A Brief History of Argentine “Death Flights,” Their Renewed Glorification on College Campuses, and the Urgent Need for Historical Literacy

Between 1974 and 1983, Argentina’s military Junta took over the government for an extended period of state terrorism. During that time, there were death squads assembled and dispatched by the right-wing Junta; these death squads–also known as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A, but not the kind most US Americans are used to calling for a roadside assist) hunted, disappeared, tortured, stole babies from, and experimented on those believed to be leftist dissidents: students, teachers, journalists, trade unionists, writers, artists, actors, and political organizers.

Of course, anyone could turn in their neighbor and sometimes they disappeared people (look at what happened to language–did you know a person could be disappeared?) who had nothing to do with anything, just to maintain their fear-based control.

This period of time was called La Guerra Sucia–the Dirty War. Estimates vary wildly in terms of how many people were ultimately disappeared during those years, but scholars think the range is somewhere between 13,000 and 30,000.  It is almost impossible to quantify, since so many people were simply never seen again and official channels deliberately obfuscated and destroyed any paper trail. They were, as they say, “extrajudicial” killings.

It was no use, either, trying to find loved ones’ bodies: sometimes their charred remains were poured into the pavement of busy city sidewalks, and sometimes their bodies–still very much alive at the time–were dumped into the sea on what the Junta would call vuelos de la muerte, or “death flights.” From Wikipedia:

Victims were sometimes made to dance for joy in celebration of the freedom that they were told awaited them. In an earlier interview, in 1996, Scilingo said, “They were played lively music and made to dance for joy, because they were going to be transferred to the south. […] After that, they were told they had to be vaccinated due to the transfer, and they were injected with Pentothal. And shortly after, they became really drowsy, and from there we loaded them onto trucks and headed off for the airfield.”[3] Scilingo said that the Argentine Navy was “still hiding what happened during the dirty war”.[4]

I am telling you this because yesterday a colleague posted this image to his Facebook page. He saw it on the University of Washington’s campus and knew at once that it was a reference to Argentine death flights.

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Image header reads “ANTI-COMMUNIST ACTION JOIN THE FIGHT!” and shows a black ring festooned with the words “ANTI-COMMUNIST ACTION” surrounding an image of a helicopter throwing a person into the sky, on top of a waving flag. Below, the text reads: “We are a group of dedicated freedom fighters united against the growing threat from communists [sic] agitators and other violent left wing radicals on college campuses. We will [be silent?] no longer. Now the right fights back! Follow us on Twitter: @UW_AntiCo. Or email us at: [ripped paper].”

It would have been easy to miss, had my colleague not pointed it out, and had I not spent years in graduate school studying authoritarian regimes in Latin America’s Southern Cone.  The refrain that echoed from those days across Latin America was nunca más, never again. And yet, here we are, looking at a right-wing flier depicting the glorification of death flights, death squads, and right-wing terrorism.

You might have missed it if you never studied a certain branch of Latin American history, so here’s what you need to know:

Adolfo Scilingo, a former Navy officer responsible for the deaths of at least 30 desaparecidos during death flights, said he was told that the flights were considered “a form of communion” and “a supreme act we did for the country” (Fietlowitz 196). He said the ecclesiastic authorities “assured him that this was a Christian, basically nonviolent form of death” (to be thrown from the plane into the sea, what the clergy called “flying”) and that “if anyone had problems with this he could be assigned elsewhere” (195-6).

He added that the doctors aboard the planes would “move back to the cabin so as not to violate their Hippocratic oath” after administering the second dose of sodium pentothal. The prisoners were told they were getting “vaccinations” and were being flown to “rehabilitation camps.”

Scilingo claimed that once the prisoners were further sedated, the officers undressed them, and then two officers would drag one prisoner to the open door and “push him out into the sky.” He claims to have been haunted for the rest of his life by the sounds of the captives’ shackles and the piles of empty clothes that remained after all the “cargo” had been chucked into the sea.

After each of the flights, Scilingo claimed that he drank himself to sleep and then went to confession, where he was absolved immediately.

Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of A Lexicon of Terror, recounts Scilingo’s story, which was told for the first time on 2 March 1995 on the popular Argentine television show Hora Clave:

“It was a Christian form of death,” the priest assured [Scilingo] and, bastardizing a parable from Matthew 13:24, explained that subversives were the weeds sown by the enemy among the wheat. The tares had to be burned, so that the wheat could be gathered into the barn. “And that,” says Scilingo, “is how we were taught to save Western, Christian civilization from the Red terror” (197).

You can read all about it in this New York Times article from 1995.

My point is: We walk around nowadays in a perpetual state of scrolling-induced ephemera where we are neither here nor there, but only in some persistent present. We are no longer–if we ever were–adept at carrying history in our hearts, especially if that history belongs to a people other than our own.

“Never again” is meaningless if everything is always happening for the first time and if our historical amnesia allows right-wing, anti-communist groups to plaster our college campuses with images of “communists” being flung into the ocean, drugged on lies and Sodium Pentothol.

Three pieces of advice that I’m currently giving myself:

  • Learn the history of your people.  If you are just now waking up to the call to resist fascism, consider all the varied groups of persistent resisters that came before you. They are your people. Look at what compelled them to do what they did and how history unfolded.
  • Cast a wide net. Your people (see above) might not live where you do. Finding your people and learning their history might mean looking across an ocean or a geopolitical boundary.
  • Anti-Fa Fridays! Learn the symbols and coded language associated with Nazis and other right-wing terrorist groups; get out in your neighborhood and look for graffiti and fliers that depict them, then remove them or cover them up. You can do this alone or with friends! It’s a great community-building/neighborhood-bonding exercise. Yay, Anti-Fa Fridays! (Or, you know, whatever you want to call it… but, uh, that’s pretty catchy, right.) Carry tools in your bag if you want to do it on the fly (like this 70-year-old German woman).
  • Hold institutions accountable for hosting fliers like these.  For starters, you can email Ana Marie Cauce, UW’s current president, at pres@uw.edu.

I have to wonder how it is that UW’s administration is fine with these hateful fliers. They certainly create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, even if they accomplish it in dog-whistled images of people being flung from helicopters, which is why there is now an urgent need to be historically literate. Without that historical literacy, it is impossible to hold institutions accountable.

I share my colleague’s thoughts today as I hammer out an email to President Cauce. He shared this when he posted the image:

I wonder how our Latin American students, staff, and faculty who lived through that time feel when they see this.

I hope you wonder, too.

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A Brief Memo to Other White Women on Our White Supremacist Programming

 

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Source: Robin DiAngelo’s definition on an image by The Love Life of an Asian Guy

Dear Fellow White Women,

I want to tell you a story.

Today my friend D, a Black woman, made a Facebook post about a white woman–a total stranger–approaching her at the farmers market and hugging her without her consent. My friend couched that experience as a race-based aggression. Many other black women chimed in to say they experience the same thing on the regular.

As Maisha Johnson says, “The objectification of Black bodies has been part of US culture since slavery, and it’s still going strong as one of our everyday struggles.”

In spite of this, a white woman–let’s call her Jenny–commented at length to argue that the violation had nothing to do with race at all and she, too, had been touched without consent. This is what I told her and am sharing with D’s permission:

I think we all agree that touching other people without an invitation is a violation.

What makes it totally different here is the power differential. The consequences for a white person touching a Black person are NOT the same as a Black person touching a white person. The consequences for a Black woman doing that to a white woman could be injury or death, as D already explained. The same is not true in reverse.

It is precisely BECAUSE of white supremacy that you don’t see the issue here. You don’t see the power difference because you don’t have to. D sees it because it is the material reality of her life every day. The fish, as they say, is the last to notice the water. That’s the nature of privilege.

It is precisely because of white supremacy, too, that white women feel entitled to touch black women; this is true even if it is unconscious. We can’t look at this ahistorically, as the entire foundation of interactions between white and Black women had to do with power and ownership. That doesn’t all just fall away because it’s 2017 in the farmers market.

