Acclaimed journalist and VICE contributor, Aaron Maté discusses speaking to people on the ground in Baltimore and Ferguson as a producer and correspondent for Democracy Now!, the power of social movements in creating a more just world, and the importance of delivering the context that's often left out of the picture.
Tracy: Concordia University in Montreal is known for being quite progressive and for having an activist element weaved throughout. It also happens to be where you completed your undergraduate degree. Tell me a bit about that time and how your experience helped shape your world view.
Aaron: Yes that’s right, it’s a very progressive place to be. My time there especially, happened to coincide with an upsurge in activism; there was an alliance between your typical Leftist kids and a large, politically motivated Arab student population. It was around the year 2000 when the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, so an alliance was formed that was very progressive and very politically engaged. And it was at this time that Concordia became a hotbed for student activism: we organized and took control of the student government, and we oriented a lot of student mobilizing around not only student issues, but global politics as well. We acted as a radical group of people with a common goal of making our issues known. There was even a vegan anarchist collective that served free vegan meals everyday. When [Benjamin] Netanyahu was scheduled to come and speak at Concordia, a massive crowd of people showed up and shut the whole thing down. In general it was a great time. Of course there were some internal conflicts among us, and fighting with the administration rarely ceased, but it was a really exciting few years. Even though I’ve always been political, Concordia is definitely where I gained my activist roots you could say. I certainly learned a lot there, it was really invigorating.
Talking about conflict, there are always disagreements on how to go about effecting change, or which issue deserves more focus. How might a collective work towards a similar goal of a more socially just world, when there is so much to address among the Left?
Well in this particular case it was interesting. I don’t know of any one group who can find an easy path in doing so, but for us it was the idea that we are all just people. We had vegan anarchists working alongside more conservative Arab students who were really concerned about the Palestinian issue, and of course post-9/11 especially concerned about their treatment in North America. So there was this common cause that we all found because it pointed out how much injustice there was to rail against and the power in addressing it as a collective. It was people who were concerned about different marginalized communities all finding each other through a common cause. Of course there were conflicts stemming from internal differences too - and those which I learned from. For example, once myself and a Palestinian friend were having a discussion and there were some differences of opinion. I had felt that we were too focused on challenging the pro-Israel group on campus; I thought we wasted too much energy and time fighting them in sort of machiavellian ways. Using the power we had to elect a student government to specifically go after the pro-Israeli group, as if that would somehow help the Palestinian cause? It seemed inefficient. So my Palestinian friend mentioned he thought I was coming from a place of privilege - of Jewish privilege - and so therefore I wasn’t respecting his place. I remember him saying that to me, which on the face of it could have sounded anti-Semitic, but I understood what he was saying. He was saying, “Don’t speak to me from a place where your privilege infringes on my basic rights.” Essentially, “You don’t get how privilege works.” So in our particular group, there were interesting conflicts you had to learn from like this. Sometimes these conflicts may have been ego, and sometimes they may have been overblown, but I learned a lot about really checking your privilege to the best you can, and being aware of what that means on many scales.
This was before the term “check your privilege” became what it is today: a huge movement born out of the #BlackLivesMatter campaigns, gender equality struggles, and Indigenous coalitions. Yet a privilege we don’t address often enough is mental health. Adverse upbringing and subsequent mental health issues hugely affect your socio-economic-status, almost as much as gender and race, yet is largely ignored. It also plays a massive role in the criminal justice system. We don’t realize how much our upbringings affect our adult lives, in either a very privileged way, or in an extremely unjust way. Ego is also a side-effect of poor mental health.
Yes, and to your last comment, I think checking one’s ego is not discussed nearly enough when it comes to political efficacy and being involved in movements. In my own case to whatever extent I’ve been effective in my political endeavours, it’s been when I’ve been able to overcome my really stupid ego, my really, really stupid ego, as egos will be. As well, to the extent I’ve been ineffective, it’s because I had been using politics as a way to channel repressed creative desires I was too afraid to go after, so I put them into politics, or into seeking validation through a cause. So that’s something I’ve learned over many years, and I’m still learning. The double edged sword of being conscientious politically is that when you aren’t fully mindful of your own unresolved issues, politics and external injustice become a good distraction and a good medium in which you can channel all of your unresolved issues. And that’s something that I think all of us don’t discuss nearly enough. I think it is especially acute amongst men. I can say this seeing it in myself and seeing it in others. In my limited experience with activism, as well as in my experience with journalism, the most divisive people have been men, and I’m one of them. I definitely see ways in which a particular male narcissism can isolate - I certainly have that and I’ve seen it in other male activists. But when we’re simply not cognizant of this, that’s when it creates issues, or blows them out of proportion.
