Editors’ Note: This
is Part Two of the explosive five-part interview series Joshua Frank,
author of Left Out!, did with University of Colorado Professor Ward
Churchill this summer.
Read Part I in this comprehensive series.
Joshua Frank: So, let's move on. I think we better talk about your Native American identity a bit. It has become one of the focuses in the attacks against you. So many hope they can discredit you by saying you've lied about your ancestry. They all think that you are a fraud and your gene pool can prove it. So, well, I’ll shoot it to you point blank: are you or aren't you a Native American?
Ward Churchill: Is there any particular definition you'd like me to use? There are more than 30 currently in effect under federal law alone. And then there's the ways in which Indians have traditionally gone about deciding who we are, which is usually a lot different from the way things are done now --although the methods always varied from group to group, and often within the groups themselves -- the way Hollywood has defined Indians, and so on. What's your preference?
JF: How about any definitions under which you don't qualify?
WC: I'm not a Hollywood Indian. Not even close. Other than that, I "qualify". Do you want me to run it down?
WC: Okay, let's start with the traditional native definition, which has to do with genealogy: "You are who your grandmother says you are." That's to say, your identity lodges in how your family understands its descent. So, the question in this regard is whether my family understands itself to be of American Indian descent, and the answer is that we do: All of us, apparently without exception, and by that I don't just mean my immediate family. The Rocky Mountain News recently assigned a senior reporter named Kevin Flynn to spend several months more-or-less, full-time, tracking down my relatives all over the country. We're talking here about fifth cousins once removed and such, people I'd never heard of, much less met, for the sole purpose of finding one who understood things differently.
Well, guess what? He came up dry. Every person Flynn contacted said essentially the same thing: We are descended from Joshua Tyner and Joshua was Cherokee. Even an uncle who is actively hostile to my publicly identifying with that aspect of my lineage confirmed that I've in no sense "misrepresented" anything by saying that I'm of Cherokee descent. That's who my grandmother told me I am, and my whole family confirms it. End of story. That's who I am.
JF: So the Rocky Mountain News has now admitted that you're Indian?
WC: Oh, hell no! They've just changed the reason, or reasons, why I'm supposedly not. And the way they've gone about it is very revealing. They started out in early February trying to build a case that I'd simply "invented" the whole thing at some point in the late ‘70s, although they were never quite clear about why I supposedly did so. One clown, Charlie Cambridge, was quoted several times "explaining" that I did it so I could sell my artwork. Another supposedly authoritative source explained that it was so people would buy my books, although I'd published none at that point. A half-dozen others provided the inside scoop on how I'd done it to get a job at the University of Colorado. That was the biggie. Both the News and the Denver Post ran copies of my affirmative action forms to "prove" the point.
That kept up until the Post sent a couple of reporters to my home town in Illinois to interview people I'd gone to high school with, trying to obtain evidence that, 40-odd years ago, I presented myself as being just another white kid (that's how the News ended up publishing a photo spread of my baby pictures). What they ended up with instead were recollections on several people's part that, yes, although I'd made no big deal of it, I had "mentioned" being of native descent even then. And, since I went to school with the same little group of about 50 kids from 6th grade on, that meant I've been identifying as Indian from at least as young as age 10. Right?
They couldn't simply bury the information because it was starting to come out in the Peoria Journal Star (that's the paper of record in central Illinois) and would inevitably end up on the web. So now they had a problem: either they had to argue that I was a really precocious little fucker, able as a 10-year-old to foresee the passage of affirmative action legislation more than a decade in the future -- and therefore start "pretending to be an Indian" so that by the time I was 30 I'd be able to "trick the Colorado taxpayers" into hiring me -- or they'd have to admit that it was not me, but rather the sources they'd previously been quoting to the exclusion of all others who'd been inventing my background. This, by the way, would have come as no surprise to any journalist professional enough to vet the veracity of his/her sources; Charlie Cambridge has long been viewed as an inveterate backstabber and habitual liar among people in the Denver Indian community.
