Podcast / Start Making Sense / May 29, 2024

Gaza Protest and Free Speech, Plus Biden’s Haiti Gala

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Ben Wizner on campus arrests, and Amy Wilentz on the White House state dinner.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Gaza Protest and Free Speech, plus Biden’s Haiti Gala | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

As campus protests continue against American support for Israel’s war in Gaza, universities and colleges have legal obligations to combat discrimination and a responsibility to maintain order. But they must not sacrifice the principles of free speech that are core to their educational mission. Ben Wizner of the ACLU will explain.

Also: Kenya finally is sending 1000 police officers to Haiti on what is called a “UN security mission,” and Joe Biden held a gala state dinner honoring the president of Kenya for doing it. Amy Wilentz will comment on what she calls “the Devils’ Ball.”

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Pro-Palestinian Protesters Holds Gather For Another Protest On University Of Texas Campus

Students at the University of Texas at Austin chant during a rally on May 5, 2024, to call on the university to fully divest from Israel.

(Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Almost 3,000 students have been arrested at more than 60 college campuses protesting American support for Israel’s war in Gaza. Schools have a responsibility to maintain order. But they must not sacrifice the principles of free speech  that are core to their educational mission. How have they been doing? Ben Wizner comments. He’s Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Also: Kenya finally is sending 1000 police officers to Haiti on what is called a “UN security mission,” and Joe Biden held a gala state dinner honoring the president of Kenya for doing it. Amy Wilentz will comment on what she calls “the Devils’ Ball.”

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

AIPAC vs The Squad, Plus State Constitutions Protecting Rights | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

The Israel lobby AIPAC is spending millions to defeat Representative Jamaal Bowman in the New York state Democratic primary. That’s because he called for a permanent ceasefire back in October, and describes what’s happening in Gaza now as “an ongoing genocide.” Alan Minsky has our analysis fo the campaign–he’s Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America.

Also: at a time when Republicans have a lock on the Supreme Court, state constitutions can provide a basis not only for protecting abortion rights, but for criminal justice reform,voting rights protection, the right to public education and even, in some states, the right to breathe clean air. Eyal Press reports.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense.  I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: President Biden held a gala state dinner honoring Kenya for sending 1,000 police officers to Haiti. Amy Wilentz will comment on what she calls “The Devils’ Ball.” But first: Gaza protest and free speech on campus–Ben Wizner of the ACLU will explain–in a minute.


Almost 3,000 students have been arrested at more than 60 college campuses protesting American support for Israel’s war in Gaza. Universities and colleges do have a responsibility to maintain order, but they must not sacrifice the principles of free speech that are core to their educational mission. How have they been doing? For that, we turn to Ben Wizner. He’s director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. Since 2013, he has been the principal legal advisor to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. We talked with him about that here. Ben Wizner, it’s a pleasure to say, welcome back.

Ben Wizner: Nice to be here.

JW: The ACLU sent an open letter to college and university presidents on student protests at the beginning of this protest season. We want now to look at how universities have done with that. Let’s start with freedom of speech. It’s not hard to explain the principle: speech must be protected, however offensive or false. All speech, regardless of viewpoint, unless it is directed as a threat to an individual. “’Safety’ from ideas or views that one finds offensive is anathema to the very enterprise of the university.” That’s what the ACLU says in its statement.

So let’s take some familiar examples. First of all, the chants “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” or “Globalize the Intifada.” Some Jewish students have said they felt personally threatened by these chants. They say these are not calls for a binational democratic state. They’re not calls for a ceasefire. To them, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means “kill the Jews.” They point out that the Second Intifada involved terror attacks on civilians in Israel, including famously suicide bombings on civilian targets. So to them, “Globalize the Intifada” means “kill Jews everywhere in the world.” What do you say to those students?

BW: Well, let’s assume everyone here is acting and speaking in good faith. Let’s assume that the protestors mean it when they say that their activism is not antisemitic. That it is against the Zionist project and not against the Jewish people. Let’s accept at face value that Jewish students on campuses are deeply unsettled by these protests that take aim not at 1967, but at 1948 and the existence of a Jewish state. That for them to hear these messages is quite painful.
Accepting everyone at face value, we have to repeat that the law does not give you a right to avoid being offended, upset, unsettled, discombobulated, disturbed by the content of other people’s speech, the content of other people’s speech.

