Shades of Gray

Shades of Gray: Listening To the Infamous “Genocide Denier” by Steve Clemens. June 30, 2010

There were only a dozen or so of us gathered at the May Day Bookstore basement at 3PM on Monday afternoon. The hastily-scheduled event left little time to get out the word that the recently returned political prisoner/law professor Peter Erlinder was speaking about his arrest and imprisonment in Rwanda. The professor quickly explained as he began his presentation: he wanted to thank some of his supporters who wrote/called/demonstrated on his behalf during his recent ordeal – and he brought along with him the “real hero”, one of his Kenyan attorneys who risked his own freedom and life to stand up on Erlinder’s behalf.

Erlinder explained: “Before I traveled to Rwanda, an attorney representing [one of the many political prisoners in Rwanda] was safe. After I was arrested and imprisoned, any attorney coming in knew they might also suffer the same fate.” Thus, Gershon Otachi, one of two defense attorneys under the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, showed special courage in standing up to represent Erlinder in his time of need.

I had heard Peter Erlinder about three years ago when he spoke at May Day about his work defending one of the Hutu military generals who was charged with genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide. It was my first exposure to hearing any variation on the theme of “what happened in Rwanda?” The dominant (and only story) given coverage by the US media was that of victimization of the Tutsi peoples by the Hutus –almost out of the blue – despite their living side-by-side for years.

In that previous presentation the William Mitchell law professor served as a historian. Erlinder patiently explained about the colonial history of central Africa and described the role of the Belgian, German, French, and English colonizers in the area and the practice of selecting a small group of local people to become the ruling elites under their overall control. He explained the way the Belgian colonizers gave educational and employment benefits to people they defined as Tutsi using artificial designations such as those who owned 10 cows or more rather than traditional tribal identities. What counted was not one’s birth heritage but rather the “tribal” identity given to one on their identification card or by the type of work they did. Understanding the “divide and conquer” strategy behind the colonial history helped me better understand some of underlying reasons behind the bottled-up violence and resentment that was orchestrated by both sides.

The missing piece for me was about President Kagame’s own background in all of this. In Erlinder’s current presentation, complete with maps of Africa and the specific areas of Rwanda, he explained how Kagame’s rebel army, the RPF, invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, failing to capture the capital in Kigali primarily because of the government’s support from several European nations. (The government was headed by a Hutu, the majority group.) After that failure, Kagame retreated back into Uganda, receiving at least three huge shipments of arms and munitions and increasing his armed forces from 2,500 to 25,000 over the next three years.

It is believed that Kagame’s forces shot down the airplane carrying the Presidents of both Burundi and Rwanda in 1993 that, in turn, triggered much of the killing now identified as genocide. Erlinder does not deny the massive killing which occurred – he only says it is not black and white, the “good guys” vs the “bad guys”. The dominant storyline we’ve been told through the media and governmental sources paint the Hutus as perpetrators and the Tutsi as victims. A variation of this story says that some “moderate” Hutus were also killed yet Erlinder claims there are no monuments in the present Kagame-run Rwanda to any Hutu victims. Erlinder says his research shows only shades of gray. There was killing on both sides, depending on which group was dominant within certain areas. It is a complicated story but until or unless the truth comes out about complicity on both sides, there will be no healing there, Erlinder contends.

But, so far, only Hutus have been prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). However, Erlinder claims that Carla del Ponte, the chief UN Prosecutor for ICTR, told him that she was in the room when US officials passed on instructions that Kagame was NOT to be prosecuted for his role in the assassinations of the two Heads of State. The clue as to why, Erlinder contends, lies in the geopolitical struggle for regional and resource dominance.

During the post-colonial period between 1960 and 1990 with the rise of a generation of “independent” African leaders, there was an ideological battle reflective of the Cold War between “the West” and the Soviets. Elites jockeyed for power by aligning with one side over the other. The US remained stupefyingly silent to the dictatorial abuses of leaders like Mobutu (Zaire/Congo) and Mugabe (Zimbabwe) because they were steadfast “allies” against “the communists”. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, some of that competition shifted to between various western powers.

