Wanted!: Empire. Dead or Alive

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By Jodi A. Byrd and Manu Vimalassery

When President Obama stepped from the Oval Office into a live broadcast to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden this past May 1, by “beltway” estimates of American political conversation he had reached an important way-station in his presidency and launched his re-election campaign.  With this move, Pres. Obama considerably silenced perennial Republican muttering about effeminate Democratic foreign policy, with an assassination plan touted as “surgical,” offering a by-now familiar version of liberal Democratic machismo.  No less, his announcement slightly muted, for a moment, the racist backlash and anxiety about his presidency as a “Manchurian candidacy” anchored in a Black, African, or Islamist worldview fundamentally at odds with the alignments of power in the contemporary U.S. (an image which, in mirror-form, a sprinkling of the President’s stalwart “progressive” supporters continues to maintain).

Against the perception of bin Laden’s killing as a historical event of prime magnitude, one that sutured some of the felt grievances left raw and festering in American society since 9/11, a closer look at the details of the assassination reveals fundamental continuities.  For, just as 9/11, and its aftermath, occurred in a long historical trajectory, and not in a vacuum of social time, the killing of bin Laden, in its rhetoric and mechanics, brings to mind earlier operations in the U.S.  Amidst the ghoulish celebrations in the streets, public conversation over bin Laden’s killing largely missed such continuities, or the missed opportunities to capture bin Laden and pursue a case in domestic or international courts.  In fact, the U.S. quietly dropped all charges against bin Laden on June 17th, amidst a Friday afternoon news vacuum, to little discussion in the press or commentariat.

One space in which bin Laden’s killing did generate considerable conversation about historical continuities was among American Indian nations, political organizations, and critics.  As news about the operation against bin Laden came to light, the words “Geronimo- E KIA [Enemy Killed in Action]” were broadcast as part of the larger story, words that garnered strong responses from Indian Country.  Who was being referred to as Geronimo, why, and who made this choice?  Geronimo was a Chiricahua Apache war leader, and continues to be one of the best-known historical examples of armed struggle against U.S. expansion and settlement on American Indian lands, in his case, fighting against the establishment of Arizona and New Mexico territories, and the power of Mexican and Texan authorities, over his community’s homelands, from the 1850’s through the 1880’s.  After his 1886 surrender to the U.S., he was held as a prisoner for the remainder of his life, and was buried in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where his community was relocated, held at large, as prisoners.  Rumors abound that members of the Yale secret society Skull and Bones, including Prescott Bush, raided Geronimo’s grave and stole his skull.

In a letter to President Obama, Jeff Houser, chair of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, of which Geronimo was a member, wrote, “…to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our Tribe and to all native Americans.”  Before asking the president for a formal apology, Houser continued, “What this action has done is forever link the name and memory of Geronimo to one of the most despicable enemies this Country has ever had. This fact is even more appalling when examined in light of the United States House of Representatives February 2009 Resolution that honored Geronimo for ‘his extraordinary bravery, and his commitment to the defense of his homeland, his people, and Apache ways of life.’ Now a little over two years later your Administration has further immortalized his existence by linking him to the most hated person in recent American history.”  The Fort Sill Apache Tribe was joined by other nations and tribes, groups like the National Congress of American Indians, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Native American Journalists Association, and descendants of Geronimo, in calls for an apology.  Intellectuals and activists also took note.  On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and in the Wall Street Journal, Debbie Reese (an assistant professor in American Indian Studies at UIUC), paid attention to representations of Apaches as savages in U.S. children’s literature, and to the impacts of these representations on Native children.

Though the news cycle has moved on, it may be useful to reflect on this moment a bit more, as a way to understand the directions at stake in U.S. power, specifically U.S. imperialism, both in its impacts on Native lives and communities, and elsewhere in the world.  This “epochal moment” resonates in spaces such as the United Nations, in contemporary politics taking place over historical Apache homelands, in moments of passing on and transition in Black radical politics and culture, and in environmental policy.  The codename slip-up makes clear that bin Laden may be dead, but imperialism as a way of life continues to animate the U.S.


[1491s poem?]


