Mass incarceration: The silence of the judges

Jed S. Rakoff writes: For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.

The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.

Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.

And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males. [Continue reading…]

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Black lives matter: Premature deaths skew U.S. election results

New Scientist reports: Dead men cast no votes. A new study has found that the premature death of millions of black voters in the US has affected the outcome of several elections.

“We are talking here about deeply entrenched biases and prejudices in the operation of the economic, political and socio-cultural system which place blacks at a severe and systematic disadvantage,” says Chik Collins of the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley, UK. “It is a very well-founded challenge to the claims of America to be a ‘decent’ – let alone a ‘democratic’ – society.”

This week saw protests in Baltimore and across the US touched off by the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died of a spinal cord injury sustained in police custody. His death has now been ruled a homicide and six police officers involved will face criminal charges.

Overall, in the US, the mortality rate for blacks, across age and gender, is almost 18 per cent higher than the rate for whites. [Continue reading…]

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How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere

Karen Attiah writes: If what is happening in Baltimore happened in a foreign country, here is how Western media would cover it:

International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.

Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.

The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony. [Continue reading…]

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Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants

Patrick Kingsley reports: Sobbing and shaking, Mohamed Abdallah tries to explain why he still wants to risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea in an inflatable boat. He sits in a migrant detention centre in Zawya, Libya, surrounded by hundreds of fellow asylum seekers who nearly died this week at sea.

They survived only after being intercepted, detained and brought back to shore by Libyan coastguards, ending a week in which they went round in circles, starving and utterly lost. But despite their horror stories, Abdallah, 21, says the journey that his fellow inmates barely withstood – and that killed more than 450 others this week – is his only option.

“I cannot go back to my country,” says Abdallah, who is from Darfur, in Sudan. He left for what is now South Sudan in 2006, after he says his village was destroyed in the Darfur war, his father died, and his sisters raped. But in South Sudan, another war later broke out. So he made his way through the Sahara, a journey that he says killed his brother and cousin, to Libya. And there last year, he was witness to his third civil war in a decade – a war that still drags on, its frontline just a few miles from the camp at Zawya.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah says. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country. There is no security, there is violence. When you work, they take your money.”

He worked in a soap shop, and saved up to pay local smugglers for the boat to Europe. But just as he hoped to complete the payment, he was robbed, and then arrested. The recounting of his ordeal brings out first the tears, and then a conclusion: “I need to go to Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s war on migrants — while we argue, thousands perish in the Mediterranean

By Heaven Crawley, Coventry University

The latest refugee deaths in the Mediterranean – 700 people drowned when the overcrowded fishing vessel in which they were travelling from North Africa capsized of the coast of Libya follows a similar tragedy last week in which 400 people perished.

In October 2013, more than 360 people – mostly from Eritrea – lost their lives when their boat caught fire and sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. In September 2014 more than 500 migrants were deliberately killed at sea. The attack allegedly occurred after the migrants refused to board a smaller boat in the open water and the traffickers reportedly laughed as they drowned, hacking at the hands of those who tried to cling to the wreckage. Witnesses report that as many as 100 children were on board.

In the absence of official records, or bodies to count, it’s hard to say exactly how many people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a report in late September 2014 putting the number at 3,072, accounting for 75% of worldwide migrant deaths. But with so many lost at sea or along the way, the real figure could be far higher.

[Read more…]

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The Civil War’s dirty secret: It was always about slavery

Christopher Dickey writes: Seven score and ten years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and the great American Civil War ended, or so we’ve read in high school textbooks and on Wikipedia.

The chivalrous Lee, in countless hues of grey on his white horse, and the magnanimous Grant in muddy boots were icons that the reunited-by-force United States needed desperately a century and a half ago, and that we’ve cherished ever since.

But the war did not really end at Appomattox, just as it did not really begin four years before when South Carolina militias opened fire on the tiny Union garrison in the massive, unfinished fort called Sumter that dominated Charleston Harbor.

