Privacy, Control & the Darknet

Out of the periphery of most online users, there’s a vast, hidden space used by people who want to remain anonymous, which filmmaker Alex Winter explores in his documentary Deep Web. The film focuses on the Silk Road, a black market hosted on the Darknet using bitcoin cryptocurrency, and the trial of Ross Ulbricht, who was given a double life sentence without the possibility of parole for creating and hosting the site.

Abby Martin and Alex Winter discuss more about the Deep Web, the Drug War, and why encryption on things like signal still matter in light of the Wikileaks’ Vault 7 release.

Privacy, Control & the Darknet

Do you think you know how the internet really works? Do you have an understanding of how to keep yourself safe in the age of mass surveillance and data mining?

The internet that most users are aware of is vast and seemingly limitless. But beyond this everyday space is an expansive dark space never seen by the ordinary world and utilized by users who wish to remain anonymous for a host of reasons. This mysterious space is not indexed by search engines and only seen by internet users who have the tools and knowledge to access it.

This often misunderstood space is referred to the Deep Web, Dark Web, and Darknet though these names have different meanings and are often misused. Think of the World Wide Web as the tip of the internet iceberg. Below that is the Deep Web–  the vast space hidden beneath the surface that is largely meaningless to most people. Within the Deep Web is where private networks not accessible to search engines and users without permission are located and where things such as banking data and administrative code are found. Conversely, the Darknet is much smaller– it is an encrypted network requiring specific tools to access it. This is where the Tor network is and thus where the Silk Road was found.

Not everything happening on the Darknet is illegal. Tor allows users to browse the internet anonymously as well as access hidden places that are unique to the Darknet. While it’s true that the Silk Road was accessed via the Tor browser, not all of the content in the Darknet is illegal and not every Tor user has criminal intent. Within the Darknet is where many political dissidents, journalists and others who value their anonymity can be found.

In fact, Tor was funded by the U.S. government and created for the U.S. Navy as a means for the intelligence community to have a specific place for encrypted communication. In order for that encrypted communication network to be practical, the network needed additional users and more traffic, so it was introduced to the public. Only a small percentage of the activities taking places on the Darknet are actually nefarious.

Filmmaker Alex Winter’s documentary, Deep Web, explores the history of the Silk Road. Ross Ulbricht created the Silk Road, garnering the name from the ancient trade route across Asia. Eventually Ulbricht was given a double life sentence without the possibility of parole for his involvement in the Silk Road, the anonymous community that facilitated the sale of numerous illegal items and services, namely illicit drugs. Winter’s previous documentaries also focus on government persecution of web pioneers.

In Deep Web, Winter highlights what the Silk Road was– including the unique and unusual anonymous community that it fostered and the obvious bias against the activities taking place on, as well as the users of, the Darknet. Despite having been created by the U.S. government, the empire pushes a negative narrative of the space, perceiving the existence of a drug community in direct opposition to their Drug War and the use of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, as direct threats.

In this illuminating interview, Abby Martin and Winter also discuss the need to remain safe in the digital age by keep data and communications private in an ever increasingly surveilled world. As Winter explains, anyone saying that privacy is not necessary and that encryption is only for criminals is doing a major disservice. Winter adds that privacy is a must in the digital space just like it is needed in the physical space.


Abby Martin: It’s hard to imagine life without the internet. But for a technology so pervasive in our lives, we know surprisingly little about how it works, or more importantly how to protect ourselves in the digital space, in the age of mass surveillance and data mining. Out of the periphery or most online users, there’s a vast hidden space in the ether used by hacktivists, drug dealers and anyone else who wants to remain anonymous. It’s called the Dark Web, a sub-sect of which filmmaker Alex Winter explores in his new documentary, Deep Web.The film focuses on the philosophy and trial of the Silk Road, a black market using bitcoin crypto-currency hosted on the Dark Net. Adopted from the famous drug route across Asia, the Silk Road was created by young computer prodigy Ross Ulbricht, who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts. Ross started the Darknet project with the intention to radically confront the power establishment by circumventing the drug war, but ended up being made a public example of. Given a double life sentence without the possibility of parole.With such an unprecedented punishment, obviously there was more to the story. Alex Winter, also an actor and privacy advocate attended Ross Ulbricht’s trial. Winter’s a longtime internet activist who has documented government persecution of web pioneers in multiple films included Downloaded about Napster, Relatively Free about Barrett Brown and now Deep Web, exploring the many precedents set by the Silk Road case.I sat down with Alex Winter to discuss more about the Deep Web, the Silk Road and why encryption on things like signal still matter in light of the Wikileaks vault seven release. So your film Deep Web obviously covers so much ground in telling the story of Silk Road. It was also narrated by Keanu Reeves, which was really cool. Your counterpart in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Alex Winter: Yeah.

AM: Let’s start with the basics, because this is a really hard topic for someone to delve into who doesn’t know anything about the Deep Web. What is the Deep Web? What’s on it? How big is it?

AW: Okay, that’s a really good question, because there’s a lot of misinformation around it like there is around anything involving cryptography and people who want privacy and anonymity in the digital space. So the Deep Web only refers to essentially technical gack. It’s just what’s under the hood of the internet. It’s un-indexed content. So it’s stuff that people aren’t interested in indexing, which mostly means banking data, the flotsam that flies around the internet that needs to exist there, but does not need to be indexed for any reason, code, that type of thing. And that’s gigantic. It’s just noise.What happened was, there was an area called the Darknet. The Deep Web is very, very big, right? There’s an area called the Darknet that’s very, very small. And that’s where people actually commune. And so what cryptographers did over the years, is they drilled their way into this little space and they created tools like a browser called Tor, which has its own hidden service within the Darknet. And you can use Tor, that’s where the Silk Road black market showed up. And you can use it to communicate with other people. And it has an onion suffix instead of a .com suffix. And that’s essentially hidden away from public viewing.That was initially created, even Tor itself was funded initially by the US government, the navy. But it was initially created mostly for intelligence communication that they wanted to be encrypted. But the way encryption works, if you’re the only one on the wire, then everyone knows you’re on the wire. Right? So the intelligence community didn’t want to be the only ones in the Darknet, the only people talking. If two guys with a styrofoam cup and a string, and there’s no one else there, they’re like, “Oh, that’s where the two guys from the NSA are, because there’s no one else there.”They let that technology go out into the public. They wanted to populate that space, because then they can live amongst the noise. So it’s the simplest way I can put it. It’s a little complicated. But Deep Web is big and vast and meaningless for the average person. Darknet is teeny weeny and has things going on in it like intelligence people, people who just want to have privacy online. And people selling drugs and contraband and things like the Silk Road.

AM: Dissidents, journalists use it for these reasons too, so it’s not this nefarious criminal enterprise.

AW: Oh, not at all.

AM: A lot of good things happening-

AW: Not only is it not just nefarious, but it’s like looking at Manhattan and saying that Manhattan is a haven for drugs because there’s an alleyway where someone’s selling drugs. The large percentile of what’s going on on the Darknet isn’t crime related. It’s journalism, intelligence community communications. It doesn’t get publicized, because those people want privacy. So there was a very loud, and still to some degree is, noisy bias against the Darknet saying, “Oh, it’s all bad. It’s all drugs. It’s all guns.” But it ignores the fact that the people that are not doing those things don’t want to advertise. So they’re not making noise about being there.

AM: What was different about Silk Road when it first came into fruition, because it certainly wasn’t the first online marketplace for drugs and et cetera.

AW: No. I mean the internet has been driven by porn and drugs since there was an internet. And so there were drugs online at the very beginning of the internet, pre-web. The Silk Road was watershed. This was why I wanted to make a movie about it, because as far as the public or the DOJ or the government waking up to it was concerned, it was watershed because when it was created, it was combining Tor, which was this way to get into Tor hidden services with bitcoin, which was viewed as anonymous form of currency. By combining those two things, it attracted an enormous user base. So people started using it like crazy. And that’s why it scaled in a technical terms. That’s why it caught the eye of the DEA and places like that. And it also started to get press.I think Adrian Chen in Gawker did a big article on it. It grew because it got press. And people started saying, “Oh, there’s this crazy community where people are exchanging drugs and all kinds of stuff.” So that made the government take notice. There are many reasons why the government took notice that are not obvious, which is what I wanted to get into in my film. And there are also many things about the Silk Road that are not obvious, which is what I wanted to get into in the film. So, to the public, the Silk Road was watershed, because, oh my god. You could buy heroin online, which you always could, but now it’s much easier, click of a button, whatever. To me what was watershed about the Silk Road was it was the first time in history that you had a large scale anonymous online community. And that matters. And that changed a lot permanently.I had made a movie before Deep Web called downloaded about Napster. And my perspective on Napster was similar, which was that Napster was the first time in history that you had the first large scale online community period. It was the first time that you had 50-100 million simultaneous users moving through one central database, which again, it changed the world.So I was very interested in the Silk Road when I learned about it, because when I got on the Silk Road before it got shut down. I didn’t care about drugs. I was there seeing that there were tens of thousands of people with anonymous user names in an anonymous community communicating about politics, philosophy, literature, drugs, whatever. There had never been anything really quite like that before and an anonymous environment. And that was, to me very striking.

