the Australian punk rock scene, playing in towns and cities throughout Australia with his band, Roaring Jack. The band broke up decades ago but still has a loyal following throughout the country, as I discovered first-hand night after night. In contrast with the nuanced and often quite obscure stories told in the traditional ballads which Alistair rendered so well, Roaring Jack was a brash, in-your-face musical experience, championing the militant end of the Australian labor movement and leftwing causes generally, fueled by equal parts rage against injustice, love of humanity and alcohol.

Since the 90's Alistair has lived in his native Glasgow, while regularly touring elsewhere in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. He's played in various musical ensembles including most recently his band the Malkies, but mostly his work has been as a songwriter and solo performer, also recording and occasionally touring with the great fiddler of Fairport Convention fame, Dave Swarbrick. His more recent songs have run the gamut from a strictly local Glasgow song written to support a campaign to save a public swimming pool to the timelessly beautiful song recorded by June Tabor and others, “He Fades Away.”

“He Fades Away” is about an Australian miner dying young of asbestosis, from massive exposure to asbestos, a long-lasting, daily tragedy of massive proportions fueled by, well, greedy capitalists. It is surely more than a little ironic that Alistair was taken from us at such a young age by the industrial-world epidemic known as cancer, so much like the subject of his most well-known song.

The song is written from the perspective of the wife of a miner who is dying of asbestosis. The melody of the song is so beautiful that quoting the lyrics can't come close to doing it justice, and I won't do the song that injustice here – just go to the web and search for “He Fades Away,” it's right there in various forms.

It is undoubtedly a privilege of someone like Alistair that he will be remembered passionately by people, young and old and on several continents, long after today – by friends, lovers, fellow activists, fellow musicians, and many times as many fans. And he will long be remembered also as one of the innumerable great people, including so many great musicians, who died too young.

On our last tour, so recently, he was meeting new friends and renewing old friendships every single day, so very full of life. Among the friendships he was renewing was that with his elderly parents, who came to our show in Brisbane, a couple hours from where they retired on the east coast of Australia. Though the exact causes of Alistair's illness will probably never be known, it seems to be a hallmark not just of war, but especially of the industrialized world's ever-worsening cancer epidemic, that so many parents have to see their children die so young.