And if we want to stop and think today about what that war was about — what made it happen — then cannons, shot and shells, minié balls, muskets and swords do not, in the end, tell us very much. Brave men were called on to fight for their homes and their ideals, or because they didn’t have better sense, and, as in every war, they kept on fighting for their brothers in arms.

In the South, the spirit of camaraderie and defiance ran so hot and so deep that for generations afterwards, and to this day in some corners of the air-conditioned Sunbelt that was once the Confederacy, people will tell you about “The Lost Cause.”

But, let’s be clear. The cause of the South was not the cause of chivalry, nor was it about the revolutionary ideals of the Boston Tea Party, as many claimed at the time. “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated,” declared Charleston’s Robert Barnwell Rhett as the Carolinians prepared to secede from the Union and precipitate the war.

Rhett was one of the coterie of radicals in the South who came to be known as “fire-eaters,” and their cause was not the cause of freedom that the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Their cause was slavery: holding slaves, working slaves, buying and selling slaves — black chattel considered less than human beings by custom, by the courts, and even by the Constitution, whose authors never mentioned slavery but weasel-worded it into the founding document of the Union. [Continue reading…]

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White guilt won’t fix America’s race problem. Only justice and equality will

Gary Younge writes: On 26 November 2007 Brandon Moore, an unarmed 16-year-old, was shot in the back while running away from a security guard in Detroit. The guard made it look like sport. “[He] put one arm on top of the other arm and started aiming at us,” Brandon’s brother John Henry, who was with him at the time, told me.

“Brandon wasn’t involved in anything. He was the last one to take off running, I guess.” The shooter was an off-duty policeman with a history of brutality. Sacked from the force after he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while drunk-driving, he was reinstated a few years later on appeal. He went on to shoot dead an armed man in a neighbourhood dispute, and shot and injured his wife in a domestic fracas.
Walter Scott shooting: police dashcam video shows him running from car
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The story got a paragraph in Detroit’s two daily newspapers. Neither even bothered to print Brandon Moore’s name. The policeman was reassigned to a traffic unit until he was cleared by an “invesigation”.

The cold-blooded killing of Walter Scott, who was shot eight times in the back as he ran away from a policeman in North Charleston, South Carolina, is not news in the conventional sense. Such shootings are neither rare nor, to those who have been paying attention, suprising. Sadly, they are all too common. It is news because, thanks to the video footage, we have incontrovertible evidence at a moment when public consciousness has been heightened and focused on this very issue. While in this case the policeman involved has been fired and charged, such a degree of proof is no guarantee of justice. There was video evidence of police choking Eric Garner to death in Staten Island while he protested “I can’t breathe”, and his killers were acquitted; there was video of evidence of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles, and his assailants walked free. But in an era of 24-hour news and social media, video guarantees attention.

Black people have been dying for this kind of attention for years.

Michael Brown died for it; Kajieme Powell died for it; Tamir Rice died for it; Justus Howell died for it. The roll call could go on – and until something fundamental changes, not just with American policing but in the American psyche, it will get longer. [Continue reading…]

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Self-segregation by affluent whites in contemporary America

The Atlantic reports: Last summer, the Michigan town of Grosse Pointe Park erected a farmer’s market in the middle of one of the few remaining streets that allowed cars to pass between the tony suburb and the urban Detroit neighborhoods at its border. It was the latest of many attempts by Grosse Pointe Park residents to close off roads and block traffic between what has become a predominantly white, affluent suburb, and its poorer, urban neighbor.

There were protests about the border, and Grosse Pointe Park later said it would tear down the farmer’s market and re-open the road, but the incident speaks volumes to the segregation that exists in Detroit, and the tensions that can grow as a result.

The fact that these two areas are so close is unique — the border between Grosse Pointe Park and the city of Detroit is the only place in any of America’s biggest cities where a very wealthy, predominantly-white area abuts a very poor, black one, according to research from a new working paper from the University of Minnesota. But the existence of self-segregated wealthy white areas close by low-income minority ones isn’t unique, according to the Minnesota researchers. They have sorted census tracts in 15 of America’s 20 biggest cities into “racially concentrated areas of affluence” and “racially concentrated areas of poverty,” and find that many cities have more areas of segregated affluence than they do poverty.

