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40 years and Counting; An Irish American Perspective
Civil Rights in Ireland and The United States
The 1960s and 70's were a time of great change throughout the world. Oppressed peoples were no longer content living as second-rate citizens. They rose up demanding equality in housing, income, job opportunity and education. These basic human rights were frequently being denied; met with violence by those governments that worked to keep the status quo in place. The events that took place in the United States and the north of Ireland during these years were but two examples of the struggle for freedom and self determination that raged throughout the world and continues to rage today.
The civil rights movement exploded onto the world's consciousness in the 1960s fueled by the hurricane winds of change that the decade brought with it. In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. a young pastor from Alabama was leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in nonviolent protests inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In the eleven year period between 1957 and 1968, Dr. King traveled over six million miles and spoke publicly over twenty five hundred times. Rallies, marches and protests were organized throughout the south. In many cases these peaceful protests were met with arrests and extreme violence. The world watched in horror as police unleashed dogs on the protesters, fired water cannons and beat the marchers with batons and billy clubs.
On January 29, 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was founded based on the ideas and practices that Martin Luther King had used in the United States. The NICRA organized protests, marches, acts of civil disobedience and sit in's based on the same tactics of nonviolence that the American Civil Rights Movement had used. This all came to a crashing halt on January 30, 1972, when British troops open fired on a peaceful march, protesting the practice of internment, killing 14 civilians. Again, the world watched in horror. This day became known as Bloody Sunday and was a turning point in the struggle for freedom in Northern Ireland. The event effectively ended the use of nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of protest in the north of Ireland and was the beginning of the violent era known as "The Troubles;"which lasted over thirty years.
While the African Americans may have been considered second-rate citizens, they were by no means the lowest on the race ladder in the United States. For over two hundred years, the Government of the United States had practiced, what by today's definition would be considered "ethnic cleansing" against the American Indians. By the middle of the 1900's a people that had once roamed freely throughout North America, were now limited to reservations. In 1968 a new generation of American Indian’s reacted to the inequality and poor living conditions on these reservations. Many were in prison, others were living in abject poverty and lacked the basic health care essentials to maintain a normal life. American Indians at this time had the highest poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, suicide, and infant mortality rate than any other race in the United States of America. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was born out of this hell of inequality, with a force that hurled it forwarded, demanding the right to self-determination and the honoring of all Treaties between the US government and Indian people. In 1972, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington D.C. was occupied by these new young warriors. Their sole demand was for the United States to honor over 300 treaties that the Government had signed and then broken with the Indian Nations. The USA reacted violently, waging a war on the American Indian Movement.
In August of 1969, the British Government deployed the British Army into the north of Ireland. At first this was seen as a blessing by the Nationalist people who felt that the troops would help to protect them against the violence of the Loyalist mainly protestant paramilitary organizations. However this was not to be the case as was ultimately shown by the events of Bloody Sunday. The deployment of these troops was the first step in Britain assuming "direct rule" over the north. The Irish Republican Army, who had been dormant since the early 1960’s, met this deployment with tenacity. They now saw a dramatic rise in their popularity. The day after Bloody Sunday was one of the biggest recruiting days in the history of this organization. In 1971, the Government reintroduced the practice known as “internment” which referred to the arrest and detention without trial of people suspected of being members of illegal paramilitary groups. Between 1971 and 1975, a total of 1,981 people were detained; 1,874 were Nationalist/Catholic and 107 being Loyalist. Internment gave the IRA another boost in popularity due to the biased way in which it was used. Interment was almost strictly used against the Nationalist community and although violence was done by Loyalist paramilitary groups, the first arrests of members of these groups did not come until 1974.
On Thursday February 12, 1976, a member of the IRA, Frank Staggs, died as the result of a hunger strike in a prison in England. His only demand had been to be transferred to a prison in Northern Ireland. The worst was yet to come.