In any event, "liberal alternative" to the News that it is (both papers are owned by the same parent corporation), the Post did neither. Instead, having done its part to help raise the "question" of my ethnicity, it just abruptly clammed up on the matter. Certainly, the allegation that I've perpetrated some sort of "ethnic fraud" has never again appeared in the Post. That's to their credit, I suppose, although the fact that they failed to publicly acknowledge or correct the demonstrable falsehoods incorporated into what they'd already published tends to speak for itself. In no sense did the Post meet even its most rudimentary responsibilities in that regard. But at least it stopped peddling the same lies once its reporters were confronted with unassailable evidence that that's what they were.
Not so, regarding the Rocky Mountain News. The point at which the Post fell silent coincides quite neatly with the point at which the News decided to pull out all the stops. Near as I can tell, this is when Kevin Flynn was assigned to try and find somebody in my family who would come forward and contradict me. It was also at this juncture, more-or-less, that Flynn and others at the News, apparently in concert with a couple of rightwing list-serves that I'll leave unnamed until I get things nailed down a little better, really geared up their campaign to coerce Keetoowah Band officials into changing their repeatedly-stated position on my enrollment status. Rationally speaking, there wasn't much point to it, since any realistic prospect that the "ethnic fraud" allegations might be sustainable evaporated the moment the recollections of my grade school classmates were mentioned in the Post.
Actually, there is one logical motive underlying both the manner in which the News has sought to discredit me on my home turf, and the sheer obsessiveness with which it has pursued that goal. This concerns the success with which Colorado AIM has been able to utilize a strategy of physically confronting Denver's annual Columbus Day parade, not only as a vehicle for radicalizing public consciousness around "Indian issues," but as a foundation upon which to build a coalition of progressive local organizations -- it's called the All Nations Alliance -- reflecting the full range of the city's ethnic diversity.
This, needless to say, has been anathema to Denver's white power structure, for which the News serves as head cheerleader, and so, since at least as far back as 1990, editorial page editor Vincent Carroll has been devoting considerable space to depicting us as being everything from "Brownshirts" to "common street thugs." But, [this] seems to have driven him absolutely wild; by 2002 (his frustration had become so palpable that it was conjuring delightful little images in the mind's eye of his foaming at the mouth, chewing on the carpet, and exhibiting all the other mythic symptoms of Hitlerian degeneracy), Carroll's spew has had no discernable effect. Utter impotence; he's been firing verbal blanks. If anything, his rants have helped solidify our credibility, and thus our success as organizers.
The best illustration of just how ineffectual Vinnie has been in convincing the general public to view us as "criminals" can be found in the fact that, thus far, the City of Denver has filed roughly 2,000 charges against upwards of 500 individuals in connection with our Transform Columbus Day (TCD) protests, and has yet to win a single conviction. Not one. There've been a few people who entered pleas for personal reasons (they were from out of state, or whatever), but the City had no viable alternative other than to dismiss the charges against almost everyone else. The reason is that in the two instances where they did conduct what amounted to show trials (select groups of "ringleaders" were prosecuted in 1992 and 2005), they suffered the humiliation of having juries return "not guilty" verdicts on every charge against every defendant. As it stands, if you count by the number of people prosecuted, they're 0 for 12; if you count by charges put to juries, they're 0 for 28.
There's a lot that should be said about how this came to pass, but, for the moment, let's just say that as a member of the leadership council of Colorado AIM, I've been highly visible in the process, a defendant in both trials, and that, in the most recent one, this past January, I not only testified but defended myself pro se. This is significant because we'd barely finished the press conference following our acquittals when the local media launched its campaign against me. In fact, it started the very next day and has only lately begun to abate. It was running full tilt in Denver for about six months, even though, at a national level, it only lasted for about 60 days or so with intermittent follow-ups by Bill O'Reilly.
JF: Can you explain how this all ties in?