Racially concentrated areas of affluence, by the researchers’ definition, are census tracts where 90 percent or more of the population is white and the median income is at least four times the federal poverty level, adjusted for the cost of living in each city. Racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are census tracts where more than 50 percent of the population is non-white, and more than 40 percent live in poverty.

Detroit has 55 racially concentrated areas of affluence and 147 racially concentrated areas of poverty, according to the research, done by Ed Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks. Detroit’s racially concentrated areas of affluence are just 1.1 percent black. It’s racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are 76 percent black. [Continue reading…]

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Ferguson and the criminalization of American life

David Graeber writes: The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.

More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.

Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we — or most of us, anyway — relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.

The DOJ’s report has made us all familiar with the details: the constant pressure on police to issue as many citations as possible for minor infractions (such as parking or seat-belt violations) and the equal pressure on the courts to make the fines as high as possible; the arcane court rules apparently designed to be almost impossible to follow (the court’s own web page contained incorrect information); the way citizens who had never been found guilty — indeed, never even been accused — of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers.

As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time. The entire population was criminalized. [Continue reading…]

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Enraged by Netanyahu’s rhetoric, White House officials believe Israeli-U.S. relations fundamentally changed

Peter Beinart writes: On Wednesday, I asked a senior Obama administration official whether there was anything Benjamin Netanyahu could do to repair the damage done by his comments late in his reelection campaign. The official’s answer: “You can’t unring the bell.” Other officials, off the record, put it far, far more harshly than that.

Top Obama officials loathed Netanyahu already. But three of his campaign comments drove them to new levels of fury.

The first was Netanyahu’s comment about “Arab voters coming out in droves,” which some in the administration view as racist. There is little President Obama considers more loathsome, administration officials note, than stoking racism to win votes. “Given our own history we have a unique perspective on the idea that minorities’ voting is not something to be condemned or feared,” said one administration official. The analogy is significant because the civil rights movement is Obama’s moral compass. For an administration official to compare Netanyahu to George Wallace or Bull Connor, even obliquely, says a lot about which side of history they believe he’s on.

The second comment that enraged Team Obama was Netanyahu’s boast that he built the settlement of Har Homa as “a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem.” Bibi, said a senior administration official, was “confirming that settlement policy has been a means of undermining a Palestinian state.” Which is to say: Netanyahu was confirming that by continuing settlement expansion, he had knowingly sabotaged John Kerry’s peace negotiations. White House officials believed that already. But they didn’t expect Bibi to publicly rub it in their face.

Thirdly, of course, Bibi said he would not allow a Palestinian state. Administration officials expect their Israeli counterparts to parse Bibi’s words in an attempt to downplay their importance. In private conversations, top AIPAC officials have already tried. But people inside the administration find that effort laughable, in part because they never thought Bibi wanted a Palestinian state even when he was on record as supporting one.

It is the Palestinian state comments, in particular, that are leading the Obama administration to, in one official’s words, “reassess our options.” The administration’s basic problem is this: For years, America has fought Palestinian efforts at the UN by insisting that bilateral negotiations offered the only path to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Administration officials stress the extraordinary, exhausting, diplomatically costly lengths to which they went to stymie various Palestinian UN moves. Obama and Kerry lobbied world leaders personally. Now, they argue, Netanyahu has destroyed their argument. How can they tell other countries that negotiations offer the best path to a Palestinian state when the leader of Israel has said he will not allow a Palestinian state? “It’s the prime minister taking this position,” says a senior administration official, “that forces this reassessment.” [Continue reading…]

Haaretz adds: U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday evening spoke by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and protested remarks made by the latter during his election campaign against the establishment of a Palestinian state and Israel’s Arab citizens.

Obama did not accept the explanations Netanyahu provided during an interview with NBC, in which he backtracked on some of the statements he has made.

According to a senior White House official, Obama told Netanyahu that the U.S. will need to reassess its options regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in light of the prime minister’s new position rejecting Palestinian statehood.