In America, things were also turning violent on the Indian Reservations. On Feb.27, 1973, AIM seized control of Wounded Knee, a small community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The occupation was in protest to Dick Wilson's (tribal chairman of the Oglala Nation) administration. Wilson and his paid henchmen, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOONS, a self proclaimed name), wanted to assimilate the people into the white American world of capitalism, mean while getting rich themselves by selling tribal land to the US Government which wanted control over the uranium deposits and prime cattle raising land on the reservation, the traditionalist natives were strongly opposed. Two people were killed during the 71-day occupation, 12 were wounded, including two marshals, and approximately 1,200 were arrested. AIM had placed the issues of Native American rights into the international spotlight. As tensions escalated, so did the violence. The situation exploded on June 25, 1975 on the Jumping Bull farm in Oglala. A shoot out between the FBI and the native people camping on the property resulted in the death of one native man and 2 FBI agents. What followed was the largest manhunt in the history of the United States engaged against members of AIM. Even though the FBI stated that there were over 40 natives involved in the shoot out that day, only Bob Robideau, Dino Butler and Leonard Peltier were held over for trial after capture. Leonard was labeled public enemy number one with the FBI agents being ordered to shoot on sight. He went underground, escaping to Canada and was eventually apprehended. Meanwhile Dino Butler and Bob Robideau were arrested at different locations, eventually stood trial and were found not guilty by reason of self-defense. Leonard Peltier on his return to the US was tried and found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder. Ballistic reports that were withheld from the court later showed that the bullets that killed the agents could not have come from his gun. This year marks Peltier’s thirtieth year of imprisonment.
According to the records, between 1969 and 2001, 3,523 people died as a result of violence in the north of Ireland; some of whom were soldiers, but the majority of which were civilians. Most died not because of who they were but because of what they were: Catholic, Protestant, Nationalist, Loyalist, and Unionist. Some died because of an unflinching desire to be recognized for what they were, soldiers. In 1976 the British Government announced that all prisoners of "terrorist acts" would no longer be considered "prisoners of war" but would be regarded as common criminals. In 1980 the status known as "special category," a classification that separated the political prisoners from the ordinary criminals was done away with completely. One of the rights that the prisoners had under "special category" was the right to wear their own clothes, now they were required to wear prison uniforms. The prisoners refused and instead wore only blankets; this became known as the "Blanket Protest." On October 27, 1980 seven prisoners of "H" Block, Maze Prison went on hunger strike to demand the right to wear their own clothes and to be considered prisoners of war. Within a month, twenty-three Republican prisoners joined the seven that were already on strike. As the situation deteriorated, the Catholic Primate of Ireland issued a plea for the hunger strike to stop. The prisoners stated that the British Government had conceded to most of the main points that the strikers had demanded and after 53 days, the hunger strike was called off. However nothing changed. The demands were never met. On March 1, 1981 ten prisoners lead by Bobby Sands started a second hunger strike. The prisoners stated that this hunger strike was necessary because of "British deceit and broken promises." The first prisoner to refuse food was Sands who died on May 5, 1981 after having been elected to the British Parliament with 30,492 votes. The second hunger strike lasted until October 3, 1981. The British Government never conceded one point during the strike and watched while ten prisoners died. Throughout the strike, even as their comrades died, the strikers stated that they believed the British Government would accept their demands because "they weren't asking for anything unreasonable." On October 6, the Government announced that prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes as long as it was not an IRA uniform. When asked why they did not concede this point during the strike and save the lives of the strikers, they replied "that would be like giving the prison to the prisoners."
It has been fourty years since the Civil Rights Movement exploded into our minds and spirits. Forty years since Martin Luther King Jr. led the American Civil Rights Movement, demanding equality and an end to segregation. In those forty years has the African American gained his freedom, his civil rights? Segregation as law is no longer but discrimination in housing, income, job opportunities and education still exist. To this day, they have not found the Promised Land that Dr. King spoke so eloquently about in his speeches. Forty years since NICRA was formed and fourteen innocent people were gunned down for calling for their rights. The Troubles officially came to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, 3,523 people had died. The IRA went on cease-fire almost ten years ago and have stayed on cease-fire, last year they announced that they would disarm and cease to exist as an Army. Has the Nationalist population in the north of Ireland found their freedom, their civil rights? Day to day life is better, but discrimination still exists. The violence is mostly gone, not completely, but British troops still police the streets and to this day almost none of the points agreed upon in the Good Friday Agreement have been implemented; the north of Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom. Forty years since the American Indian Movement burst onto the American Landscape and nothing has changed for the American Indians; they still have the highest poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, suicide, and infant mortality rate of any other race in the United States. It has been thirty years since Leonard Peltier went to jail for a crime he did not commit, he continues to fight for his freedom. It has been almost SIXTY years, December 10, 1948, since the United Nations General Assembly UNANIMOUSLY adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, among other things, stated that all people had a right to equality, freedom from discrimination, from torture and degrading treatment, to equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, right to a fair trail, to be considered innocent until proven guilty, to adequate living standards, right to education, right to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of belief and religion and above all freedom from state or personal interference in these rights. Both the United States and the Government of Great Britain signed this agreement. To this day, sixty years later, we still wait for them to implement it into practice.