Juan Mendez, the United Nation’s Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice. From Argentina, Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas.
We spend the hour with the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte. He joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about why he recently called President Bush "the world’s greatest terrorist;" racism and Hurricane Katrina; Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and wars of imperialism and resistance.
The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York and began a successful acting and singing career. Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Belafonte became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was close friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King. In the 1980’s he helped initiate the "We Are the World" single which helped raise millions of dollars in aid to Africa. He also hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States. Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global oppression. [includes rush transcript]
Today we are joined by the legendary musician, actor and humanitarian, Harry Belafonte.
The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. At the age of 17, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York and began a successful acting and singing career. In the 1950s he spearheaded the Calypso craze with a string of hits. He is perhaps best known for singing the "Banana Boat Song," with its signature lyric "Day-O." His third album, titled "Calypso", became the first in history to sell over one million copies. He was also the first African-American to win an Emmy, with his solo TV special "Tonight with Belafonte."
Along with his rise to worldwide stardom, Harry Belafonte became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the two quickly became friends.
He sent money to bail King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, and supported voter-registration drives and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
In the 1980"s he helped initiate the star-studded "We Are the World" single, which raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia, calling global attention to the humanitarian crises in Africa.
A longtime anti-apartheid activist, Belafonte hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global oppression. Earlier this month, he led a delegation of activists, including actor Danny Glover and professor Cornel West, to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez. Belafonte spoke at a rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.
- Harry Belafonte, speaking in Venezuela, January 2006.
Belfonte was standing next to Chavez when he made those comments. And he didn’t let up. Belafonte also recently spoke in commemoration of Martin Lurther King Day at Duke University where he said, "Bush has led us into a dishonorable war that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people...What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?" And in a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference days later he said, "We’ve come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended."
Harry Belafonte joins us in our firehouse studio today for the hour.
- Harry Belafonte, musician, actor and activist.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Belafonte spoke at rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.
HARRY BELAFONTE: No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people — millions — support your revolution, support your ideas, and yes, expressing our solidarity with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte was standing next to President Chavez when he made those comments, and he didn’t let up. When he came back to this country, he spoke in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Duke University, where Belafonte said, quote, "Bush has led us into a dishonorable war that’s caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people. What’s the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?" In a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference days later, he said, quote, "We’ve come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended." Harry Belafonte joins us today in our Firehouse studio for the hour. Welcome to Democracy Now!
HARRY BELAFONTE: It’s nice to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, let’s go back for a moment to Venezuela and your comments there, for which you got a lot of attention in the United States. Talk about your views of President Bush.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When Katrina took place, there was a great sense of tragic loss for many Americans who saw that terrible tragedy. What we had not anticipated was that our government would have been so negligent and so unresponsive to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. And in a dilemma that we all face as to what we could do as private citizens to help the folks that were caught in that tragedy, we began to listen to voices that were outside the boundaries of government, the United States government. We listened to voices that came from as far away as Denmark, who offered to send goods and services in emergency, and we also heard the voices of people from Venezuela through their leader, Hugo Chavez, who said that ’In this moment of your great tragedy, we, the Venezuelan people, extend all the resources we can summon up to help the plight of those people caught in the Gulf region.
The United States very abruptly and very arrogantly rejected that offer, while in its stead, we did nothing to bring immediate relief. And as a matter of fact, I must tell you, we’re still quite delinquent in what the peoples of that region need, because we still failed to fully mobilize and meet the needs of the people, particularly in New Orleans, but other places within that region.
I and many other private citizens decided that we would listen very carefully to what people outside of the government were saying, because there was no immediate sense of relief and response to what we were experiencing, the people in Katrina. And so, like others, I went with a delegation of 15 people, at the invitation of the Venezuelan government, to come and to meet with President Chavez and members of his cabinet to talk about what we could do to help American people caught in this tragedy.
