In This Episode
DeRay, Myles, and Kaya cover the underreported news of the week— including a new Black tech hub, forged DNA evidence, and a reverse migration to the South. DeRay interviews Jonathan Katz on his new book Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and Breaking of America’s Empire.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya, De’Ara and Myles as usual, talking about all the news that you don’t know. And I’m actually recording this on the road because, you know, I’m still an activist. I’m traveling across the country, meeting with legislators and testifying before City Councils, and I’m on the road today. But I got to talk to Jonathan Katz, the incredible author of “Gangsters of Capitalism”. I learned so much in the conversation. I know that you will, too. You have to get this book—must, must, must. My advice for this week is to remember that the work continues and the best way to honor Dr. King and all the people who risked their lives for us who came before us is to do the work wherever we are. It’s why I’m in the airport right now reporting because I got to get it in and I have to travel to another city that I didn’t necessarily plan to be in, but want to be here because the work of organizing is community work. Let’s go. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson: My news this week is about the Virginia Beach Police Department, because they were using forged documents with fake DNA evidence looking like it came from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science in order to get confessions from people. They did it on at least five occasions in between March 2016 and February 2020—which is wild! You know, here’s the thing, when it came out in an investigation, the Virginia Beach City Council agreed to some reforms to stop it from happening in the future, but those reforms are only in effect for two years. And I bring this up because it actually is legal for the police to lie in the country unless a police department or City Council makes it illegal. But it is legal generally, which is also wild. But it’s like, you know, if you got to lie to get people to do things then like, we’re off to bad foot. And, you know, DNA is one of those things that people understand to be science, so when you see an official looking report coming out, say that DNA said this, people often tend to be swayed by that. And I wanted to bring this here because I didn’t know this was happening. I think the space around forensic science and organizing on forensics is really under-tapped in terms of organizing. I think that most of the work is litigation, but it really blew my mind to know that they were literally faking, making fake documents, pretending to be from the forensic lab, to put people in jail and to force people, to coerce people into confessions. So I wanted to drop it here. Truly did blow my mind. And again, it makes me think about how we should pay more attention to the forensics space because what people think to be science sometimes can be a coerced confession. And the last thing I’ll say is that Virginia—lord!—you know, the new governor is stripping away the whole civil rights part of the website. The new D.A. is literally getting rid of the wrongful conviction unit. So, you know, the work of organizing in Virginia is going to be even more important in these next four years because these new jokers that just got elected are literally working against every good thing that might have happened. So the fight continues.
Myles Johnson: I wanted to bring some news about a tech company that I have experienced, people who work there, a Black-owned company called Blacktag. It is a platform, it’s a platform for artists to share, discover new talent, but it’s really way more than that. I was really impressed by Blacktag because it was a company, a Black-owned tech company through and through that was really focused on niche content, and they really had this passion for tech and entertainment and really keeping ownership to the people, to the artists who created it. It was really thrilling to kind of find Black people in the tech space. As somebody who, I am, I do create a lot of, I have engaged and had to create like a lot of content in my life—but I, as somebody who is not necessarily educated when it comes to tech and feels ostracized specifically as a Black person from being in it, it felt really empowering to meet these Black people really interested in a, taking down the barriers, taking down those borders, taking down those things and then supplying, you know, opportunities for Black artists and Black content creators to create content and own their, own their stuff. So I went to, so I’ve been seeing articles—since I first met them, I’ve been seeing articles in New York Times and Business Insider profiling the whole company in how the inside, the internal and the external, are Black: the software developers, the data researchers, the engineers, the media, the producers, the publicist—everybody of the Black. And I was like, Wow, this is a really cool model for how to do things in the future. And doesn’t really stop there, because yes, it is important for businesses and for us to think of models that maybe already exist and how to make them accessible for us, but I was really interested in the fact that it’s just a new thing in general. So the app is, the app is something that they that they created where you can stream other people’s content and stream content and that they’ve produced, that other artists who are inside have produced. And you can also share your own content. So it’s like social media meets Netflix, HBO meet like, excuse me, HBO Max, Netflix meets, you know, Instagram. So it’s really interesting, and it really flattens that kind of hierarchy that’s created between the artist and the audience, and it makes everybody involved. And I just thought that was a really interesting thing that, I just think we’ll see modeled in general. I think that, I just think that they were really progressive for creating that. And then I knew I had to bring it to the podcast as news where there were leaked, you know, emails and