Now, we’ve certainly heard reports about the context of that speech that might actually cross the line. If a Jewish student were walking across a campus and were physically surrounded by protestors who were chanting that message into the student’s face, that would be a different context than if the Jewish student is walking past a protest encampment and is hearing that message broadcast through signs and through other amplification.  In that latter context where it’s actually the content really alone of the speech, not the conduct, not any kind of physical threat, not any targeting of say the student’s dorm room, then we say, “Look, this is why it’s hard to be a speech advocate.” This is exactly why it’s hard — because the only time that we need legal protection for free speech is when it genuinely offends or upsets other people. At all other times, it’s cheap and easy to say that you’re for free speech. But the only measure of whether someone is actually for free speech is when that person steps forward to defend speech that is genuinely upsetting or offensive to that person.

In this instance, there’s a difference between safety and “safetyism.” “Safetyism” is the term that we use to describe this sense of entitlement that people should not have to confront ideas that offend them. “Safety” means that people should not be physically threatened and intimidated, and we have to distinguish between those two words in the college context.

JW: Here’s a different kind of example. At UC Santa Barbara, the president of the student body is Jewish. Her name is Tessa Veksler. She posted on Instagram a sign on campus that said, “Tessa Veksler supports genocide. You cannot hide.” What do you say to that?

BW: It depends. If that had been posted on her dorm room door, there’s no question that that could be viewed as a threat. That it would not have free speech protections. Then the school would almost certainly have a legal obligation to take action to protect her from that kind of threat. If she were a public figure, if it were the university president, then I think probably that kind of speech would be at the edge of speech that a community would want to tolerate. But I think targeted at an undergraduate student, “you cannot hide” is threatening enough that a school that is subject to federal civil rights obligations would want to take steps to remove that kind of sign from its campus.

JW: We’ve talked about chants and signs. Of course, we have to talk about the encampments, which occupy space often at the center of the campus and usually for weeks. The ACLU statement says, “Protests can be limited to certain areas of campus and certain times of the day.” Of course, the encampments violate that quite a bit. At UCLA, the Chancellor said the Gaza protest encampment was interfering with the rights of students because, “It directly interfered with instruction by blocking students’ pathways to classrooms.”

The situation is that the encampment was in the center of campus. It did block a couple of the paths between buildings, which required that people walk around the encampment to get to their destination. Do students have a right to take the most direct path to class and not be required to walk around this kind of obstacle?

BW: Well, in this particular case, it doesn’t strike me as a question of rights on either side. Students probably don’t have the right to have the most direct path to class, but they also don’t have the right to have an encampment. This is a question of what a campus wants to tolerate, and here we’re talking about what campuses should do, not what they must do. Basically, every campus is going to have a rule that says that no group can unilaterally occupy a portion of campus indefinitely to the exclusion of others. So the encampments surely violate policies, and I don’t think you can make a strong argument that the First Amendment requires public universities to allow these encampments to stay up.

I think what we saw though in some instances was that there were campuses that had allowed encampments for other kinds of protests, say about climate or about fair wages and hours for staff.

JW: At UCLA, which did call the police to remove the Gaza encampment, the Chicano Studies program was established decades ago because of an encampment that lasted for weeks with students demanding it. The University tolerated it and eventually created the Chicano Studies Department.

BW: Sure. Look, I remember growing up in New Haven in a college community that the encampments there about South African Apartheid seemed to have been tolerated for quite a longer amount of time than the pro-Gaza encampments that we saw this time. Of course, no two situations are identical. I think that if you were interviewing the Chancellor of UCLA, what that person would say is in those other instances, there was not a sizable number of students on campus, members of our community who were deeply offended and hurt by the message.
So in this situation, there were multiple constituencies that had to be balanced. Whereas in some of those other situations, there was the nuisance factor, but you didn’t have other members of the community who were expressing their grievance at this.

