We Charge Genocide: 70th anniversary

There is no label for the crimes of the US against Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples besides genocide. Here, beloved musician and activist Paul Robeson presents the tome “We Charge Genocide” by William Patterson to the UN in New York in 1951. The Bay View’s Mary Ratcliff says: “Look at Paul’s eyes. It’s up to us to create the future his eyes are seeing.”

by Timothy Farrell and Tag Harmon

On Dec.17, 1951, William L. Patterson and Paul Robeson delivered a report charging the United States with genocide. Robeson led a delegation that presented the petition to the United Nations headquarters in New York City, while Patterson simultaneously delivered it to a UN meeting in Paris.

In the preface of this “We Charge Genocide” petition, William Patterson noted: “Out of the inhuman Black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease. 

“It is a record that calls aloud for condemnation, for an end to these terrible injustices that constitute a daily and ever-increasing violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

Seventy years later, Patterson’s daughter, Dr. MarLouise Patterson, gave testimony highlighting similar conditions under which Black, Brown and Indigenous people live as a major factor in poorer health outcomes. She testified as part of In the Spirit of Mandela International Tribunal 2021 on Human Rights Abuses Against Black, Brown and Indigenous Peoples. 

On Oct. 22-24 at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center in Washington Heights, New York City, Dr. Patterson and over two dozen directly impacted individuals and expert witnesses participated in what the chief counsel aptly described as an “open casket” – invoking the strength of Mamie Till and her courageous decision to lay bare what genocidal terror looked like in the form of her 14-year-old son’s disfigured corpse. 

Internationally acclaimed human rights attorney Nkechi Taifa served in this role at the 2021 Tribunal, where the charge of genocide was parceled into five counts: police terror and killings, hyper-incarceration into prison slavery, political prisoners and prisoners of war, environmental racism, and public health inequities. An international panel of jurists announced a guilty verdict on all five charges of genocide against the US in front of the UN on Oct. 25. William Patterson’s daughter, Dr. MaryLouise Patterson, gave testimony highlighting conditions under which Black, Brown and Indigenous people live today similar to those dire conditions described by her father in the original 1971 “We Charge Genocide.” Today, those racist conditions remain a major factor in poorer health outcomes and are a reason why “Public Health racism and disparities” was one of the five charges of genocide made at the In the Spirit of Mandela International Tribunal 2021 on Human Rights Abuses Against Black, Brown and Indigenous Peoples in New York in October 2021. – Photo: Karpani Burns

A refrain heard throughout the weekend was: “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” as the spirits of so many revolutionary ancestors flowed through the historic venue – the very site where El- Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated. This centuries-long legacy of resistance was unmistakable to all, not least to expert witnesses such as Dr. Patterson: 

“My father dedicated his entire life to the valiant struggle against racism. Seventy years ago, he co-authored and courageously advanced a petition that charged the US government with genocide … For what other label would accurately describe the near annihilation, the betrayal, banishment and erasure of the remaining First Nation peoples, followed by the stealing of your children and/or the 400-plus years of terror and indescribable heinous brutality of the offspring of the millions of violently kidnapped Africans or the racism and discrimination against Latinx Americans, who fled here because of impossible living conditions in their home countries. Those conditions were created by US capital and enforced by the US military. There is no label for all those crimes other than genocide.”

Connecting the charges 70 years apart

Dr. Patterson testified specifically about public health inequities, which intersect with both multiple charges in genocide and the initial petition brought to the UN by her father.

“Of all the socioeconomic determinants of health, segregated housing overrun with vermin and mold, overcrowded and deteriorating, is the worst and it creates unsafe and unhealthy neighborhoods … I can’t emphasize enough the physical, emotional and psychological toll from the inescapable daily exposure to all that. It marks our premature death,” she remarked. 

“The intricate superstructure of ‘law and order’ and extra-legal terror enforces an oppression that guarantees profit.”

“Plus, add all the other manners of overt and insidious racist expressions, actions and policies from racist police brutality to healthy food deserts to dilapidated, underfunded and under-resourced schools, to generations of unemployment and our employment in the most dirty and dangerous jobs, to homelessness, poverty and hunger, while images of a pretty, clean, safe, fun life and beautifully decorated homes are flaunted every night on our TV. 

“For many of us, that life is only a few bus or subway stops away, but we can’t have it. Doesn’t all of that reflect the partial destruction and annihilation of a people? I contend it does.”