AM: Your movie really, really does depict that other side of it that you obviously don’t hear in the press. It’s painted as this crazy, criminal conspiracy with Ross was a murderous scumbag who deserves to be locked away for life. But really your movie paints it as this beautiful organic thing that, especially in today’s day and age, good god. I mean nothing’s anonymous. So I could see the attraction of course. I wanted to talk more about these founding principles that Dread Pirate Roberts had and the site had, because I really do think that is the underpinning threat to the empire.

AW: Yeah, it’s threatening on a number of levels. The thing for me is that I first got interested in the internet in the late ’80s. And I got interested because A, I knew my way around technology. And I found this community there. And the community was very fascinating. It was what was called the BBS era, so you had all these different, all newsgroups. And you had what was called the alt section, which was like alt rec book, alt rec philosophy, alt rec art, alt rec drugs, alt rec sex. Everything you could possibly imagine, everyone was using anonymous user names and communicating and sharing data and media and all kinds of stuff. It was an amazing community. It was small. It was tens of thousands of people, but it was not millions of people.And I found that really striking then. And it seemed like the beginning of something. There was a movement. For me, Napster was this huge boulder in the water, because now it was like, “Okay, now this is the democratization of culture. And what I noticed about Napster, which is why I sought out Shawn Fanning and wanted to make a movie about him then, which I did. I actually sought him out in 2000. The pushback against Napster was mythologized and I could tell that then, because I was a Napster user. So every time someone went on TV and said, Napster bad, you’re just pirates. Whatever. And I was thinking, “Well, I’m not a pirate. And most people that I know on Napster aren’t pirates. That doesn’t mean there aren’t pirates there.” Right? But the majority of the people I knew in the community were not there to pirate.I started scratching my head going, “What is this pushback about?” And then you started investigating the RIA, the Record Industry Association and their relationships in DC and the threat. And it’s a funny thing, because like you said about the Silk Road. Yes, you have drugs, and you have bitcoin. You have all this stuff. And libertarians and anarchists and they’re openly talking about dismantling the system. That’s an obvious threat, but Napster was a huge threat to the power structure. And you weren’t getting that kind of blatant discourse. But they were terrified of it. And they were going to exterminate these guys to the fullest extent that they could and brand them in the public as evil, pirate people, an image I think they still have not really been able to shake.When I saw the Silk Road, I realized it was the same thing, that whatever Ross’ motives were, and this is not to exonerate him. But whatever his motives were, clearly in his political views, in his own personal history, he was looking to create a massive safe haven online anonymous community where all of these ideas could be discussed. Whether people’s motives got corrupted, whatever, the reality of it is is the Silk Road was, at it’s heart a community mostly of pretty radical political thinkers and not of one stripe. Ross has libertarian leanings. Other people had hard core anarchist leanings. It was a genuinely democratized community. And it was an amazing place to wade around in. The conversations, these were really bright people.

AM: Yeah.

Alex Winter: And then you just had people there that would just buy weed or whatever. I mean that existed too obviously.

AM: No, I mean it’s incredible because like the documentary mentions, even though you had all these people, different radical political bents, everyone galvanized around the idea that the drug war is horribly detrimental to the society and that drugs should be obviously decriminalized at the very least.

AW: In the Silk Road case, the Silk Road was immediately built up as this much bigger thing, right? It immediately struck me that something was rotten in Denmark when it was like, billions of dollars in sales. Well that’s not true. This amount of users. That’s totally not true. I mean it had made an impact, but it was, in the scheme of things, a little weeny website and this very tiny section of the internet that nobody goes to and most people couldn’t figure out how to use even if they wanted to go there. And all the numbers were getting super inflated. But then you look at the drug war and you look at the existential existence of the DEA and the FBI and the amount of money, the prison system. And you’re dealing with a massive amount of power that is threatened by, not just the idea of what the Silk Road represents, which is the democratization, as you said, of people who want to talk against the drug war.But what’s worse, I think what was scarier for them, which is what happened with Napster, was they saw the future. Obviously, the internet is going to be where drugs were sold. Obviously, the drug war is all about criminalization and not about medical help and treatment. Obviously, these people’s budgets are funded on the basis of this continuing and they would lose their funding if it stopped continuing. So the threat level was on so many different levels. Then you get Ross, moved from San Francisco to the southern district of New York. And when that happened, we all knew he was screwed, because then you add on to that the financial regulation concerns around bitcoin, which is all centered around the southern district, that’s Wall Street. That’s their beat.So Ross just found himself jammed in the middle of surveillance operatives. He was breaking the cryptography rules and bitcoin, people were terrified on Wall Street about where bitcoin was going, especially in those days, they thought it was going to upend Wall Street, which is absurd. But they were going after him, you had the drug war people. They are going after him. And so it was just a perfect storm.

AM: The media floated around murder for hire theories that convicted Ross in the court of public opinion before the trial even happened. Yet, as Alex notes, he was never charged for them. Thoroughly demonized in the public, he was swiftly convicted of every crime committed by everyone on the site. The judge handed down a double life sentence without the possibility of parole. The FBI sting agents themselves were using the Silk Road to steal money during the operation. Shawn Bridges stole $800,000 in bitcoin, while informant Carl Forest siphoned $50,000. They also broke the law by hacking Ross’ computer without a warrant and using that evidence to arrest him.

AW: The idea that they just gave him that sentence because they were thinking of the children, which is how it was presented, the children, the children, is absurd. The Silk Road was a honey pot almost from the beginning. The feds were all up inside it. An enormous amount of the hard drugs that were being sold were being sold by federal law enforcement, both corrupt and straight up law enforcement. So a lot of the deaths that they were attributing to Ross were really directly attributable to different people of law enforcement agencies. So the hypocrisy was just staggering.And for me, what was cut and dried was very simple which was, and this is the way I looked at it for the film, even if Ross was guilty of every single thing they claimed he had done, including the murders for hire scam. None of those charges merit a double life sentence without the possibility of parole. They just don’t. So it was somewhat of what I watched happen with Napster. It was a successful spin job in the sense that enough stuff got waved around and the children and all of that stuff that they always pull out, that the general public sentiment was like, “Screw them.” Basically, just whatever. And to me, that was a very strong indication of the politics of the case, of what they had at stake, what they felt an example they needed to make of him, how threatened they are by cryptography and anonymity and privacy and bitcoin and whatever. The over severity of the sentence to me was a tipping of their hand.Honestly, when I went to the sentencing, even though I wouldn’t have agreed with it, had they given him 8-10 years based on drug kingpin charges, which is what the heaviest charge was, which was …Silk Road didn’t have drug kingpins. It was tiny. But it’s a little hard to argue with that given the potentiality of what the crimes were even though I may not have agreed with it.But the double life sentence was just a tipping of the hand. It was so absurd and so completely unfair, that it makes you have to ask why they felt the need to hang him in that way.

AM: And also circumvent the law several times doing so.

AW: Completely.

AM: Amazingly, like you said, there’s other Silk Roads resurrected. You can’t kill the idea. Aaron Swartz is another computer genius who posed a serious threat to corporate and government control. As a passionate activist for net freedom, Swartz believed that information should be free, especially when it’s paid for by the taxpayer. His so called crime was simply downloading academic journals out of reach to most people who don’t pay hundreds of dollars in fees to universities they fund with their taxes. The empire tried to crush him for it. He faced $1 million dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison, essentially a life sentence. Exasperated and depressed, Aaron took his own life. According to Swartz’s dad, Aaron was killed by the US government. Let’s move on to Aaron Swartz, because this is another prodigy who helped create open source technology. I wanted you to comment on that, because this is another person that the hammer came down so hard. Of course, we know what happened to him, the tragic suicide. Why was he such a threat? Why is open source technology such a threat?

AW: The words open source are terrifying to controlling interests whether it’s business or government. And there are some bad actors in those communities that will do anything to maintain control in a world where it’s very difficult to maintain control. There’s always this need to try to hang a label on something and then hammer it into the ground publicly. And Swartz, that’s what happened to him was he was not just an open source guy. He was one of the heads of a big activism organizations. He was a very charismatic leader. He was very well spoken. He was very articulate. He was very effective. He was a trifecta of threat. He was technologically adept. He was aggressively effective in his activism. And he was forward thinking in terms of politics and the machinery of, he was big into campaign fraud and voter/election fraud and the corruption. And what became the post-citizens united world.So he would have been on many lists for those reasons. Then eventually, you’re looking at these lists going, “Wow, he’s on this list, and he’s on this list.” So he’s like, this is a bad person. This is someone that is a threat to us. It would be helpful for us to, if not put him in jail for a little bit of time, at least scare the shit out of him by coming at him with an enormous charge of prison time. And that’s a very common DOJ tactic.