Look, I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong answer for how long should a university tolerate an encampment even though its rules don’t require it to. I thought that the president of the University of Chicago put out a very interesting statement about the encampment there. He said, “Look, this obviously violates our rules. We’re going to allow it for as long as we can because we lean towards allowing freedom of expression. But I want to remind everyone who’s engaged in this that there are a thousand other ways to protest on our campus that don’t violate our rules.” You can’t say this is the only way to get your message across. After a certain amount of time, the president decided that it was too disruptive to campus life to have it there.
I would say to those who are advocating that these encampments should be allowed to be there indefinitely, that remember that if you’re a university, you have to at least aim for consistency in the enforcement of these laws. So we should at least imagine if the encampment were say, put up by Talking Points USA and it were a MAGA – “Trump Four More Years” encampment, a message that many students believe is racist, even though its proponents insist that it’s not. Would we feel the same way towards that encampment occupying that part of campus for that amount of time at that level of amplification?

I can say honestly, I do take the same position. I would say that the school should be tolerant. That they should call in police only as a last resort. That people should base their response to it not on the content of the communications, but on the actual disruption that it causes. But I’m not sure that’s how others would respond to that kind of message.

JW: Of course, the next step in escalated tactics beyond the encampments is building occupations. At my school, UC Irvine, a radical faction of the Gaza protest encampment occupied a lecture hall in a nearby classroom building and barricaded themselves inside. That’s certainly a violation of the ACLU’s principles and the University’s rules. They pointed out and their supporters pointed out this building was empty at the time. No classes were being held there. No University employees had to leave the building. It was empty of people.

That was the point at which the University brought hundreds of police in riot gear onto the campus. In fact, the Chancellor issued a campus-wide safety alert sent to everybody, including me at home, that a “violent incident” was taking place. They ordered everyone on campus, tens of thousands of people to shelter in place. Then the 200 police came on, demolished the encampment, evicted the people from the building, arrested 47 people. The Chancellor said he was “heartbroken” that he had to call the police. But said it had been necessary to stop “a direct assault on the rights of other students.” The Mayor of Irvine replied, “Taking space on campus or in a building is not a threat to anyone.” Ben Wizner, what do you say?

BW: Yeah, I mean, I’m certainly closer to the mayor than I am to the University president on this one, on this particular set of facts. Again, I don’t think that there is a single right answer to how long a university must tolerate the takeover of its building. Certainly, we don’t want to see images like the ones we saw at Columbia University here with hundreds of police in riot gear retaking the building. We learned later that one of those officers had actually fired his service weapon in error. Can you imagine if that bullet had struck someone inside? Just the scale of that response to something that was disruptive but nonviolent civil disobedience.

I do want to say this on behalf of the protestors though, because I think something gets lost in the narrative of peaceful protestors being abused by riot police, which is that this was actually quite effective civil disobedience. Sometimes you escalate your tactics in order to achieve an escalated response to bring more attention to it. This would not have been on the front page of newspapers from Paris to Istanbul to Tel Aviv had it just been a protest. It actually was the police response that made this a global news story and that had a geopolitical impact.  I do want to, as someone who at the age of these students myself was arrested at an anti-war protest deliberately, want to say that this is a tactic that sometimes we use in order to bring more attention to our cause.

JW: This is a time-honored principle of nonviolent protests. It was set forth by Thoreau in his book “Civil Disobedience,” then by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Protestors intentionally break the law, submit to arrest, accept the penalty to call attention to their issue and demonstrate the depth of their beliefs and their commitments and try to persuade people to join them.

BW: I want to say that I have respect for those students who were willing to put their bodies and freedom on the line for something they believed in deeply. I don’t want to only portray them as victims of an overzealous police response, even though I do think it was an overzealous police response in many of these instances. That I’m sure many university presidents around the country are privately furious at the president of Columbia for calling in the police first and essentially lighting up the protests on campuses around the country. It backfires.

JW: I also want to talk for a minute about negotiating with protesting students, demands that students make. One of the reasons the Chancellor at UC Irvine gave for calling the police was that the students had made non-negotiable demands. He’d been negotiating with them for a couple of weeks up to that point. But the students demanded the University sever all academic ties with Israel – this is of course the goal of the BDS movement – in joint research projects, faculty exchanges, study abroad programs.  BDS argues, quoting from their website, “For decades, Israeli universities have played a key role in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies while maintaining a uniquely close relationship with the Israeli military.” The UCI Chancellor called this demand for an academic boycott of Israel “an assault on the academic freedom rights of our faculty and the free speech rights of faculty and students.” Isn’t he right about that?