Well said. You went to Baltimore earlier this year to report on a story. Could you explain why you went down there, and talk a bit about that experience?
First I should note that I’m not a big authority on Baltimore - I was down there for a total of maybe 12 hours. But I went down there because I was working [as a news broadcaster] for Democracy Now!, whose mandate is to go where the silence is, to cover the people’s voices, and to challenge the dominant views propagated by people in power and those who serve in the corporate media. So we go to where the people are, to amplify their voices, and to really look at their struggles in depth. Baltimore was another one of these cases where you had a city that has been torn apart by economic neglect and racism going back a long, long time throughout it’s history. It's where there was this policy called redlining where the government would deliberately exclude African Americans from being able to buy a home in certain neighbourhoods. Of course anyone who has seen [the TV series] The Wire, or anyone who reads the news, knows that African Americans are subjected to a particularly harsh form of policing, and bias of the justice system. All of this came to a head recently with the killing of Freddy Gray. For those that don’t know, Freddy Gray was an African-American Baltimore resident who one morning made eye contact with a police officer, and in the subsequent exchange, feeling threatened and scared, he ran away. And because he ran away he was arrested, placed in the back of a police van, and by the end of the ride he was severely injured. His family says that most of his spinal cord was severed. Later he died in the hospital. Because of this event, there was an uprising within the community of Baltimore--
--There was video of that interaction wasn’t there?
Yes there is video of him being taken into the van, and it was widely shared all over social media and on news outlets. So because of this event there was an uprising, and riots took place shortly thereafter, where stores were looted and burned. And that’s when I went down there. The next day I talked to people as they cleaned up and as they tried to take stock of a really intense day, and we spoke about what was next for their protests against the injustice of Freddy Gray’s story. So I went down for those brief interviews with the people of Baltimore for a segment on Democracy Now!. I’ve done these pieces in the past for them, which is simply just reaching out to people to get their stories. I did it in Ferguson several times throughout this past year with all that was happening down there on the same front as well.
(It’s important to make a note of human behaviour any time a riot breaks out: someone always uses it as an excuse to ignite looting and vandalism. We saw that in Vancouver after a sports game where a handful of white, suburban, teens and young adults broke windows of department stores, stole merchandise, and burned flipped-over cars.)
I want to ask you, having done your type of journalistic outreach so often, what are people like when a journalist comes over? Are they reluctant to talk about such a personal thing, or happy to get their story out?
In my experience most of them aren’t even remotely reluctant - I mean some people are for sure, but in my experience, not many refrain from speaking up. I’m always amazed at how going up to random people produces the most amazing responses. I’m also always astounded at the depth of people’s analysis and just how they can explain things so well. I guess that should be obvious, but it’s always impressive to experience. Democracy Now! is one of the few shows that really pays attention to normal people, and really gives the time to explain the issues. It’s not your typical pundit-based show; when you just let people speak it’s so much more powerful than hearing a pundit talk. In the case of Baltimore there was a lot of nuance in terms of people’s views on property damage: there was a CVS pharmacy that was destroyed which some people said had to happen in order for anything to change, because now people were paying attention. But others were really upset because they were worried about where people were going to go to pick up their medications. So it’s always interesting to be amidst the issue, to hear the nuance and complexities, and to try and present it in a fair way. It’s certainly always a privilege to get to do this by going down and hearing these perspectives directly from the people.
People are so much more aware than those in power like to let on.
Oh certainly. Look I’ve had the experience of hearing someone talk and the thought comes up where I’ve gone, “Wow they’re so articulate. The way they explain things is so spot on.” But then right away I think, well of course. Why should that be a surprise? But I suspect it’s partly because we’re conditioned and trained to think that people aren’t intelligent and that they can’t think for themselves. And this leaves us with a false picture that we need to rely on pundits and politicians to explain things to us. When I think about that reaction to being surprised, it’s not rational. It’s based on a certain life where we’re living in a media culture that doesn’t honour the average person; it trains us in a very subconscious way not to respect people, and not to respect their voices.
A lot of elite educational institutions are set up that way as well. It gives people the feeling that, “I’m educated so now I’m more valuable than the next guy who couldn’t afford my school.” When in fact it can limit your critical thinking, through a system of certain types of indoctrination.