leaked dialog that was happening at other companies that will remain nameless for now but if you, you can easily research who the companies are—but other tech companies using Blacktag’s model as a way to acquire Black activists, Black artists, Black content creators, to produce for their companies. I was like, Wow, this is not just a cool idea to me or something that I found out, just because, you know, I’m friends with a lot of, you know, artists and media people in New York, this is something that other people are taking notice to embrace, and really bigwigs are taking notice too and maybe even adopting those things. And I was like, Oh, it’s probably really necessary to say that this is where this started. This is how this happened. Black people and Black tech and this kind of content is happening and is being created. And it’s yet again us creating the future and creating equality and equity in our now, and I think that that’s just necessary to highlight it. Hopefully, everybody checks it out and sees what I’m talking about. And then also hopefully it sparks you to necessarily—because I think we all have these ideas about what we can invent, what we can do to make the internet, technology more interesting, more equitable, and maybe we go to sleep on those ideas or we think that we won’t be embracing those ideas, and I think this was a story that was proving that, No, we, may be, you know, more work, but this can happen for us and shall happen for us.
Kaya Henderson: My news this week highlights new patterns in Black migration across the United States. It comes from an article in The Washington Post that talks about Black people still looking for a Black mecca. And it talks about population increases and decreases between 1990 and 2020. So over the last 30 years. And some of you may be surprised to learn that the Black share has actually decreased in a number of cities that traditionally attracted Black families of earlier generations. Some of the blackest cities that you know—New Orleans, Richmond, D.C., Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles—have seen significant decreases in Black share since 1990. And cities like Memphis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, Columbus, Ohio, Orlando and Minneapolis have seen increasing Black share since 1990. Some people are calling this the New Great Migration or the reverse migration, since so many African-Americans are moving out of the cities that their parents and grandparents fled to during Jim Crow, and into the South’s booming metropolises. In fact, the percentage of Black Americans that now live in the South has been increasing since 1990. The Black population of metro Atlanta more than doubled between 1990 and 2020, overtaking Chicago as the second largest concentration of black people in the United States after New York City, which lost about 110,000 Black people since 2000. In metropolitan Charlotte, the Black population more than doubled, while in Houston and Dallas Fort Worth, their areas saw Black population surpass one million people for the first time. Other notable cities that are gaining are San Antonio, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, Orlando, Florida, and Little Rock, Arkansas. The primary driver of the decisions to leave these big northern cities, for the most part, are economics. People are looking for new or better jobs, they’re looking for affordable housing, and many of them desire to build the kind of generational wealth that was never realized by their parents and grandparents because of redlining and other discriminatory housing practices and policies. A lot of people are worried about racism in the South when they contemplate a move, but they feel like the larger concentrations of Black people in the South provide an added layer of safety. It’s interesting that all of them are looking for something better. None of them say they found the promised land. In fact, this article does a really nice job of storytelling, telling the narratives of multiple generations of families in Minneapolis, in Chicago, and in Dallas to understand the motivations behind why people are moving and understand how things are going in these new cities. In fact, there’s a book by Charles Blow, New York Times columnist Charles Blow called “The Devil You Know” and Blow argues for exactly this, the Reverse Migration. And he talks about the political bloc that could be created if enough Black people moved back to the south. He talks about us giving up our land power, our social ties, our familial history, our intergenerational power, when our families left the south and moved to the north, which was supposed to be the Promised Land. And he talks about the fact that these cities were actually not good for Black people. We were railroaded into housing tenements. We were denied good jobs. We weren’t able to live the American dream. And so Blow argues for a Reverse Migration similar to what we are seeing happening now. So I brought this to the pod because I think many of us know people, know Black people who are moving south, who are making decisions to raise their kids in places where they can see Black people thriving and where they feel comfortable raising their families, and they are looking for places where they can build community, where they can reconnect with history, where they can reconnect with faith. And I just thought it is interesting to take this from the micro to the macro and look at how these trends are affecting our communities, our cities, both in north and south. Keep your eye open and let’s watch and see what happens.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: And here’s my conversation with Jonathan Katz. You know, there are some books you read and every page you’re like, What, what, is this real? What, huh? And that’s how I was talking to Jonathan. Stellar book. So many stories. We couldn’t even cover all the things I want to talk about. There just wasn’t that time. Must buy the book, must read the book. And I can’t wait to see what he does next. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Jonathan Katz: Thank you for having me here.
