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Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land

StoryFebruary 03, 2004
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Longtime human rights activist and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson joins us in our firehouse studios to talk about U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the Caribbean, why he refused an honorary degree from Georgetown after the CIA’s George Tenet spoke there and his latest book “Quitting America” which explains why he left the U.S. to live in St. Kitts-Nevis. [Includes transcript]

As we have pointed out before on the program, in his state of the union address last month, President Bush did not mention the word Africa once during the entire speech. In last year’s address, Bush’s most prominent mention of Africa was the accusation that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger–an allegation that later turned out to be entirely baseless.

Today we are going to take an extensive look at Bush’s policies toward Africa, African-Americans and the Caribbean with one of the most well-known critics of US foreign policy toward these areas of the world: Randall Robinson.

He is a longtime human rights activist who founded the organization TransAfrica in 1977 to address U.S. policy toward Africa and the Caribbean. Among his most well-known campaigns [ ] was against the apartheid regime in South Africa and US support for it. In 1994, Robinson made national headlines as he staged a 27-day hunger strike to protest US actions in Haiti. He is one of the people most credited with bringing the issue of reparations for slavery into the mainstream with his book “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.”

Last year He once declined an honorary degree from Georgetown University because George Tenet, the director of the CIA and an ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq, had been invited the day before to speak at one of Georgetown’s graduation exercises. Three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Robinson officially “quit” the US and moved to St. Kitts-Nevis, the small Caribbean island nation where his wife was born. He has just written a new book explaining why he left. It is called “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man From His Native Land.”

  • * Randall Robinson*, founder of TransAfrica and one of the leaders of the movement to change US policy toward the apartheid regime in South Africa. He is well known for hunger strike protests and sit-in demonstrations. His book “The Debt” brought the issue of reparations into the mainstream. His latest book is “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you quit? Why did you leave America?

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, we were — my wife, Hazel, and I, with our daughter Kalia were going to a place as much as we were leaving this place. St. Kitts-Nevis is a small exquisitely beautiful, democratic, well-run, civil, decent society, where people care about each other and take care of each other. These were qualities I had come to find hopelessly lacking, absent, in American society. I had discovered at this age — I was 60 when we left — that I wanted to live in a society for some time, some portion of my life, where race did not have to be a battlement, that one could get beyond that and not feel it always in one’s craw. And it’s a kind of thing that it used up so much of my energy, and the energy of so many in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, that after the active stage of this great crime against humanity, slavery and de jure discrimination that put together ran for 346 years, America became very satisfied with itself, that it had done all that it was going to do, while the victims of this long-running crime were left wounded in the worst way: families destroyed, chances for healthy socializations gone, prospects nil, and so the main bulk of the black community remained bottom stuck. The civil rights movement helped people like me, people who had come from intact families, whose parents were healthy enough to encourage us to believe that we could do well. And so, it meant that the door was open, if you could walk, perhaps could you get through it, but many could not, and they remained bottom stuck. Black community cleaved into two parts: those who could benefit and those who were too terribly devastated to do so. Nothing has been done for them.

So, we find ourselves now in a situation in America with a society in terrible shape, but with that condition, fundamentally ignored by those who rule it. It just does not matter, even as it jeopardizes the whole of society. A poll was done recently that showed that a full half of Americans are afraid to venture more than a mile from their homes at night. The whole society has become a sort of prison. We have one 1/20ths of the world’s population with one-fourth of the world’s prisoners. There’s something wrong with that, 2 million and climbing, half of whom are black, because of the reasons I detailed, in addition to the active discrimination that is ongoing. The chance of a black getting arrested, a young black male, are six times that of his white counterpart, of being incarcerated seven times, and once incarcerated will serve a sentence exactly twice as long as his white counterpart for the same crime. Blacks are half of those on death row, three-quarters when they are added to the Hispanic inmate populations. So, this business of locking up people has become a new thriving industry in America with private prisons, in a democracy, which means that in order to have your stock increase in value in a private prison, you have to get more prisoners. So, states like California are investing much more in prison construction than they are in ground-up construction of new universities. And all of this goes on with the full blessing of not just governments that come and go, Democratic and Republican, but with the full blessing of media, the popular culture, and all of the rest.