Yes absolutely. Especially when you look at the funding of universities and research programs. And also that so much of university can be a self-justifying racket. I took political science for a while in school until one day I thought about the fallacy of the term ‘political science’ -- as if there was any kind of fixed rule to politics. [With politics] we’re not talking about anything involving mathematics or hard sciences, it’s purely something that has to do with human actions and human affairs. So to say as if there’s a science involved with fixed rules that dictate how politics work, and that this is a discipline that knows these hard rules and can teach them, is ridiculous - it’s a joke. So in some cases an education can be a hinderance, and as you said an indoctrination.
With political science, there are two ways you can go. One is to International Relations, so letting the UN, or the Council on Foreign Relations and the people in power, solve the human rights violations of the world. The other is Peace Studies, where you learn it's the people on the ground, the people who gather in their own communities - average citizens - who push for their rights. The great historian Howard Zinn has said that our rights weren’t given to us by people in power, they were given to us by the people who took to the streets to demand them.
Zinn is spot on with that comment, and it is certainly the case. But I’ve got to say that I have a soft spot for the UN. I just believe in it. [Laughter] I mean, I know it’s corrupt and bloated, but I actually believe in the idea of the UN. Whether that’s sentimental or not I don’t know, but I just really believe strongly in the idea of it, and I would like to see it become more empowered. I’d love it if they could actually be more involved in solving problems, because I have a soft spot for them.
Then I have a question to present to you. Because I see where you’re coming from - I wanted to work for the UN at one point. When something like we saw in Bosnia happens, where UN officials were caught for being paid to turn a blind eye to the trade and sale of women in a massive sex ring (and in some cases directly involved) it can feel hopeless. So how do you keep people in check when it can be so easy for them to feel above the law, or so easy to get corrupted by your environment?
Yes you’re absolutely right there. The huge problem with peacekeeping is that you have so many countries involved with peacekeeping in other countries that they’ve fucked up to begin with. You have French peacekeeping troops in Africa, and that’s a region that France has pillaged relentlessly. So when you send French troops in and they pillage more, should that have been foreseen? There was just recently a big scandal within the Central African Republic, where French troops were raping young girls, and doing unspeakable things. So yes certainly that part of the UN system is troublesome, and I don’t know what the answer is there. In general, the best thing we could look at, is where to the extent of any military force being deployed anywhere, it should be as local as possible. So in Africa, ideally it should be African troops who are sent to keep the peace. This is similar to Baltimore, where people say that part of the problem is the police who are policing these communities don’t live in the communities. They come from elsewhere, so they have no connection to the residents. As a general rule, we’ve got to make sure any type of military or law enforcement force has some type of connection to the population they govern. Otherwise it enables this type of traditional, colonial, Western dynamic where the foreigners are there to pillage and take what they want, and they feel entitled to do so.
I spoke to a police researcher who mentioned that if you’re going to have a police force, you have to do community consultation. You have to speak to the community, and learn from them on what’s going wrong. That’s why journalists doing this job helps. You wrote an article for VICE media about Egypt and how Stephen Harper was reluctant to comment on the case of Mohamed Fahmy?
Yeah so Egypt is super fucked up because it’s a classic case where the West just does not care about democracy if it threatens the interests of what the people in power want, or the state’s interest. Of course this is not the same interest as that of the populace. It’s not in the interest of average Canadians to support a military government in Egypt, but because in 2013 when Egypt had their first free election after [Hosni] Mubarak was overthrown and they elected the Muslim Brotherhood, the West was definitely going to go against that choice. The Muslim Brotherhood is not perfect, I mean I personally wouldn’t want to live under their reign, but they were the choice of the people. And unfortunately for those in power in Canada and the US, the Muslim Brotherhood is not aligned with Saudi Arabia who the West are in favour of, they have ties to Iran and Hamas, and they aren’t going to go along with what the trend in Egypt has been for three decades. The West had Mubarak who was oppressing his people and who was a dictator, but because he was a secular autocrat and he cared about enriching himself and his family, he listened to the West. So the US and Canada went along with his atrocities because he helped keep Gaza (which is on Egypt’s border) as a prison. He went along with what the US wanted and he got billions of dollars from them for doing so. When he was out, the Muslim Brotherhood took steps toward reconciling with Hamas in Gaza, didn’t follow orders of what the US wanted in the region, and challenged Saudi Arabia which is the United States’ traditional ally. And because of this, there was a coup. They were overthrown and Canada under its [former] Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately refused to condemn the coup, and shifted to supporting the coup government. Canada even failed to say anything when hundreds of people were massacred in Egypt in the summer of 2013 during what was called the Rabaa massacre where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were protesting because their elected government was overthrown. Now, here’s where Mohamed Fahmy comes in because he was a Canadian journalist covering that massacre and he was arrested there, along with two others. He is a Canadian citizen, he was born in Egypt, but raised in Canada, and his own country was mute to his crisis. Harper was silent about him for months and months; he didn’t say anything. In fact, no one within the halls of Canadian government said anything until finally there was some vague statement saying that they were ‘concerned’. They never once directly called for his release. This was a journalist working for Al Jazeera doing his job, and the coup government there accused him for ‘enabling terrorism’ which is bullshit. He was there covering a protest.