BW:   Well, look, I’m not going to weigh in on whether BDS is the right response to the atrocities that are taking place or wrong, or on academic boycotts where I think that there are very reasonable points of view on both sides of that debate. The ACLU has defended the rights of BDS boycotters without taking a position on the BDS boycotts itself, and that continues to be our lane here. Again, I’m not going to try to put my finger on the scale of who was right between the protestors and the university on the argument.  But to say that there are two options, one is to capitulate to what I believe to be unreasonable demands of students, and the other is to call in hundreds of riot police, I think is to ignore the many, many reasonable options in between those two poles.

JW: One more thing in the ACLU principles is that “schools must resist the pressures placed on them by politicians seeking to exploit campus tensions.” The UCLA Chancellor is one of the people called to testify before that House committee. Let’s talk about that.

BW: Yeah, I mean, look, this isn’t my line; I wish it were — someone said, “The real outside agitators here are the Congressional committees who are hauling in college presidents asking them gotcha questions.” If there’s one thing that I hope is reinforced by the spectacle of these college presidents being called before members of Congress, it’s the importance of the First Amendment, which starts with the line, “Congress shall make no law.”

When you think about speech restrictions that are in enforceable by law, I want you to imagine Congresswoman Virginia Fox, because she’s the one who’s going to be enforcing them. So if you think that there should be stronger protections against hate speech, who do you think she considers to be hate speech? I guarantee you BDS is going to come up before KKK when she’s the one who’s making those decisions. So Congress has been singularly unhelpful here and really, again, underscoring why we cannot invest government authorities with the power to make these distinctions between which speech is too offensive and which speech is not offensive.

It’s the hardest thing that college presidents have to do. Remember, they are beholden to Congress in a lot of ways. They’re so tied up with federal funding. They can be targeted with vexing subpoenas. They have to send their documents. They have to show up and testify. But this really is why they are making seven figure salaries. I mean, they are elected to be the ones to go before Congress and explain to the whole country why free speech and academic freedom are so important. If that means taking abuse from members of Congress, it has to mean taking abuse.
We saw the Columbia president go up there and not say “academic freedom” a single time. That was scandalous. These need to be the champions of intellectual freedom and intellectual life and academic freedom. If they can’t play that role in Congress, they don’t deserve their jobs.

JW: Ben Wizner: he’s director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. Ben, thanks for talking with us today.

BW: Thank you, Jon.


Jon Wiener: We had big news about Haiti last week, where violent gangs control 80% of Port-au-Prince: Kenya is finally sending 1000 police officers to Haiti on what is called a UN Security Mission. Joe Biden held a gala state dinner honoring the president of Kenya for doing it.

For comment we turn to Amy Wilentz. She’s written about Haiti for a couple of decades for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Nation. Her most recent book is the award-winning Farewell, Fred Voodoo. She was also Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, and she teaches in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. And she’s a 2021 Guggenheim fellow. Amy, welcome back.

Amy Wilentz: Thanks, Jon.

JW: The guests at that state dinner honoring Kenya for helping Haiti included Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Sean Penn, and Melinda Gates. Haiti has such powerful friends! Let’s talk about each of these and their involvement with Haiti. Let’s start with Bill and Hillary.

AW: Bill and Hillary together, that’s an interesting story. They spent their honeymoon in Haiti with the chief executive officer of Citibank, who introduced them to Haiti. Citibank of course, having a long and torrid history in Haiti, refinancing the nation’s debt, and making a lot of money off the country over the centuries. I remember meeting Bill Clinton the one time I met him, and I told him of my interest in Haiti. I had already published a book. And he goes, “Oh yeah, me and Hillary, we love Haiti. We went there on our honeymoon.” And he and Hillary continue to exalt their connection to Haiti.