While there, we were given the right and the permission and the opportunity to visit barrios, villages, going into the schools, going into the prisons of Venezuela. We went into the academic institutions, in which Cornel West spoke. Tavis Smiley went to TeleSUR and other television communications development taking place, to examine, to see what was happening to, quote-unquote, "freedom of the press." As we’ve said, freedom of the press in Venezuela is vigorously denied. There is no opposition noise. Yet it’s interesting to note that nothing in Venezuela has been nationalized. There’s still a very vigorous private sector, albeit that it’s a little disgruntled that it is not able to sustain the rather one-sided agreement that they drew with that government a long time ago in contracts that were drawn for oil and other resources.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you meet with the opposition, as well?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. We met with the opposition, as a matter of fact, the leader of the opposition. And for a little over two hours, we had an exchange. I asked him questions that I thought were appropriate about what he felt about Chavez and the program, why did he take an opposition position. And he expressed his thoughts on the way things were going. We found that there were some contradictions to what he said, but that was not my purpose.
I wasn’t going to be — I didn’t go down to be an investigative reporter. I went down to ascertain facts and to make sure that if we got responses from the Venezuelan government that would help the plight of poor people in America, not just those caught in Katrina, but, as you well know, already the South Bronx has received aid, oil at very favorable prices for people who were not given any to be able to face this winter that we’re experiencing now, and it is expected that will become more severe. Massachusetts received oil. They just recently negotiated with Vermont and Maine and other places, about not only oil, but what other goods and services can the Venezuelan government bring to take up the slack for what the United States says it has no resources to fill.
It is quite curious that we can find billions and billions of dollars to sustain an illegal and immoral war in the Middle East, invading a country that did not provoke us and moving into this this conflict unconstitutionally, even though it had the approval of the Congress. Even the Congress violated the statutes of the Constitution. We were not invaded. There was no threat of an enemy. We unilaterally walked into a country that had no threat to this country, and we invaded it. That’s against the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: You call President Bush a terrorist?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I call President Bush a terrorist. I call those around him terrorists, as well: Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfeld, Gonzales in the Justice Department, and certainly Cheney. I think all of these men sit — and women — sit in the midst of an enormous conspiracy that has been unraveling America for the last eight years — six years. It is tragic that the dubious way in which this president acquired power should have begun to unravel the Constitution and the peoples of this country.
Yes, I say that there are people in this country who live in terror. Poverty is terror. Having your Social Security threatened is terror. Having your livelihood as an elderly person slowly disappearing with no replenishment is terror. Students who are dropping out of school because there are no resources to keep us in school is terror. You find people in the streets, watching drugs permeate our communities and destroy our young, it’s a life of terror. And men who sit in charge of that distribution mechanism, which can help the American people overcome these problems and refuse to do so, while giving the rich more money than they’ve ever dreamt of having, while turning around our institutions and redirecting resources from those who are truly in need to those who are already generously endowed, if not hedonistically so, it’s a great tragedy.
And I think most important is that we have words that attempt to give us moral cleansing, so that somehow we hold those responsible for crashing into the Twin Towers and killing over 2,000 Americans citizens in cold blood, which is an act of terrorism — people who have done that should be sought out and brought to justice; there’s no question of that — but when we do what we have done, illegal war, going into the Middle East, bombing at will, and then hundreds of thousands of people get caught, who are either maimed or over 100,000 have already been killed, who are innocent men, women and children, and we chalk that off to a thing called "collateral damage," as if somehow that murderous thing that we’re doing so cruelly and so inhumanely has no judgment before world opinion, that we are somehow righteous and above criticism and above the law. That is unacceptable. And that’s what I speak out against.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Harry Belafonte. When we come back, I want to ask him about the latest controversy over spying on American citizens. He’s had his own experience with that. Long-time friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, many, many hundreds of conversations with King on the phone. What about his phone calls at that time? Talk to him about the F.B.I. and surveillance.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to legendary singer, musician, activist, Harry Belafonte. He’s in our Firehouse studio. Harry, I wanted to ask you about the comments you made about former Secretary of State Colin Powell. This is what you said about him during a radio interview in Los Angeles in October 2002.