WC: Sure. Here's how it ties together. The City Attorney's staff did a quick post mortem analysis of how they'd managed once again to lose such a high profile, slam-dunk case in so spectacular a fashion. Their conclusion, which I don't happen to share, incidentally, was that I myself had been the decisive ingredient in convincing the jury to acquit. This isn't mere speculation: prosecutors were quoted to that effect in the News. The story was by a reporter named Charlie Brennan, who's been a key player right from the start. He sat through the whole trial, watching, listening very attentively, and taking copious notes. So, the instant the prosecutors delivered their take on what needed "fixing" if we were to be prevented from dispensing still further humiliation to the powers that be, Brennan -- which is to say, the News and its collaborators in the electronic media -- were ready to roll.
They've taken my testimony, point by point, and assigned reporters -- on some cases whole teams of reporters -- to cast doubt upon what I said on the stand, as well as my character more generally. It's been in some respects rather systematic: they've gone after my scholarship, trying to undermine confidence in my historical and legal interpretations; they've questioned my military record -- even while conceding that I am in fact a decorated Vietnam veteran -- and ridiculed the quality of the university I attended on the GI Bill; my driving record has been analyzed in print, as have my credit history and the types of vehicles I've purchased over the past dozen years; Brennan in particular has adopted a cant worthy of the National Inquirer, interviewing my ex-wives and so on, trying to paint me as a violent abuser. All that's in addition to Kevin Flynn's persistence in raising the "Indian Question." Brennan's had a heavy hand in that one, too.
JF: What do you think their motivation or goal is here?
WC: The goal, insofar as it can be defined in rational terms, is to discredit me in such a way as to nullify the effect of any testimony I might give in the future. That, and to cast me in as personally unsympathetic a light as possible in the eyes of any jury I might encounter. In that sense, the whole thing amounts more to attempted jury tampering than to journalism of even the most disreputable sort.
More broadly, the thinking seems to be that, since I've been so out front in the Transform Columbus Day effort, and in the leadership of Colorado AIM, discrediting me will have a ripple effect in terms of discrediting both AIM and the anti-Columbus Day protests. From there, I guess they figure the All Nations Alliance as a whole will begin to unravel. Again, I question the validity of their strategy -- what they're trying to halt will continue, with or without me -- but that doesn't mean they're not pursuing the game plan I've described. And, of course, there's the way all this fits in with the ACTA initiatives and such at a national level, but we've already covered that to some extent.
JF: Okay, I've just got to ask: How's your driving record? [laughter] And, more seriously, what's your sense of whether there's been involvement by police and/or federal intelligence agencies in the media's campaign to neutralize your political effectiveness? I am not talking about any lofty conspiracy theory there. It’s happened before on many occasions, as you've pointed out in The COINTELPRO Papers and elsewhere. The FBI in particular has a long history of orchestrating these sorts of ventures.
WC: Well, let's see, on my driving record, I think the worst they were able to come up with was my receiving a warning ticket for a burned-out headlight about three or four years ago. Same with my credit history: The hot news flash a few months ago was that I settled an outstanding education loan at some point in the late ‘80s. The one they really got me on, though, was my record of vehicle purchases. With that, they were able to establish conclusively that I have a marked preference for driving pickup trucks, indeed, I've bought two of them since 1995 -- so I can "look more like an Indian" according to the lily-white yuppie liberals at the Boulder Daily Camera -- and still own/drive the newest, a ‘98 Chevy. Can you believe they actually wasted newsprint on this sort of shit?
As to possible FBI involvement, it's almost certain that there is. We know, for example, that the Bureau's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Denver has active files on Colorado AIM and its "notables" -- some of this material, dating from 2002 and focusing on our TCD organizing, has recently been released through an ACLU lawsuit, but I've not seen it yet -- so there's no disputing the fact that they're surveilling us under the rubric of "counterterrorism". It's also important to mention, since the JTTF involves direct collaboration between the FBI and local police intelligence personnel, that it was revealed a couple of years ago that, since the late-‘80s, the Denver PD's intelligence unit had been secretly building what they called "criminal extremist" files, not only on Colorado AIM, although ours was far and away the most extensive, but more than 200 other organizations as well. So, yeah, the FBI's definitely in the picture.