They loved Haiti, and they had strange ways of expressing it in my opinion. Bill brought back Aristide to Haiti. Aristide was the first freely and fairly elected and perhaps the last freely and fairly elected president of Haiti. He had been deposed in a coup green-lighted most probably by the Bush administration. Then Bill had him in Washington secreted in a hotel room, and who knows what happened there and what arrangements were made, but eventually Bill on the back of an American intervention in Haiti restored Aristide to the presidency, incredibly. It was a shocking thing, but Aristide was defanged after that and he was no longer the people’s president and a radical force for changing Haiti, he was becalmed.

Then Bill also did this thing that’s very infamous in Haiti called “Miami Rice,” where rice — actually much of it from Arkansas, subsidized American rice that was going to go to waste and harm the pricing of normal rice in the US — was brought into Haiti in the guise of humanitarian aid. Now, one of the mainstays of the Haitian economy at that point was rice. It was raised in the Artibonite Valley, which if you’re from California is a lot like the Central Valley.

This Miami Rice — it was called “Miami” because it came through Miami — was a destroyer of the Haitian economy and Haitian food independence. The cultivators of rice in Haiti couldn’t compete with the low prices that this rice was brought in on. It didn’t go for free to people. Somehow, it got into the hands of big distributors who sold it at the market undercutting Haitian rice. This led to many things, but one thing it led to was a vast migration of former Haitian farmers into Port-au-Prince, which in 2010 when the earthquake struck meant that even more people died in overcrowded circumstances than might have died if they had been left on their farms to cultivate rice.

JW: When that earthquake hit in 2010, Obama was president. He showed up at the dinner. What was his role in Haitian history?

AW: Well, the key here is not Obama, it’s his Secretary of State. You may remember her, her name is Hillary Clinton. Hillary, because she had this real relationship with Haiti. By the way, that relationship with Haiti, when it’s from a US president and his wife who’s then Secretary of State, it’s not a normal relationship with Haiti, where you go to the beaches and you meet a lot of different kinds of people. It’s a relationship with the elite classes, the English-speaking classes, and the people who’ve informed the state department for years, including all the way back to the Duvalier administrations, which are actually more rightly called dictatorships.

That’s who the Clintons have really been dealing with, the business class. That’s who informs their intelligence on how to deal with Haiti. When Hillary was Secretary of State, she interfered perhaps not illegally, but diplomatically with the Haitian fiddling of election results. All of this led to a UN approved, but possibly fraudulent, the election of Michel Martelly. Michel Martelly in 2011 became president of Haiti, and his administration was vastly corrupt, had close ties to the drug cartels, and also presided over the enormous thievery of PetroCaribe money, that was money that was designated for Haiti by Hugo Chavez in a complicated structured deal about petroleum product imported into Haiti from Venezuela.

JW: Of course, there’s another way to explain Obama’s presence at this dinner: he wasn’t there for Haiti, he was there for Kenya — because his father was a Kenyan.
Also on the guest list, Sean Penn. What’s his connection to Haiti?

AW: Sean came into Haiti after the earthquake to be the white mayor of one of the refugee camps and to expiate all of his sins for his violent character by going to Haiti and being a really good guy — and carrying a Glock pistol, by the way, thank you — and running this refugee camp, which really he did run it. It was one of the best refugee camps. These are internally displaced people by the earthquake by the way. It was like 20,000 people on the golf course and he did some good things and he made some mistakes. Yeah, but what he did that made me crazy after having watched him run this displaced persons camp was that he really supported this thing called Caracol. Caracol was a free trade zone up in Northern Haiti, which had no relationship to the earthquake. Nobody died up there, but that’s where millions and millions of aid dollars were spent on establishing this free zone.

JW: Let me just fill in here: the free zone is a manufacturing zone to try to bring employment to impoverished Haitians by getting them to work in the textile industry, the lowest rung on the international trade ladder.

AW: Don’t even say “textile”, say “garment”. They don’t make textiles. They only sew T-shirts for you and for me, and for Gap and a million other companies. One of the most important people, probably the most important person “leading the charge,” as they like to say in Washington, leading the charge to get this thing built was Cheryl Mills. Cheryl Mills was at the party — the Devil’s Ball, as I call it. Cheryl was Hillary’s Chief of Staff when Hillary was Secretary of State. Cheryl worked really hard to arrange the anchor factory for this free zone. That was Sae-A, which is a funny name if you’ve ever gone to the dentist, which is a South Korean garment company. Terrible labor practices throughout the world, including in Guatemala where they kicked them out, they kicked Sae-A out and Sae-A came to Haiti and Cheryl organized it so that the head of Sae-A could gather support to sweeten the deal, to make him want to come in.