HARRY BELAFONTE: There’s an old saying in the days of slavery, there are those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master to exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege. Colin Powell is permitted to come into the house of the master, as long as he will serve the master according to the master’s dictates. Now, when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Harry Belafonte speaking on KFMB AM in Los Angeles. Your thoughts today about that, about Colin Powell?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I think I’m mostly saddened by the fact that now that Colin Powell is no longer in office and enjoys the privileges of private citizenship, that even in this aftermath, he is still not repentant. And I’m not asking him to repent in some supercilious commanding way. What I’m looking at is his soul, and I’m looking at redemption from past grievances and transgressions.
He lied to the American people, as did his president, before the United Nations. That led us into this war. We were told about weapons of mass destruction — there aren’t any — and all the things that you and I’m sure your listeners already know. And I would imagine that now that he’s been removed from that responsibility, that he would have taken a position that maybe would have said to us more clearly and more humanely what his difficulties and problems were while he was in service and that he now choose to look at all of this from another perspective, especially in the wake of all that has been revealed by intelligence reports that have been released, by the debate that we’ve been having on what happened and how we did it, and what all the subterfuges were and what has come out from the intelligence communities in other nations around the world. But no, there has not been such — he still maintains that what he did was just and correct. I find that sad.
I mean, I remember John Kennedy, when he went into Cuba and understood very quickly how ill-advised that was, that he had the courage and the strength to say, I made a mistake, and that I’m sorry that I listened to counsel that misled me, and that I accept all responsibility for this act, and that I will not do that again. And he apologized not only to the American people, but to the world at large, and stepped forward. For that, he was greatly admired.
I don’t think that we are a species or a people that can exist without making mistakes somewhere along the line. Some make mistakes that are greater than others. But I do believe that we should have the courage and the ability to look at something that we did, even if in the first instance we believed it, when in the wake of the aftermath and the truth, you find out that that was not the case, to then say, 'Let me go back and examine what led me to this conclusion. What gods was I serving? What masters was I serving? What was it all about?' and then try to be more instructive to people who will listen to you.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, speaking about people listening to you, I wanted to ask you about the surveillance scandal, President Bush wiretapping Americans without court warrant. This isn’t the first time, of course, and you were a victim of it. Can you, in talking about that, also talk about your relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, how you met, the conversations you had, and then recently learning about these wiretaps?
HARRY BELAFONTE: When I was discharged from the United States Navy, having served almost two years during the Second World War, I came back, like millions of us did, with an expectation that those principles for which we fought would be fully revealed and embraced by the American government and the American people — the war was about democracy, the war was about ending white supremacy, the war was about ending colonialism — only to discover that the Allies, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Americans, all who were the forefront of the democratic charge, having victoriously won that war, did not upon the celebration of victory do anything but go back to business as usual.
Segregation was more vigorously enforced in this country. Many citizens in this country did not have the right to vote. Opportunities were not on an equal level playing field. The peoples of Asia and Africa and the colonial Caribbean were not experiencing any relief from their colonial degradation. And many of us were very, very upset and very angry with the fact that here was democracy, having been fought for so vigorously, not reaching out to those of us who were the victims of the absence of democracy. And in that context, rather than submit, we joined and organized and did everything we could to have the principles of democracy in our Constitution upheld. That meant we went after voting, we went after ending the segregation laws. We did everything.
For that act, we were looked upon as unpatriotic, we were looked upon as people who were insurgents, that we were doing things to betray our nation and the tranquility of our citizens, when nothing could have been further from the truth. That engaged the F.B.I. That engaged the House on American Activities Committee. Many of our leaders were hounded and denied their livelihood. Their passports were taken away. So vigorous was that campaign of oppression that even American citizens committed suicide, and not by ones or twos, but by large numbers. It was a cruel, oppressive period. But we stayed the course, many of us. We resisted. And ultimately, we prevailed.