AM: The Wikileaks recent Vault 7 release. I’m sure that you have been following it closely. The CIA has its own NSA style apparatus, totally unaccountable to everyone that it can do direct hacking into peoples devices, turn on microphones and turn into listening devices. What do you think this means? And also what will it do to the cryptography movement?

Alex Winter: If you’re using signal for instance. If you’re not a CIA target or whatever government target, because it’s obviously not just the US. That intelligence community have not hacked your phone. And it takes a lot to be a target on that level. Bt if they’ve hacked your phone, the way encryption works, if they own your box, as they say, it doesn’t matter what technology you’re using, because they’re sucking down your data before you encrypt it. And they’re reading the stuff that you get after you encrypt it, because they’re sitting on your shoulder watching what you’re doing through your technology.That’s different than encryption. Encryption, if you’re not owned, which is a far greater of population of people who want to remain anonymous, journalists, dissidents, whoever, my kids for instance. I try to tell them to use this stuff. And you’re not owned, then that encryption is absolutely working and there is no evidence today that that has been broken. There is no evidence that suggests that they can read my signal communications or even some of my iMessage communications if they don’t own the box itself, either my phone or my laptop.However, that being said, Snowden warned about this years ago now. I think many of us who deal with encryption or who are dealing sometimes with sensitive material have always taken it at face value that if somebody really wanted to get our material, they could. It’s negligent to assume, whether US state, actors or other intelligence operatives from other countries. I think it’s naïve to assume that if you are really a hard target that they’re not going to be getting into your system somehow. And you look at like what happened to Podesta whether you’re a tinfoil hat wearer or not, there’s a basic phishing scam. Operational security is really hard. And there’s no easy fix for it. There’s no app that just suddenly makes you secure. It’s a mindset.

AM: Well, it’s a fascinating schism right now. And it’s kind of like, where do we go from here, because you have the government that created these technologies. Of course, they’ve gotten so out of control out of their hands. And they don’t understand them anymore, like you said. It’s basically like hackers are on the forefront and on the edge of the technology and one step ahead of the government, whether it be Snowden or Barrett Brown or Aaron Swartz. Where do you see it going from here especially in light of the Russia hacking hysteria? Because on one hand, you can have just a claim based on nothing and we don’t have to prove it because it’s all in the ether. On the other hand, it’s almost like the faith of the world is put into the hacking community to try to save us from ourselves.

Alex Winter: Thankfully, the large percentage of the hacking community functions from a basic, there’s a reason you drive down the highway and people aren’t just constantly shooting each other and smashing into each other and driving into the median. We have to take it at face value that the large part of people who are brilliant enough to be very, very good at hacking have some form of moral compass. And if they don’t, that they’re going to get outmatched by those that do. Cryptography keeps getting better. I think that the Snowden revelations were such an important and necessary thing for the public to start to wrap its head around, because it’s not, as you said earlier, it’s exactly right. If you don’t allow people to go dark, if you penetrate the citizens’ ability to protect themselves, you are making them vulnerable and yourself vulnerable to bad actors. You are weakening the security of the internet. So it was vitally important that the average person has some understanding that they’re being surveilled and that they need some form of privacy.There’s no doubt, we’re going to have to move into the world that includes the ability to go dark. That’s very scary to law enforcement. I understand why. If I’m in law enforcement, yes. I want to be able to open anyone’s door. And I don’t want anyone to have blinds on their windows, because they could be committing a crime. My job’s a lot easier if I can watch them do everything.Unfortunately, it falls on the average citizen to know a little bit more about how their technology works than they may want to. Or a little bit more about what this stuff means. I think that for me, it’s a philosophical mindset. I think that if your government or your corporation or your mom or your kid or whoever is telling you that privacy is unnecessary and encryption is for people who are criminals are doing you a disservice. I think it’s more, really a shift of mindset. I think it’s understanding that you must have privacy in the digital space just like you demand it in the physical space. And I would say moreso.I would say, we’re not all Emma Watson or people who literally have all their naked pictures hacked. It’s funny, but the reality of it is, is it’s just as easy to get your stuff as it is to get their stuff. And you don’t know whose hands that stuff’s going to end up in. You don’t know who’s going to end up with pictures of your kids. You don’t know what they’re going to do with those pictures of your kids. There are very bad people out there. Your banking information, your entire medical history. We just got this, I think most of us can agree, a fairly wonky political administration at the moment, right? A few years ago, people were like, “Well, why do I care about my government?” And now a lot of those people are going, “Oh, holy … I don’t want this administration coming after me because they have anti-Islamic tendencies or whatever crazy prejudices they have. Now suddenly, I’m a target.” It’s like all the people who voted for Trump now whose husbands and wives are being deported. We didn’t think we were the ones that were going to get … Right?

AM: Right. That’s the bad guys.

Alex Winter: Yeah. Exactly. The digital space is the same where you can suddenly, if your information is all freely there, you don’t know what someone is going to do with it. And what administration is going to do with it. So people, it’s a mindset, have to think a bit more prudently about how they protect themselves online.

FOLLOW // @AbbyMartin & @AlxWinter


The Sikh Experience in America

The Sikh Experience in America

Despite being the fifth most popular religion of the world, people of the Sikh faith are rarely recognized as such in the US. With a sharp rise in Islamophobia, Sikhs are frequent targets of bigoted hate crimes, often mistaken for Muslims or Hindus. The first victim of post-9/11 hate crimes was a 49 year old Sikh man – shot to death outside of the gas station he owned. Six Sikhs were murdered in Wisconsin in 2012 when a man opened fire in a Sikh gurdwara, murdering them in cold blood in what was the deadliest attack at a place of worship since the Jim Crow era. Most recently a Sikh man was shot in his own driveway after being told to “go back to your own country.” With the incidences of hate crimes and discrimination against American citizens of middle eastern and Asian descent growing rapidly since Trump entered the political spotlight, most Sikhs have experienced it personally.

A 2015 Stanford study found that 70% of Americans misidentify Sikhs as Muslims and nearly 50% think that Sikhism is a sect of Islam. An estimated 500,000-700,000 Sikhs live in the US. Despite that, the vibrance of the Sikh community is rarely seen in US mass media or pop culture – further leading to a misidentification and misunderstanding of Sikhs and Sikhism, one of the most loving and inclusive religions in the world today.

Journalist Abby Martin visited a Sikh gurdwara in Virginia to speak with the Sikh community there about their personal experiences with discrimination, hate crimes, and cultural ignorance. During her visit she observed common Sikh practices, spoke of long standing Sikh traditions, and partook in a large traditional meal. During her time at the gurdwara Abby also spoke with Georgetown Professor and civil rights attorney, Arjun Singh Sethi.


Abby Martin: With the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, harassment and violence not only impacts Muslims, but people perceived to be Muslims, in particular, people of the Sikh faith. Four days after 9/11, an 49-year-old Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot to death outside of the gas station he owned, marking the first hate crime casualty after the attacks. According to witnesses, the perpetrator had said he wanted to, “shoot some towel-heads” to avenge the actions of Osama Bin Laden.In just the first month after 9/11, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in America. Hate crimes against Sikhs peaked in 2012 when Wade Michael Page charged into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, murdering six Sikh Americans in cold blood. It was the deadliest attack against a place of worship since the Jim Crow era.The Trump phenomenon gave new energy to Islamophobes with hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims skyrocketing over the past year. On March 6th, 2017, a Sikh man was shot on his driveway by a masked assailant who told to, “Go back to your country.” A week prior to that, an Indian man was shot to death in a bar by a man who told him a variation of the same racist slur, before opening fire on him and his friend. The perpetrator said he thought they were both Iranian.Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, but Sikhs are one of the most mistaken and misunderstood minority groups in the country. A 2015 Stanford study found that 70% of Americans misidentify Sikhs with beards and turbans as Muslims. The same study found that 49% of Americans think Sikhism is a sect of Islam. There are currently an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., many of whom are American citizens. In addition to racism, as a consequence of the U.S. Empire’s campaigns, the cultural richness, diversity and beauty of the Sikh American community, are rarely seen in mass media and popular culture.That’s why I wanted to explore this community for myself. I visited a Sikh place of worship, called the gurdwara, in Virginia. My guide was, civil rights lawyer and professor at Georgetown University. I talked to members of the community about their experiences as a Sikh in America.

Speaker: I came here in ’98.

Abby Martin: Oh, wow. So, right before 9/11?

Speaker: Yeah.

Abby Martin: Did you, kind of see a shift when that happened?

Speaker: Oh, definitely. … because I went to high school here, so I sat … you can see how, after 9/11, the tensions in the schools were… … trying to see … of guys, maybe … name-calling …

Speaker: When they seen us with the beard and the turban on the streets, on the public places, they hate us. They shoot us. They march on us. They give us problems.