Now, with the rise of Chinese wealth and power, the struggle has resumed – primarily between the US empire (in decline) and the ascendency of that of China’s influence. How else can one explain the inordinate attention paid to the tragic deaths in Darfur (in Sudan) while ignoring the vastly greater numbers of rapes and murders by gangs and military forces in eastern Congo? Erlinder said more are killed “every four months” in the conflicts raging in eastern and central Congo than have died in the past number of years in Darfur.

So we protect Kagame, hoping that he will side with US interests over those of China. If only the need for truth didn’t get in the way – and the desire of human rights lawyers like Peter Erlinder and Gershon Otachi to offer a defense for those facing predominately political charges. According to Erlinder, the US is clearly complicit in the massive killings that occurred in 1994 having learned “the lesson” from the failed intervention in Somalia just prior to these new killing fields not to intervene directly in these “civil war”-type struggles. That didn’t prevent our supplying hundreds of tons of arms to Kagame’s RPF forces just months before all the killings occurred.

It was six years ago when Erlinder, in preparing the defense of one of his Rwandan clients, discovered the collection of UN documents which helped him piece together a narrative quite different than the one put forth by the media and many governments. He has collected them and made them available for others to read at the website It is hard to change the dominate storyline which has been established in our minds for the past 30 years but Erlinder is hopeful in seeing signs that it is beginning to crack and change.

And, as part of a Foundation started by the hero of the Hotel Rwanda story (The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation), Erlinder and others are pushing for a Truth and Reconciliation Process similar to what happened in the post-apartheid period in South Africa. But for Erlinder, no reconciliation will be forthcoming until there is mutual acceptance of responsibility on all sides. Otherwise, each side continues to demonize each other that will lead only toward more violence.

Despite the shock and injustice of his arrest and subsequent jailing, Erlinder told us “I was treated better than Guantanamo prisoners – I wasn’t waterboarded or had a bag over my head. I wasn’t held for six years in solitary waiting for trial like one of my clients here in Minneapolis.” Although conditions in the first jail were brutal for this lawyer in his late 50s, he said the second Rwandan jail he was held in was “better than the conditions some of my clients experience in Hennepin County or other US lockups.”

So lets look and listen for stories that challenge the dominant narrative about genocide and who is responsible as well as who is complicit – but let’s especially focus on what role our own foreign and military policies contribute to these horrors – and then work for change here at home, not just “over there”.

Why I Joined the Picket Line

Why I Joined the Picket Line by Steve Clemens. June 10, 2010

I’ve never been a member of a union. In fact, I was raised in an anti-union family. My father-in-law broke a union picket line as a management-level worker before I was married. My lens was always from the management side of the labor equation.

My family of origin continues in the meat packing industry. From the age of 7 my brothers and I were required to work in the family business before and after school by my parents. My Dad paid me 15 cents/hour at the beginning in 1957 and I was ecstatic when I turned 15 and could get my “working papers” which qualified me for the current minimum wage of $1.15/hour. What could be a tale of the horrors of “child labor abuse” was instead a memory for me of family, teamwork, and pride in being able to contribute in a meaningful way at whatever age I was.

The family business prided itself in caring for its employees. Granted, my perspective (and relationship with the other employees) was necessarily affected by my father’s position as Vice President of the company. The other corporate officers were my uncles and I had other aunts and cousins to work alongside. I saw first-hand the working conditions, made friendships with fellow employees, and worked a variety of jobs within the firm before my last time of employment when I started graduate school in 1973. I took pride in the profit-sharing plan that was established early on for employees and heard recent stories how several workers I worked alongside in my youth have retired with more than a million dollars in their profit-sharing accounts after 40 or 50 year careers in the business.

I’m sure there were times of frustration and disagreement between some of the workers and my dad and my uncles but it seemed to me that their personal religious values and integrity was integral to the way they ran the family business. It appeared to me to be modeled more on compassion and charity than justice. Workers were paid the prevailing (union-established) wage for the meat packing industry and probably a little more – plus the profit-sharing plan which made the lure of union organizing within that company less appealing to those workers. The business saw the value of “giving back” to the community by always donating a minimum of 10% of the profits to charitable organizations before any dividends were paid to shareholders. But, working within the capitalist ethos, justice was skewed in that “management” shared disproportionately in the profits. Those taking “the risks” reaped most of the “rewards”. That may have been true in the early years of the business but after it was fully established, the risks became fewer as the rewards increased disproportionately. But capitalism is seldom concerned with justice and seemingly more concerned with channeling greed.