When we tell women of color that their experience wasn’t about race, we are at the height of our ignorance and privilege. We are showing how little we have to consider issues of power and race in our daily lives because it just doesn’t apply to us. If D says it was about race, if she says she was violated, the best and only reaction is to believe her. When we question and argue, we engage in gaslighting and that (like touching women of color without their consent) is a power play and a show of white supremacy–again, whether intentional or not.

D’s analysis of what happened is built not only on her lived experience as a Black woman but also on history. I wonder if you might get curious about your resistance to taking D’s word for what happened and trusting her analysis of it. What do you think that’s about? I’d argue that your unwillingness to believe her probably says a lot more about you and white supremacy than it says about her or the event itself.

Jenny wrote back almost immediately with a wall of text, admonishing me and D for “making everything about race,” and she said we all had a “skewed reality,” that “all that stuff is behind us.”  It was almost like hysterical jabbering, as if perhaps if she could keep talking and writing she wouldn’t have to confront or interrupt her own white supremacist programming. This, too, is an effect of programming.

Fellow white women, when lots of people make an effort to educate us? That’s a thing we should be grateful for. When we feel like resisting, we have an obligation to get curious: why are we resistant?  What feels dangerous about accepting the truths that are being offered?  What does it say about us when we can’t accept the experiences of people of color and their classification of those experiences as racial violence?  Why do we feel compelled to hang on tightly to this particular piece of our white supremacist programming? What are we afraid to lose?

I’ve been schooled and returned to my lane by women of color and white women alike and sometimes I’ve handled it less gracefully than others. I understand the desire to put our pants back on (because our white asses are hanging out for sure), but that’s not the answer.  Don’t be like Jenny, who totally deleted our entire exchange and vanished; leave the embarrassing shit out there for everyone to read. Stick around and learn something. Endure the humiliation, because it’s a tiny thing, relative to the entire U.S. history of colonialism, conquest, slavery, and violation.

Here are some protips:

  • Stop talking. When we jabber about how we, too, experience pain in response to a woman of color describing violence she has experienced, we are centering ourselves. Do not pull a “me, too!” This is white supremacist programming. Instead, ask yourself, “Why am I talking right now?” Listen, acknowledge, and learn.
  • Be grateful and endure the embarrassment. When someone reveals our white supremacist programming and it feels humiliating and we want to get defensive, hide, or lash out: don’t. We ought to be grateful to be given the chance to detect a piece of the toxicwhite supremacist programming inside ourselves when it would otherwise remain invisible to us. Collecting this data gives us the chance do less harm going forward and that is part of the work. Instead of walls of text, we can simply say, “Thank you. I hadn’t thought of it that way and I appreciate what you’re saying here. I’ll change my behavior going forward.”
  • Don’t delete that shit. When we want to delete our embarrassment, we must not. Deleting is another show of white supremacist programming–it’s power and control, based in terror and shame. We need to grit our teeth, endure, and leave it out there because: 1. Deleting the exchange robs other people of the chance to learn from our mistakes. 2. It’s a form of silencing and rhetorical violence. 3. Deleting erases the labor that people put into educating us. 4. It’s some tiresome white fragility.

See, there is a reason we ought to say white supremacy and not racism; it is a more specific and accurate description of the race-based system of power that is embedded in the history of this country. Calling it white supremacy and white supremacist programming reveals this history in an accurate and specific way. It does a better job of getting at the programming white women experience.

Still arguing with me and refusing to accept my friend D’s classification of her experience as a race-based violation, Jenny wrote, “I believe that there is a skewed sense here that unintentionally or intentionally touching someone whether black or white could get someone hurt. Those days are behind us.”

If multiple black women have told us that this is part of their lived experience and it can be traced back to the origin story of this nation, then we have an obligation to honor the gift of their sharing by listening with the grain (rather than against, always ready to deny and argue and re-classify). We ought to be grateful for any and all efforts to help us dismantle another piece of our chronic white supremacist programming.

If I found out I had a terrible tumor (let’s call it White Supremacy) growing inside me and it had been there my whole life but I never noticed because it had always just been there and a doctor asked me if I wanted to try to cut it out of me little by little for the rest of my life, I would know that it would hurt. But I would want to do it.

Don’t you?