III. Sham Trials and Show Trials Judas and the Black Messiah

In an article in The New York Times, dated 18 September 2020 and updated online on 16 February 2021 on Paul Rusesabagina, the cool and collected hotelier in the award-winning film Hotel Rwanda, he is depicted as now awaiting trial in Kigali. Paul had saved over twelve hundred guests who had fled to the Hotel Rwanda from the rampaging genocide that slaughtered almost a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu citizens of Rwanda. A Hutu himself, but with a Tutsi wife, he was the Oscar Schindler of the Rwandan genocide. He is now “under arrest, in a spartan cell in Kigali’s central police station, where he sleeps in a simple bed draped in a mosquito net,” and not in a drab prison uniform, but wearing a “pressed blazer, white shirt, polished loafers.”

In the article, this is how the NYT sets the historical stage for the arrest and pending trial. The genocide that took place and “the truth about how it unfolded is bitterly contested.” But the problem is that it is not how it unfolded. There is a broad consensus on its main features. I played a small role in establishing that consensus. (Cf. Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke (1996) The International Responses to Conflict and Genocide.) The NYT’s article continues describing Paul Kagame in conventional terms as a tyrant. The military leader of the invading Tutsi-dominated army that overthrew the genocidaire government, and who has served as Rwanda’s autocratic leader for the past quarter century, is described in the article as something much more, as “the darling of guilt-ridden Western countries” which “lavished aid on his government, which cut poverty, grew the economy and promoted women leaders.”

But the order was reversed. The aid was not a condition of Rwanda’s remarkable economic recovery, but a consequence of it and the government’s relative and exceptional honesty, even though Paul Kagame evolved into a ruthless but not wanton dictator. Even more significant is the caricatured portrait of those who resort to militant methods to oppose racism and policies of extermination. For the greatest danger is not the Paul Kagames or the Fred Hamptons (see below) of this world, but those who target them and seek their demise in the name of restoring a racial vision of white (or Black Hutu) superiority.

The article continued. “Now, Rwanda is also known as an authoritarian state where Mr. Kagame exerts total control, his troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighboring Congo, and political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or die in mysterious circumstances.” But his troops were accused of plundering, rampaging and murdering in the Congo in 1996. (Cf. Howard Adelman, The Use and Abuse of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire.) This has been a refrain of Rwandan revisionist history since the genocide ended. Much of it has been based on “established” fact. Critics of the new government were killed abroad and branded as traitors, criminals, and embezzlers.  

1998 – former Minister of Interior, Seth Sendashonga

2010 – former army Chief of Staff, Kayumba Nyamwasa (failed)

2011 – the journalist, Charles Ingabire

2014 – former Head of External Intelligence, Patrick Karegeya.

These are stories of the collusion of state agents in killing perceived enemies of the state in extra-judicial murders. Their cases never come even to a sham trial. I tell this story, not to write about Paul Rusesabagina or Paul Kagame, but to write about show trials that are shams, that are kangaroo courts to eliminate enemies of the state, persons who are not guilty of the crimes for which they are charged. In my list of victims of show trials who were innocent, I included:

1906 – Ed Johnson of Tennessee

1931 Scottsboro Boys 1931

1948 Trenton 6 1948

1989 Central Park 5.

The case of the Central Park 5 is, perhaps, the most notorious because Donald Trump established his public political profile by paying for full page ads in The New York Times demanding the execution of all five of the falsely charged and innocent teenagers. The case was made into a 2012 award-winning film, The Chicago Five.

In such cases, show trials are sham trials. But at least the victims survive and in the true light of day and of truth, many were eventually released and somewhat financially compensated and rehabilitated. Most were not. But what of those who did not get tried. In Judas and the Black Messiah (we saw it on HBO last evening), a movie that has already garnered a slew of award nominations, especially for Daniel Kakuuya starring role as Fred Hampton, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had become an arm of a white racist cabal out to persecute, prosecute and murder Blacks who had organized into a para-military force in the 1960s under the notorious label of The Black Panthers.

In the movie, Daniel Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of the Black Panthers of Chicago who brilliantly crafted the Rainbow Coalition in that city in the 1960’s. His nemesis and Judas-figure was William O’Neal played by LaKeith Stanfield, a petty car thief who was blackmailed by the FBI into infiltrating the Black Panthers and became an informer. His handler in the FBI, Roy Mitchell played by Jesse Piemons, keeps O’Neill on a very tight rein. But Mitchell is on a very tight leash himself. At one point in the film, his immediate boss, Special Agent Carlyle played by Robert Longstreet, asks Mitchell about his 8-month-old daughter. “What will you do,” he asks, “when your daughter comes home someday with a Black fellow?” Mitchell is flabbergasted at the question and finally protests, “That won’t happen,” in effect undermining the high moral ground towards which he had been drifting, appalled by the extra-judicial killings of Black Panthers by the FBI. As Martin Sheen playing J. Edgar Hoover advises his agents at one point, trials and jail are but a temporary solution. Everyone has learned how to interpret the indirect exterminationist directions of monsters like Hoover and Donald Trump.

We thought we had progressed. But the white racists managed to get their man in as President of the United States in 2016. The reactionaries that led to the massacres on Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970’s are still about and strongly entrenched. Their enemies have always been and remain any liberal white who sympathizes with and supports the battle against racism. On 22 February at 8:00 p,m,, David Matas of Winnipeg will be heading a webinar for and on B’nai Brith’s legal battles in the fight against racism in Canada. But in the United States, just as often, the law has been used as an instrument of racist persecution. Sham and show trials have been key elements in the fight on behalf of racism in the United States. They have just as often, if not more often, been used as just one tool in the systemic persecution of Blacks. There, extra-judicial murders have been an essential part of the inventory of controlling Black opposition to white racism because sham trials offer only temporary “solutions”.

Michiel Horn, a historian and colleague from York University, used to ask his students concerning the working class hostility to immigration of Italian or Jewish or Asian migrants whether, for their own economic interests, they would be better off making common cause with these immigrants. This is what Fred Hampton was shown doing in Judas and the Black Messiah when he was creating his Rainbow Coalition and why he had become such a threat and a target for extermination by the FBI under Hoover. As Michiel wrote recently, “When people believe that those with a different skin colour and ethnicity can only be a threat, and that any gains made by ‘them’ will be at ‘our’ expense, they rarely if ever make clear-eyed decisions.” Under a cloud of obfuscation, those in power often pursue irrational racist policies as well.

As much as I deplore the sham show trials of Blacks defended by white lawyers with impeccable credentials, allies who continue to espouse legal remedies in the face of kangaroo courts, the resort to extra-judicial killing, seen as a key element in the toolkits of tyrants, whether Black or white, and especially of the American white racists who seem so threatened at the present time, are an even greater danger.

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