In our foreign policy, this hyperpower, I think is coming to endanger the entire world, because now it operates willy-nilly without checks and balances. Iraq is just one example of the kind of disaster that is possible when we have a nation so powerful, so full of itself, unwilling to examine itself, self absorbed, and narcissistic in all of what that means, that it will go forward against the grain of the international community unilaterally, to create the disaster that Iraq will be for many generations to come. It won’t work. To think that we now in Iraq have Muslim women becoming prostitutes, servicing American soldiers just feeds the kind of hatred that is growing and felt towards Americans throughout the Islamic world. It’s a very sad thing, and we get to a point that we cannot make America listen anymore to anybody but itself.

I — I just — to preserve my sanity, and I think my voice, I thought it best for me to leave. I wanted to see another place, to feel another place, and be inspired and encouraged, and enlivened by it.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s been quite amazing to watch television over this past week, after David Kay said he couldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All of the programs are talking about how could we have gotten it so wrong. They’re interviewing the people who got it so wrong. In the news headlines, we are pointing out that Colin Powell is now saying if he had only known what he knows now. Yet more than half the people in this country were opposed to the bombing of Iraq, did not believe, perhaps, weapons of mass destruction were an imminent threat to the United States. I haven’t seen any of those voices, the people who had said “no” from the beginning. I’m reading your book, Quitting America. Now, this book was just published, but you wrote it last year. You extensively refer to the fact that you didn’t believe there were weapons of mass destruction. Can you talk about the arguments and who put forward these arguments?

RANDALL ROBINSON: The Iraq chapters in the book were written in late April, and it was apparent then that Iraq had almost from the beginning of the attack, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has weapons of mass destruction. They told us. We knew it. We didn’t attack North Korea. And we’re not going to attack North Korea. China has weapons of mass destruction. We’re not going to attack China. We’re not going to attack any country with weapons of mass destruction. We are bullies. That’s why we attacked Iraq. We knew they had no weapons of mass destruction. And if anybody now tries to disavow, like Mr. Powell — I know it’s ship-jumping time. Well, the administration has the sword, shopping for someone willing to fall on it, desperate now, perhaps. This administration I’m sure will be recorded in history as the most conspicuous disaster in American presidential history.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about last spring when you turned down this great honor to get an honorary degree from Georgetown University. What happened?

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, I flew up from St. Kitts-Nevis, arrived the night before. It was May, and it was wet and chilly. I stayed at the Georgetown Inn. In the morning I was to go over, they called us. They said they were going to pick me up, to come over. I absently opened the Post to the Metro section, and I saw there, above the fold, a picture of Mr. Tenet and the First Lady. Mr. Tenet had spoken at the School of Foreign Service the day before, and had received an honor, and I was stunned. I wanted so much to call Hazel in St. Kitts-Nevis, but I was uncomfortable about talking about this on the phone, so I had already made my decision, but I wasn’t quite sure how I could do it. I knew I couldn’t accept the degree at that point. What had meant so much to me as an honor, maybe I deserved it for being flattered, the vanity of the whole thing, but from that point on, it meant nothing, and I went to the school and talked to the dean who had made this happen for me. I asked him if I could speak, and I had written what I was prepared to say, and he told me, as is the case with most honorary degrees, you don’t get an opportunity to speak. You simply accept the sash and sit down. And so, I told him if I couldn’t speak, then I had to tell him I couldn’t accept it. And he asked why, and I told him. And then he — I went in to see the dean — I spoke to Tony Lewis, former New York Times columnist, about it, and I gave Tony a copy of what I was prepared to say. He was the commencement speaker. And they took me back to my hotel, and I went back to St. Kitts-Nevis. And although my name was on the program, that day, no mention was made during the exercises of why I did not participate or why I was not — why I was not there.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back, maybe you could read that address you didn’t get to give at Georgetown last May.


