Whistleblowing, the pandemic and a ‘law and order’ system of injustice

The American psyche must come out from behind the flag and confront the realities of its quixotic view of the American dream and American justice.

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It is hard to find many positives as the death toll from the novel coronavirus continues to climb, but as we have seen before with situations of crisis, truth does find a way to make itself known. In the sense of whistleblowing, we saw it with the crisis involving the president, which demonstrated the worth and power of whistleblowers to bring accountability to power (though of course, the end result had more to do with denial than truth). Now we see the revealing nature of whistleblowing once again as so many have been coming forward to reveal how we have had no preparedness nor plan with regard to combating the coronavirus. Whistleblowers have testified before Congress about how woefully unprepared we have been and how the response from those charged with protecting us and this nation has been, at best, deemed inadequate, and at worse, negligent. Imagine where we would be in this pandemic without the courage of those who have dared to come forward to reveal the realities of our government’s response to and our preparedness in a global crisis.

And, like the previous whistleblower episode, we have also seen the negative side of the response to whistleblowers. Far too often, individuals who are out there on the front lines, battling COVID-19 and tending to our nation’s health, have been fired for having the audacity to reveal the inadequacies of the preparedness of our government and hospitals during this crisis. Prior to this pandemic, why should any of us have thought that something as simple as masks and other personal protective equipment would be in short supply and that testing would be a “nice to have” vital commodity? Those sorts of issues happen in other countries, right? And revealing that uncomfortable truth has cost many fine Americans their jobs. The cost of telling the truth should not be hazardous, it should be embraced, especially in times of crisis. Please join me in continuing to commend those who choose to step forward.

COVID-19 has been a kick in the complacency of this nation and especially our leaders. Thanks to the many brave souls on the front lines coming forward to reveal the truth, and through our own fortitude as individuals and as a nation, we will persevere.

Now, there is something else I want to discuss, another kick in the complacency of our nation. I have been agonizing, like so many others over the death of George Floyd and wondering what I could possibly do or say about that horrible tragedy. Seeing a police officer with his knee on the neck of a subdued African American filled me with a sorrow that I have unfortunately felt before. Once again, I find familiarity in the words of my favorite scribe, “Oh, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer” (The Tempest Act I, Scene II).

Those, eventual lifelong, nine minutes that the officer had his knee on the neck of a pleading for his life George Floyd brought me and my wife Holly to unfortunately familiar tears. Prior to going to trial, I suffered along with Michael Brown, whose bullet-riddled body was allowed to remain in the street under a bloody sheet for four hours, an undeniable and foreboding message to every other African American. While in prison, Alton Sterling (the coincidence in name was not lost on me) was brutally shot by instigating police officers with no more regard for him as a human being than they would have for a target on the shooting range. And since returning home from prison, Breonna Taylor was murdered in her own home by the racial profiling guns of a “no-knock warrant,” and Ahmaud Albury was needlessly, and callously killed by so-called upstanding citizens with the same veracity of a lynch mob. I suffer with them all not only as an American citizen who should be outraged by the actions of power against its own citizens, but particularly as an African American who continues to wonder when the official carnage against us will stop.

While wrongfully imprisoned, I wrote about how I found myself pondering whether the racial divide and cruelty in prison were merely reflections of the racial divide and cruelty I was seeing through television and radio windows I had of the outside world. What saddened me about where I was and what I was witnessing was the feeling that my eventual release would find me going from one prison to another. As an African American, it is an unmistakable, and far too often repeated and professed truth that this country regards us as inmates, in or out of prison.

There is nothing rhetorical about my sentiments, I speak from experience. America, my country deemed an African American fighting for his civil rights as a threat to national security. Then, to fully remind me of my place, my country put me on trial and had to do nothing more than prove that I was black to wrongfully convict me of violating the Espionage Act. What my experiences and those of my fellow, murdered citizens, have in common is that those acts against us were perpetrated in the name of the law and not justice. And that is a history and reality this country refuses to acknowledge; African Americans have always been considered a threat to not only national security, but also a threat to the national well-being of the nation and the law has always been the foundation of that disenfranchisement. We are branded the antithesis of the American Dream. And time immemorial, the law has been used as the noose around, and lately epitomized by a knee on the neck of African Americans. True, I still have my life and I feel disgusted even with the possibility of having the thought that “at least I wasn’t killed.” Do I have to feel fortunate that I am still alive, yet trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life? There is no solace in surviving in a system that continues to suffocate the life out of me, even after the law has had its say. But, I am grateful to be alive. Comparisons made about the destructive nature of official racism in this country on those killed and those who have survived are not generally made as impetus for change, but they should be. It is a sad statement on the sensibilities of this country when the only time there is outcry over racism is when there is a dead body to mourn, of course along with accompanying video.

