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Interview with Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz

Portland blogger "celticfire" interviews Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz (www.reddirtsite.com) a veteran activist and scholar, the author of Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, and Red Dirt: Growing up Okie. She has played important roles in a number of movements and struggles around the world, including the women's liberation movement, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and has fought for self-determination among various people's around the world. Her writings have appeared in numerous human rights, international law, and history journals as well as such publications Monthly Review, and on the CounterPunch website. Below is her response to e-mailed questions from me, celticfire: dated 7-5-06.
SOURCE:  link to celticfire.blogspot.com

1) What advice would you give to the new generation of activists searching for a way to struggle against the repression of the Bush administration and this capitalist system as a whole?

The advice I give to the young US activists I work with is that they study history, including histories of preceding radical movements, particularly those in North America since the beginning of European invasions and colonization, as well as the indigenous societies before invasion. That history should include, indeed focus on, the resistance movements of the indigenous peoples against the European invaders, and essentially against capitalism and imperialism. Also, understand what the indigenous peoples were fighting for--societies that practiced mutual aid and collectivity, putting the welfare of the people first.

It should include the resistance of enslaved Africans against slavery, and essentially against capitalism and imperialism, as well as the post slavery African movements. It should include the resistance of Mexicanos and indigenous peoples in northern Mexico which was militarily seized, occupied, and annexed by the United States in 1848, creating the present states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Utah. It should include the resistance of native Hawaiians to US annexation. It should include the resistance to US imperialism in the rest of the world--the Phillipines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, the Middle East, etc. These struggles should be the bedrock to our current understanding of the kind of revolution we are trying to make in the United States--the dismantling of US imperialism and capitalist democracy. And yes, it is important that we study the radical labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the women's suffrage movement, the anti-imperialist and anti-war movements prevalent at that time, but always with awareness that these were movements that largely excluded Africans, Mexicans, Asians, and didn't even consider the indigenous peoples. The last generation, my generation's attempts at revolution should also be studied, but very critically.

Thanks mainly to the African movement domestically and Vietnamese resistance internationally, the "60s" movements went farther than any previous radical movement in the US to challenge the very existence of the United States as a legitimate entity. The "Vietnam syndrome," as this outlook is termed by the powers that be, fortunately has survived the counter-revolution, but only as a kernel of memory, that must be tended to and embraced, expanded, and modified.

2) Where do you see women's liberation today, and what roles do you see for males wanting to aide women's liberation?

This being the day after that god-awful annual ritual called "Independence Day," my view is rather dark. Those "founding fathers," the celebration of patriarchy, that is, patriotism. What other nation in history has for such a long time been little more than a personality cult?

I think all men hate women. It's not always or even often revealed in physical violence--for the upper/educated classes, the hatred is expressed more in psychological terms. That's the bottom line we start from, I think. The men who claim or we perceive love women don't. Most women hate women as well. It's the mother thing that results from the patriarchal family unit. I don't think it's "natural" or biological, rather based in the emergence of the patriarchal family (and monotheism--Judeo-Christian-Muslim), which through colonialism and imperialism (Christian dominated) has transformed even non-patriarchal societies into patriarchal family based ones, although with much weaker roots. The extent to which woman hating has begun to break down gradually has to do with the destruction of the patriarchal family, which owes much to women's liberation and gay liberation. The resurgence of fundamentalism (as well as ubiquitous pornography in every day life) is a direct result of the threat of women's liberation.

I think women (an men fighting against woman-hating) need to say this all the time, "you hate women, yes you do," break it down, reveal it. The role I see for males wanting to aide women's liberation is for them to think of their own liberation from hatred, from living a life filled with hatred of women, for them to call out other men all the time, not just in front of women to show off, but in the lockers, in the bars, in all those male-bonding spaces. The core issue of women's liberation is fear of male violence, including war-making. Violence and the threat of violence controls women, and all men are policemen. Men must stop being policemen, "good" cop or "bad" cop.

3) You've done extensive work for various people's right to self-determination. What advice would you give those people seeking those rights today?