And you're right about the media having collaborated with the FBI during the COINTELPRO era, often quite enthusiastically, by printing disinformation provided by the Bureau about activists designated "key agitators." It was a well-developed technique for political "neutralization" -- that's the FBI's own term for it -- and they had hundreds of "friendly" or "cooperating" journalists -- again, that's FBI terminology -- and a few dozen editors enlisted for that purpose. It should be emphasized that the media people involved weren't "mislead" or "tricked" into doing what they did; they knew full well they were putting out false information, deliberately smearing people targeted by the FBI for political reasons.
There's a long list of people this was done to, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King. One of the worst cases -- and maybe I'm only treating it as a "worst case example" because I was there and witnessed a large part of it firsthand -- was that of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969. For months beforehand, the local papers, especially the Chicago Tribune, were absolutely relentless in running derogatory information about Hampton, all of which was later proven to be false. Then, after his murder, which was actually set up by the FBI, they really went into overdrive, trying to exonerate the police. There were about two-dozen "journalists" involved in this single operation, the nastiest of them being a guy named Ron Koziol at the Tribune, a real scuzzball who, come to think of it, puts me in mind of several reporters working [on] my story for the Rocky Mountain News.
This sort of thing supposedly ended when COINTELPRO was "discontinued" in 1971, or in the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings in 1975, or after the new FBI guidelines were put into place a couple years after that, or sometime, but, of course, it never did. The FBI was certainly running the same kind of operation against CISPES and the Sanctuary movement during the 1980s, and then there was all that utter nonsense published in the press about the Branch Davidians a decade later, and I shouldn't even need to mention how Arabs and Arab Americans have been treated by the media since 9-1-1. A lot of the Bureau's function back in the "bad old days" of COINTELPRO has since been privatized by outfits like Clear Channel and Fox News, but the FBI is still "interacting" with selected editors and reporters in very much the same fashion as it always has.
So, yeah, I'll be very surprised if it turns out that the JTTF has not had a hand in the blitz on me, although the only fairly solid circumstantial evidence I have of it at this point is the way even the News suddenly dropped the "issue" of my military service. After all, they started out by suggesting that I might never have seen combat, or done recon work, or any of the other things I'd recounted during the trial, because my "military records don't support such claims." Truth is, they didn't have my records, which are classified. Instead, they were pretending that a one-page summary form from the National Archive -- plainly inaccurate and incomplete -- added up to the same thing. That deception might in itself have enabled them to concoct a whole series of insinuations, and they undoubtedly would have, had they not been told, in no uncertain terms and by someone in a position to know, that they were setting themselves up to get burned.
This raises the question of who would be "in a position to know" what's in my actual file? Obviously, it had to be someone with ready access to classified material, that means feds, and that, at least in the connection we're discussing here, all but inevitably means the FBI. It's the same "service" the Bureau provided back in the early ‘70s to editors and reporters collaborating in its campaign to discredit Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) by implying that it was infested with "peaceniks" who'd never even been in the military and veterans who'd "invented" their combat experience. Sound familiar?
Clearly, if you're going to play that game, it's kind of important that you not get caught "exposing as a fraud" some guy who's not. Otherwise, you end up validating your target and discrediting yourself. I mean, the very idea of some snotty little reporter who's in all likelihood never heard a shot fired in anger defaming a bona fide "war hero" doesn't play too well, even in Peoria, or maybe especially in Peoria. Right? So the FBI was very careful to check the DoD files and warn the press off whenever allegations that any specific VVAW activist had "claimed a phony war record" seemed likely to backfire. The media campaign they'd started on this front eventually just sort of dribbled off into nothing because, in the end, they really couldn't come up with any "fraudulent vets" to expose, and it looks like that's pretty much what happened in my case.