On the threshold of that experience came the Civil Rights Movement. As a matter of fact, we were the forerunners to the movement. We energized the spirit and people to make America live up to its code, live up to its great promise. In that context, the Civil Rights Movement began to do the same things that those before the movement did to vigorously pursue the unjust laws of this country and to turn them over.
J. Edgar Hoover and others in government began to put surveillance on the citizens. I have no idea how many court permissions were given to have our wires tapped, but nevertheless, we were. Everything we talked about were tapped. As a matter of fact, as an artist, while I was away, the innocence of my family and my children were invaded one evening by the F.B.I. agents who came while I was away, knocked at the door. My wife was very startled at the experience, and when she queried them as to why they were there, they said they had come to investigate me, because they felt that I was doing acts of treason towards our country.
AMY GOODMAN: When was this?
HARRY BELAFONTE: This was 1950, '51, ’52, around that period. Although we suspected that we were being surveilled, we didn't know the extent of it until reports began to be revealed and came out in a number of books that were written. Perhaps the most detailed and one of the best-researched was a writer by the name of Taylor Branch, who did a trilogy called Parting the Waters and then Pillar of Fire, and the most recent, Canaan’s Edge. In Canaan’s Edge, much of his research was drawn from wiretaps, from surveillances, from conversations taped in the White House and the Justice Department and through the F.B.I.
These revelations should say to the American people: such a mechanism has been in place for a very, very long time. The essential difference between then and now, in the face of the same horror, is that no previous regime tried to subvert the Constitution. They may have done illegal acts. They may have gone outside the law to do these, but they did them clandestinely. No one stepped to the table as arrogantly as George W. Bush and his friends have done and said, 'We legally want to suspend the rights of citizens, the right to surveil, the right to read your mail, the right to arrest you without charge. You do not have the right to counsel if we so decide, and you can stay in prison as long as we want you to, until we're satisfied that we have reached the objectives that we want, despite the Constitution.’
I think that every person in the United States of America should be up in arms, should be up in rebellion against the reality that we face, that it is that fact that made me say that I think and I feel that we are at the dawnings of a new Gestapo state here in the United States, through the security — Securities Commission and through the Homeland Security, as well — National Security Agency. All of these different agencies, all of these different bureaucracies have their own special assignments, and then they come — and when you look at the collective, America is playing out a horror theme. The fact that we’re a joyous nation, when you see sports and you see so much light, frothy, mindless entertainment bombarding you every day and so much disinformation coming your way, is enough to make any citizen mentally, as well as socially, blurred to truth.
But the fact is that it exists, and it exists very intensely in our midst. There are citizens at this moment who are being arrested, who are not being told why they’re arrested. Some have been spirited out of this country to faraway places to be imprisoned and tortured. These are realities, and the American people had best wake up, because as one priest once said, or I think it was a protestant minister in Germany, said, 'When they came for the communists, I didn't know any. When they came for the Jews, I didn’t know any. When they came for the labor movements, I didn’t know any. And then when they came for me, no one was left.’ I don’t think we can distance ourselves from what’s going on in America. And as Roosevelt said, that 'When our government is being subverted, our Constitution is being undermined by those who sit in the seat of government and power, it is the right of citizens and the responsibility of citizens to raise their voice against this intrusion and this collapse and should speak out against it and, in fact, change the government; and those who do not do that, should be charged with patriotic treason.'
AMY GOODMAN: How do you think people should do that?