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Spitting in the face of Israel’s Arab citizens

Haggai Matar and Yael Marom write: Nearly one quarter of Israeli voters cast their ballots for a prime minister whose central message to the public on election day was that Arab citizens of Israel are the enemy.

An almost equal number of people cast their votes for: the guy who joined him in delivering that message, the head of the most right-wing party in the Knesset (Naftali Bennett); the guy who based his entire campaign on incitement against Arabs (Avigdor Liberman); the guy who said he would not sit in a government that relies on the votes of Arabs (Moshe Kahlon); and, the guy who rejected an outstretched hand from the Arab parties offering to form an alliance of the oppressed (Arye Deri). Their levels of support are even higher if you look only at the Jewish voting public.

Meet the 34th government of Israel, ladies and gentlemen.

Do not discount the message delivered at the ballot box on Tuesday, especially considering the massive victory of the Joint List, the third-largest party in the next Knesset. With 14 seats representing over 400,000 voters, and with above-average voter participation, the success of the Joint List is the Palestinian public in Israel’s message to its Jewish compatriots, which was the antithesis of the message it got in return.

For weeks, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh has been all over Israeli television, radio, newspapers and every type of online media. He broadcast a message of openness, of partnership, of striving for equality, of democracy, of a struggle for social justice — for all Israelis. He spoke of reconciliation and of turning a new leaf. [Continue reading…]

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50 years after Malcolm X

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FBI monitored and critiqued African American writers for decades

Alison Flood writes: Newly declassified documents from the FBI reveal how the US federal agency under J Edgar Hoover monitored the activities of dozens of prominent African American writers for decades, devoting thousands of pages to detailing their activities and critiquing their work.

Academic William Maxwell first stumbled upon the extent of the surveillance when he submitted a freedom of information request for the FBI file of Claude McKay. The Jamaican-born writer was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, author of the sonnet If We Must Die, supposedly recited by Winston Churchill, and Maxwell was preparing an edition of his complete poems. When the file came through from the FBI, it stretched to 193 pages and, said Maxwell, revealed “that the bureau had closely read and aggressively chased McKay” – describing him as a “notorious negro revolutionary” – “all across the Atlantic world, and into Moscow”.

Maxwell, associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St Louis, decided to investigate further, knowing that other scholars had already found files on well-known black writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. He made 106 freedom of information requests about what he describes as “noteworthy Afro-modernists” to the FBI; 51 of those writers had files, ranging from three to 1,884 pages each. [Continue reading…]

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Auschwitz remembered

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The Holocaust’s forgotten victims: The 5 million non-Jewish people killed by the Nazis

The Huffington Post reports: Six million Jewish people were murdered during the genocide in Europe in the years leading up to 1945, and the Jews are rightly remembered as the group that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party most savagely persecuted during the Holocaust.

But the Nazis targeted many other groups: for their race, beliefs or what they did.

Historians estimate the total number of deaths to be 11 million, with the victims encompassing gay people, priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters. [Continue reading…]

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If France is to build a new identity, it must address its apartheid

Francis Ghiles writes: Some French intellectuals and leading figures in the media argue that terrorism is the inevitable and extreme expression of a “true” Islam which entails the denial of the other, the imposition of strict rules in the guise of sharia law and ultimately jihad. Olivier Roy, a lucid analyst of his country’s politics, says that Muslims in France today are viewed as having Qur’anic software hardwired in their sub-conscious, which renders them incapable of assimilation into French society. Their only salvation lies in repeating their allegiance to France’s Republican values, preferably when pushed to do so on a live television show.

It is little understood, however, that the Republic’s cherished values of secularism and freedom of speech historically have a darker side. The civil liberties now idealised emerged during a period of colonial rule. As the historian Arthur Asseraf reminds us, France’s iconic freedom of the press law, passed in 1881 and still enforced today, was designed in part to exclude France’s Muslim subjects. The law protected the rights of all French citizens, explicitly all those in Algeria and the colonies, but excluded the subjects who were the majority of the population. In colonial Algeria, “citizens” were all those who were not Muslims, and the terms musulman or indigène usually overlapped. Muslim was a racialised legal category stripped of any religious significance.