DeRay Mckesson: So you were here because of your book “Gangsters of Capitalism”. I learned a ton in this book and I have a lot of questions. But before we start diving in, can you tell us how you got here? Why, like, how did you, did you know you wanted to be a journalist, was writing about inequality and issues like this, was that like, was that always the thing? Or how did you get on to writing about capitalism in this very specific way that we’ll talk about? Like, how did you get here?
Jonathan Katz: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I know the answer to that question myself. It was sort of a series of maybe accidents, as well as, you know, various interests from various points of my life. You know, I think I always, maybe secretly and somewhat in denial, wanted to be a journalist. And when I started out in journalism, I decided pretty early on that I wanted to do mostly foreign correspondence. And my first gig—I was with The Associated Press, the wire service, for about eight years—and my first gig with AP was in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, so I was covering Israel and Palestine. And I thought that, you know, what I really wanted to do was was end up in the Middle East. But life ended up having other plans. I ended up spending the bulk of my AP career in the Caribbean, first in the Dominican Republic and then three and a half years in Haiti. And while I was in Haiti, I was there on the January 12th earthquake of 2010, almost exactly 12 years ago—my God.
DeRay Mckesson: You were there?
Jonathan Katz: Yeah, I survived that earthquake. Yes, so yeah, I was, I was there. I survived an earthquake. I, you know, I had done a lot of reporting in Haiti for the two and a half years before that earthquake, and then in the aftermath of that, I, you know, I spent another year in Haiti covering the, you know, the failed response and just all of the crap that went on. I broke the story that the United Nations introduced cholera to Haiti in the fall of 2010. And so when I was writing my first book, which was about the earthquake in Haiti—it called The Big Truck That Went By—I, you know, I got interested in—I was always interested in history. I was an American Studies and History major in college. But I knew that I needed to explain, you know, the history of Haiti, how things have gotten to be the way they were that, you know, a 7.0 earthquake ended up being the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere, and that required talking about the U.S. occupation of Haiti. And while I was doing research for that book, I stumbled across Smedley Butler, who this book is about who we’re going to talk about. But it got me really interested in sort of these questions of American imperialism and capitalism and exploitation. So these were things that I was interested in, they were things that I’d done a lot of other reporting on, including domestically in Chicago and in Washington, other places, but I think that in terms of my, you know, Marvel origin story of how I got onto this particular topic with I guess the intensity of it that I have right now, I think my experiences in Haiti and seeing people who were on the other side of exploitation of, you know, capitalism and white supremacy and American imperialism—that’s really what I think got me most fascinated with what’s happening here.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, let me just tell you that Smedley Butler was everywhere. I mean, I had never heard this man before, and every page I’m like, How, how, he is literally like a, it wasn’t even, you know, I don’t know, they didn’t have electricity back then that way?! Like I, I’m sort of shocked like every page. At first I was like, OK, this might not be the same guy. I’m like, this might be like a euphemism. And then I’m like, What is going on? How is he, how was he everywhere? I just don’t, logistically, I don’t understand Jonathan. Can you also just tell us, like how you got to, how you got to him? Like, was it, did you stumble upon him? Did you, did somebody whisper in your ear: you should look at this guy? Like, how?