HARRY BELAFONTE: By organizing, by coming together, by meeting, and if those sources of information that come your way blur, and all have the same voice, it’s very easy to find Democracy Now! It’s very easy to go to the internet. It’s very easy to go to local meetings that are being held all over this country, on university campuses, in communities. I work very vigorously with groups in California, in South Central, up in Northern California. I go into the prisons of America. This nation is humming with people who are in discussion about what’s happening to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk to people who are afraid, afraid of being blacklisted or whitelisted, if you will, from your own experience? What did that mean? I mean, here you were the Calypso King. You were the first one to sell a million albums, way ahead of Frank Sinatra, all of them, but you were willing to risk it all. And what did it mean? What did it mean to be blacklisted in this country?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Actually, upon hindsight, it meant that I was doing something right, and regardless of any doubts that I may have had in the beginning, in wondering where this was all going, I’ve come to find that men like Paul Robeson and women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and so many noble warriors that were in the Civil Rights Movement, also those noble people in Africa, many who waged a vigorous resistance to colonialism, foremost would be Nelson Mandela, when our correspondence started while he was in prison and then ultimately to see the A.N.C. come about and bring a transition to a rather oppressive experience, one of the most in that century, and to do so nonviolently, to transform this government without firing one shot, all of these people stand as torches to my — to the validation of what it was that we did, as the principle, as the clear voice of what people have to do. And I would say to my colleagues, 'If it is the economics of your life, when will you have enough? And at what price do you sell your soul when you know what the truth is and refuse to embrace it at the price of losing our democracy?'
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Harry Belafonte, and we’ll come back with him and talk more about his support of Nelson Mandela and the A.N.C., when the African National Congress was on the list of terrorist organizations in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Harry Belafonte, and he joins us in our studio today, as we talk about the politics of today and talk about it in the context of history. When you say you started writing to Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned — for almost three decades he was imprisoned — where was this country? And how dangerous was this to do it?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Writing to Nelson Mandela, as such, was not an act that endangered me, I don’t think. It was certainly an act that was very much in tandem with the way I was behaving with a lot of people in the world who were having their human rights violated. I had done quite a lot of work in Africa. I was a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps, appointed by John Kennedy. I helped shape some of the early policies and how the Corps did its business in faraway countries. And long before most of the African countries had come to independence, I was there, talking to potential heads of state. I went to Kenya with Thurgood Marshall at the celebration of their independence, the only American artist or global artist to be so invited. And I worked with Tom Mboya before Kenya got its independence to bring African students to this country by the hundreds, along with Jackie Robinson and others who foot the bill.
We did a lot of work in Africa. I knew Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, and then eventually Seku Ture, and had a long relationship to the continent. And so, therefore, writing Nelson Mandela would not have been an unusual thing for me to do, except that we knew he was incarcerated, charged with being a terrorist and all those things that we charged him with. And then I thought that in prison he should be at least — we should make an attempt to reach him and to help with his spirits. My letters were delivered through his attorney, because all of his mail was read, and some of the letters got to him in a clandestine way.
I don’t think any of us expected to see him alive. And at the end of 27 1/2 years, because I continued to work with the A.N.C., I had continued to work with the issues of apartheid and the sanctions, I had brought to this country great African artists, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, who were hugely successful, and they delighted American audiences. And those artists spoke to the plight of the South Africans. And behind their calling, behind their power, and in the midst of my own, we did a lot to put the light on the darkness of what was going on in South Africa. And when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, the A.N.C. asked me to come to London to meet with Oliver Tambo, because they wanted me to personally handle all of his events when he came to the country, to help pick his agenda, what were the best targets, who were the people that he should most reach out to.
AMY GOODMAN: And this was Nelson Mandela?
HARRY BELAFONTE: This was Nelson Mandela. And all the events were looked at. We negotiated — we discussed clearly where we thought he should be. George Bush’s father, the original President Bush, was in office then. I had to meet with his special services, securities, to talk about Nelson Mandela’s safety in the country. David Dinkins was the mayor. I had to negotiate with him in the city — a host of things that were done, in order to be able to secure his presence in this country and to let his voice be heard. So that was not unusual for me.