So what led me on my journey to the striking picket line in 2010?

Part of that answer is my wife’s profession. As a Registered Nurse, one is trained to advocate and care for one’s patients. When Christine switched professions from an elementary public school teacher to return to college for her RN degree, she did so in the context of living in rural southwestern Georgia. Unions were virtually nonexistent in the area in her early jobs as an RN in the local hospital, public health department, or the local primary care clinic in President Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, GA. After some time away from the profession after our sons were born and then we moved “up north” to Minnesota, Christine returned to work again as a nurse.

In the past 19 years, she has watched the hospitals where she works as a post-partum (mother-baby) nurse grow more corporate and less compassionate in its treatment of both the workers and the patients. Cost-cutting measures seem paramount in the struggle with adequate staffing and patient care. LPNs and Nurses Aides are given part of the responsibilities often done by nurses in the past and then those positions are cut or reduced leaving many nurses overworked as they are understaffed. Much of the blame can rightly be shifted to an increasingly dysfunctional heathcare-for-profit-by-insurance model we presently endure. But it is often the nurse and the patient who suffers the brunt of present dysfunction.

When Christine looked at the present concession proposals demanded by the hospitals for the present contract negotiations, her first thought was: “Oh no, this looks a lot like the policies I faced in Georgia 30 years ago!” It wasn’t just the weather climate – but also the political climate – that led us to move to Minnesota.

Lord Acton told us “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Yes some unions are corrupt. I was raised with the sordid tales of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters Union. As an anti-war demonstrator I experienced some of the racism and militarism of some powerful union leaders in the 1960s and 70s. And, it seems, the more powerful the unions become, the more danger there is of them being controlled by individuals seeking their own interests above the groups they purport to represent. On the other side, we find hospitals, many of which were started by compassionate religious groups, are now in the hands of large, “non-profit corporations” which act in the marketplace no different than for-profit corporations. Local hospital CEOs are pulling in million dollar a year salaries and their boards are peopled with the “movers and shakers” of the community rather than the pastors, social workers, and other “common folk” of their early years. Remember when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet ran St. Mary’s Hospital before it merged with the Lutheran Fairview – before it merged again with the University of MN? Sister Kate McDonald is no longer at the admitting desk, she’s now on the picket line!

I admit it: I am biased in this fight. I know Christine to be a committed, conscientious, and compassionate nurse. I am tired of having her return home from her latest shift to tell me how under-staffed her unit is at the hospital. She wants to have time to help new mothers learn the “art” of breastfeeding but is too often pulled away from that teaching and nurturing function by the other demands caused by having too few other support staff or being assigned too many patients. When many of her patients are recent immigrants with language or cultural challenges or young mothers with social or chemical challenges, it is crucial that proper care be rendered – especially when new life is now part of the equation. Even for those who seem to worship the “bottom line” should recognize the need – survey after survey reports that a positive birthing experience in a hospital often results in a positive life-long association for that patient’s family with that hospital. Good care can translate into good future “customer relations”. It should be enough to warm whatever cockles might still reside in that cold capitalist heart. Yet our economy seems to only care about immediate, short-term profits, cynically disregarding the long-term costs.

What we need are hospital administrators who recognize their employees as valuable assets rather than another group to divide and conquer. I think of the words of our late, great U.S. Senator, Paul Wellstone: “When we all do better, we all do better.” This strike is about insuring justice and right treatment for both workers and patients. It is no accident that the whole country is watching what happens to these Twin City nurses. If the hospitals are able to break the back of this union which is comprised of mostly white, middle-class women, are any other workers safe from a predatory capitalism which continues to destroy our natural environment (the Gulf of Mexico is just the most recent, egregious example) and the workers?

I stand (and march) with my wife and her co-workers. I carried the union sign with pride and gratitude.