Jonathan Katz: So I—the short answer, as in much of my life, is Haiti. I came to Smedley Butler through a different route than a lot of other people do. OK? So you know, I’ve learned sort of over the years that I was working on this book to categorize the world in two broad categories: people who have heard of Smedley Butler before I bring him up and people who haven’t. People who have never heard of him are like, you know, I’ll start talking about him and they’ll just be like, What, what is name, what? And then other people, I’m like, I’m writing this book about this marine, he was everywhere, and then he like, blew the whistle on this fascist coup in the 1930s, and they’ll be like, Oh, of course, Smedley Butler, I have, you know, I have like a wall dedicated to him in my house. The way I came to him was a little bit different. You know, as most people know about him because either they were in the Marines or they know about him because of his later anti-imperialism or his anti-fascism. I came to him because of Haiti. He was a, you know, he was a big deal in a lot of places that he was, but the U.S. occupation of Haiti—so the United States occupied Haiti brutally from 1915 to 1934, and Smedley Butler played a huge role in every stage of the beginning of that occupation. So he was there in the invasion, he helped basically invent counterinsurgency, fighting against the resistance movement that arose the fight against the Americans during the occupation. And he then was the first commandant, the first commander of the client military that we set up there. You know, the beginning of a lineage that goes through to the present day with, you know, our client militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Afghan National Army and things like that. And in Haiti, he, so I came on to him at first because I was, you know, when I was writing my first book, I knew I needed to have a bit about the U.S. occupation of Haiti and like one chapter that talked about the history of Haiti, and I was like, I was looking for some color, maybe a little bit of some character that could drive that part of the book, and I didn’t end up using any of the material that I found, but I found this guy Smedley Butler. And in Haiti, Butler is known as the devil. Literally, people called him the devil at the time. In Haitian Creole, he’s known as [meh-shan], he the, like the most evil, the most corrupt of the Marines. There’s a novel written by a Haitian novelist named Stephan Alexis that came out sort of toward the end of the U.S. occupation in the early 1930s about the US occupation and the villain of that book is a marine named Smedley, who’s obviously, you know, a very thinly-veiled stand in for Smedley Butler. But as I was looking for more information about him, I, you know, plugged his name into Google and all of these other things came up. You know, a book called War is a Racket. This guy who blew the whistle on a fascist coup against Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. And I was trying to figure out like, you know, this can’t be the same person because like, how could the most [meh-shan] of the Marines from Haiti then be like: US imperialism is bad and you know, these horrible capitalists are trying to implement, you know, fascism at home. And then I found out it’s the same guy. And so that was what. so that kind of got stuck in my head. That book came out, my first book came out in 2013 but for a couple of years after that, you know, I was thinking, you know, what is my next book going to be about, what am I going to, what am I going to spend time on? And I couldn’t get this Smedley butler guy out of my head. And the more that I learned about him, you know, the more I realized that he was everywhere. He was the Philippines, he was in China, he was in Nicaragua, he was in World War I, etc., etc., the more I realized, like, this guy’s story, like this is the story. This is, this is in a lot of ways the story of, it’s a story of America and it was something that I just, you know—generally speaking, when something gets stuck in your head like that and you can’t put it away, that’s what you should be writing about.
DeRay Mckesson: And one of things that you did in the chapter on Haiti that like—I feel like literally every chapter I was like, whoop, didn’t know that. I didn’t know that, OK, didn’t know that, didn’t know that—is that like he in many ways is like the father of counterinsurgency, as he, as he exploited the tension between the two rival groups and then eventually used that to win the loyalty of the Haitian people in that area and then later turn on them. I honestly just had no clue. I was like, OK, this is, this is really wild. It’s also like—this is just because I’m curious—did he have like a sidekick, was there like a person who was with him this whole time? Or did he have a family like, how do you—do you know any of that part?
