Ward Churchill is perhaps one of the
most provocative thinkers around. A Creek and enrolled Keetoowah Band
Cherokee, Churchill is a longtime Native rights activist. He has been
heavily involved in the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier
Defense Committee. He is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University
of Colorado and has served as a delegate to the UN Working Group on
One of Churchill’s areas of expertise is the history of the U.S.
government’s genocide of Native Americans—the chronic violation
of treaties and systematic extermination of North American indigenous
populations. His many books include A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust
and Denial in the Americas: 1492 to Present (1998) and The COINTELPRO
Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent
in the U.S. (2nd edition, 2002). His new book, On the Justice of Roosting
Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance
and Criminality, was just published by AK Press (www.akpress.org).
As a member of a people who have been on the receiving end of violence,
Churchill has a rather distinct perspective of the U.S. and the effectiveness
of political dissent and social change. Ward Churchill
recently shared some of his views with Catherine Clyne.
This issue of Satya is trying to push the debate about
whether or not violence is an appropriate means for a desired end.
With animal activists, there’s a growing gap between people who feel
it’s not and others who feel that, for example, breaking into
laboratories to liberate animals or burning down property is an effective
way to stop abuse.
Well, that’s an absurd framing in my view. Defining violence in
terms of property—that basically nullifies the whole notion that
life is sacred. People who want to elevate property to the same level
of importance as life are so absurd as to be self-nullifying.
Some people feel that those who abuse animals or people negate
their right to consideration and open themselves up to physical violence.
What’s your response to this?
The individuals who are perpetrators in one way or another, the “little
Eichmanns”* in the background—the technocrats, bureaucrats,
technicians—who make the matrix of atrocity that we are opposing
possible are used to operating with impunity. If you’re designing
thermonuclear weapons, you’re subject to neutralization, in the
same sense that somebody who is engaged in homicide would be, in terms
of their capacity to perpetrate that offense. One or two steps removed
should not have the effect of immunizing. Otherwise, only those who
are in the frontline—usually the most expendable in the systemic
sense—are subject to intervention. None of the decision-makers,
the people who make it possible, would be subject to intervention that
would prevent their action in any way at all.
That brings me to one question, which is, in general, people
like to think they’re pretty decent. They don’t like to
think of themselves as violent or complying with a system that is oppressive...
Heinrich Himmler viewed himself in exactly that way. He was a family
man, he had high moral values, he’d met his responsibilities,
blah, blah, blah—a good and decent man in his own mind.
Do you think that applies to most American people?
In the sense that it applied to most Germans [during the Third Reich].
Your recent works detail the documentable history of the consequences
of U.S. imperialism. After reading On the Justice of Roosting Chickens
and listening to your two CDs, what do you want your audience to walk
A fundamental understanding of the nature of their obligation to intervene
to bring the kind of atrocities that I’ve described to a halt
by whatever means are necessary.
The predominating absurdity in American oppositional circles for the
past 30 years is the notion that if one intervenes to halt a rape or
a murder in progress, if you actually use physical force as necessary
to prevent that act, somehow or other you’ve become morally the
same as the perpetrator.
What do you think those oppositional circles need to do to really effect
Stop being preoccupied with the sanctity of their own personal security,
on the one hand, and start figuring out what would be necessary. That
might require experimentation with tactics and techniques. Not how,
like an alchemist, you repeat the performance often enough to make
yourself feel good in the face of an undisturbed continuation of the
opposing. If your candlelit vigil doesn’t bring the process you’re
opposing to a halt, what do you do next, presuming you actually desired
to have an effect.
Let’s just presume that, in this case.
That’s not a safe presumption. There’s a whole feel-good
ethic out there. It’s not [to] effect any substantive change.
It’s to bear moral witness to make the person feel good, to assuage
their conscience in exactly the fashion you were talking about: they
can then posture as good and decent people, while engaged in active
complicity in the crimes they purportedly oppose. Complicity of acquiescence:
that’s the “Good German Syndrome.”
You move on. Rather than a vigil, you hold a rally. When that doesn’t
do it either, you march around, do petitions, letters, you hold alternative
educational fora, you try to build bridges with people; you do whatever.
None of that works.
The obligation is not to be personally pure. The obligation is to effect
a measurable change.
Some argue that the ten million people who gathered last year
on February 15th to stop a U.S. invasion of Iraq didn’t really
amount to much in terms of tangible results. Is there a precedent of
experimentation you think people are not looking at?
