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Robert Mugabe

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APRIL 3, 2006. A day after New Yorkers marked the first anniversary of September 11th, a group of prominent New York City Council members stood a few blocks away from where the Twin Towers fell, and feted a man who was starving, torturing, and killing his own people. A photo caught them inside City Hall, the exultant Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe surrounded by a group of black New York City Council members. They were all smiling broadly as if Mugabe had been telling jokes.

In my six years as co-editor of The Gully, it's one of the images that has stuck with me most, a murderer framed by those laughing faces. Theirs were the faces of American arrogance and willful ignorance about the world, the very thing that helped precipitate the catastrophe of 9/11, and its current sequel.

It was especially indecent that most of the reportedly 16 Council members fawning around the dictator were African-American and the rest Latinos, with the lone Asian Council member and two whites thrown in. All but the two whites were members of the City Council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, which at the time included 21 of the Council's 51 members. The Caucus co-chair, Councilman Hiram Monserrate attended, and the event was ambiguously billed, so that it appeared to be an official Caucus tribute to Mugabe. I shouldn't have been surprised a couple of years later when many in the Latino community supported the nomination of torture advocate Alberto Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General. After all, he's one of us. Like Mugabe.

When the photo and news of the Mugabe tribute was published the next day in The New York Times, City Council members who had not attended the meeting closed ranks with few exceptions, avoided the press, and generally refused to criticize their Mugabe-loving colleagues, particularly the event's instigator, Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron.

Zimbabwe Under Mugabe
80's: As many as 20,000 killed in anti-Ndebele genocide
Land "redistributed" to family and political cronies, opposition starved
HRW: Journalists arrested and harrassed
HRW: Forced evictions leave 700,000 people homeless
HRW: Opposition arrested and harassed
Amnesty International: Zimbabwe Report 2002

Likewise, New York City's vast array of black, Latino, queer, and other community and civil and human rights organizations were largely silent, as if it were either irrelevant or taboo to denounce the open-armed greeting of a black African tyrant that oppressed black Africans, including those who were queer. Mugabe had already called us "worse than dogs and pigs" and "sexual perverts" and had launched a violent, politically manipulative brand of homophobia that has quickly spread throughout neighboring countries like Uganda, and is getting worse every day.

I found the near-silence stunning. While all violations of human rights everywhere should concern all, one would expect ethnic or identity-based groups to defend their own grassroots compatriots vigorously. Otherwise, why do they exist?

The only queer group to immediately react was the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP): it issued a press release. I spoke next morning, Friday September 13th, with AVP official Clarence Patton. In addition to the press release, he had tried to reach one or two of the event's organizers, but none had returned his calls. I asked him what was AVP going to do next. I expected to hear that at least a queer community meeting would be held, that some public effort would be made to educate and hold accountable the Mugabe-loving City Council members. He said, "That's it. We're done with this."

That same night, on September 13, AVP, along with several other queer groups, protested in front of a modest gay bar in Manhattan against an obscure comedian named Chuck Knipp. Mr. Knipp, a white gay man, performed in drag and blackface material deemed racist by a black man who had seen it the night before. The presence of the fifty or so demonstrators on the street led to the police shutting down the bar for the night, canceling the performance.

The New York weekly Gay City News reported that the successful protest was organized in just a few hours, the complainant having called the AVP office that same morning as me. An open letter against Knipp signed by more than forty queer organizations was rushed to the media immediately and widely distributed through queer community channels, even though apparently none of the protest organizers had themselves seen Chuck Knipp perform.

The outrage and quick action provoked by the anonymous Mr. Knipp contrasts sharply with the indifference to the Mugabe tribute the day before, and the complacency with the elected officials who perpetrated it. But they had something in common in a way: they were equally thoughtless.

Knipp, after all, was an easy target. There was no need to see him perform before passing judgment. With the likes of Knipp, a bell goes off in our politically correct queer activist minds telling us what to do. No thinking involved. I know that response well. I've had it implanted in me for decades. We get a lot of pats on the back from our inner conformist, and from our activist friends when we parrot the "right"-thinking lines we're expected to regurgitate. Each time, it is a struggle to get past my Pavlovian conditioning and think with my own head.

In Knipp's case, activists only saw a question of racism. With the bell tolling against that, they ignored the overriding moral and political value that freedom of speech and artistic freedom have for the oppressed — including the racially oppressed and defamed. Increasingly, activists rely on the suppression of speech, without considering that making a habit of stamping out even clear hate speech could rebound on us one day. There is no one socially weaker than queers. Given that we're universally despised, or at best, tolerated here and there, for the time being, we might want to reserve the right to offend, but still keep our livelihood and our lives.

Mugabe was ignored with the same lack of thought that led activists to attack Knipp. We find it hard to imagine the world beyond our tiny activist-centric nook, and trying to create an action about remote Zimbabwe is like planning a trip to Mars for most people. Compared to the obscure performer, Mugabe and his pals were a harder target. Not because it was hard to find out that the dictator has killed more people than the attacks of September 11th — a quick Internet search would have sufficed for that — but because we don't want to demand too much, too often, too publicly from our friendly Black, Latino, and Asian City Council Caucus members.

Besides, those little activist bells in our heads are ideologically programmed to start pealing if we break racial or identity ranks, or have any complicated thought about ourselves, and our place in the world. We can go so far and no further. The little bell gave a few warning rings: the guy's a former anti-colonialist hero; better pretend he wasn't here and this never happened: who needs the aggravation? I know. My ears were ringing, too. I kept silent.

Activists on automatic pilot are increasingly shortsighted, if not counterproductive. The world has suddenly shrunk in this 9/11 era. Mugabe's "worse than dogs and pigs" could spawn a homophobic murder in East New York or Kampala. The New York City Hall love-fest may have spawned more killings, torture, and rapes in Zimbabwe, as the regime basked in the approval of our Council members. At the very least, it abetted Mugabe's numerous and subsequent crimes.

History is shifting under our feet. Cause and effect are not what we expected. The first casualty of the new U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations against indecency is not racist or homophobic hate speech but a kiss between two girls, axed by the WB network from a new TV program. The ringing bell that has us hopping to received knowledge, and platitudes, while inculcating moral and intellectual laziness, is an instrument of activist decay. We keep listening to it at our own risk.

African Dictator's New York Boosters
Zimbabwe Under Mugabe


From the Web

NY Review of Books: Doris Lessing's The Jewel of Africa
The New Republic: Bob's Your Uncle
Zimbabwean Gay Group Wins Award


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