Jonathan Katz: So to a certain extent, you know, especially at the beginning of his career, he’s kind of the number two, and this is true in Haiti at the beginning of the occupation. So, you know, his mentor in the Marines was a guy named Littleton Waller, and Littleton Waller was, you know, another legendary marine in the Corps but just, just an awful, just an awful person, a hideous racist. He was from one of the oldest white families, white settler families in Virginia. Actually, his family is best known among some people if you’ve read Roots by Alex Haley, the Waller family is who Alex Haley identifies as the people who enslaved, you know, quote unquote “Toby Waller” who Alex Haley identified as Kunte Kinte. There was actually some problems with that identification, but nonetheless, they really were, they really were kind of an FFV, you know, like a First Family of Virginia, just like pioneers of slavery and white supremacy in the United States. And Waller, you know, he’s the one who’s sort of showing Butler the ropes. And Waller does a bunch of things, he leads Butler and other marines in an invasion of China in 1900, they’re fighting against what was known as the Boxer Rebellion. It was essentially an anti-foreign uprising among peasants using martial arts against foreign missionaries and foreign imperialists. Waller then ends up in the Philippines, where he oversees essentially this, he basically runs this sort of low-level genocide on an island called Samar, where they’re instructed to kill everybody, every male over the age of 10 in revenge for a massacre of U.S. troops. And in Haiti, Waller is, he’s the head of the ground forces, he’s the head of the Marines, and he is approaching Haiti through this lens that is very typical of white Americans and especially southern white Americans in the 19th century and the early 20th century—this is in 1915 we’re talking about—which is that Haiti is this example of Black self-liberation, Black freedom. You know, it’s the, you know, the Haitian revolution. They overthrew their colonial and slavers in France and declared independence for themselves. They defeated Napoleon and became the second independent republic in the western hemisphere in 1884 and the first one in which all people were free. And throughout the 19th century, Haiti was looked at by people like Littleton Waller as this example of just horror that like, you know, if, in the lead up to our civil war in the United States, the Confederates were all like, you know, you can’t end slavery because then we’re going to end up like Haiti, you know, the enslaved people are going to, are going to kill us in our beds—which who knows, maybe, but they would have been justified in doing so, honestly. And so Waller is, he is looking at this time in Haiti as sort of an opportunity to, you know, get his revenge and to keep, you know, to keep this horrible place that he’s grown up, you know, hearing basically ghost stories about, down and suppressed. Butler is interesting. Butler is, you know, a little bit younger, you know, he’s a couple of decades younger than Walter. Waller’s from Virginia and Butler is a Quaker from Pennsylvania. Butler’s grandfathers both fought for the United States, for the union in the Civil War. He grew up with a very, you know, intense, you know, Quaker upbringing that, you know, sort of tradition that came out of abolition and, you know, sort of believed in some, you know, notion of equality, but he was carrying around with him a much more northern style of racism, of white supremacy, that I think would be more familiar to people today where he just sort of didn’t question why, you know, Black people didn’t live in his family’s town on, you know, the wealthy main line of Philadelphia. And, you know, he just sort of was like, Well, this is just the normal order of the universe. And so while Waller had been going around basically just, you know, throwing around the N-word—certainly Butler used the N-word too—but while Waller was just going around, you know, basically being like, let’s just kill all these people, Butler was a little more nuanced, but that ends up actually, I think in a lot of ways being, you know, if not more than at least equally destructive of, you know, Waller’s style of racism. And you know, as you talk about, that ends up being channeled into what ends up becoming counterinsurgency doctrine. Butler is basically, because Butler is able to see, you know, Haitians who are Black more as individuals than his mentor Littleton Waller was, he’s able to exploit them more methodically. He’s able to sort of deal with them as people and then manipulate them and then, you know, create a much more durable and exploitative regime of U.S. imperialism that ends up lasting in Haiti officially until 1934. But, you know, Haitians will tell you the United States still is running the show from behind the scenes. But then, you know, later on, there are other people who follow Butler who are, who, I guess, would be described as his sidekicks. Not to mention, I don’t think she is just a sidekick, but his wife, Ethel Butler, is also often on these missions with him and her perspectives are fascinating as well.
DeRay Mckesson: Learning that Butler like, himself dissolved the Haitian government at one point is bonkers. I was like, this man was wild!
Jonathan Katz: Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And then so here’s the question I ask you because, you know, I know you don’t have [unclear] to talk about this, but one of the things that comes up repeatedly about, through this story and definitely with Butler, is the control of information. So I bring up the dissolving of the Haitian government because what you write is that they, like, essentially scrubbed every account of it, brought the media in and was like, You can’t talk about—all this stuff. Can you talk about that as like a central theme to the story that you wrote and . . . ? So that’s one. So I’ll stack these questions. The other one is, can you talk, can you—so there are a lot of people who listen to the podcast who are activists, but there are a lot of people who are not and who care about the world around them and I do want us to define the terms. When you say capitalism, like what does that mean? And when you say imperialism, what does that mean?
