Ward Churchill speaking at the Women's Building in San Francisco on March 25, 2005
Between March 25 and March 28, Ward Churchill -- Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado -- came to the San Francisco Bay Area and gave a series of speeches, primarily to discuss the controversy swirling around him, but also to promote his book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. The first of these speeches took place on the evening of March 25 at The Women's Building in San Francisco's Mission District.
This page is a report on what happened that night. (For the reports on his other appearances, click here.)
There was a long line to get in -- the event was sold out and only those who had bought tickets in advance were allowed admission. As soon as I got inside, a fellow attendee consented to having his picture taken:
This pretty much set the tone for the evening.
After an introduction from the event's sponsor (AK Press, the anarchist publishing house that released On the Justice of Roosting Chickens), and a short speech by Churchill's wife and fellow professor Natsu Saito, Churchill bounded onto the stage to thunderous applause.
He began his presentation with a reaffirmation of his claims to Native American ancestry, and almost immediately detoured into a series of tangential asides -- which I soon learned was a distinctive trademark of the Churchill speaking style.
Listen to the beginning of Churchill's speech.
(Clicking on this link -- and all the similar links below -- will open a QuickTime mp3 file of Churchill speaking. Each of the files is between 200k and 800k in size, and will open in a new window. Below each mp3 link is an exact transcription of Churchill's words. Phrases [in brackets] indicate portions that are not clearly audible.)
"Hello, my relatives, it's good to see you here. It's an honor to be here. I bring you greetings from the elders of the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, my people; the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement, of which I've been a part since 1980, which you can see on C-Span if you wanna tune into the University of Colorado speech that was given pretty much at the beginning of this nonsense; and from Gwarth-ee-lass, otherwise known as Leonard Peltier, who tonight, as I speak to you, continues to sit in a cage in a federal prison, Leavenworth, Kansas, not for anything anyone including even his prosecutor has been willing to say at any point in the last twenty years at least that they believe he actually did, but rather as a symbol of the arbitrary ability of the federal government of the United States to repress the legitimate aspiration: the liberation of indigenous people within its claimed boundaries and put the emphasis on claimed there's a difference between a claim and a reality."
After this dazzling and dizzying start, a woman in front of me put on some kind of strange hat, blocking my view. But when I moved up to get a closer look, I realized it wasn't a hat at all, but rather a specially-made "roosting chicken" head-gear:
She had an ecstatic look in her eye -- that appeared to indicate an almost religious devotion to Churchill and his message.
Oh dear! She wasn't alone. Several additional members of the Cult of Roosting Chickens donned their sacred caps. They cheered enthusiastically throughout the speech (as did most of the other 300+ audience members).
The entire speech, along with the question-and-answer session that followed, lasted over an hour and a half, so I can't present it to you in its entirety. Instead, below you will find a selection of audio and video clips of Churchill's most interesting (and controversial) statements.
I had no college education
At one point, Churchill discussed the circumstances of his original hiring at the University of Colorado, saying that the university made the mistake of not really looking into who exactly it was that they were hiring -- especially since he has no college education (QuickTime mpeg video, 2.3mb):
"And I think they felt that I was going to be vulnerable, and I'd cave because of my particular background. I don't come from a privileged background. I didn't have a college education or all that. I'm one of those, uh, what they call them in that book titled Strangers in Paradise. Although paradise ain't. And I was lookin' for a job when I got there, and they miscalculated 'cause they shot from the hip and they moved quick and I'm not backin' up."
(A little background on this: Churchill's critics have charged [and their charges have never been rebutted] that Churchill's BA and MA from Sangamon State in Illinois entailed almost no course work and very little studying, and that his PhD was merely an honorary title given by a minor college in upstate New York, and involved no course work whatsoever.)
No American is innocent
One of Churchill's main themes is that, because of America's long history of government-sponsored genocide and violence (at least as Churchill sees it), no American is innocent. In this clip he tries to explain how the victims of 9/11 merited the description "little Eichmanns" simply because they participated in American society:
"You cannot be engaged in a process that derives and devolves from what we're talking about as an historical legacy that finds its footing in that holocaustal horror of protracted dominion on the one hand and generates the kind of carnage on a routine basis that the US projection of power around the world does now and be innocent at the same time. You can prevaricate, you can rationalize, you can justify, you can do whatever you want, but the one thing you cannot purport to, if you are a conscious being in any sense at all in this country, is innocence."