Speaker: My niece, who’s a medical doctor, and she was just walking by, and there was – in Florida – and there was two white people who was leaf-blowing and they blew leaves on her face. And… (laughs) …you know, and they can’t tell. They’re, like, “Go back to your country.” So, that’s, pretty sad that that’s how people feel about other people.

Speaker: Even my father, he, actually works in a very small, small town in America. He owns a gas station. And he wears a turban. He has a beard and everything, and so he receives terrible comments. He’s had to deal with it.

Speaker: My husband is Sikh. He wears a turban. And he works in the county and he works in the Department of Environment, so when they go to schools to bring awareness about the environment, the kids don’t recognize Sikhs. They’re, like… they talk about Islam, they talk about Bin Laden, and that’s pretty sad.

Speaker: In America, I would say do not discrimination because I’m … Sikh. But discrimination as a brown person.

Speaker: Yeah, I work in D.C. most of the time, and I didn’t hear anything. Whenever I go, like, hiking to West Virginia … where, like, I’ll go to, like national parks, or something, like, where people never seen me before, first thing they will tell you is, like, you know, go back to Afghanistan or something, right?

Speaker: A lot of time we have seen people simply not educated enough who understand why my son is covering his head. They think… sometimes they thought, like, it’s… he is not well enough, he’s covering his head, and sometimes they want to know what is under his head and his covering.To very, very first discussion, like, when you have at parent-teacher meeting, we were able to talk to them, and explain to them this is all religion, this is what is not right for us, this what is right for us, and we gave them, you know, hey, if somebody has a question, definitely, we are here to help. Ask us, and we can… you know, learn together.

Abby Martin: Considering the widespread lack of knowledge about their faith, I asked people about what Sikhism teaches, and what it means for them.

Speaker: Biggest misconception either we’re Muslims or we’re Hindus. I think even in India there’s a misconception that we’re Hindus. And so even the government treats us as Hindus. But in America they look at us like Muslims. So, nobody really knows that, we’re our own distinct separate ideology and faith and it kind of makes it hard for us to explain, because we always have to use it as a reference point, because that’s what people know.

Speaker: The ideology of the Sikh religion believes in international brotherhood. Love all. Resect other communities. Respect other religious feelings. Equality of society. You see here? The people sit down on the floor. That’s mean everybody doesn’t matter he’s a billionaire, he’s doing labor, they have to sit down here on the floor.

Speaker: Whatever we got from God we are thankful for. We are grateful. We are happy that we are beautiful. And I think every individual in this world is beautiful as that person is created, every individual, and we need to respect individuality of that person.

Speaker: No arrogance. Nothing. This is one thing, arrogance…

Speaker: You’re not better than anyone else.

Speaker: Yes. What you sow, that you reap. It’s written even in the Bible. This is a basic of Sikhism, … that when you die, you take nothing with you. You take only with your deeds. It’s not even balanced whether you are Bill Gates or a guy on the street, and when he goes, stand before the Lord, it is only his deeds.

Speaker: Being a Sikh for me personally is having a discipline to really, just practice and express my love for God. As a Sikh, we believe in our ten Gurus. They taught us values of truth and love and being honest and sharing and those universal things I think they’re in all faiths. I guess what distinguishes us, though; the cultural ties kind of play a big role. So, we keep an external identity. If you were to walk into a gurdwara, the church, you would just… the culture of it is very different. But, in essence, it’s the same, I feel.

Speaker: There are a couple of types of the turban. You will see turbans of … different. It is mine. This is traditional 500 years ago. You will see that … is modern.

Speaker: I didn’t really know how to tie a turban before, and when I got to know when I was in 9th grade, I felt, really good, like something… it’s a sign to remember everyone. If I go to some place where nobody knows me, then he will be able to know and remember me, like a sign to remember, and I’m proud to be Sikh. Yeah. Wearing a turban.

Speaker: See, if I cut my hair, that will make me fit in the college, but at the same time, I want to be stand up … I can explain why do I have … because I believe in God.

Speaker: Whenever I come here, they usually tell me, can you teach me how to tie a turban, and you … yeah. Yeah. So, they just, like, always ask me, like, how to tie a turban, and I usually suggest to them, go to YouTube and everything, you can find everything… yeah. Yeah. So…

Abby Martin: Tell me more about the women’s role in Sikhism?

Speaker: When we come to the gurdwara, it’s everything is equal. We come, we can sing upstairs, and it’s not about only men can sing, and only men can do… there is no division of any duties or any responsibilities. The woman can be next to the … side … The woman could be on the stage singing … The woman could be cooking. The woman could be serving food, the same for men. They are doing the same thing. So, the level of equality that we have in Sikhism it’s amazing.

Abby Martin: I sat down with Arjun for a traditional Sikh communal meal, called langar.

Arjun Singh Sethi: This is a religious and cultural tradition of the Sikh faith that after the ceremony is concluded, all are welcome to come to the gurdwara for a meal. And if you go to gurdwaras in India, you will find not just Sikhs, you will find Muslims, you will find Hindus, you will find day laborers, all are welcome to enjoy the vegetarian food that’s served.It usually consists of bread, some yogurt, some salad, some lentils, some potatoes, chickpeas, of course, all cooked Indian style. The Sikh faith itself is extraordinarily inclusive, so later today, I think you’re going to, actually get a glimpse of the Holy Book … upstairs, and it is an extraordinarily unique Holy Book because it contains the writings, not just of Sikhs, but actually contains the writings of Muslims, of Sufis, and … of other traditions, as well.Everyone congregates upstairs, usually there is a … priest, who sings holy hymns. Everybody joins in the recital of those hymns, and then it concludes with a reading from the Holy Scripture, and then everyone comes down for the meal.

Abby Martin: There was, definitely lots and lots of amazing food.Part of the activities at the gurdwara also includes a school for kids.

Arjun Singh Sethi: Our main focus with the school here is to make… give exposure to our children about our culture and Sikhism. School is primarily divided into two pieces. One is the teaching of language. We are from Northern India, most of the Sikhs, so our main language is Punjabi, and our scriptures, … which means … as a true guru, it’s written in Punjabi. So, it’s extremely important for us to teach our kids to learn the main language.The second part of the school is, which you probably noted, is the history. We have a lot of focus on teaching our kids the Sikh history so they know, you know, where we originated from, what are the different challenges throughout the lifetime so far we have, and where we are heading now.

Abby Martin: Sikh contributions to science, culture and more are extreme importance. Among them are Narinder Singh Kapany, dubbed the Father of Fiber Optics, whose work revolutionized communications, medical equipment and more. Artist Amrita Sher-Gil, known as India’s Frida Kahlo and a pioneer of modern art, renowned novelist and poet, Amrita Pritam, … Singh, American civil rights attorney who won major victories against the Bush era torture machine, and electronic music pioneer Talvin Singh.Music is, actually an integral part of Sikhism. A large number of the community members are musicians themselves.

Speaker: I always went to the gurdwaras. I was little. I don’t… it’s just my heart of my life that I never felt that I could live without it. So, this was my part where I connected as a kid – the singing. And it connected me and I started going and looking at the keys, and I started working at it at home, no lessons, nothing, it’s just spiritual.

Speaker: (singing)

Abby Martin: Sikhism is a relatively young religion, founded around 500 years ago in the Punjab region of what is today Northern India. Around 75% of Sikhs still reside in the Punjab region. A cultural melting pot, with Sikh being its only indigenous religion. The religion was stared by a Hindu man name Nanak. Founded as a rejection of gender division, the caste system, and social inequality, this new religious community faced heavy persecution from its inception, first by an emperor, then by the British Colonial occupation, and still today by the Indian government. As recently as 1984, the Indian government carried out an anti-Sikh massacre led by Indian army troops. Upwards of 20,000 Sikhs were brutally tortured and murdered. Hundreds of thousands fled.To this day, many seek political asylum in the U.S. and beyond, as their status as one of the many persecuted minorities in India puts them in danger.Sikhs began immigration to the United States over a hundred years ago, in 1899, mainly to California. They helped build America, as farm workers, rail workers and other types of manual labor. They immediately faced violence and discrimination.In 1907, anti-Asian riots swept the west coast of North America from Vancouver to California. In the town of Bellingham in Washington State, a lynch mob of about 500 white men, in an organization called the Asiatic Exclusion League, marched into a Sikh neighborhood in protest of them getting jobs in lumber mills. Scores of innocent Sikhs were beaten and forced to flee.The U.S. government codified the discrimination into law. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 barred Sikhs from owning property. Then in 1917, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act made it illegal for Sikhs – or anyone else from Asia as a whole – to immigrate to the U.S. In fact, everyone from the entire continent of Asia was prohibited from becoming U.S. citizens until 1946.Sikhs actually served in the U.S. military in both World War I and World War II, with long-standing uniform exceptions for their traditional turban and beard. But in 1981, Sikhs were inexplicably barred from the military for the next 40 years. It was not until 2012 that the first major city allowed the Sikhs to become police officers. The NYPD didn’t even lift this ban until 2016.I talked to Arjun about the state of Sikh discrimination today and what’s really behind it all.