I had talked with other heads of state, Michael Manley from Jamaica, a place in which I grew up, where my roots stood. I worked very hard with Michael Manley for the Caribbean nations in the region, and I spent a great deal of time there, working socially and politically. So that’s an open page. There was nothing clandestine about it. It’s hard to be a superstar and hidden.
AMY GOODMAN: But early on, you were taking on corporate America and the U.S. government by supporting the A.N.C.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes. I still take on corporate America and the U.S. government.
AMY GOODMAN: What about in Haiti? President Aristide is now in South Africa, ousted from Haiti. In February 29, 2004, he was taken out of the country in a U.S. plane, out of his own country, sent to the Central African Republic. And he said, he was the victim of a kidnapping in the service of a coup d’etat backed by the United States. Your response?
HARRY BELAFONTE: My response is that I believe his story to be so. I believe that is exactly what happened. I’ve talked to many people who have far more information than I do, because I don’t live within the womb of government, but those who do have attested to the fact that what took place historically, that we described as an undermining of a legitimate democracy, was the case. And as a matter of fact, I think the story that you alluded to at the beginning of this broadcast in the New York Times does not say that fully. But it certainly has taken a big slice of that period to show America’s complicity in helping to undermine that government and destabilize that beleaguered country.
That’s not unusual for us. We’ve done that with many places. While we talk about having democracy for the world, we undermine the democracy of Chile, where we murdered and participated fully in the murder of Allende. We have now talked about another legally existing president in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. We sought to do everything to diminish and demonize that president. We’re speaking about other democracies in the region. It is not unusual for us to be duplicitous when it comes to talk.
We admit and accept democracies according to how we think they serve our most selfish and our most arrogant and our most oppressive needs. That’s what we do, especially in the developing world. We stepped in while Vietnam was trying to iron out its own internal policies and were very close to having a victory there, when the United States intervened and lied once again to the American people, led us to a war that cost millions of lives, and all the things that we know about Vietnam.
It’s not an unusual thing for us to do. And I think that citizens just have to understand that the first order of business for a democracy is vigilance among the citizens. It is a delicate instrument. It continues to need nourishment and attention. And the minute we turn away from that nourishment and that attention, it will be taken away from us, as it is now appearing to be the case.
AMY GOODMAN: You knew Paul Robeson?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, very well.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Robeson, who the government pulled his passport. The government went after him. White-listed from almost every public space in this country. Have you been concerned in the past, and especially if young people are listening, as you were deeply concerned also about your career, that they could go after you in the same way? And what did Paul Robeson say about this?
HARRY BELAFONTE: Paul Robeson was very clear. He felt he did what he had to do, in conscience and in the spirit of this nation. And he made a choice. He has never imposed that choice on others. He knows that it is a very, very difficult thing to do, especially if you’re from the poor. Especially if you’re in the black community, coming from a line of never having to a moment where you have access, and all of a sudden to put that access in jeopardy. And I think that I would not put upon people some harsh judgment if they found that they were living in a zone of fear and had to move cautiously, as to what they would do to try to speak out against that oppression. But I suspect that if it is not attended to in the earliest, it may have to be attended to in the latest. And in the latest, you may find that it’s too late.
AMY GOODMAN: You also knew Rosa Parks.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Yes, I knew her.
AMY GOODMAN: What about her legacy? One of the things the corporate media said when she died, though they did pay a lot of attention, they made the point that she was no troublemaker. But it looks like her history shows the very opposite. She was a troublemaker from way back, committing her life to equality, against segregation.
HARRY BELAFONTE: She never stopped being a troublemaker. But it is now to this country’s best interest, in order to further hide its villainy, to reach out and to somehow blur those who were very revolutionary and those who, in the end, turned out to be huge moral, as well as social, forces in our time, to lay claim to them, because it helps hide who they are and what they do. Cheney, I mean, he didn’t want Dr. King to be a holiday. He worked vigorously against the levels of acceptability that he has reached in the United States government. I mean, our government is replete with people who now lay claim to Dr. King and honor him.