If you conduct your protest activities in a manner which is sanctioned
by the state, the state understands that the protest will have no effect
You can gauge the effectiveness—real or potential at least—of
any line of activity by the degree of severity of repression visited
upon it by the state. It responds harshly to those things it sees as,
at least incipiently, destabilizing. So you look where they are visiting
repression: that’s exactly what you need to be doing.
People engaged in the activity that is engendering the repression are
the first people who need to be supported—not have discussion
groups to endlessly consider the masturbatory implications of the efficacy
of their actions or whether or not they are pure enough to be worthy
of support. They are by definition worthy. Ultimately, the people debating
continuously are unworthy. They are apologists for the state structure;
[and] in [effect], try to convince people to be ineffectual.
Nonviolent action can be effectual when harnessed in a way that is
absolutely unacceptable to the state: if you actually clog the freeways
or occupy sites or whatever to disrupt state functioning with the idea
of ultimately making it impossible for the state to function at all,
and are willing to incur the consequences of that. That’s very different from
people standing with little signs, making a statement. Statements don’t
do it. If [they] did, we would have transformed society in this country
more than a century ago.
What do you think holds people back?
For all the rhetoric, there is no nonviolent context operating here—not
at all. The more you become in any sense effectual, you’re going
to be confronted with the violence of the state to maintain order of
a sort that perpetuates its functioning. So nonviolence renders one
vulnerable to the lethal counter-force of the state. So there’s
tangible fear. It’s basically, politically a consecration or
concession of physical force to the state by those who purport to oppose
Even if there is a sort of inchoate understanding of a position of
privilege in society, coming from an economically affluent background,
not going to face physical violence, ultimately, you are subject to
consequences which are not physical: an erosion of your privilege, a
making of your life more uncomfortable. Basically, nonviolence as it
is practiced, espoused in the U.S., is not Gandhian. Gandhi never articulated
anything that precluded personal sacrifice. This is a non-Gandhian appropriation
of his principles for the purpose of confirming personal comfort. So
it’s a politics of the comfort zone.
What are some of the solutions? Extreme events, like 9/11 and
the invasion of Iraq, have mobilized people out of such complacency,
I don’t have a ready answer for that. One of the things I’ve
suggested is that it may be that more 9/11s are necessary. This seems
like such a no-brainer that I hate to frame it in terms of actual transformation
of consciousness. ‘Hey those brown-skinned folks dying in the
millions in order to maintain this way of life, they can wait forever
for those who purport to be the opposition here to find some personally
comfortable and pure manner of affecting the kind of transformation
that brings not just lethal but genocidal processes to a halt.’
They have no obligation—moral, ethical, legal or otherwise—to
sit on their thumbs while the opposition here dithers about doing anything
to change the system. So it’s removing the sense of—and
right to—impunity from the American opposition.
In the case of the Germans during the Third Reich, outside
influence could have altered their course. Do you think there’s any place
for that in terms of the U.S.? From Europe or Canada, to kind of kick
things along? I’m thinking of systems that have power and leverage
with the U.S. administration.
That’s looking for a painless fix again. Power and leverage in
the traditional sense are not going to bring fundamental change into
being. Each of those entities is a projector of the same kind of violence,
but on a quantitatively lesser scale than the U.S. However, the nature
of their intervention, based upon their perception of self-interest,
is convincing the U.S. to [change] in a way that will not visit undue
consequences upon them. You’d get cosmetic alterations—policy
adjustments and so forth—a refinement of the system, thus the
continuation of the status quo. It would ultimately create illusions
of change and keep people confused.
Third world opposition on the other hand understands this dynamic much
more clearly. You have to have an eradication of the beast, not a retraining
of the beast’s performance.
I can give a talk to a university in North America, to students and
professors, and they are fundamentally confused about things that are
automatically self-evident to people when you go to a village in Latin
America, where the average educational attainment is third grade. Now
why can these “peasants” automatically grasp concepts that
are just beyond the reach altogether of your average university audience
in North America?
Why do you think?
Partly because it’s this fostering of illusion—and it’s
self-imposed—that repeating the same process yet again will somehow
lead to a fundamentally different result. We can go through the charade
of ‘let’s elect John Kerry instead of George Bush,’
do things which are essentially painless to us, and the outcome is going
to be different. You don’t have politics, you have alchemy. That’s
delusional behavior. It’s a state of denial in a social maybe
even cultural sense. And that’s what’s masquerading as
Is there a historical example of what could happen here?