Arjun Singh Sethi: This is what we know, and this is according to a report by the Bridge Initiative. Hate violence against Muslims is roughly 7 to 9 times higher now than it was after 9/11, which is extraordinarily startling. Because I felt after 9/11 that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. There were many, many reports of acts of hate, incidents of hate violence against Sikh Americans, Muslim Americans, and other minority communities and what we actually saw in 2016, and really even late 2015, was that it was what I call, “open season” against Muslims, against Arabs, against South Asians because they make easy targets.I think it’s also important to think about not just hate violence but the various ways in which these communities are criminalized. Right? So, you think about something like Watch List, a suspicious activity reporting countering violent extremism programs, all of these programs allow for the profiling of these communities and it has always been my belief that if the government is going to profile me and treat me as a second-class citizen, why wouldn’t everyday Americans?

Abby Martin: You know, people think that Trump is this aberration, and they’re shocked, and how did this openly racist, bigoted reality star get into the White House. But, really, this has been festering for a long time. When you’re not prosecuting war criminals and torturers, that’s kind of giving carte blanche to the next administration that they too can do this and get away with it. What are your thoughts on kind of this normalization of Islamophobia?

Arjun Singh Sethi: Sure. I have no doubt that Trump has emboldened nativism, racism and discrimination, but it’s always been there. And I would say that it has become institutionalized. I was talking a little bit earlier about criminalization. You see it with respect to things like hate violence. So, Trump might have been the catalyst, but it was there to be catalyzed.

Abby Martin: Mm-hmm.

Arjun Singh Sethi: If you think about things like suspicious activity reporting, suspicious activity reporting, that program, basically asked local law enforcement to report what they perceived to be suspicious activity reporting to the FBI. The problem is, what is suspicious activity reporting? I will tell you. It is Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans purchasing computers at Best Buy for their home business.It is Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans taking photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is buying pallets of water at Costco. Those are actual cases. Even just thinking about the president. I’m not a fan of President Bush, but President Bush visited a mosque a few days after 9/11. It took President Obama eight years. It took him eight years to go to a mosque.

Abby Martin: Under the Trump administration not only are we going to see this exacerbation of hate crimes and vitriol, but it’s almost this false narrative that Steve Bannon and people who are, you know, managing these Alt-Right media types, that put out their… that the hate crimes aren’t real. That this isn’t happening. That Islamophobia is not real.

Arjun Singh Sethi: There are people who can tell you that they have been targeted. I can tell a little bit about my life. Just in the last few years, I’ve had numerous instances where people have said, “ISIS, go home. You don’t belong here.” I had a situation the day before inauguration. For lunch, I picked up lunch in Chinatown, I come out of a restaurant, and there are three men who had just gotten off a bus who started elbowing one another and pointing at me.This is two blocks from my apartment in Washington, D.C., you know, five blocks away from Georgetown University Law Center where I’m a professor.

Abby Martin: When speaking about the horrific anti-Sikh massacre in Wisconsin, Arjun gave important insight about the reaction of both the politicians and Sikhs themselves.

Arjun Singh Sethi: The political rhetoric at the time. President Obama called us in his speech a few days after the attack, “part of the broader American family”. There’s really only one American family, and we’re a part of it. I believe Candidate Romney at that time called us sheikhs. President Obama never came to the gurdwara. The First Lady never came to the gurdwara. We had a high-ranking official, who came, but a lot of Sikhs did feel excluded, and they did feel slighted, and I do think in many ways it was a lost opportunity.What I will tell you is most extraordinary about that event and I think it’s something that all of America and the world can learn from is the day after that attack, the Sikhs typically conclude their religious ceremony with a prayer called the Ardas. You actually filmed it earlier today, where people stand up and fold their hands. And in that Ardas, they ask the Lord to say a prayer for the six people who were murdered, but also for the culprit. For Wade Michael Page, who actually stormed the Sikh temple that day and also, I believe took his own life.For me, that showed the extraordinary power of forgiveness, of restoration. The Sikh community was ready to move on. They were ready to forgive. And I think that’s one of the most powerful traditions of this faith.

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Chris Hedges & Abby Martin – Trump, Fascism & the Christian Right

For the first time in modern history, a fringe wing of Christian extremists have obtained the highest seats of power in the US government—from Mike Pence to Betsy DeVos.

This new development is coupled with the emergence of the Alt Right, the Trump movement, and the rise of fascist movements abroad.

Renowned journalist and author Chris Hedges has embedded himself in what he calls “Christianized Fascism” and warns that this is the biggest danger we face under Trump.


Chris Hedges & Abby Martin – Trump, Fascism & the Christian Right


ABBY MARTIN: Many are calling Trump a fascist, even the next Hitler. Can you define what fascism is?

CHRIS HEDGES: Fascism is not really ideologically based. It’s very protean in terms of its ideology. There’s a German historian I like very much who wrote a book called Male Fantasies1 about the Freikorps, and the Freikorps were the antecedents to the Nazi Party. They were demobilized, right-wing World War I veterans who were used to crush the Spartacus uprising in Berlin and the kind of radical left. They killed Rosa Luxemburg. And it revolves more around emotion, hyper-masculinity, a virulent nationalism, a celebration of “strength” and of “military virtues.” It holds up a kind of moral purity that it claims to represent. Robert Paxton wrote a very good book called Anatomy of Fascism,2 and he notes that fascism in every country has its own peculiar characteristics in the sense that Italian fascism was very different in many ways from German fascism. I think that fascism, although I’ll use the word to describe Trump, is perhaps not finally accurate. I think you’re better off describing our system as what Sheldon Wolin, the political philosopher, calls inverted totalitarianism,3 by which he means that you’re not replacing old symbols and structures. It’s more like the old Roman republic after the civil wars and the rise of Augustus. So you still had a Senate. You still supposedly had a republic, but it was all a facade. So you have corporate forces that purport to pay fealty to electoral politics, the constitution, the iconography and language of American patriotism, but internally they have seized all of the levers of power to render the citizens disenfranchised. And Wolin writes that in that system, politics is never able to trump economics. It’s all about economic consolidation, maximization of profit, and so what we’re getting with Trump is, I think, a species of inverted totalitarianism, with demagoguery.

AM: It’s insane that one of Trump’s first measures was basically making it harder for poor people to get mortgages.

CH: Right, so what we’re going to get is a turbocharged neoliberalism. You can see it from all of the appointments around him.

AM: His political base is far from monolithic. We have the Christian right and the alt-right. I know that you’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying the Christian right, but what exactly is the alt-right. How would you even define this ideology? Would you say it is synonymous with neo-Nazism, like how people are saying that today?
CH: Yes, I think it has a lot of characteristics of neo-Nazism, but so does the Christian right. The Christian right, like the alt-right, is endowed with all sorts of conspiracy theories, coupled with magical thinking, coupled with an utter disdain for historical fact, and I think that what we will see is that the Christian right will fill Trump’s ideological vacuum because he doesn’t really have an ideology. He’s such a narcissist. And I think that that will be handled through Pence, so I think this in many ways will be the empowerment of Christian right, which I’ve always considered a political movement. I went to seminary. I grew up in the church. I do not consider them Christians any more than the German Christian church, which was pro-Nazi, was Christian. The German Christian church had the Nazi flag on one side and the Christian cross on the other. That’s how I look at the Christian right, and that’s why you saw 81% of evangelical voters support Trump, even though his personal life makes a mockery of the very values, the kind of family values that they say they hold sacred. So I think as we’re watching the Trump presidency, especially as it comes under attack from the establishment, both the old landed Republican and Democratic establishment, you’ll see his fortress become the ideology of the Christian right. I wrote a book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I didn’t use that word lightly. I think that they are Christianized fascists.

AM: But certainly there’s a differentiation between the Christian right and this emergence of these emboldened bigots who seem to be much more vitriolic—the alt-right, those who call themselves alt-right.