Which is what you do.
I do, so it’s absolutely ludicrous to watch that happen. Fahmy was in jail for well over a year in an Egyptian prison. He just recently got out and will be back in Canada, but it took forever and Harper did nothing to help him - it was just cowardly.
Canada under Harper was known for that. After Omar Khadr was released after 15 years of wrongful conviction, most of which were in Guantanamo, Harper stuck to his statement that Khadr was a terrorist. It’s disturbing because those who only watch corporate media, truly believe that. Back to the importance of journalists, a real democracy will fight for journalists, so they can continue to expose injustice.
Yes, and I think you can never underestimate the power of a good propaganda system. And the Western propaganda system in particular is so amazing because it’s not like there’s a central bureau telling us what to think. It’s this brilliant system where people who attain positions of influence or wide reach don’t really get there unless they unabashedly take this ostensible truth that the government’s goals are just. So accordingly they are going to pair themselves with whatever the propaganda line is. And a lot of that is based on the notion that darker people are less than white people. For example, let’s say that Omar had thrown the hand grenade at the soldiers that he’s accused of doing. I’d ask, where was he? Was he in Washington invading the US? No, he was a kid in his village in Afghanistan that was under attack by these foreign soldiers. If Harper was 14 and his town was invaded by foreigners, would he not retaliate if he saw a hand grenade? So the whole premise of the entire case is ridiculous. Because all he knows is that he’s a kid and these people are coming in and attacking his village.
And his family members were killed by them. But because he threw a grenade, that makes him a terrorist who deserves to be tortured in gruesome ways for 15 years.
It’s truly sad. It comes back to the notion that darker people, and people in third world countries, or people of the wrong religion, don’t have the right to resist or defend themselves against white people. They just don’t. I mean look at the Palestinian issue: the mass amount of violence that Israel has carried out, the amount of people it has killed, and the amount of wars it has started, all hardly deserve a mention - It’s just ridiculous. But whenever we talk about violence and terrorism, it’s always about how to stop Palestinian terror and how to ensure Israeli security. When is it ever asked, “What about Palestinian security from Israel?”
There was a ton of coverage by you guys on Democracy Now! during the last attack campaign by Israel. From what I saw, even the mainstream media couldn’t deny the reality at a certain point.
There was, and that was a really hard time. Here you had a long-term massacre over the course of 51 days, with over 2,000 people killed, a defenseless civilian population, and if you look at the story closely, it was entirely provoked by Israel. They’ve done it almost every time. Now of course Hamas is not blame free, but Hamas did respect the ceasefire for a long time even while Israel, as it has always done, tried to provoke them. Now, Hamas could have not fought back, because Hamas knows that if it fights back it’s going to ignite a terror campaign against its people. And it chose to fight back. What’s not said enough however, is that it didn’t fight back initially. Israel broke the ceasefire, carried out these huge raids in the West Bank, arrested all these Hamas people, and fired into Gaza. There were militants in Gaza that weren’t Hamas who fired back bringing more Israeli strikes. So at a certain point Hamas did choose to fire back, and of course Israel took that as a green light to go on a killing spree. But all that context was totally missing from the corporate media. You’re watching this massacre unfold where the violence was so brutal that anyone with any decency couldn’t help but feel that maybe Israel was going too far. The media as always certainly didn’t help make that clear from the get-go however. There were a lot of people who were silent who should have said something, so that was a really sad time. But I was really proud of what we did; we had a great correspondent Sharif Kouddous who was there every day, and we were really doing our part to bring people the context. It was very complicated looking on, but if you explain the context, you see what a cynical strategy Israel was pursuing and how that war was totally unjust. It was not about ‘self-defence’ for Israel, it was about destroying Palestinian nationhood, and that has been their goal for a very long time.