There is absolutely no historical precedent that I could name.
We’re [within] the belly of the beast. When you destabilize, when
there is genuinely significant fracturing, the actual disintegration
of the social and political order. Everybody goes on about the end of
the 60s, but there nonetheless were conditions indicating substantial
instability. The ability of the U.S. to project power didn’t
exactly evaporate but it was very sharply curtailed. But a complete
curtailment of the U.S. ability to project power on a global basis
has no historical precedent.
So if it takes eradication of the beast from within, how would
you see that happening?
Well, first the withdrawal of consent, people imbued with consciousness
to withdraw altogether from an embrace of the state.
If I defined the state as being the problem, just what happens to the
state? I’ve never fashioned myself to be a revolutionary, but
it’s part and parcel of what I’m talking about. You can
create through consciousness a situation of flux, perhaps, in which
something better can replace it. In instability there’s potential.
That’s about as far as I go with revolutionary consciousness.
I’m actually a de-evolutionary. I don’t want other people
in charge of the apparatus of the state as the outcome of a socially
transformative process that replicates oppression. I want the state
gone: transform the situation to U.S. out of North America. U.S. off
the planet. Out of existence altogether.
So what does that look like?
There’s no U.S. in America anymore. What’s on the map instead?
Well let’s just start with territoralities often delineated in
treaties of fact—territoralities of 500 indigenous nations imbued
with an inalienable right to self-determination, definable territoralities
which are jurisdictionally separate. Then you’ve got things like
the internal diasporic population of African Americans in internal colonies
that have been established by the imposition of labor patterns upon
them. You’ve got Appalachian whites. Since the U.S. unilaterally
violated its treaty obligations, it forfeits its rights—or presumption
of rights—under international law. Basically, you’ve got
a dismantlement and devolution of the U.S. territorial and jurisdictional
corpus into something that would be more akin to diasporic self-governing
entities and a multiplicity of geographical locations. A-ha, chew on
that one for awhile.
There’s no overarching authority other than consensus or agreement
between each of these. There has to be a collaborative and cooperative
arrangement rather than something that’s centrally organized
and arbitrarily imposed.
Is there any precedence for that in human history?
Well, partial precedence at least. It’s not worked out.
My ancestors did, in fact, generate their agreements voluntarily, serving
their own interests to do so; they did cede territory. Not the territory
that’s been taken, but the territory that’s been ceded
is legitimately in the ownership of someone else. So there is, in that
sense, a place for different populations, and accommodation arrangement
can be made for others.
It’s not a case of returning to things as they were in 1619 or
1606 or whatever you want to pick from history as being the “pre-here.”
It’s a matter of reasserting or sustaining the values and understandings
that came with the disposition of things that applied at that time,
and reapplying it or continuing to apply it in a contemporary context.
It’s a reordering of relations both between people in the singular,
and the rest of the natural order in a way that is coherent now. It’s
not everybody who’s not in some sense discernibly native needs
to leave in a physical sense. It’s that everybody who is not in
some sense native needs to figure out how to accommodate themselves
to life in either a native jurisdiction (as natives have been accommodating
themselves) and existing under somebody else’s jurisdiction. Or,
living in a jurisdiction of their own, but one that is constrained to
that legitimate jurisdiction. In other words, not having arbitrary authority
over anybody else’s lives, land or resources. To exist on the
basis of the resources available to them in this constricted land base.
A whole reordering of consciousness goes into that.
A self-defined spirit group in other words cannot assign itself a superior
right to benefit from somebody else’s property. That property,
I’m using in the broadest sense, includes their very lives.
What gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that people are imbued innately with consciousness
and you can potentially reorder that to arrive at an understanding
of what needs to be done. Once the understanding is there, the capacity
to do what necessary is obviously present. So despite the fact that
my experience tells me that it is unlikely (because of the vast preference
of the bulk of the people to indulge themselves personally, rather
than engage in something that might be effective but personally uncomfortable),
the possibility of an alteration in that consciousness, remains always
present. There’s where I find hope. That was a somewhat muddled
What would I do in the alternative if I were completely divested of
hope? Collect stamps. The reason to go on with the struggle is why
work. It’s not an event; it’s a process. And if one understands
one’s place in the world properly one is obligated to struggle.
Struggling, you’ve got to have hope that you can succeed. If not
in the immediacy of my lifetime, then to plant the seeds that can reach
maturation at some point. Now I have an obligation to my children and
my children’s children and generations out into the future, as
do we all, whether we understand it or not.
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