I therefore find myself echoing Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he lamented:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The impact of those words on me was profound as I revisited them from prison, but now they are painfully prophetic as a warning that has been ignored. That “shallow understanding” and waiting for a “more convenient season” were championed by the Obama administration’s tactful avoidance of the racial ills of the country. Immersing himself in appeasing terms such as “institutional racism” and “post-racial America” was nothing more than the advancement of the “white moderate” agenda Dr. King warned us about. It was the law and order under the Obama administration that sent me to prison, and that same law felled Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and many others.

But, whereas Obama empowered it by skirting racial issues, Trump is codifying and encouraging the “white moderate” agenda. Unlike others, Trump is not subtle about the use of law and order. Trump’s callous nature towards African Americans and our fight for freedom and respect has emboldened the white moderate to be comfortable and louder, and far too often deadly in his/her disdain for the non-American-Dream American. His response to the killing of George Floyd and the continued victimizing of African Americans in this country is to avoid the issues by figuratively and literally, hiding behind the law. There is no “more convenient” season for Trump on racial issues, the matter to him is not up for debate. His threats to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy active-duty U.S. troops to quell protests in cities across the nation are not motivated by controlling the so-called opportunists, but to restore the “negative peace.” To Mr. Trump, the threats to national security are not only the African Americans protesting their treatment at hands of the law, but also anyone who stands with them. And he has full justification in the law as his excuse.

But, where does justice stand in the viewpoint of our law and order nation? We have lived for too long living under and ignoring the insidious peace offered and enforced by the law of “white moderates.” There is no legitimacy for laws and their enforcement if their purpose and use is the disenfranchisement of an entire, meaningful segment of society. If law and order in this country is equated with justice, then Langston Hughes was right when he penned:

That Justice is a blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise.

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes

Indeed, George Floyd, Michael Brown and the countless others, including myself, have fallen victim to a system of justice that has been blinded not by the quest for equality, but by the sightlessness of a law and order system and attitude that refuses to see and acknowledge its own injustice.

So, I wonder what is next? That is the same question I had when emerging from prison, it remains the case. With what I’ve been through, and under the suffering I have felt for those who have been ultimately victimized, I do not find it hard to believe Dr. King that the great stumbling block for African Americans has been and remains the law and order “white moderate.” Half-hearted moves of appeasement like banal criminal justice, police, and prison reform have shown their worth to heal for momentary lapses with eye-gouging canned promises of change, but it has never been enough for real, substantive change. There must be meaningful change in the law and its application such that all citizens feel protected and not subject to victimization by it. We must stop empowering and encouraging law enforcement from unilaterally taking on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. I can certainly see the potential good that can come from dismantling or defunding the police, but whatever system that will step in the blighted steps of the police will be no better if its foundation remains the same laws and system that have plagued racial equality in this country. Judges and politicians need to open their eyes to the inequities of a biased system instead of rubber-stamping injustice by hiding behind a broken rule of law. What is necessary is nothing less than a complete dismantling of an irreparable system of justice. Calls for accountability from our judges, politicians, prosecutors and the police are not enough when that accountability is founded upon a system that is designed to ignore it. If revolution has ever been called for, now is the time. Unlike the white moderate sensibility that sees all protests as violent and detracting from the overall issues (thereby embodying the problem), I know that a bloodless revolution is possible. The peaceful protests demonstrate that the time for change is now.

The American psyche must come out from behind the flag and confront the realities of its quixotic view of the American dream and American justice. Fundamental change such as this cannot be piecemeal, it must be far-reaching and complete. All vestiges of the current system of white moderate law and order must be obliterated. Only then will America live up to its own promise of freedom.

I may be idealistic in what I feel needs to and can happen, but what other choice do I have? What other choice do we have? I want not only mine, but all the suffering I have witnessed to end.


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Jeffrey Sterling is a former CIA case officer who was at the Agency, including the Iran Task Force, for nearly a decade. He filed an employment discrimination suit against the CIA, but the case was dismissed as a threat to national security. He served two and a half years in prison after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act. No incriminating evidence was produced at trial and Sterling continues to profess his innocence. His memoir, "Unwanted Spy: The Persecution of an American Whistleblower," was published in late 2019. Sterling is the coordinator of The Project for Accountability, sponsored by the RootsAction Education Fund. This article is being distributed by ExposeFacts.