Well, let me say this, as one who was instructed by Dr. King to seek and to encourage redemption, I’m glad that at this late date in life they somehow celebrate it. But I don’t think they celebrate it in honor. They celebrate it to subvert what it is that they do, by having people believe that they embrace the principles of a woman like Rosa Parks and people like Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most courageous of all.
AMY GOODMAN: Kanye West, after Hurricane Katrina, said President Bush doesn’t like black people. Do you agree?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I do not know that I could look upon President Bush as someone who actively works every day of his life to oppress and to kill black people as a direct act of race. I think his insensitivity, in the class frame, being who he is, coming from the privileges that he does, being one who pursues the edge of imperial ambition — not so much the edge, he’s right smack in the center of it — he can be expected to do those things, which will cruelly administer no relief at all to those who are oppressed, who are poor. And in that act, because of the way in which our society is structured, a large group of brown people, a large group of yellow people, a large group of black people, are on the cutting edge, are on the forefront of this nation’s poverty. And therefore, we feel the brunt of it.
One cannot help but wonder that if what happened in Katrina in that region of America had happened somewhere in Maine or had happened somewhere else in America where white sensibilities and white life would have been in great jeopardy, that our nation would have been that blurred, and certainly our government, to what was happening to the citizens who are not white. I think somewhere in the American psyche, black people are expendable when we try to sustain our positions of privilege and our positions of power, just as I think people in the Middle East are expendable. I don’t think America really knows who we are. We don’t know our fellow citizens. We don’t know the nations we invade. We don’t have a real deep and honest sense of who we are as a people, both on the good side of the ledger, to who we are as a people that comes from the dark side of the ledger. We are the most uninformed people on the face of the earth. And I don’t say that as hyperbole.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Americans should join the military, and do you think soldiers should go to Iraq?
HARRY BELAFONTE: I don’t think soldiers should be anywhere in the world. I mean, that is a moral and a basic philosophy. I think that the only way to end wars is to have no military and to find other ways in which — I think we should suspend all nuclear weapons. Do I think we can do that as an act that is instantaneous? No. I think too much of the world is locked in to what the military stabilizes in civilized society. So I think there is a process. But if that is the goal and the aim, and it is so declared, then I think citizens should participate in the prospect of disengagement.
Let me just say this. If you have a patient who is hit by a disease, and doctors look and say, 'To go in, it will be a shock to the body to move that, without looking at what it does to other parts of the body; let us move to prepare the body for the moment of great relief,' then that’s what we pursue. I think the same thing exists in a civil society and in the political process. We have to be careful. But I think that we should have as our goal to end military intrusion as a way to settle grievances.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you counsel soldiers not to serve in Iraq?
HARRY BELAFONTE: If I were a soldier today or going into the military today, as an act of conscience, I would not serve. I volunteered to be in the United States Navy during the Second World War as an act of conscience, not just because it gave me relief from poverty and I had a place to go to maybe learn a skill, because I wasn’t learning anywhere I lived and had opportunity where I was living, but because I really believed in the principles of what we fought for and what we said we were doing in making the world safe. So I think it’s an act of conscience and an act of social responsibility to say yes, as tens of thousands of young people do. We just don’t hear about them. I think we’re having trouble recruiting young people, because they’re not readily volunteering because they have conflict about what this war means and what our government is asking them to do.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds. Harry Belafonte, what gives you hope?
HARRY BELAFONTE: People. I cannot believe that that which we have achieved in this country, nothing could have been darker than the time of slavery. We extricated ourselves from that. Nothing could be darker than a century of apartheid and oppression. We extricated ourselves from that. The Second World War was not winnable by the onslaught of the German forces. We won that. I think in the final analysis, the people are the true frontier, and I think people will save this nation. But it is only people who can do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, thank you for joining us.
HARRY BELAFONTE: Thank you for having me.
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