His name is Woong-Ki Kim, Woong-Ki Kim. At the opening of Caracol, in 2013 I think it was, Sean Penn was there, Hillary was there, the Prime Minister of Haiti was there, and Cheryl Mills was there, and Woong-Ki Kim was there. Cheryl got up at the podium and said, “The most important person here–” with Hillary looking on, Sean Penn looking on, the Prime Minister of Haiti looking on — “is Woong-Ki Kim.” Well now, three years after this was opened, Cheryl left the government, left the State Department and opened her own corporate humanitarian entity called Black Ivy.

Black Ivy is – one of Black Ivy’s biggest supporters is Sea-A and Woong-Ki Kim. They’re part of the Clinton Foundation network throughout the world. It’s a revolving door with Haitian land as a part of it. I just want to add in convicting this woman that the land on which the Caracol venture was built was Haitian land. Hundreds of farmers were kicked off their land, their families left, thousands of people suffered because of this thing that came in. Thousands of people were hired to work there, and thousands of people have since been fired. It was a bust except for getting Woong-Ki Kim involved with Black Ivy.

JW: Also, on the guest list for what you are calling “the Devils’ Ball” was Melinda Gates. I looked up Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They are very proud of their giving after the earthquake: $2.5 million to help launch a mobile money service in Haiti called Tcho Tcho Mobile and $1 million dollars to Catholic Relief Services and $1 million dollars to Partners in Health. What do you make of this list of contributions back after 2010, but totaling under $5 million?

AW: Well, it’s not that impressive, but I do like that some went to Catholic Relief Services, which is a good organization and organized in Haiti, and in Partners in Health, equally very impressive. The rest of it, I don’t really understand. A money service?

JW: It’s the way you can get money on your cell phone without going to the bank.

AW: I’ve never heard of Tcho Tcho, which is really – what a name.

JW: That’s everybody on my list. You looked at that list, 250 people. What did you notice about it?

AW: There were no Haitians on it, except for one Haitian who had to go. That’s Karine Jean-Pierre, who’s the president’s spokeswoman. Karine is a Haitian American and she can’t decline that, so she went, but it seemed to me like for a celebration about how Kenya is going to go in and save Haiti from the gangs that were developed under the Martelly and Moise administrations while Obama was president and Clinton. It seems to me strange that they couldn’t convince or even maybe didn’t have the courage to ask any Haitians to come.

JW: One other thing I noticed about the list, and that brings us to Your Minnesota Moment, news from my hometown of St. Paul that you won’t get from Sean Hannity: Ilhan Omar was a guest. She was of course born in Somalia, but it turns out that when she was eight, her family fled to Kenya, where they spent four years at a refugee camp before coming to the United States. Somebody in the Biden social department knew this. Ilhan Omar, what a surprise, was at the dinner.

AW: It is a surprise to me because do these people not think? Let’s say, why is Kenya being celebrated right now? Isn’t that weird? It’s right before they’re sending in an armed force into Haiti. Do we approve of that armed force? Do we like what the Biden administration has done in Haiti? Do we think this is good? They don’t even think about it.

Can I say one major omission to me is Chelsea Clinton. I don’t see her on the list anywhere. Chelsea Clinton really lambasted privately her parents for their behavior in Haiti in a long letter that was online for a year after she wrote it, and then boom, it disappeared online, so I cannot quote it to you.  But it was very aggressive letter, saying ‘you’re approaching this in an entirely wrong way.’ I’m sure she still feels that, and feels that about what Biden is doing in Haiti.

JW: Let’s get back to the Kenyan policemen. The first question of course is when are they arriving? They’ve been supposed to arrive for months. The dinner, it turns out, was scheduled to coincide with the launch of the mission in Haiti, May 23rd. Only six Kenyans showed up in Haiti at this point, and they announced that they discovered the mission would have to be postponed, because Haiti lacks armored vehicles to move foreign troops around, lacks radios and communications equipment for the police, and lacks helicopters to evacuate the casualties they anticipate among the foreign police. Are you surprised that they just discovered this last week?