US politicians and diplomats, past and present, deserve to be executed in public
Churchill says he dreams of executing Madeleine Albright and other US politicians -- including the current administration:
[Reading question from audience member] " 'A far cry admittedly so: do you see criminal charges against this administration for its current globalization strategy efforts?' I don't know whether the question is framed -- do I actually think there's gonna be criminal charges brought? Or would I like to see criminal charges brought? The answer to the, uh, second question, if that's what was intended, is kind of a no-brainer. I mean I already said I have these delightful visions which is what puts me to sleep at night of Madeleine Albright, Jesse Helms, and Henry Kissinger all in a nice neat little row with nooses around their neck and [audience applause]... And the current crop is amply entitled to the same destiny as far as I'm concerned. Do I think anybody's going to do it? Well, that's an interesting question. Who would be doing it? There's only one possible answer: you. We. Us."
Attacking Charlie Brennan
Churchill does not take kindly to reporters who write articles that could in any way be construed as critical. In this clip, Churchill launches a disturbing verbal attack on Rocky Mountain News reporter Charlie Brennan, who has been covering the Churchill controversy since its inception:
"But the help they've gotten has been from the media. Charlie Brennan, are you here? Please stand up and take a bow. Because you're a primary hitter in this. That the more you [...] in San Francisco. Yeah -- hi, Charlie. Havin' a nice day, now? My turn. I got the high ground. It's our interview, the one that you said you might be willing to do -- are you still beating your wife, Charlie? Answer me yes or no, please. And remember, I got nine people hate your guts that are gonna comment on whatever it is you have to say. Charlie -- you and my colleagues on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder that purport to be white: I want to see the proof. I want to [crowd noise]... You purport to be a man. You purport to be a man. You never purported to be anything else, and yet only one of your parents was, and you know it. [Audience laughter] [Now you know] the feeling, to be called out in public and put on that kind of idiotic spot and call it journalism. Well, I'm practicing a journalistic trade now and I expect a job at the Rocky Mountain News right here."
Churchill searches for Charlie Brennan in the crowd.
If you're curious as to what kind of muckracking attack-dog journalist Charlie Brennan might be to deserve this treatment, you can read Brennan's own article describing this event in this link -- in which he's completely even-handed and doesn't even mention Churchill's outburst.
Churchill's evidence of his Native American heritage
As Brennan revealed in the article linked to above, Churchill said he will not cooperate with the University of Colorado's investigation into his claims of Native American Heritage. Churchill does in fact use his purported Indian-ness as the basis for much of what he has to say. But despite an avalanche of criticism on the subject, and innumerable opportunities to back up his claim, Churchill has no evidence to offer except for this: that his mother and grandmother told him he was an Indian:
"I identified myself as being Keetoowah band Cherokee. Let me put that as just straight-up Cherokee. Why am I Keetoowah band Cherokee? Because my grandmother told me I was. Why am I Cherokee? Because my mother told me I was."
Yes, that's it. That's the extent of his evidence. And he announced at this event that he has nothing more to say on the subject and will not present any more evidence for his claims of Indian heritage:
"What kind of lunatic asylum are we living in here, where this is treated credible and newsworthy? An issue for determination by committee in some back room in an institution. I am who my grandmother said I was. I am who my mother said I was. I will be, irrespective of any determination for the committee with which I will not cooperate. Has nothing to do with nothing."
In case you're curious about this subject, here is an independent investigation into Churchill's lineage -- with a downloadable family tree for both sides of his family dating back to the 1700s -- that shows (as far as anybody can tell) that Churchill has no Native American ancestors. Regardless of what his mother may or may not have told him.
