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2003-11-19

From the Persian Gulf to the Invasion – Poet, Activist, Essayist and Teacher June Jordan Speaks About the U.S. and Iraq in 1991

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We hear poems and a speech about the Persian Gulf war by renowned poet, activist, essayist and teacher June Jordan speaking at Poets and Politicians Against the War in 1991 — she may as well have been speaking today [Includes transcript]

We turn now to the words of renowned poet, activist, essayist and teacher June Jordan. June Jordan is the most published African-American writer in history. She burst onto the literary and political scene in the late 1960s, on the wings of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Poetry for her was a political act, and she used it to shine a fierce light on racism, sexism, homophobia, apartheid, poverty, and US foreign policy. Author Toni Morrison once summed up her career as: "Forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art." She died of breast cancer a year and a half ago. She was 65 years old.

  • June Jordan, speaking at "Poets and Politicians Against the War" in 1991.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

[tape]

JUNE JORDAN: Take them out. Rainforests of he world only provide extra oxygen for everybody including some you don’t like, anyhow. Rainforests of he world provide x amount of refuge for x-amount of creatures, most of which you have only seen in the movies. Take them out from Alaska to Brazil, you want to keep that kind of uncontrolled diversity in stock?

Intifada. Detention in concentration camps we trade stories, we take turns sharing a straw mat or a pencil. We watch what crawls in and out of the sand. A salaam aleikum. The guards do not allow the blue woolen blanket my family traveled far to bring to this corpuscular angelic cell where my still breathing infant son and I defy the purgatory implications of the state-created hell. A salaam. The village trembles from the heavy tanks that try to terrify the children. Every day my little brother runs behind the rubble, practicing the tactics of the stones against the rock. In January, soldiers broke his fingers one by one. Time has healed his hands, but not the fury that controls what used to be his heart.

Inshallah.

Close villages, close the clinics, close the school, close the house, close the windows of the house, kill the vegetables languishing under the sun, kill the milk of the cows left to the swelling of pain, cut the electricity, cut the telephones, confine the people to the people. Do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Fig trees will grow and oranges erupt from desert holdings on which plastic bullets, 70% zinc, 20% glass and 10% plastic will prove blood soluble and fertilize the earth where sheep will graze and women no longer grieve and beat their breasts, they will be beat, clean, fine woven rugs outside of a house smelling of cinnamon and nutmeg, so says Imam, the Teacher, the future of peace, the shepherd on the mountain of the lamb, the teacher of peace who will subdue the howling of the lion, so that we may kneel as we must, five times beginning just after dawn, and ending just before dusk in Ibana of prayer. Allah, uh achbar, Allah, uh achbar, Allah, uh achbar.

JUNE JORDAN: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this killer crusade, this conversion of a stranger’s land into a killing field, this reduction of a people to a video display. This homicidal rhetoric that history does not support, that our common destiny is certain to condemn. This war has not saved one human being. This war has not saved a single American life. This war has not saved a single Israeli life. This a war has not saved a single Iraqi life. This war has not rescued the lives of Kuwait. This grand undertaking, this enormous, this infinitely casual overkill, this draining of our hearts, this annihilation of all tenderness, this erasure of every reason, every rational and civilized approach to dispute. This arched and leering assault upon all peaceable possibilities, this blasphemy unleashed against our shrunken trembling earth, that has become in the hellified lexicon of the killers ruling us, a target rich environment. This war has not saved one human being from terror or from unspeakable agonies of extinction. Then, why do we permit this blasphemy to persist, expand, and explode our body politic as well as the entire middle east? I grieve the sorrow roar, the sorrow sob. I grieve the monstrous consequences of this war.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to June Jordan.

JUNE JORDAN: This is the column that I wrote on the night there was, among other things, the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was last Thursday. On a recent cold Sunday morning in Kennebunkport, Maine, George Bush and his wife, Barbara, apparently seated themselves inside a small country church of God to think about what? Alma Powell, wife of the Joint Chief of commanders of the armed forces reports that she likes to keep comforting foods like vegetable soup ready on top of the stove for Colin, her certainly hard-working husband. Alma adds that these days she knows that her Colin doesn’t want to hear little stories about the children, just the soup, ma’am.

Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, second only to his boss in blood thirst for arms length armchair warfare has never served half an hour even in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines. I know, it’s not right to pick on him just for that. Last Saturday, at a local anti-war rally, organized by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, I noted aloud that the war to date was costing us $56 billion every 24 hours a, the cost is $1 billion at least. I therefore, proposed the following to the crowd scattered on the grass and under the trees. $1 billion a day for seven days for Oakland. Can you imagine that? $1 billion a day, but to hell with the imagination. This is our city. This is our money, these are our lives. $1 billion a day for seven days for Oakland. Or do we accept that that there is only the will and the wallet when it’s about kill or be killed? Do we need this money, or not? Do we need it here? Do we need it now? And so on. When I left the stage, a reporter came up to me. "You meant $1 million, didn’t you?" "No", I answered him amazed. "$1 billion. $1 billion a day for seven days for Oakland. That’s the bill. That’s our bill for housing and drug rehabilitation and books in the public schools and hospital care and all of that good stuff."