AMY GOODMAN: This is “Democracy Now!” Our guest is Randall Robinson. He has written a new book. It’s called Quitting America — The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: “Wake up, Everybody” Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes here on “Democracy Now!–The War and Peace Report.” Our guest is Randall Robinson. He is the founder of TransAfrica, based in Washington, D.C., but he left this country three weeks before 9-11, three weeks before September 11, 2001, with his wife and daughter and moved to St. Kitts-Nevis. He has just written a book about why he left America called Quitting America. Randall, if you would read. You have in your book the address that you didn’t get to read at Georgetown, turning down your honorary degree.

RANDALL ROBINSON: I wrote this, of course, on the commencement day in May in my hotel room in Longhand just before I was to leave to go over to the school.

“I wish to begin by apologizing to all of you if what I am about to say on your day causes you discomfort. I have fought all of my life against social injustice. I have opposed unjust communist regimes and unjust capitalist regimes. I have fought against unjust white regimes and unjust black regimes. I do not live in the United States anymore. I live on the tiny democratic Caribbean island of St. Kitts-Nevis. I only learned this morning that George Tenet, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was to be the speaker at your School of Foreign Service exercises yesterday. I sincerely believe that in the years ahead, the entire world will come to accept that the United States has committed in Iraq a great crime against humanity, a crime against innocent Iraqi women, children, and men. Indeed, a crime against our own men and women, who have paid and will continue to pay with their lives, for the greed of America’s empire makers. In my view, President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, and Mr. Tenet are little more than murderers. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and they knew this. There is no Iraqi connection to 9-11. There was no legal justification for a war in which we have not bothered to count the Iraqi dead. America has committed an awful wrong in the sight of God, and I trust in time, that this will be the prevailing view or verdict of humanity. In any case, you have chosen the wrong person this morning. I should not have come. Indeed, I would not have come had I known before what I learned this morning, when I opened the newspapers. Americans must choose. They must choose between decency, of course, and empire, between morality and murder, between truth and deception. Mr. Tenet has the right to speech protected by our constitution, but that right should not be exercised on a platform so broadly respected as yours. I cannot accept your honor, for in my view, Georgetown University yesterday disqualified itself of the moral authority to bestow one. My candle lights little other than the interior of my own conscience; but for me, for all of my life, that has been enough.”

And that’s what I didn’t get to say that day.

AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, reading the address he would have given at Georgetown University this past May, turning down the honorary degree they wanted to give him. You are well known for taking very strong stands, as you did around the coup in Haiti, as you did when the U.S. government, then led by President Clinton, was turning back Haitian refugees. You fasted until you were getting very ill for a month. You stayed in your office at TransAfrica until Sandy Berger, the then National Security Adviser, came to your hospital bedside to ask what you would accept. He was a classmate of yours in law school?


AMY GOODMAN: What you were demanding?

RANDALL ROBINSON: Only that we comply with International Law, and provide sanctuary for those Haitians who were fleeing political persecution with a well-founded fear for their lives, that we behave as other nations are asked to behave, and to comply with international norms. We were rounding up Haitians, and taking them back without examination. And we were accepting Cubans, just as broadly. And the President knew at the time that many of the Haitians that we returned were being killed. And it was just an intolerable situation. President Clinton needed Florida for his re-election, and he made the calculation that Florida wanted Cubans, and they didn’t want Haitians. So, with the knowledge that these people were dying, that he sent back, in violation of international law, he did so until the hunger strike, I think, focused a more public light on his policies.

AMY GOODMAN: You had a name, and they didn’t —- we would know -—

RANDALL ROBINSON: It was a shameless chapter in American — in American diplomacy, particularly from a president who had gotten so much support from the black community, the black community that didn’t know enough about the full consequence of American policy, which is perhaps what you can say now about the entire American community, about our policy generally. Democracy doesn’t work without an enlightened citizenry. Ours is not very sophisticated about what we do beyond our borders. I think presidents and politicians know how suggestible the American population is, and with that knowledge comes a kind of contempt that you can tell them anything, and that’s what we have done in Iraq. And so, I think before we go to war, we ought to always ask those who support war, “Would the war in Iraq be worth the loss of a single life if that life were yours?” Before you send somebody else’s child, you ought to have to answer that question. Now, I think in World War II, many might have said “Yes,” but I don’t think anybody who voted for this war, who supported it, would answer that question, “Yes.” Clinton might have been asked the same question with respect to Haiti. It was a terrible thing that he was — that he was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: The headlines now in Haiti are very frightening. I’m looking at the Christian Science Monitor, a piece, “New Haitian Exodus–Same Old US Treatment of Refugees. Almost daily, pro- and anti-government demonstrators flood the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, disrupting business and forcing schools to close. Those calling for the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide show no sign of backing down. Since September, more than 50 people have died, and scores more have been wounded. Haiti has just celebrated its bicentennial since 1804.”