Churchill describes how he advised anarchists to infiltrate mainstream society
After strategizing that it is more important to use technology to further social disruption than it is to live according to eco-principles, Churchill went on to recount a controversial recording that was secretly made at an earlier appearance (QuickTime mpeg video, .8mb):
"It ain't about the personal purity -- it's about being effective. Now one of them that's really driven them up the wall in the Clear Channel is I told a bunch of self-described Black Bloc-ers in a bookstore one night to cut your hair, ya know, untangle your head from the jewelry, fill in the holes with body putty, put on some straight-lookin' clothes so they can't see who you are. Get inside. Bring your weapon to bear. 'Oh my God he's advocating people turn themselves into suicide bombers.' No. I don't think suicide is a particularly constructive approach. You're probably more useful when you're still breath[ing]."
Little Eichmanns and Chickens Coming Home to Roost
Churchill's speech wasn't entirely composed of digressions and tangents. At various points he did return to the main theme, what most people in the audience had come to hear: An elaboration of what Churchill meant by the phrases "little Eichmanns" and "chickens coming home to roost." The basic one-sentence summary of Churchill's Eichmann analogy is this: Eichmann was not a cold-blooded killer, but rather a bureaucrat whose willingness to be a cog in the Nazi machine contributed to the Holocaust; and since the long history of America's heinous crimes against humanity make the United States at least as bad as Nazi Germany, then anyone who works, however passively, to allow the functioning of American society is thereby the moral equivalent of Eichmann, and thus the victims of 9/11 were "little Eichmanns" who basically had it coming. Let's hear Churchill summarize it himself:
"What was the substance of what was said that drove everybody up the wall? I made a comparison of what I called a technocratic corps of empire to 'little Eichmanns.' Eichmann. We already know the resonance of the name. Not very many people know very much about the man, what it was that he did. In the first wave of responses I got out of this was, 'He's the guy that killed the Jews.' 'This is a Nazi. Killed Jews.' Sorry. He didn't. Adolf Eichmann was brought to a court of law and prosecuted for his crimes -- in Israel, no less -- with the survivors as witnesses, with the survivors of the victims as his prosecutors. But he was never accused of having killed anyone, Jewish or no. He arranged train schedules."
Then, after an extremely detailed litany of American and European crimes against "brown-skinned others," ranging from the economic sanctions against Iraq (yes, the economic sanctions during the '90s, not the current war -- a lot of his political calculus seems rooted in the Clinton era), to the battle for the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, all the way back to the Dutch mistreatment of the native inhabitants of Manhattan Island in the 1600s, Churchill went on to explain that the ghosts of all those killed during these conflicts got their revenge on 9/11:
"Maybe, like Malcolm [X] said, it was the chickens comin' home to roost. But how can you liken these chickens and how do you tie that to the 500,000 [Iraqi children who reportedly died as a result of the UN sanctions]? Well, let's say the chickens might be likened to ghosts or wraiths or spirits or ancestors. Call them what you will. Whatever your tradition may be -- it's fine. So there's 500,000 youthful Iraqi childrens -- youthful Iraqi chickens or ghosts sitting on those wings of those aircraft as they're comin' in, an untold number of thousand Palestinian children as well. Probably the Iraqi adults, and that'd be another half million. How 'bout three million Indochinese? How 'bout those people at No-Gun-Ri, Korea? The United States' enforcement of another partition on someone else's country in the name of freedom."
A veritable juggernaut of verbiage.
"Last I heard, it was rock-throwing"
If you were a bit confused by the reference to ghosts of Palestinian children on the wings of the hijacked planes on 9/11, and if you want further evidence of Churchill's Rip Van Winkle-esque focus on '90s-era radical theories, give a listen to Churchill's anachronistic analysis of the Palestine situation:
"And then there's this little matter of Palestinian children killed time and again for throwing rocks for the intifada -- the last I heard, it was rock-throwing. A little bit of heavy action, not exactly a violent opposition to the armed occupation of a homeland that's been lasting for two generations, in the name of security and stability as the US defines it for the purposes of sustaining US interests and penetration in that strategically crucial area of the world. Why strategically crucial? Because of the oil that flanks it. There is no oil in Palestine. There is oil in the contiguous areas and that's the beachhead that which you assert the dominion that's necessary to cause the oil to flow with a certain degree of regularity in the area. These are known facts. These are facts that were ignored by the people who engaged in maximization of profit."