CH: No, I think the Christian right is as bigoted as the alt-right. The Christian Right is much more sophisticated because it is a network. Tens of millions of Americans are hermetically sealed within this bizarre world. With Betsy DeVos this is going to be expanded if everything goes through: $20 billion of federal money will get, in essence, handed off to religious schools, so they are sealed within their news, their religious information, their entertainment all gets colored with this Christianity. So one of things I learned when I wrote the book, which I spent two years on, was I would go to the services and they would have nice music and the chairs would be a lot more comfortable than the pews in the Presbyterian Church where I grew up. And it was kind of warm, and you would feel good, but then you would be pulled into the back rooms where you would be disciplined, and you would be assigned people. They would really break you down and sever you from your family because the next thing you know, you’re there every night of the week. I was in prayer groups where people were weeping because their children weren’t saved or their husband wasn’t saved, and that’s one of the great ironies. As they talk about family they’re the great destroyer of families. So they’re quite clever in having a kind of public face, which in many ways is even appealing, but which is very dark and cultish. I found many aspects of cults within it in terms of the way they broke people down, the kind of inability to question these white male pastors who had direct communication with God, made fabulous amounts of money off of these people’s despair, so I think that the Christian right is a far more dangerous movement than the alt-right, and I think that it has many characteristics that it shares with the alt-right in terms of its anti-Semitism, it’s homophobia, and it’s Islamophobia. I think the alt-right, because it incorporates so-called New Atheists, has its own coloring, but I think it shares many common traits with the Christian right. But I don’t think it’s as dangerous as the Christian right. I think people focus on it because it’s more visible. There is a strain of deep cruelty, savagery even, fascism and intolerance within the Christian right that is institutionalized in a way that makes it a far more dangerous movement than the alt-right.

AM: You mention that 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. I wanted to briefly talk about how evangelicals became this highly politicized force because they don’t comprise that much of the population.

CH: It’s really a kind of fascinating story. It was a conscious attempt on the part of right-wing groups to politicize Christian conservative movements because traditionally fundamentalists, for instance, and evangelicals hated each other. Fundamentalists considered evangelicals, because they spoke in tongues and stuff, Satan. There were all these divisions. Fundamentalists called on believers to remove themselves from the political process and not be contaminated by it. This was in the 1920s and 30s. And what you saw roughly around 1980 was the rise of what we call dominionism. It was propagated by Rousas Rushdoony who wrote this very turgid book I had to read based on the ten commandments. This goes back to their saying we don’t have to worry about prisons because all murderers will be put to death and women who commit adultery will be stoned. It’s really crude stuff, and that got very heavily funded. They took over seminaries like Southern Baptist, which used to be a great seminary. They used to have in the Southern Baptist Church a fusion of kinds of Christians who were conservative, in terms their personal piety, but they were very left-wing in terms of their politics, which is how my father was, actually. That’s all gone, and so there was a kind of hostile takeover. The essence was: can we create the Christian society? And that viewpoint got infused into a movement that, while it’s called the Christian right, really doesn’t bear any resemblance to what had come before in terms of evangelicalism or fundamentalism. It was a new entity. Many people call it dominionism, and that’s when it got political and it began to strive for political power, with a lot of mistakes at first. They were too heavy-handed. They were too obtuse. Remember Pat Robertson ran for president, this kind of stuff, and now they’ve got a lot more clever, and they ally, for instance, with The Federalist Society. So Liberty University has a law school. They’re producing these federalist judges, so they have quite effectively seeped into the inner workings of power, and it is an ideology that, in that sense, although they speak about tradition, is really new.

AM: And Mike Pence was told by Trump’s people that he would be running domestic policy. He will be the most powerful Christian evangelical, if I’m not mistaken, ever in political history, especially with the executive power that’s given to the presidency. Will this move us forward to what you call Christianized fascism, and if so what would that look like?

CH: Yes, that’s what I expect because this is an ethics-free administration, as we’ve seen. There’s not even a pretense about ethical rules, whether it’s with Trump or anyone else, and so you have what’s going to become a kind of naked kleptocracy, and I’m not just speaking about Trump’s family, which of course will get fabulously rich, but about all those forces that are predatory, sucking money out of the education department. They’re just going to loot the country, but they’re also inept, which is a very bad combination. As that ineptitude becomes more pronounced and more understood, they are going to have to become more ideologically rigid, and I think the only place they’re going to go is to the Christian right. So what is it going to look like? It’s going to look like a Christianized fascism. It’s going to be the fusion of the American flag with the Christian cross and the Pledge of Allegiance. We’ve already seen it. It is going to be assaults on women’s rights. It’s going to be assaults against the educational system, so we’re teaching creationism and magical thinking. It’s going to be attacks against “those forces of secular humanism that are destroying the country.” It’s going to be a kind of sanctification of law and order, and imperial adventurism turned into a kind of crusade. And I think that as society unravels they will stoke this demonization of the other: Muslims, undocumented workers, African- Americans are on the list… feminists, all the way down the list, to vent the frustration and the rage against segments of the society that are vulnerable within the context of a kind of Christianized language. That’s what I think is coming.

AM: Betsy DeVos: you mentioned her. She’s being roundly condemned for many reasons as being Trump’s appointed secretary of education, but people are under-reporting her ties to Erik Prince, her brother. He’s the famous mercenary founder of Blackwater. He’s also one of Pence’s biggest donors, and now he’s advising Trump.

CH: Right, and I had a conversation with Jeremy Scahill who wrote the great book on Blackwater4, and I had been going around the country speaking about the Christian right, and I said, “We don’t have to worry. They’re not fascists because they don’t have an armed wing,” and Jeremy said, “What do you mean? That is their armed wing.” And I realized he was right and I was wrong, and they do have, through Blackwater, essentially mercenary forces at their disposal, and any totalitarian or even authoritarian government relies heavily on vigilante violence because they’re not held accountable for it, even the excesses of the Brownshirts. People forget Hitler would denounce them because he could, but of course he was giving a green light to them, but then they would go beat up a bunch of people and there would be an outcry, and Hitler would say, “Well, they shouldn’t have done that.” These forces, will, I think, play an increasingly prominent and frightening role within American society because they’re not going to be punished. They’re not held accountable and they can carry out forms of coercion and violence and intimidation, and threats on behalf of the state, and the state will protect them, but they’re kind of immune. And that’s classic fascism.

AM: Yeah, we saw it in Israel. We see it everywhere with these kinds of militias that then become…

CH: I saw it in Yugoslavia.

AM: Yeah, but I was going to say Blackwater and what Eric Prince is doing is kind of institutionalized whereas, as far as the vigilante groups on the ground, the actual armed militias that are emboldened by people like Joe Arpaio and are taking action on their own terms at the border, those are different, right?

CH: They are, but they’ll be brought under control. Again, you can go back to the historical record. The state wants centralized control. That’s what finally did in the Brownshirts with the Night of the Long Knives. When Hitler got rid of Röhm and the SS supplanted the Brownshirts. They want control, so I think all of those groups, if we come to this, will be put within structures that may not be public structures, but will be put within structures.

AM: I think a fascinating example of how this has already happened under the Obama administration is the difference between the Standing Rock North Dakota access pipeline protesters, who are unarmed, and crushed, and then you have the Bundy Ranch Militia.

CH: There you go because imagine Bundy and all those guys were black. They’d all be dead. There’s a good example, but that’s always been true, and Richard Hofstadter wrote about that in his last book on violence.5 Throughout American history we have relied on white vigilante thugs to go after African-Americans, the Chinese labor movement. We’ve had bloody labor wars in US history. Hundreds of American workers were killed, and who killed them? Gun thugs, Pinkertons, Baldwin-Felts, mine militias raised by the Scrantons in Pennsylvania. There’s a long tradition of that, including the klan (the KKK), and so we have this kind of historical precedence for what’s coming.

AM: And as the Trump administration uses the rhetoric of alternative facts to basically shut down any dissent, what about the alternative facts being promoted from websites like Breidtbart or Infowars? Do you have any comment on the fact that Steve Bannon is now in the ear of Trump, and so is Alex Jones.

CH: Well, they’re conspiracy theorists, just like Trump, so they just reinforce his kind of loony worldview.

AM: The US isn’t the only country where we’re seeing this far right rise. Obviously, this is happening in Europe and beyond. How is what we’re witnessing here connected to elsewhere in the world?

CH: Well, it’s the result of neoliberal economics where you destroy public institutions, and, whatever you say about communism, and I was there in Eastern Europe, they had a first- class educational system which people did not pay for. Everyone had health insurance. There was full employment, and so neoliberalism went in and destroyed, in the name of the free market—which everyone confused with freedom, all of those institutions. Huge state enterprises closed, and this caused massive unemployment. I was just in Poland. Two million young Poles work as baristas in Spain or somewhere. And it created a new oligarchic class by selling off state assets. This happened, of course as well, with Russia, and people finally woke up and realized they were being had, and they were being had by that “liberal establishment” in the same way that we’ve been had by these liberal elites on the East Coast and the West Coast. And we’ve seen the rise of proto- fascist movements in Hungary and Poland. We’re seeing powerful proto-fascist movements in France and even Germany. And it all goes back to this idea that human society and human life should be ruled by the dictates of the global marketplace. It’s an insane ideology that’s never worked anywhere in human history, but until we break the back of corporate power, we’re not going to blunt the rise of these movements.

AM: Yeah, we’re in such a post-truth reality that people think that Trump is still anti- establishment because they’ve just learned to blame the state for all of their ills.

CH: That’s right, and when they figure out somehow that he isn’t, when they get what’s happening, then you will see turbocharged the hate talk and the hate crimes. That is classic fascism.