When the national liberation movements of Africa and Asia were fighting the World War II weakened European powers, they made great advances and won their independence. However, the United States, attempting crush those liberation movements and install compliant western-friendly (capitalist) governments, was able to succeed over time to the situation we face today. Similarly, the US crushed or isolated liberation movements against US imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Pacific. Even the African National Congress in South Africa has succumbed to the demands of US imperialism (sometimes called neo-liberalism or globalization). What we see emerging now is a new wave of liberation movements, particularly coming out of Latin America, which, I believe was set off in 1994 by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. This new anti-imperialist movement is still somewhat nationalistic, but more regional in scope, and most importantly, is respectful of indigenous peoples; indeed, in the Andean region, the indigenous peoples are leading the struggle, just as in Mexico following the Zapatista movement. The international indigenous movement [see: link] is key to successful liberation movements today and in the future, as is women's liberation.

4) Who were some of your heroes and influences during the 60's and 70's?

Like most activists of my generation, I was inspired and influenced by the women and men of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). But, before I became aware of the Vietnamese resistance 1964, I was most influenced by the southern civil rights movements, then by Malcolm X, who I heard speak in person in 1961 and 1963. I had become a committed anti-racist when I was sixteen years old, in my last year of high school, 1956-57, at the first integrated high school in Oklahoma, a public trade school for poor, working students, where white students attacked black students daily, and I decided where I stood. I'm forever grateful for that fateful, eye-opening year. At the same time, I began following the Cuban revolutionary movement which I learned about in 1958. The Cuban revolution inspired me, and the survival of Cuba against all odds dazzles me. I will never forsake my admiration for the Cuban revolution.

I read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in 1962, and it changed my life, not only awakening my consciousness of women's oppression but getting me interested in Marxism. Franz Fanon was a big influence. I've always tried to avoid making anyone a hero, some egalitarian strain in me, but I came close to such adulation in my admiration of Che Guevara, fully aware of his many faults that seemed to make him even more heroic to me.

In the early 1970s, my greatest influence came from the American Indian Movement, which I joined in 1973. The ordinary, grass-roots Indian people on the reservations, particularly the women were my greatest heroes. Steven Biko and the youth movement in South Africa as well as the Sandinistas, really a youth movement, gave me new hope in the face of a lot of setbacks (the coup in Chile, COINTELPRO, the rise of Christian fundamentalism against women's liberation, etc.)

5) What made you decide to write Outlaw Women and your other memoirs?

I have a doctorate in history and have a great respect for the tools of the historian, which are regularly misused by mainstream historians to produce patriotic propaganda. My early books and articles, 1975-1990, were works of scholarship in history, revisionist history to be sure. During the 1980s, being deeply involved in the anti-intervention in Central America movement, spending most of the decade traveling back and forth to Sandinista Nicaragua, I began to feel that scholarly writing, however radical, was limited. As I saw people dying from Washington bullets, it seemed to me that I needed to get to the emotional and psychological effects of US programs of terrorism against the poor and peasants all over the world. It was the first time that I was on the spot, on the receiving side of Washington bullets (and land mines planted by the US-funded Contras).

US imperialism was no longer an abstraction. In 1988, I suffered near pulmonary failure in acute bronchial asthma, brought on by too many bouts with pneumonia with which I returned from Nicaragua's northeast war zone every time I went there. I was practically bed-ridden for nearly 2 years. I began to experiment with writing history in a different way, and hit upon the memoir as the best tool for me to do that. I first tried to write about the contra war, but it was too close in time to get a grip on, and in the writing, I kept getting off track and writing about my childhood growing up in rural Oklahoma, my father a sharecropper, my mother an orphaned part-Indian who didn't even know who her tribe was, nor did she want to know. So, I wrote Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, which also tells the story of my father's father, who was a militant with the Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma in the early 20th century.