No capitalism + no Marxism = the ultimate desired system: Anarchy
Despite being fervently anti-American, Churchill is in fact not a Marxist nor a Communist, and has said so on several occasions (though his "scholarship" is based on a neo-Marxist worldview). Instead, he professes anarchism, especially the sort of pre-civilizational anarchism that he recommends in this video clip, in which he condemns both capitalism and Marxism (QuickTime mpeg video, 1.7mb):
[Answering an audience question as to whether capitalism is bad (yes) and what other systems would he suggest] "And my first alternative would be: to have no capitalism. My second alternative might be to suggest drawing on some viable models that have been sustained over thousands of years outside of this Eurocentric paradigm of alternatives where you get Tweedledee or Tweedledum. Okay? Where you get capitalism or we can have the Marxian alternative, which takes capitalism as the absolute required precondition. Yo! How about if you want not to be in that box at all? I'm seeing the alternative is framed on the foundation of that which it opposes, it is not particularly appealing to-- it's just not appealing. And I don't know too many people, personally, that it appeals to, so maybe we ought to try something different. Not new! Maybe we could look around and see if there's something that's held up the test of time and not necessarily hold that there has to be some genius white guy who thought it up."
US out of America -- whatever it takes
Churchill occasionally panders to what he knows the audience wants to hear, such as this call for the United States to get out of "here", i.e America. In other words, to cease existing:
"All my life, at least since adulthood, I've been participating in movements that call for the United States to be out of somewhere. Out of Vietnam, out of Indochina, out of Caribbean basin, out of Central America, out of Southern Africa, out of..., out of out of out of. I agree with all that, but it's all symptomatic rather than causal. The one place the United States would need to be out of in its present form would be here." [Applause.]
And how is this to be achieved? Well, Churchill uses his patented Postmodern Professor-Speak to suggest (but not really) armed struggle against the United States, while at the same time disavowing his suggestion. Not a call for violence in overt terms that The Man can pin on him, but rather a crypto-call for violence implied in the oh-so-clever code phrase "doing whatever it is that turns out to be necessary":
"We're in solidarity with the NLF, we're in solidarity with the Sandinistas, we're in solidarity with the ANC, we're in solidarity with movements of armed struggle everyplace in the world except here. 'Oh! No, no, no, no no no -- not here! Not here.' Those rules apply everywhere but here because obviously those rules entail risk. Discomfort. Sacrifices. Now here I am advocating everybody go out and be violent. [Audience laughter.] No, I'm not. What I am advocating is doing whatever it is that turns out to be necessary to compel the United States to comport itself in a fashion that is civilized among civilized people so that perhaps maybe those [will] stop dying. If that means people gotta suffer here a bit, then they brought it on themselves."
Churchill reading aloud a question from an audience member.
The only time Churchill made the audience really nervous was when he mentioned the word "pedophilia" while discussing the sneaky tricks the government uses to silence its critics like Churchill:
"They don't charge you ultimately with what it is they're after you for. They don't charge you with sedition; they don't charge you with tradi -- with treason. They don't charge you with incitement. They charge you with, oh, having a lid of dope in your back pocket. They charge you with pedophilia. They charge you with things that sound kind of unsavory and that's the nature of the process.
I noticed more than a few tense glances being exchanged in the audience after he said this.
The final curtain
Churchill wrapped up the main part of his speech by quoting Malcolm X:
"With any question becomes -- and this is where Malcolm comes in -- how do we [enforce] compliance in the heart of an absolute renegade outlaw state like the one we inhabit? And his response was: By any means necessary. I guess that would be mine as well. Thank you." [Audience applause.]
And after the question-and-answer session was over, the crowd gave Churchill a much-deserved standing ovation.
Despite Churchill's disavowal of Marxism, the lobby near the exit was filled with far-left literature anyway, since the crowd at this event -- in the most left-wing building in the most left-wing neighborhood in the most left-wing city in America -- was the premiere target audience for this type of communist product placement.
And so we all filed out into the cold night. But Churchill and half the attendees would meet up again in only a few hours time -- at the Anarchist Bookfair the following day.
"Ya'll come back now -- ya hear?"
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