$1 billion a day. It’s a modest proposal. In less than three months, those maniacs in the White House and the Pentagon have spent $56 billion in my name, and with my taxes trying to obliterate Iraq and its people and their leaders. I’m saying call home the troops and the bucks. We need these big bucks to make this a homeland, not a desert right here for the troops and for you and for me. What’s the problem? It’s a bargain. $7 billion of a serious improvement of American life in Oakland versus $56 billion for death and destruction inside Iraq? What’s the problem? But the reporter was giving me a weak smile of farewell that let me understand he found my proposal preposterous. $1 million for life okay. Billions for kill, or be killed okay. But really big bucks on us, the people of these United States? $1 billion a day to promote, for example, the safety and educational attainment and communal happiness of 339,000 Americans? I must be kidding. As I walked away from the park, I felt a heavy depression overtaking me. The reporter, a tall, white man with clear eyes could not contemplate the transfer of his and my aggregate resources from death to life as a reasonable idea. Worse, he could not suppose his and my life to be worth anything close to the value of organized high-tech and boastful murder. But then, other people stopped me to ask how can we do that? Do we write letters or what?

So, as I write this column tonight, I am reassured because not every American has lost her mind or his soul. Not every one of my compatriots who become a plaid-wrapped lunatic, lusting after oil and power, the perversions of kicking ass, preferably via TV. A huge number of Americans has joined with enormous numbers of Arab peoples and European communities in Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain and Muslim communities throughout India and Pakistan to cry out "stop"! When I say huge, I mean it. If 1,000 Americans contacted by some pollster can be said to represent 250 million people, then how many multi, multimillions do we anti-war movement gatherings of more than 100,000 coast to coast and on every continent, how many do we represent? How come nobody ever does that kind of political math? Tonight, February 2, 1991, when yet again, the ruling white men of America despise peace and sneer at negotiations and intensify their arms length arm-chair prosecution of this evil war, this display of racist value system that will never allow for any nationalism that is not their own and that will never allow third world countries to control their own natural resources and that will never ever express let alone feel regret or remorse or shame or horror at the loss of any human life that is not white. Tonight, I am particularly proud to be an African-American. By launching the heaviest air assault in history against Iraq on January 15, George Bush dared to desecrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

Tonight, and 83,000 bombing missions later is the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. On this sorry evening, the world has seen the pathological real deal behind the sanctimonious rhetoric of Bush & Company. The Persian Gulf War is not about Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The war is not about Kuwait at all. Clearly, it’s not about international law or respect or United Nations resolutions since by comparison to Washington and Pretoria, the Butcher of Baghdad is a minor league Johnny come-lately to the realm of outlaw conduct and contempt for world opinion. What has happened tonight is that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and the government of Iraq have reached an agreement whereby Iraq will withdraw from Kuwait, and that is a fact regardless of anything else included or omitted by the proposal. This agreement should provide for immediate ceasefire, a cessation to the slaughter of Iraqi men and women, and a halt to the demolition nationwide of their water supply, the access to food and security. What is the response of the number one white man in America? He’s gone off to the theater. I guess that means that the nearest church was closed. Or that Colin Powell was busy dipping his spoon into the comfort of a pot of soup somebody else cooked for him. And that Dick Cheney was fit to be tied into any uniform so long has nobody would take away his Patriot missiles and Apache helicopters, and B52 cluster bombers, and black and brown and poor white soldiers and sailors and all of the rest of these toys for a truly big-time coward. Confronted with the nightmare prospect of peace, Bush goes off to the theater because he will be damned if he will acknowledge that Saddam Hussein is a man, is the head of a sovereign state, is an enemy to be reckoned with, an opponent with whom one must negotiate. Saddam is not a white man. He and his Arab peoples must be destroyed. No peace, no cease-fire, no negotiations. And I am proud tonight to remember Dr King and Malcolm X and to mourn their actions even as I pursue the difficult challenge of their legacy. Both of these men became the targets of white wrath when they in their different ways developed into global visionaries persisting against racism in Alabama, in Harlem, in South African, in Vietnam. Neither of these men could have failed to condemn this current attack against the Arab world. Neither of these men ever condoned anything less than equal justice and equal rights.

Hence, the undeniably racist double standards now levied against Saddam Hussein would have appalled and alienated both of them completely. I am proud to shake hands with the increasing number of African-American conscientious objectors. I am proud to remark the steadfast moral certainty of the United States Congressman Ronald Dylan’s opposition to the war. I am proud to hear about the conscientious objections of Congressman Gus Savage, and John Conyers and Mervin as I am proud to observe that even while African-Americans remain disproportionately represented in the United States armed forces, we as a national community stand distinct, despite and apart from all vagaries of popular opinion. We maintain a proportionately higher level of opposition to this horrible war, this horrendous evasion of domestic degeneration and decay.

I want to say something else specific you to, Mr President. It’s true you can humiliate and you can hound and you can smash and burn and terrify and smirk and boast, and defame, and demonize and dismiss and incinerate and starve, and yes, you can force somebody — force a people to surrender what happens, what happens to remain of their bloody boweled into your grasping, bony, dry hands — but all of us who are weak, we watch you. And we learn from your hatred, and we do not forget. And we are ready, Mr. President. We are most of the people on this god-forsaken planet.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the late June Jordan speaking in 1991. No, not about the invasion of Iraq but during the Persian Gulf War, "Poets and Politicians Against the War." You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.

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