Maybe the banlieues of today could be best understood as the Algeria of the 19th century: the legacy of French apartheid must be borne in mind when considering the problems of minorities. In the starkest indictment ever of French society by a senior government official, Valls said on Wednesday that “a geographic, social, ethnic apartheid has developed in our country”. The furious reaction to his remark hardly augurs well for a reasoned debate. Yet, in the banlieues of Paris, more than 50% of young people, often Muslim, are unemployed. They are hitting the glass wall between them and the workplace; prisoners with a north African father outnumber prisoners with a French father by nine to one for the 18-29 age group, and six to one in the 20-39 age group. This points to a massive failure of French society to integrate minority groups. [Continue reading…]

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French PM says ‘apartheid’ is leaving minorities on the fringe

The New York Times reports: Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France on Tuesday cited a deep divide in the country, likening it to a state of “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” that has left part of the population on the cultural fringe.

Mr. Valls, often regarded as the most popular politician in the leftist government of President François Hollande, has been known for his outspokenness and tough stance on radical Islam. A day after the end of the attacks in the Paris area that left 17 people dead at the hands of three Muslim extremists from France, Mr. Valls spoke of waging a war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”

But during a traditional New Year’s speech on Tuesday, Mr. Valls acknowledged that France had a deeply rooted problem that, he implied, had resulted in a divided society.

“These last few days have emphasized many of the evils which have undermined our country from within, or challenges we have to face,” he said. “To that, we must add all the divisions, the tensions that have been brewing for too long and that we mention sporadically.”

“A territorial, social, ethnic apartheid has spread across our country,” he said.

Mr. Valls avoided singling out Muslims, but it was clear that his remarks were a response to the terrorist attacks this month and addressed growing concerns about the situation of “two Frances” that, he said, has relegated the poor and heavily immigrant population to ghetto-like suburbs of Paris, where many Muslims from North African backgrounds live. [Continue reading…]

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An inside view of Greece’s Golden Dawn

Alexander Clapp writes: In Kalamata I introduce myself as an American neo-fascist with a strong interest in Greek history. Sceptically at first, later with fervour, a few members of the Golden Dawn invite me to attend meetings. Their offices tend to be located off main squares, usually in residential buildings in quiet neighbourhoods. Large Greek flags hang on the walls, along with news clippings and redrawn maps: Greece in possession of Skopje and bits of Bulgaria, Greece in possession of northern Turkey, Greece in possession of Cyprus and southern Albania. Swastikas (‘ancient Greek symbols’) are everywhere: on pencil-holders, clock faces, a paperweight. On the walls of a room in Gytheio there are reproductions of Hitler’s watercolours. Last autumn, two Dawners were gunned down by Athenian anarchists. Their profiles are pasted on refrigerators and desk drawers. No one says their names. They are just the Athanatoi, the ‘deathless ones’. Kala palikaria itan, the older Dawners murmur. ‘Those were good lads.’ They cross themselves.

Meetings last two hours. Dawners spend the first hour talking and drinking instant coffee; a lecture follows. Some offices will play black metal albums by Naer Mataron, the unofficial party band. (Giorgos Germenis, a Golden Dawn MP, is the bassist; Dawners call him ‘Kaiadas’, after the gorge where the Spartans tossed their unfit newborn.) We gather in a few rows of chairs. The Dawn hymn is handed out, sometimes accompanied by a recent article by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Dawn’s founder. The party’s website has been revived – WordPress shut it down after it kept posting threats to journalists – but the Dawners prefer print. There are two party weeklies, the Wednesday Chrysi Avgi and the Saturday Empros, as well as the Maiandros, a monthly cultural review. Each has a circulation of roughly 3500. Most Dawners wear black at meetings; shorts and sandals are prohibited. About one in four attendees is a woman; I’ve seen kids on two occasions: three teenage girls in Athens and a family of five in Gytheio. The men are big. Dawners like to stress the importance of exercise: they run martial arts camps in the Taygetos Mountains, send a team to the Athens marathon, and claim not to watch television. [Continue reading…]

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