Jonathan Katz: Right. Those are good questions. So first of all, yes, Butler in 1917, so, you know, the U.S. is occupying Haiti. We have installed essentially a puppet president by that point, but there’s still an independent legislature. And what the United States, Woodrow Wilson—speaking of white supremacists—what he wants to do at that moment is replace Haiti’s constitution because Haiti’s constitution going back to independence in 1884 did not permit the foreign ownership of land. Land is extremely important in Haiti. You know, this is a country founded in a revolution by enslaved people who, you know, burned the plantations of their French enslavers and then, you know, controlling their own land was as important to them and really the key to them, you know, in Haitian imagination and really Haitian reality as controlling their own lives. And the Americans were like, That’s not going to work for us, we want our businesses to come here, we want, you know, agricultural exports, the banks, you know, are looking to invest and so we need to write a new constitution that’s going to allow foreigners, specifically Americans, to own land. And this still-independent Haitian legislature was like, No. And so Smedley Butler went in with some marines and a force of gendarmes—which was the Haitian client military that he was the head of—and they went in armed and said, You’re done, you’re dissolved. And they dissolved the Assemblée. National, the Haitian National Assembly, at gunpoint. And it was shuttered for, you know, the next I think it was 12 years. And then as you note, Butler then goes back, he destroys the records of, you know, the assembly’s last votes and then gathers the Haitian newspaper editors in his office and says, You’re not, you know, you’re not to breathe a word of how this happened. And you know, one of the, one of the guide stars that I had writing this book, you know, the way, the way I wrote Gangsters, it’s a biography, but it’s also a, you know, a modern day travelogue. I go to all of the places that Butler and the Marines, that the Americans went in the early 20th century to write about what’s going on now and what the legacies are, and also what the historical memory is of these periods. And in that I was really guided by the great Haitian scholar anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who wrote a terrific book—very short and if you haven’t read it, anybody who’s listening, who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s called Silencing the Past—and he writes about the ways in which history is silenced through the creation and destruction of archives, through, you know, cultural production of memory, as he writes in one memorable part of the book, he says, you know: one silences the past as one silences a gun. And Butler played, he’s on both sides of that equation because he’s both destroying records of the things that he’s doing, such as shuttering the Haitian National Assembly in 1917, but then at the end of his life in the 1930s, he is then fighting against that silencing by writing, by going on the speaking circuit, by writing a series of pretty radical articles in a socialist magazine called Common Sense, and then his book War is a Racket. And he’s out there saying, I did these things, I participated in the raping of, you know, Central American republics, I made Cuba and Haiti a safe place for the Citibank boys to do business, and I made, you know, China safe for Standard Oil—things like that. So he’s playing with all that. In terms of the working definitions that I’m using of capitalism and imperialism, those are both, I think, big questions. I would say that the reason why I think that the United States can, you know, obviously and really almost, inarguably be defined as an empire is that, you know, we are a country that, we control an enormous amount of land both directly and indirectly, and you know, some of that, much of that has been—really, most of it—has been taken by force, and the people under our rule, there are different classes of rule and not everybody has a say. So there is, there’s are direct, de jure examples such as some of the colonies that were seized in Butler’s era that are still colonies of the United States: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands was taken in World War Two, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands. And you know, those are places where people are under the control of our central government in Washington, but they don’t have a say in, they have no representation on the floor of Congress, they have no say in who becomes president. And then you have you have other categories of places where we, you know, have been running things from behind the scenes, whether we are, you know, overthrowing governments using the Marines in Butler’s era, the CIA later on, drone strikes now, you know, running, you know, bases—what the historian Daniel Immerwahr calls, you know, our Pointillist Empire. So, you know, I think it’s fairly inarguable that you have a Metropol—you have a homeland, a core country—and then you have this larger United States, and these larger, you know, overlapping and telescoping spheres of influence. Those are an empire. And, you know, in terms of capitalism, you know, all of the standard definitions apply. I mean, you know, we’re talking about, you know, a nominally market economy that prioritizes the creation of wealth for the capital class, which, you know, involves the exploitation of labor and the exploitation of other peoples for resources. And that’s what’s happening throughout this period and it’s why Smedley Butler calls himself a “racketeer for capitalism” because he’s going to places and knocking over governments and, you know, destroying resistance movement and, you know, implementing military control, for the purpose of the banks, the industrialists and you know, the people who are going to benefit from this, this sort of, you know, upward redistribution of wealth. Those are long answers but they were big questions.