JF: Sorry to stop ya, but aren’t we getting off track here a bit?
WC: Yeah, I guess so. What we've been talking about for the past few minutes makes it sound like everything is all perfectly logical, fitting into some conspiratorial master plan. And that's at best only partly true. Actually, it looks like there might be a couple or three "master plans" at work here, and that they're often not very well in sync with one another. So much for grand conspiracies. Even taken in combination, it seems to me that, although it may well be true that things are playing out differently at a national level, that's not been the decisive factor in determining how the local media offensive has evolved.
What I was starting to say before going into the Denver establishment's agenda, the FBI's, and so on, was that I don't think rationality really enters into what an appreciable segment of the local media has been doing. Or, at most, rational objectives of the sort we've been discussing have played a very secondary role. I've already touched upon the situation with Vincent Carroll. What I haven't mentioned is that the same pertains to a number of Denver area reporters. They've consistently displayed a huge emotional investment in "getting" me, quite apart from their usual ideological biases. And the form it's taken, that of an undeviating insistence that they and they alone are entitled to define my identity, was perfectly predictable.
After all, I went out of my way to goad them into it.
JF: Goad them? Wait a minute, Ward, let me tag you right there. You're saying that you wanted them to make an issue of your ethnicity? That in effect you've been playing them?
WC: Like a violin.
JF: Well, I think that requires an explanation.
WC: Yeah. Okay, I'll run it down, beginning with the fact that both my tactics and my "strategic vision," as it were, are based on a lifetime's experience with and a reasonably comprehensive analysis of the white racist mentality. Why white racism, rather than factors like religious or political orientation? Because, as I see it, racism plainly transcends such divisions among whites, unifying them in ways that were much and quite constructively discussed during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but which are -- ahem! -- no longer fashionable to address. If you want to "alienate" white folk of most any political persuasion these days, just introduce the topic of racism to a conversation devolving upon such preferred issues as the need for building more and better bike paths, abolishing cigarettes, or creating "properly gendered space."
Recognition of the continuing primacy of racism in defining the character of the American "mainstream" being essential to understanding everything else this country does, and preservation of their privilege under the resulting socioeconomic order being preeminent in motivating whites people's collective insistence upon obfuscating that reality, has led me over the years to explore any number of ways and means of fostering the former by confronting and exposing the latter. If I've a "vocation", that's it. Everything I've done since coming back from Vietnam towards the end of 1968 -- activism, teaching, writing -- all of it really comes down to that.
So, naturally, after recovering from my initial surprise when the "great controversy" erupted back it January -- it took me about a week to do so -- I immediately began to consider how it could be used not only to demonstrate the ongoing ubiquity and virulence of white racism in the U.S., but as a lens through which to focus attention on some of the more insidious ways in which it asserts itself. It follows that my strategic objectives have been what they always are: to use the nature of the attack on me as a means of forcing cognition of something a lot of people simply do not want to cognate, and thereby to further the realization of what somebody, my apologies for not remembering who, once quite aptly described it as a "transformative consciousness." I'm not sure at all that whoever coined the term meant what I meant by it. The tactics I've employed derive from those goals.
Sorry if I've been sounding pontifical, but that really is how I frame things. In any event, the part about demonstrating ubiquity has been a real no-brainer. All I have to do is point to the obvious, do a little tabulating, and then call the result by its right name. So, let's start with what is -- or should be --among the most obvious points of all: The composition of the Denver media is so glaringly white that you need to wear sunglasses to avoid going snow-blind any time you face off with it. Any more questions out there about why I tend to wear shades? [laughter] There are virtually no people of color employed as editors, reporters or columnists by the press, mainstream or "alternative", and the electronic media are little better.