AM: Like you said, the police state was already put in place. It just takes someone like Trump to pull the lever.

CH: This was the big mistake. He has all the tools at his disposal to, with the flick of a switch, turn this into a police state. They were all given to him primarily by the Bush and the Obama administrations. We allowed whole segments of our population to be stripped of their rights. I’m talking about poor people of color and marginal communities, a court system where you know 95-94% never even get a trial, of the system of mass incarceration, the police terror where police can use indiscriminate lethal force against unarmed people. Hannah Arendt writes about this in The Origins of Totalitarianism.6 When you allow a segment of your population—she was talking about stateless persons—she herself was stateless in France—to be stripped of their rights, once rights become privileges, then should unrest spread throughout the society, you have both a legal and physical mechanism to impose. They’re already in place to impose on everyone else, and that’s what we’re seeing: that what poor people of color have been enduring in these mini police states is just instantly expanded once the rest of the population is no longer passive.

AM: You talk about how the biggest way to fight Trump, the Christian right and the alt-right is to revolt. Mass resistance. What does that look like? What does that mean? And why is the Democratic Party not the vehicle for the resistance?

CH: Because the Democratic Party is not going to confront the underlying ideological system of neoliberalism or corporate power, which has created the mess that we now live in. Instead of we, and the opposition, dealing directly with the ravages of neoliberalism and what it’s done, you have a Democratic Party that blames the election result on Putin or on FBI director James Comey. This is ridiculous, and it is a way to be as demagogic as Trump, and a way to present alternative facts of your own, and that’s very dangerous because if we don’t have significant segments of the society that deal with the ideology, the utopian ideology of neoliberalism that has led us to this mess, and continues to offer up these alternative facts, then, in essence, they’re going to collude with Trump to create a form of American fascism, and they will be in many ways as responsible. If we don’t go after those corporate forces through acts of civil disobedience, such as at Standing Rock, we don’t have any other way to have our voices heard or to create resistance. Now, it’s going to be ugly under the Trump administration, and Standing Rock was ugly under Obama—rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water in sub-zero temperatures laced with pepper spray. It was ugly there, but it’s going to be even uglier because there just will be no holds barred at all. And in Standing Rock they brought in private security contractors who had just come from Afghanistan and Iraq, which gets back to these kinds of quasi-militias aligned with the Christian right. We’re just going to see a lot more of that. It’s going to be fierce, but there are no institutions left that are authentically democratic, that are going to challenge the centrifugal forces that have brought us to where we are. That’s only going to be done in the streets.


FOLLOW // @EmpireFiles & @AbbyMartin


President Correa on Fighting Poverty & Foreign Domination in Ecuador

After 10 years and three terms, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa’s time in office has ended. Under his administration Ecuador made far-reaching economic and social gains, despite having inherited a country on the brink of collapse.

In one of his last interviews before leaving office, Abby Martin talks to him about his legacy, his critics, and the struggle ahead for Ecuador and beyond.

From commenting on Trump and the global crisis of inequality, to addressing CIA plots and opposition in his own country, hear Correa’s last words as President to the people of Latin America and the United States.


President Correa on His Legacy & Critics


FOLLOW // @EmpireFiles & @AbbyMartin


Stephen Cohen: US-Russia Relations in “Most Dangerous Moment”

While many in power recklessly escalate tensions with Russia, there’s very little discussion of the geopolitical significance of this aggression and the dangerous consequences people could suffer as a result.

The establishment’s anti-Russian sentiment goes beyond allegations of election hacking, with leading US intelligence officials labeling Russia as the number-one existential threat to the United States. One of the foremost experts on US-Russia relations is sounding the alarm, that the potential for nuclear confrontation is greater than ever before, fueled with virtually no debate by the mass media.

Dr. Stephen Cohen is one of the leading scholars on Russia. He is professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University, and is the author of many books on the subject, including Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: from Stalinism to the New Cold War, and the forthcoming book Why Cold War Again? How America Lost Post-Soviet Russia.


Dr. Stephen Cohen: US-Russia Relations in Most Dangerous Moment


ABBY MARTIN: The Department of Defense has just declared Russia is the number-one existential threat facing this country. Professor, it seems so interesting that we just came from a war on terror to now a war on Russia, despite the rise of Isis.

STEPHEN COHEN: Right, well they didn’t just do this. I mean this business that Russia is the number-one existential threat has been unfolding—this drama, this false drama—at the expense of our national security maybe for a decade, but it certainly intensified under the Obama administration because you had the American commander of NATO, the joint chiefs of staff here all saying “number-one existential threat.” Meanwhile Russia was, of course, in the person of Putin, repeatedly almost begging the United States to join it in an alliance against terrorism, not only in Syria but in a kind of global… I don’t know if a global war against terrorism is possible. That’s a separate issue. Russia wanted to partner with the United States. Obama was inclined very briefly in September 2016, but that was killed by our Department of Defense when they attacked those Syrian troops, and so Russia has been made the number-one existential threat. …Certainly, it’s not even on the list of the top five or ten, in my judgment, of what really threatens us, [and it] has become linked inextricably with his wild demonization of Putin personally because it’s the demonization of Putin as a man who assassinates his enemies, who invades countries… [and now] only in 2017 we’re being told that his alleged hacking of the American election was only part of his plan to destroy democracies around the world. And now he’s going for Europe. I mean it has really become right up there with the former Soviet threat, but now it’s personified in Putin. It’s this loathing for, or demonizing, or vilifying of Putin as a leader, as a person which shades occasionally into russophobia, transferring this, but not that often, into vilification of Russia. I think that’s really behind this notion that this is our number-one threat. And by the way it’s not only to the United States. They’re now talking about the 2017 elections in Europe, and Putin will probably hack those too [allegedly]. I mean it’s just… there’s no facts or logic to any of this. It has taken on a life of its own, so we’ve got senate hearings and Obama’s threatened some covert action against Russia, which is very dangerous because the Kremlin regards this is a declaration of war. We don’t know whether he is he going to attack banks or nuclear command and control. You just don’t do things like this when both sides have got bad nerves and nuclear weapons.

AM: But the military intelligence community certainly understands. Why this deflection, why this misdirection in this potentially dangerous tinderbox?

SC:  I’ve been around long enough to observe, and I’ve had enough former students go to work for intelligence communities, and I can remember what happened involving the intelligence communities regarding the Bay of Pigs when Kennedy was so angry at the bad information they gave him. He said he’d like to break them up. I can remember the bogus information they gave Johnson about the so-called Tonkin resolution which dragged us deeper into Vietnam. I can remember the Iran-gate scandal which the CIA was behind under Reagan. We all mentioned the bad information intelligence gave about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. There’s a long history of wrong intelligence, so let’s deconstruct that. It’s politicized intelligence, so there is no, so far as I know, no “the” intelligence community. There’s not even “the” CIA. There are groups with different political impulses, different vested interests in these organizations, and often they’ve been at war among themselves within, say, the CIA. We know this. It’s a fact. I think we’re seeing that now with the hacking allegations, and in all likelihood, later we will discover this was a war within the CIA itself. I mean the FBI tried not to get involved. It said “we don’t know” but it got dragged in. So now your question. What do they really know? I know, as close as I can say for a fact–and since we don’t seem to do facts in America anymore when it comes to Russia, we should be careful–that there are very different views about Washington’s policy toward Russia inside the intelligence community. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but to me this may be the single most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations. The Cuban Missile Crisis is always said to have been the turning point in our awareness of how dangerous the Cold War was, and that after we avoided nuclear Armageddon over Khrushchev having put missiles, or at least the silos, in Cuba, and then backed down in light of Kennedy’s leadership, that both sides became wise and the Cold War continued, but there was a code of conduct. Everybody understood where the danger lines were, and that never again did we advertently, at least, [create a crisis]. There were some near misses, accidentally, when radars indicated a nuclear attack when there was none. It was a large seagull or something. We were all are at the mercy of this technology. That was true, though, until Gorbachev and Reagan thought they had ended—thought they had ended–the Cold War. There was a code of conduct between the Soviet Union and the United States. That doesn’t exist today.

AM: There’s barely any communication…

SC:  It’s even worse than that. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the two sides began to develop interactive cooperation, student exchanges, scientific exchanges, hotlines, constant talks about nuclear weapons, nuclear reductions, trade agreements, cultural… All this has come to an end, along with communication, and yet against this backdrop I’ve been saying we are in a new Cold War, moving there with Russia for more than 10 years. We are certainly there today, but here’s what’s also different. There are now three fronts in the new Cold War that are fraught with the possibility of actual war. There’s the Baltic region and Poland where NATO is unwisely building up its military presence. There is, of course, Ukraine which could exploded at any moment, and, of course, there is Syria where you’ve got Russian and American aircraft and others all flying, so you’ve got a multi-front potential Cuban Missile Crisis, and meanwhile here in the United States this hysterical reaction to alleged–because there’s no proof that’s been produced–that somehow Putin put Trump in the White House. This combination of demented public discourse and grave danger abroad puts us in a danger that’s at least comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and yet nobody protests. Nobody notices, and people march on.