DeRay Mckesson: Jonathan Kashaka is on it. Y’all need to follow this man’s every step. So couple of things as we close out, is he has a change of heart at the end that you have referenced a couple of times and obviously you write about. What causes that? Like, why do you think that, why do you think he is there and is there any impact of that?
Jonathan Katz: I think that it’s a couple of things. I mean, to a certain extent, he sort of ends up back where he started. He joins the Marines at 16 in the war against Spain, you know, and he has a very paternalistic, you know, again unexamined sort of white supremacist way of thinking about this but he’s a 16-year old and he’s thinking, I’m getting into this war to fight against imperialism, against the Spanish Empire and as he puts it, you know, to free little Cuba. And, you know, he’s sort of living out his Quaker upbringing. And, you know, to a certain extent like, you know, this is American rhetoric and it comes from a real place. I mean, you know, we do grow up believing that we are, you know, the land of the free and that, you know, all men are created equal and that these are things that we, as Americans should, you know, make realities in the world. And you know, those are good goals. And he had those. And to a certain extent, he never gave those up, he just sort of got lost along the way, I think, you know, as he just got lost in his own quest for masculinity and just sort of, you know, gain fame and become a marine. And also, you know, he just had, you know, all this sort of unexamined mishegas—as my people would say—you know, just these unexamined assumptions that I think he learned more about. But it was being it was being out there doing these things, and doing horrible things. I think he, you know, he establishes, I think very clearly PTSD, he has a very clear sense of what would now be called moral injury. And he has, you know, he’s seeing, you know, we’re doing these things, you know, in the name of freedom and, you know, and the American flag, but the people who are benefiting aren’t the poor, they’re not the poor at home, and they’re definitely not the poor and the people who we’re exploiting in Nicaragua and Honduras, etc., but it’s, you know, it’s the banks, it’s the rich. And the end of his life is the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe and the near rise of fascism in the United States and the run up to World War II. And he just, you know, just, you know, to certain extent, he has, you know, some professional setbacks. I mean, his father, who’s kind of his, you know, sponsor, he’s a congressman dies. He misses out, Butler doesn’t become the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which is something that he had very much wanted to do. And, you know, and but he’s also seeing the way in which the horrible things that he’s done overseas are coming back home. And, you know, he’s an American, he’s a patriot and he doesn’t he doesn’t want those things to happen to, you know, people in his country. To a certain extent, he’s anticipating Frantz Fanon and, you know, Aimé Cesaire, you know, Frantz Fanon says, you know, What is fascism but colonialism at the heart of a traditionally colonialist country? And he’s sort of anticipating that conclusion. And so, you know, he’s been a ballsy guy his entire life, often in the service of horrible things, and at the end of his life, he tries to make good on that to the best he can. He succeeds in some, some respects and other respects, you know, the structures are just too big for somebody to undo. And to a certain extent, that’s, you know, the tragedy of his life is that very few people played as big role in creating these, you know, enduring structures of imperialism, permanent war and exploitation, in the United States than Smedley Butler did himself. And that’s something that I think that I and that a lot of people who are reading this book, I think, could identify with, that, you know, we also, I think, struggle with these things, our role in perpetuating. And by the way, it just occurred to me that we didn’t even talk about the fact that Butler played a singular role in militarizing the police in Philadelphia when he became director of public safety in the 1920s. The brief thing is that he takes a brief leave from the Marines during prohibition in the 1920s to go and clean up his hometown of Philadelphia, and he ends up, he runs the police force and he’s supposed to be, you know, fighting against gangsters, against, you know, these, you know, bootleggers, but he ends up, you know, just introducing military tactics that end up getting a lot of people killed. And actually, one of the people who serves in the Philadelphia police under Butler is a guy named Ralph Rizzo, whose son, Frank Rizzo, ends up becoming a notorious, obviously Philadelphia police chief and mayor who’s probably familiar to many of your listeners and obviously the Movement for Black Lives. So you can read more about that in the book.