Needless to say, this doesn't happen by accident in a locale where nearly a third of the population is "non-white", and that in itself holds some very tangible implications with regard to the way information and opinion are packaged for public consumption. The effects are abundantly clear. Witness the fact that, of the very few flashes of color you can spot among the sea of white faces comprising the Denver press corps -- Reggie Rivers for example -- none have been involved in the smear campaign. On the contrary, whenever they've written about -- or, perhaps more accurately, they've been permitted to write about -- "The Churchill Issue," they have done so in a uniformly fair and accurate manner.
Paul Campos might be viewed as an exception if not for his pathetically obvious eagerness to convince the white guys he writes for that, "in his heart," he's every bit as white as -- or even whiter than -- they are. And, of course, since "white" is ultimately a mindset rather than a gene code, he is-not so white as the likes of Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Condi Rice or Michelle Malkin, perhaps, but give him a break, he's working on it. By any honest assessment, then, the local media attack has come exclusively from white journalists and commentators, a situation only slightly more ambiguous at the national level.
The same holds true for the audience to which the "news" stories and op-ed pieces are pitched, and with whom they resonate. How do I know? Well, I've got a pile of about 4,000 pieces of hate mail at this point, and maybe 50 of them appear to be from people of color. The trend holds when you look at the scores of letters to the editor reviling me in the Denver area press during February and March. Every one of them was written by a white guy or gal. Such letters by people of color as were actually printed -- and there weren't many -- were entirely supportive.
Callers on the radio talk shows? Same thing. I've got a random sample of tapes and CDs people recorded for me over a 60-day period. I've not yet done a precise computation, but my preliminary estimate is that, no matter whose program or what time of day, well over 90% of all call-in "guests" were white, and that although not all white callers were hostile to me, all hostile callers -- and that's about 85% of the total sample -- were. Of the relatively few people of color who actually made it on the air, all were supportive, or tried to be; they were routinely shouted down or simply disconnected by the Three Stooges of Clear Channel -- Caplis, Silverman and Peter Boyles -- flaming white guys, one and all.
How about the bloggers? I don't know of a single anti-Churchill blog run or even contributed to by a person or group of color. Do you?
WC: Whether, like Marc Cooper's, they're ostensibly "leftist" in orientation, or openly rightwing operations like PirateBallerina, the blogs at issue are to all appearances an exclusively white domain. Pun definitely intended. Chat rooms? I'm a long way from having collected enough strings to have completed what I'd consider an adequate sample, but based on what I have now -- and that's a lot -- it looks like the data will turn out to be even more decisive than it is for talk radio.
I've sort of drifted from the local to something broader at this point, so I suppose it's worth noting that the picture doesn't change much when you look at the press and electronic media nationally. Actually, after an initial flurry of items in such publications as National Review and the Wall Street Journal -- all of them known for nothing so much as the ethnic/racial diversity of those they publish, right? And a follow-up feature in the Weakly Standard which, big surprise, wasn't written by a black guy -- the print media hasn't been much involved at the national level.
The electronic media are another story, however. There, apart from Bill O'Reilly, the heavy hitters have been Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough, with an occasional back-up chorus from Chris Matthews and, of course, CNN's Paula Zahn, the one time I gave her a shot. That's all TV, of course, but it's the same thing on radio: the big-time attack dogs have been O'Reilly, Hannity again, and, assuming he still qualifies as "big-time", Rush Limbaugh. The overall effect when you visualize these guys is similar to that produced by one of Rauschenberg's blank white canvases. But let's be fair: Who could the cable news channels possibly use to relieve the monotone: Geraldo? Neither they nor Clear Channel employ anyone but whites in such capacities.
Have I been concentrating too much on right-wingers? Not by choice. That's where all the noise has been coming from. On the left, other than when Anthony Lappé and a few others I could name have joined [Marc] Cooper in competing to see who can be the first to truly outfox Fox, the silence on the left has been downright deafening.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted rate at www.brickburner.org. Joshua can be reached at Joshua@brickburner.org.
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