AM: You’ve compared it to the Cuban Missile Crisis saying then we at least knew what was happening. Here this is all based on classified intelligence. We’ll never have an investigation. We will never see the evidence, and 52% of Democratic voters don’t just believe that Russia hacked the DNC and Podesta’s emails. They think that Russia actually altered the vote, and that’s a whole other level.

SC: Times have changed. When I entered public life, such as it was, as a kind of commentator on public affairs as a young professor at Princeton, there was a debate in the late 70s and even in the 80s after Gorbachev came to power. Should we pursue more Cold War with Russia, or should we have what’s called detente? Nobody imagined you could actually end the Cold War at that time, but detente meant introducing more elements of cooperation in the relationship so we’d be safer. There was a lot of space, political space, media space, for both sides in the 70s and 80s, and it was a fair fight. Now it’s not. It’s one hand clapping. The Cold Warriors dominate the media. Now how did that happen? The journalism schools, who are supposed to say something about media malpractice, seem silent. They’re too busy deploring RT [Russia Today].

AM: That’s why it’s so scary because you look… People can mock RT and state media, but when you have a corporate media apparatus that essentially mimics what state media would do, where The New York Times and The Washington Post just paint the narrative for war time and again, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Russia, it seems like this acquiescence and unquestioning stenography… You’ve said these false narratives that dominate the discourse today are more dangerous, of course, than the so-called fake news hysteria. One is that Putin is responsible for the build-up of the new Cold War. One senior military official recently admitted that there are US special operations forces in every single country surrounding Russia. The build-up of NATO forces, of course, at Russia’s border is a huge source of tension. Professor, tell us about the agreement between Gorbachev and Reagan, what NATO was initially supposed to be, and how that promise has been broken today.

SC: The history is well-known. The issue in 1990 was whether or not Germany would be reunited, but the issue became then [this]: once Germany is reunited, where does it sit geopolitically, strategically? And it was proposed to Gorbachev that Germany be put in NATO. England and France, which feared Germany, thought this wasn’t a bad idea because they could keep control and stop Germany’s military aspirations from arising, but for Gorbachev it was really a hard sell at home. After all, 27.5 million, as best we know, Soviet citizens died in the war. For Gorbachev this was a hard sell at home. Then the issue became NATO itself, which already was in West Germany. Where would it go? And Baker was later quoted as having promised–he was secretary of state–that NATO would not move one-inch east. George Kennan, whom I knew well when I was at Princeton, and once was thought to be the wisest American about Russia (I’m not sure he was), but he was thought to be an iconic figure. He warned repeatedly when Clinton was considering NATO expansion that this would be the most grievous mistake, and it would lead to a new Cold War, but it didn’t take a profound mind to understand this.

NATO was a military alliance that had been created in the late 40s to deter or fight Soviet Russia. Russia was no longer Soviet but was still Russia. When you begin to move it slowly, creep like pac-man gobbling all the way to Russia’s border where it sits now, worse trouble is going to ensue, and the way it ramified of course is it was the driving force behind the Georgian war of 2008. We created a proxy army in Georgia. People say it [NATO] had nothing to do with the Ukrainian crisis, but it had everything to do with it. People say, well, the European Union offered Ukraine a very benign economic relationship. That wasn’t a benign agreement. It was about a thousand pages long, and I reported this in one of my first articles on the crisis, and everybody got very angry at me. There’s a section called “military security issues” and it’s very clear that any country that signs the so-called Eastern Partnership Agreement with the EU is obliged to adhere to NATO security policies. By signing that you become a de facto member of NATO, and this was just more of the attempt by Washington to get Ukraine in NATO, if not openly, through the back door, and they’re still at it. So what can we say? That the decision to expand NATO all the way, including Ukraine and Georgia, has created a situation in which none of us is safe, and they call that national security?

AM: Professor, I wanted to talk briefly about Syria because, of course, the US has been screaming about Russia’s intervention in Syria, not really speaking much about their long-standing intervention as well with the funding and arming of Islamic extremists on the ground. Objectively, what has Russia’s interference been like? Why did they intervene? What was their purpose, and what has the outcome been?

SC: Let’s start with the outcome: the fall of Aleppo. There are two narratives, probably a third, but there are two competing around the world–that the Russian-Syrian-Iranian taking of Aleppo was an act of great liberation. The city was liberated from terrorists and there’s plenty of footage (though footage can be faked) of people rejoicing when the Syrian army entered on the ground and the Russians sent in the humanitarian trucks. The other is it was a war crime committed by Russia and Syria against people called rebels and their kids. I believe (though I know why we call war hell–that the innocent suffer above all) that the truth is closer to the liberation scenario than to the war crime scenario. Isis retook Palmyra, the city that the Russians had liberated–had held concerts in months before–clearly abetted by the United States which is allowing, as the United States seeks to “liberate Mosul.” The US allows the jihadists to go from Iraq unfettered into Syria, probably to help retain Palmyra.

AM: They held that back door open.

SC: Right, I mean they see them. They could bomb if they wanted to, but they’re “moderate jihadists,” I guess, but why did Russia go in? I think that really is the best question, in some ways, we could discuss today because left out of all the scenarios demonizing Russia, you get the opinion, because it’s left with you, that Russia has no legitimate national interests abroad. Russia should be OK with NATO military bases in several places, from Ukraine up to the Baltics, right on its border. You know, “we’re good guys, why would you care?” You can do the usual analogy. What if it was a Chinese or Russian base in Canada or Mexico? This is just preposterous. We don’t ask. Syria seems remote, but it isn’t. Russia has a very serious problem with domestic terrorism at home in the Caucasus. It has had it for a long time. Somebody did the numbers. I can’t vouchsafe for them, but the number of people lost to terrorism on 9-11 here and in other terrorist acts involving Americans, and those lost to terrorism inside Russia are about the same—somewhere approaching 4,000, but Russia’s number continues to grow because it has this terrorism. Putin was very clear from the beginning, but the number-one reason for sending the Russian air force to fight in Syria Putin put like this: “It’s either Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus, and if the Islamic State is in Damascus, our national security is gravely threatened.” For Putin, and not just Putin, but the Russian security elite, the fall of Damascus to the Islamic State would have been a national security disaster as they saw it. They counted on the American promise for two years that they were going to destroy the Islamic State and they said, “Good. Let Americans do it. We don’t need this.” What happened during those two years?

AM: The Islamic State grew…

SC: …took more and more territory in Syria, leave aside Iraq, until we had something new we had never had before: we had a terrorist organization that actually had become a state. They were running it in their own way, while they weren’t chopping off heads. They had municipal government, they were collecting taxes, issuing currency, running schools, and the rest. We had never had this kind of phenomenon before, and the Russians were deeply worried, and the Americans said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it,” but they didn’t. They were too busy trying to get rid of Assad, so when people say Putin’s a liar–we see this almost every day in The New York Times–they have to add that he didn’t go to Syria to fight terrorism. He went “to bolster Assad.” You have to connect the dots. In Putin’s mind, bolstering Assad, which meant what was left of the Syrian state, and the Syrian army, was essential to stopping Isis or the Islamic State. You couldn’t separate the two. Not only was Putin candid about this but he came to the UN a couple years ago and in his speech said this is what we’re confronting. Join us. Russia’s never said, “Assad forever in Damascus.” That’s the so-called political process, but the Obama White House sent our Secretary of State Kerry forth to negotiate this with Lavrov, and he seems to have constantly, repeatedly, or at least once, reached an agreement for this alliance [but it] was sabotaged in Washington. It was more important for the forces in Washington to be rid of Assad or to prevent Putin from any kind of “victory” than it was to fight this terrorism in Syria, but you could go on. I mean is there any major issue that we say we care about? Climate change, energy reserves, trafficking in women, trafficking in drugs–anything where Russia is not either complicit enough to help out or central enough to help out? There is nothing that can be solved of this magnitude without Russia, so the gravest danger today is not ending this American-fostered new Cold War and turning Russia even more into an opponent of our mutual interest. That’s the gravest danger. The other grave danger, of course, is that no sensible person should trust the so-called nuclear safeguards. We’re on the razor’s edge of accidental nuclear war launch. Weapons on both sides are still on high alert. High alert means that the leader of the other country has somewhere between 13 and 25 minutes to know whether that’s a large seagull coming in or a nuclear weapon, and to retaliate because the whole system is based on “you won’t attack me because I’ll attack you [if you do].” Russia could be an immense threat to us by our continuing to treat it the way we are, but you could turn this around in important ways very, very quickly, and of course the mainstream will resist. It will fight, but politics is about fighting, so the handful of us, or maybe there are more, who think we have to do this for our own security, will have to fight.