Genocide for profit

Another connection made from the 1951 to 2021 charges was the profitable nature of genocide, from the militancy of this nation’s police state to those in health care inequities. 

“The foundation of this genocide of which we complain is economic. It is genocide for profit. The intricate superstructure of ‘law and order’ and extra-legal terror enforces an oppression that guarantees profit,” William Patterson wrote. 

“This was true of that genocide, perhaps the most bloody ever perpetrated, which for 250 years enforced chattel slavery upon the American Negro. Then as now, it increased in bloodiness with the militancy of the Negro people as they struggled to achieve democracy for themselves. It was particularly bloody under slavery because the Negro people never ceased fighting for their freedom.”

At this October’s tribunal, Dr. Patterson continued to advance this analysis, highlighting these same structures’ ongoing presence all these decades later: “Institutional and structural racism is reflected in discriminatory health care policies in the underfunding of preventative care, in the fewer and poorer health care facilities that are chronically understaffed and under-resourced in the rationing of care, in racist curricula in medical, nursing and social work schools and in fewer doctors and nurses of color.”

“. . . the inadequate and incompetent federal response . . . unmasked the woefully pathetic condition of our racist and for-profit health care system.”

“Unfortunately, it took the COVID-19 pandemic to make it undeniably clear that racism and the for-profit motive of our health care system or non-system produced the frightening and criminal death and overwhelming illness toll we have witnessed and which some of you may have suffered over the past year and a half. 

“We saw the inadequate and incompetent federal response with the president at the time deliberately pitting state against state in policy implementation, acquisition of PPE, gloves and other medical equipment, the bodies piling up, the impromptu morgues, the mass confusion and fear, the chaotic and discriminatory distribution and delivery of vaccines, causing an alarmingly high impact upon communities of color and unmasked the woefully pathetic condition of our racist and for-profit health care system.”

The charge of genocide

As William Patterson pointed out, it is sometimes incorrectly believed that genocide is the complete and utter extinction by force and violence of a people or group. Many of us have come to think of genocide as a one-time event where a group of people is basically obliterated. Yet Article II of the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” ratified Jan. 12, 1951, defined genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group.
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

William Patterson, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois – who was scheduled to present the 1951 petition with Patterson in Paris but was denied travel by the US State Department – acknowledged their role was an important one, but Patterson noted the greatest accountability belonged to the US itself: 

“If the responsibility of your petitioners is great, it is dwarfed by the responsibility of those guilty of the crime we charge. Seldom in human annals has so iniquitous a conspiracy been so gilded with the trappings of respectability. Seldom has mass murder on the score of ‘race’ been so sanctified by law, so justified by those who demand free elections abroad even as they kill their fellow citizens who demand free elections at home. 

“Never have so many individuals been so ruthlessly destroyed amid so many tributes to the sacredness of the individual. The distinctive trait of the genocide is a cant that mouths aphorisms of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence even as it kills.”

“. . . genocide practiced at home was a central ingredient of foreign US imperial policy.”

The panel of jurists in the 2021 tribunal, who will deliver their full judgment in early 2022, made the followings statement at the conclusion of the testimony: 

“After having heard the testimony of numerous victims of Police Racism, Mass Incarceration, Environmental Racism, Public Health Inequities and of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, together with the expert testimonies and graphic presentations, as well as the copious documentation submitted and admitted in the record, the Panel of Jurists finds the US and its subdivisions GUILTY of all five counts. We find grounds that Acts of Genocide have been committed.

“Signed, 25 October 2021, Panel of Jurists, Church Center of the United Nations”

“Happy 70th anniversary to ‘We Charge Genocide’ and thank you dad, Paul Robeson and the many other courageous comrades who, by signing that petition in 1951, put their lives and the well-being of their families on the line,” Dr. Patterson commented. “They also highlighted how genocide practiced at home was a central ingredient of foreign US imperial policy.”

Let us be sure to heed these hard-earned insights as US belligerence veers us closer toward conflict unlike most if any of us can even recall. As In the Spirit of Mandela founder Jalil Muntaqim makes clear in his classic 2002 text, “We Are Our Own Liberators.”

Tag Harmon is an Abolitionist committed to legalized slavery’s demise. He’s a member of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, In the Spirit of Mandela and the Root and Branch Collective. Reach him by email at [email protected].

Timothy Farrell is a freelance writer and a member of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition based in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a member of Prison Lives Matter, Spirit of Mandela and The Coalition to Free Maroon Freedom Fighters, formerly called Free Maroon Now! He can be reached at [email protected].

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