DeRay Mckesson: So there are two questions we ask everybody. The first is: what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Jonathan Katz: A piece of advice that I’ve gotten, I don’t know, this maybe is a little bit of a clichéd answer, but you know, I’m Jewish and, you know, I grew up being taught, you know, the saying by my Maimonides that, you know: if I’m not for myself, who will be for me, and if I’m only for myself, then what am I, and if not now, when? And you know, that’s something that I’ve kept with me, and it’s something I think a lot about when I’m working on a project like this. You know, and it’s something that I think that Butler was also struggling with. Not that he was a great student of Maimonides, but, you know, trying to figure out, like, how do you make sure that you get your own, how do you make sure that you defend your own interests, but also do so at, you know, help other people and help your community? And that if you wait, it may be too late for everybody so you just have to work as quickly as you can. That feels like a really, really corny answer, but for whatever reason that just jumped into my mind.
DeRay Mckesson: And the last is—there’s actually another question just logistical—but the last real question is: there are a lot of people who feel like they’ve done everything, right, they called, they emailed, they testified, they read your book, they read mine, they listen to the podcast, they have been in the street, they ran for office, and the world still hasn’t changed the way they want it to. What do you say to those people, the people losing hope in moments like this?
Jonathan Katz: Oh, I think that one of the big questions that I’m trying to grapple with in this book and really in my life in general, you know, is this question of structure versus contingency, you know, structure versus individual action. And you know, indecently Butler also struggled with this. It’s much easier to to be effective if you are part of the machine. If your oar is rowing in the same direction as everybody’s around you. And it’s a lot harder to affect change if you’re fighting against the current and if you’re trying to—you know, some mixed metaphors—you know, steer the ship in a different direction. You know, the thing I think to keep in mind is, you know, if you’re not being as effective, if you’re not being as successful, you know, trying to change things as you were or as other people are just sort of, you know, going with the flow, that’s normal. And that’s what, that’s what you should expect. It’s really, really hard to change structures. But if structures were inevitable, if everything was just always the way it is and there was never any changing it, then history would have never happened, right? And then we would all be in the cave, you know, painting horses. Things change over time. And they change because of individual choices, and they change because the people who take risks, and people who take risks and fail, but create examples that other people can pick up later. And so, yeah, I mean, it’s really discouraging. I mean, we have this huge structural catastrophes that we’re facing right now. You know, democratic decline, white supremacy—and climate change being the biggest one of all, I think. And they seem really, really hopeless. But, you know—you know what? I’m going to answer my last question better. He’s not my Maimonides, but here’s my grandfather. He always used to say, he always used to say whenever I would, you know, be trying to do something and it wouldn’t go my way, he would say, You’re in there pitching. And I always think about that. It’s like, I’m trying, I’m trying. And it may not I might not succeed, and maybe I’ll never succeed, but I’m in there, I’m pitching, I’m in the game, and it’s better than, it’s better than the alternative.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. So as we close, can you just tell people where to stay in touch with you, remind people of the name of the book, and tell them where they can buy it?
Jonathan Katz: Yeah. So the book is “Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire. You can buy it anywhere. I, you know, obviously it’s great to support your local independent bookstore, but anywhere you buy books online, you can get it. You can keep in touch with me. I’ve, first of all, I have a newsletter. It’s called The Racket, named for Smedley Butler’s book “War is a Racket.” You can find it at theracket.news. That’s dot n e w s. And you can find me on Twitter @Katzonearth.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie and mixed by Charlotte Landes. Executive produced by me, and special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.