In The Winds of History: We Charge Genocide Again!
An interview with Frank Chapman, education director and organizer with the Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression (CAARPR)
by Steve Craig, CAARPR Member
In light of the recent success of the We Charge Genocide group in their swaying the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva to address police crimes and excessive use of force in the Review of the U.S. Government’s Implementation of the Convention Against Torture, I ask Frank Chapman for some historical context
Q. Could you place the current Stop Police Crimes movement into historical perspective and, perhaps, trace the origins of the phrase “We charge genocide”?
Frank: Let me start with the simplest part of that question first. We Charge Genocide is referred to sometimes as the anti-lynching petition to the United Nations that was filed by William L. Patterson on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress. It’s a petition that was presented to the United Nations charging the United States with violation of Article 2 of the U.N. genocide convention by failing to prevent the lynching of African Americans. The Genocide Convention was adopted by the U. N. general assembly on December 9th, 1948 and became effective in January, 1951. However, it was not ratified until November 4th, 1988.
There’s often confusion about who presented the We Charge Genocide petition first. Some people say that the NAACP did because they submitted a petition in 1947, whereas the We Charge Genocide was not presented until 1951. What the NAACP submitted was a petition called An Appeal To the World that accused the United States of systematic racial discrimination. The We Charge Genocide petition was much stronger, much more forceful, and Patterson, Paul Robeson, and the Civil Rights Congress came under heavy attack for their left wing political views when they submitted this petition. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt, in Paris, opposed William Patterson even presenting it to the United Nations. And she was a member of the board of the NAACP. So, there was clearly a difference.
The Civil Rights Congress was coming under attack because of the Cold War, and they tried to put a cloud over the We Charge Genocide petition by saying that it was presented by a Communist front organization. Under pressure the Civil Rights Congress was disbanded in 1956. Paul Robeson, who presented the petition to the U.N. in New York in 1951, was banned from public singing. The U.S. government revoked his passport because of his presentation of this petition and for his political views.
The We Charge Genocide petition was born in controversy, and it was never accepted by the United Nations. So, the work that the young people are doing today is really very important. They’re saying that we can still charge genocide.
What the original petition said, and I’ll quote a piece, was: “We charge Genocide. We maintain that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as a result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”
That is very, very relevant to what is going on today because if we look at these police crimes and we look at what’s happening in the African American communities, these policies are policies that are being supported by every branch of government. The federal government is not intervening on behalf of its African American citizens, whereas their treaty obligations say they should. They are signers of the United Nations human rights conventions. They should not allow any agency of government to discriminate against African Americans and make them targets of violence. As we very well know, this is what they are doing. That is why our young people went to Geneva to make the accusation: We Charge Genocide!
Q. Do you think that the original We Charge Genocide petition accelerated advancements in the civil rights movement because of the international pressure?
Frank: I do. What it did, it showed that the United States government was being hypocritical, and it showed it to the world. We had just come out of a war with Germany. When they had the Nuremburg Trials, one of the defense arguments of the lawyers defending the Nazis, was that the United States was trying them for things that had long-standing practice in the United States. They said that the U.S. had no moral authority to hold them in question. Basically, the We Charge Genocide petition said the same thing, but it did not raise it in defense of Nazism. It raised it by saying that the same practices, that the world condemned the Nazis of, were also being perpetrated against African Americans in the United States; that is the practice of genocide.
Q. Why do you think that the modern We Charge Genocide movement was successful in presenting their document to the U.N. in Geneva whereas Patterson and his allies were not?
Frank: When Patterson presented his petition the U.N. was European dominated. None of the third world countries, with the exception of Ethiopia, even had a seat at the U.N. The independent nations of Africa were not even a reality yet. You had a situation where the United States virtually controlled the U.N. and was highly supportive of the imperialist colonial policies of the western European nations. We have a different situation today. Those countries have waged struggles of national liberation. They are no longer under the yoke of the European imperialists. They have other problems, but they’re sitting in the United Nations. Now you have a number of nations, nonwhite, that now make up the majority. So, when the We Charge Genocide group went to Geneva recently they went with the winds of history at their backs. Things have definitely changed. People are more universally outraged and tired of these crimes against humanity from Gaza to Ferguson. It’s a different international climate.
Q. Do you think that this international pressure will bear any fruit, that the U.S. will respond to the pressure, or will they ignore international opinion as they currently ignore the U.N?
Frank: I don’t think that they can ignore it. We’re not just talking about the United Nations. We are conducting a struggle within the United States. It’s not like we’re going to the U.N. and saying, “Please help us.” or “Conduct the struggle for us.” We’re going to the U.N. to win world opinion to our side. We’re carrying on the struggle here in the United States. We’re not expecting the U.N. to come in like a savior. We are waging our own struggle, like every other national group in the world that has waged its own struggle. The U.N. can be used as a forum. Cuba used it as a forum. Angola used it as a forum. The South African liberation movement used it as a forum for many years. Even though the U.S. often ignores the U.N, they can’t continue to ignore world public opinion. The political repercussions can erode their power.
I don’t think that we would have had Jim Crow outlawed if it hadn’t been for Patterson taking his petition, We Charge Genocide, to the U.N. It exposed the United States as a hypocrite. Our young people are doing the same thing today. It’s going to have an effect. I’ll just mention one effect that it has had. We would not have a Commission on Torture in the State of Illinois if it hadn’t been for the fact that Stan Willis took the matter to the United Nations. This government is not going to grant us these things out of benevolence or some sense of moral guilt. That doesn’t happen.