It’s a tradition with Israel. Anything the Palestinian people do seems to be an excuse to attack. It’s motivating to watch our generation unfold into a greater understanding. More and more people understand that Israel isn’t entirely innocent, and that Palestinians aren’t irrationally aggressive.
I agree. For myself, growing up Jewish and going to a Jewish-Zionist summer camp, I used to argue with a lot of really close friends. We were taught in our camp that Israel was this defenceless, small little country just trying to have peace for itself, which is bullshit. And this was actually a very left-wing, socialist, jewish summer camp. But now no one believes that anymore because you can no longer hide it. And as the old generation fades out, the more people see through what we’re told. There’s a whole history of why North American Zionists identify with Israel so much and defend it so much. It’s thought to be because of the Holocaust which is partially true, but what has been hidden is now coming out. Norman Finkelstein is an author who has done a lot of work on this, and he points out that nobody really cared about Israel that much before 1967. Then in June of 1967 Israel struck a huge blow against Arab Nationalism when it won the Six Day War: it took over the West Bank and Gaza, and it put [Gamal Abdel] Nasser of Egypt in his place. Then all of a sudden, Israel became a favourite in the West, and the US started giving Israel aid.
Why did that in particular make Israel a favourite?
Because as Noam Chomsky points out, they defeated Arab nationalism. They launched a war that was said to be Israel defending itself, and people bought it. So two things were impressive about that to the West: it was a big propaganda achievement in that Israel sold it as having defeated this existential threat, when really it was a total aggressive undertaking. They attacked their neighbours and took over territory which they still hold today: the West Bank, the Gaza strip, as well as the Golan Heights in Syria. So that impressed the people in power in the US, who also began to see Israel as a strategic ally that could help them police the region and contain Arab nationalism. This is when we started seeing a big shift in US policy, and accordingly we also saw a huge shift amongst US elites towards supporting Israel. It was now agreeable to US power, so if you were someone who went along with this you could go places, whether that was in academia, media, or politics. Now once that generation is replaced by a younger generation that cares more about morality and peace, then we’ll hopefully see more of a change. But as of today, things are still pretty bad. Obama in his second term is doing all these great things: he’s struck a deal with Iran, he’s starting to address mass incarceration, gun violence, and he’s restoring ties with Cuba, but his deafening silence on Israel speaks to the power structure of these pro-Israel interests and their effect on elected officials. The importance of Israel as this outpost for the US military, is so strong that I doubt Obama will do anything even remotely constructive there.
Is it these small steps like the ones Obama is taking that keeps you doing what you do? Fighting against injustice is not popular work within a hegemonic capitalist system. Most find comfort, as you said, aligning themselves with what power wants them to. So speaking up is not easy stuff.
Well, if you have the gift, or the curse, of being politically conscientious and you just care about the world knowing how unjust it can be, then it’s a matter of looking yourself in the mirror and being able to say, “Am I doing enough?”. Of course there’s another side too - it’s not all altruism. I actually find politics intellectually interesting and I like being involved. I like exploring and understanding big political issues, and to the extent that I can, helping others do so as well. Part of that means always questioning our assumptions and those that we're taught. So what keeps me involved in journalism and politics is the initial intellectual stimulation, caring about people and their communities, and seeing small increments of change. I do also feel that, especially in the West as a person with the privilege of free speech compared to many other parts of the world, we have a certain duty to speak up. If it’s feasible you should, because not everyone can. I work for a very politically active show, so I get paid to do this work, and not everyone has the privilege of getting paid to do politically meaningful work.
You’ve also met some pretty inspiring people working in the field.
Yes, it’s always such an honour to go and meet people who are giving of themselves to sacrifice for something greater: a just cause or fighting for others’ rights. Whenever I’m on the ground somewhere like the occupied territories, or in Haiti, or in Ferguson, just being around resistance and seeing masses of people coming together is such an invigorating experience. So parts of this work can be selfish because I just love being around that, but it also reminds me that we’re so much bigger than just our own personalities or as individuals. The power of movements is so great; it’s movements that really change things and help bring out in people who they are as a compassionate being on this earth. So whenever there is a movement of people organizing and fighting for change together, I understand it’s a privilege to be around that. To witness that, and to learn from that is a true honour. Powerful elements of our society are built around destroying these types of collectives, so fighting back for them is certainly worth it.
Well thanks so much Aaron, it really was a pleasure to get to chat with you. I’ll look forward to discovering new angles through more of your work, and good luck out there!
Of course, great chat Tracy. Thanks for this as well.
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