After the book was published in 1997, I decided to write about how such a person as I became a 1960s radical, not exactly the typical profile of a 60s activist, and that was published in 2002 as Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975. Before it was published, I was already at work on the third volume of the memoir series, taking it from 1975. I wasn't going to make it a book focused on my work against the US Contra war in Nicaragua, but then George W. Bush just after his inauguration in 2001, began appointing the war criminals who had administered the contra war, men like John Negroponte, who is now National Intelligence Director; Bush placed most of the 18 appointees who were veterans of the contra war in Middle East affairs. I found this alarming, and even before the military response to 911, figured something really bad was in store. Why else would Bush have appointed seasoned war criminals? So, I rewrote the book, and it was published in 2005 as Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War. Using my skills as a historian and diligent research coupled with myself as both protagonist and narrator, I feel comfortable with what I call "historical memoir."

6) Have given up on electoral politics entirely? Should people vote?

I think voting is fine and effective in local and state elections (or, say, tribal elections), and in some cases in congressional elections. However, presidential elections do not have (and probably never did) relationship to voting. If we had a parliamentary system, where votes were divided by percentage won, then it would make sense to vie for power. But, the clever "founders" made clear that they were establishing a republic (for empire, as Jefferson put it), not a democracy, so winner take all is written in stone. I don't have anything against people voting in presidential elections, but I question putting a lot of resources and energy into supporting either a mainstream or alternative candidate. The anyone but Kerry campaign was a horrible setback to the developing antiwar movement. Young people who were encouraged, really badgered, to get involved were deeply demoralized when Kerry lost. All we can really do as a radical left is stand by our principles. That is our only resource. Why squander it?

7) Can you briefly tell us about some of your experiences with the SDS, the Weather Underground, and the African National Congress?

I was a history graduate student at UCLA, 1964-68. A fellow history graduate student, Martin Legassick, was a South African exile, a member of the African National Congress. He set up the first anti-apartheid student group in a university, and I was one of the handful of members. Martin married my best friend, Audrey Rosenthal, also a history grad student, and they moved to London to work full time with the ANC in 1966. Audrey was killed in early 1967 in a mysterious airplane crash in South Africa following 2 months of clandestine work. I went to London in the summer of 1967 and worked with the ANC. I learned more in that 3 months than anytime before or since about colonialism and imperialism and how a revolutionary movement works (and fails). At the time, I was becoming increasingly angry about the assigned role of women in the antiwar and antiracist movements, and was disappointed that the role of women in the ANC was not much better. Rather than staying to work with the ANC, I decided to return to the US and help organize a revolutionary, anti-imperialist, feminist women's liberation movement. However, I remained engaged with the anti-apartheid movement and followed its advances ever after. What I learned from them has remained a bedrock of my own political development.

I had some dealings with SDS while a student at UCLA, but really got to know the organization only when I moved to the Boston area in 1968 to organize women. I worked on a local SDS paper, The Ole Mole (Noam Chomsky, professor at MIT, was an adviser) and found that group receptive to women's liberation. However, SDS was already splitting into factions, provoked by takeover tendencies of the Progressive Labor Party, whose politics were not wrong (worker-student alliance), but methods were atrocious and destructive. I knew several individuals who became part of the Weather group, but none very well.

The group I helped form in the Boston area, and in New Orleans when we moved there in late 1969, was influenced by Weather ideas and actions. Our group also opted to go underground, although we thought better after a couple of years of planning, then submerging. I believe we made a mistake, and that the Weather Underground was a mistake. Yet, when I go over it all in my mind, I can't think I would have done anything differently or that Weather would have given the understanding and circumstances we were privy to at the time. We were limited in ways that are no longer the case. Much is to be learned from that mistake, but also, in the positive sense, the politics and passion that drove us in that direction, which still stand. I recommend Dan Berger's Outlaws of America.

homepage: homepage: http://celticfire.blogspot.com/2006/07/interview-with-roxanne-dunbar-ortiz-by.html

good stuff 11.Jul.2006 11:37


Excellent and inspiring interview, thank you. The importance of learning our history and the history of radical movements can not be overstated. Too often each new generation thinks it has made an astounding discovery prior generations have not and really it's because the wisdom of our elders has not been preserved and passed down, especially for womenkind and minorities.