AW: It’s just unbelievable. No, of course the State Department knows all of that, but they don’t care. It’s a show exhibition, the Kenyan force. Apparently, no one cares what happens to the Kenyans. It’s amazing. I’ve known that they don’t have helicopters for years. The only helicopters I’ve seen coming in is in anticipation of the Kenyans arriving, people are fleeing and hiring private helicopters to get out of Haiti, because the airports have been closed by the gangs – thank you courtesy of Clinton and Obama.

JW: The other question is how many policemen are going to come in this first wave, which we are told is now scheduled for three weeks from now/  The president of Kenya told the BBC: in three weeks, they’re going to show up. But how many are going to show up? Some reports say 80, some say 120. Do you have any comment?

AW: 1000 is certainly not adequate. 80 Kenyan policemen, I don’t know what they’re going to do. What really should happen is the Haitian police and the tiny, tiny, tiny Haitian army should be trained to deal with Haiti’s problems, because there’s a big problem in Kenya also, which is that there’s a lot of division in Kenyan politics, as you might imagine. President Ruto is not adored by all people in Kenya. The Kenyan Supreme Court has said, “You cannot send our policemen off to police the world. That’s the job of armies. You could send our army, but you didn’t. You want to send our policemen, you can’t do it.” So they ruled against Ruto twice now, “You may not send them,” and that’s caused some of the delay.

Other of the delays are caused because they’re not ready to do the job. They don’t speak French, much less Creole. They’re not going to know one Haitian from another. They’re not going to know a policeman from a gang member. In fact, often they are one and the same in Haiti right now. That’s a problem, and I think that Biden can congratulate himself on having this party not on the day that the Kenyan force arrives. Because who wants to have a big Devils’ Ball, in fancy couture outfits with all these, basically, to my mind, criminals at it, as Kenyan forces fall to the ground in a bloody pile? At least that’s not happening, and that’s a better optic, which is how this administration functions.

JW: One more problem: the United States is going to pay for the whole thing. The State Department has pledged $100 million dollars for the UN Security Force. Biden tried to start with $40 million, but that was blocked on May 17th by two Republicans, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, and House Foreign Relations Committee Chair Michael McCaul from Texas. They say Congress needs to vote on any appropriation for a UN security force in Haiti.  What’s this about?

AW: They don’t approve of the Biden administration doing anything, and they’re going to put the brakes on anything they can.

But meanwhile, on the ground, the gangs are nervous, and they are like any nervous but violent animal. They’re behaving worse and worse. Recently, in a shocking thing for Haiti, they killed two American missionaries. Not just American missionaries, but white American missionaries. This is an unheard-of act. They kidnapped 17 missionaries about a year ago, but they kidnapped them for ransom, probably got a nice ransom, and they let them go. These people weren’t even kidnapped. They were just attacked at their mission. Beyond that, those are two Americans and it’s a terrible tragedy, but the Haitian people are being marauded over by these gangs, also Haitian people by the way.

JW: One more question. Does Haiti have a government now? The last time we talked here, it was about the Transitional Presidential Council, which is supposed to set up an election system to choose a new president. How is the transition going?

AW: Well, it’s complicated, Jon. Of course, it’s a large transitional council made up of people who all believe opposing things and who all have long histories with each other and who all know very well what each one stands for. From a friend of mine who’s not in Haiti, but who talks to these people all the time, he says “The big businessmen are handing over envelopes full of cash, hoping to corrupt this one and that one and it’s just a terrible scene.

But they’re trying really, really hard to make it come out right.” They have issued one directive that they’re going to support with money if they can ever get a government going, which is to clean up Port-au-Prince, which has been effectively decimated by the gangs. They’re trying, but they still have to name a Prime Minister.

JW: Amy Wilentz on the Devils’ Ball in Washington, celebrating Kenyan policemen being dispatched to Haiti. You can read Amy’s reports on Haiti at TheNation.com. Thank you, Amy.

AW: Thanks, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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