On December 10, 2010, the Obama Administration announced that it would add its support to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, making it the last member nation of the United Nations to accede, after the conservative government in Canada, the other holdout, announced its own support in March, 2010.  On the face of it, the announcement heralds a change in a positive direction for both North American governments, as they fall into line with the rest of the world’s nation-states’ willingness to recognize rights for indigenous nations living within their borders.  The Declaration, however, is strictly advisory, and contains no binding enforcement mechanisms.  Read in line with other major developments at the UN, including the US announcement that it will boycott the next UN Conference on Racism, and US moves against Palestinian attempts to gain recognition as a member nation within the UN framework, the picture that begins to emerge is one of underlying continuity with longstanding U.S. international policy.  Work on the Declaration began in 1982.  Having held out so long, the U.S. may have inadvertently contributed to what may ultimately be the most powerful impact of the Declaration:  decades of debate and organizing among indigenous peoples around the world, especially around defining indigeneity and indigenous politics, which have proven central to the development of a global indigenous politics, one which has the potential to redefine the concept of “nation” away from the nation-state framework underlying the United Nations.

Geronimo and his fellow Chiricahuas, fought the establishment of Arizona and New Mexico territories over the space of their own homelands.  Drawing upon a centuries-long history of resistance against, and strategic collaboration with, Spanish imperialists and Mexican settlers, and other Apaches, Comanches, and Pueblan communities, for Chiricahuas, the imposition of U.S. power over their lives was an episode in a much longer history.  Not so, from the perspective of the U.S.  With their detailed knowledge and ability to fight along both sides of an international border that they did not recognize, but used to their own military and economic advantage, Chiricahua war groups, though small in number, drew a massive institutional response from both the U.S. and Mexican militaries.  Upon his surrender, Geronimo, and his fellow fighters, were exiled to coastal Florida, where a small group of the men were held at a prison in Pensacola.  Their families, alongside relatives who were living on the Warm Springs Reservation during the fighting, who did not participate in military resistance against the U.S., were held at Fort Marion, near St. Augustine, in over-crowded conditions with poor sanitation, for over a year.  Many of the elders in the community, and most of the infants born in captivity, died during their time there, and tuberculosis ravaged the survivors.  Many of the adult men held in Fort Marion had actually served in the U.S. Army as scouts, on previous campaigns against Indian communities.  On learning of plans for their release, spurred by indignation from humanitarians, but perhaps even more so, by rising costs, the territorial governor of Arizona wrote indignantly to the President, “Arizona has rendered her holocaust to this humanization sentiment.”

An invocation of Geronimo’s name, in this day, turns our attention to what has happened on the lands he and his community fought to control.  Arizona is now at the forefront of a state-level backlash against undocumented immigrants, and home of white supremacist vigilante groups, fueled by paranoid visions of a “reconquista” of the area by brown people from the South.  Echoing reports of Chiricahua savagery in battle, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer repeated lies about beheadings along the Arizona border during her reelection campaign.  Meanwhile, on the federal level, the Obama Administration has pushed immigrant deportation to record levels, with the majority of deportees non-criminals.  The “Secure Communities” program of his administration has involved local police in immigration enforcement and surveillance efforts.  The states of Illinois, Massachusetts, and Illinois have opted out of this program, with more considering this move.

On June 2, Geronimo Ji Jaga, a leading member of the Black Panther Party, passed away.  He was a target of federal counterintelligence, and served 27 years in prison on a false murder charge, a charge which federal courts eventually vacated.  Imagine, for a moment, the words “Geronimo- E KIA” telegraphed on his obituary.  Ji Jaga, who eventually left the U.S. for Tanzania, as a Black nationalist, Ji Jaga’s politics was oriented against the maintenance and reproduction of the U.S. social order.  Geronimo Ji Jaga’s moment was one of revolutionary possibility.  We might reflect on his life and legacy, and the vast gulf between that revolutionary possibility, and the realignments of imperial power marked by the ascension of the Obama Administration, as it begins to roll out its 2012 campaign season.  This might also be a moment for us to remember pushback again invocations of the Bronx as “Fort Apache,” the use of the Incredible Bongo Band’s song “Apache,” and early rappers, like Cochise, taking on names of Apache and other American Indian resistance leaders, in the early years of hip hop culture.  At this point in time, when a type of hip hop provides the baseline for contemporary marketing, amidst the accelerating commodification of space, daily life, and bodies, in contemporary New York City, hip hop’s birthplace, we might remember earlier invocations of solidarity and critique, which, even with their appropriative dimensions, open possibilities of different vantage points on continued imperialism, than the ones evoked by the recent branding of Osama bin Laden as Geronimo.



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