You were a close friend of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and you write about him and what’s happening in Haiti in your book Quitting America.

RANDALL ROBINSON: I think he is a fine man who has been given little chance to succeed. The Republicans took both houses of the Congress shortly after he was returned to power and immediately began to organize to isolate him in his country. American bilateral assistance was cut off and channeled through NGO Organizations in Haiti that were controlled by wealthy Haitians to create the impression that the wealthy Haitians were benefiting the Haitian people and not the government that had no resources to do so. The U.S. blocked the disbursement of Inter-American bank loans, $146 million for health, water treatment, roads, education, blocked all of those monies, and that move has had disastrous effects. It was approved by the bank, but the disbursement was blocked by the United States. Again, the idea was to strangle the government of Aristide. We haven’t liked Haiti since Toussaint Louverture defeated France. George Washington hated that. Thomas Jefferson said awful things. There’s been no appreciation for Haiti’s role in making the Louisiana Purchase possible. Napoleon sold it after he lost that revolution. Since then, we have done every imaginable thing to Haiti, and are still doing it.

Now in Haiti there is a minority movement being led by a Lebanese-American, Andy Apaid, against Aristide. Now, the real issue is not whether I support Aristide or not, or not whether some Haitians do or do not like Aristide. In a constitutional democracy, you must never have allowed the change of government by demonstration. You have a constitution, and you have mechanisms. Aristide wants elections. The opposition, knowing that they can’t win an election, opposes elections. The American Administration says that they will recognize no election that the opposition doesn’t participate in. The opposition says it will not participate. So, Aristide cannot have elections. The Parliament, of course, has lapsed because he cannot have those — those elections unless he wins the consent to participate from a small minority, and the U.S. is supporting this. It is a — it is an obvious, outrageous attempt to deconstruct a new democracy in the Caribbean.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the U.S. has a history of that in Haiti going back to the coup. You write about Emmanuel Constant, the head of FRAP, the paramilitary terror organization in Haiti. It’s interesting from Clinton to Bush. Bush is leading a so-called war on terror. This is a terrorist on U.S. soil.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about it?

RANDALL ROBINSON: He’s walking about freely. He led the organization in Haiti that terrorized the country when President Aristide was in exile in Washington. Every morning, bodies were found all about Port-au-Prince. The work of Toto Constant’s people: people hacked to death, shot to death, bludgeoned to death, all of that sort of stuff, was well known to us, but he had at the same time a very fast collaboration with the CIA. And so when Warren Christopher said that we cannot have a defensible relationship with a new democratic Haiti unless we return Constant to Haiti, Toto Constant warned that he knew things about the CIA that he would divulge were that the case. So, the U.S. has continued to host him here.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on U.S. designs on St. Kitts-Nevis, we only have 30 seconds, but you tell a story about St. Kitts-Nevis wanting more support as a tourist economy, and the head of St. Kitts-Nevis meeting with a Republican congress member to talk about the future relationship.

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, that was the ostensible agenda, and the congressman said to Prime Minister Douglas, there’s one other matter. You know, we may have to leave the uh, uh —


RANDALL ROBINSON: …Vieques, because of the protests and the cancer rates sky-rocketing, because of the exploding of the American ordinance, and all of the exercises that we conduct there. We may have to re-locate our practice ordnance exercises. We wondered if we could blow up your island from time to time…

He said it with a straight face.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Randall Robinson is here with us in New York for another day, but he has left the United States and written a book about it, Quitting America, Randall Robinson’s book about the departure of a black man from his native land. That does it for the show.

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