By David Swanson

When a Member of Congress wants to push an agenda forward, even one supported by very few other Congress Members, he or she will introduce or sign onto a bill and urge others to do the same. Almost every Congress Member is willing to do this sort of thing, often on very controversial issues. But when a Member of Congress wants to oppose an agenda without explaining why, he or she will tell you “I can’t sign onto that because we don’t have the votes.” In addition to the inconsistency, another problem with this excuse is that there are many examples of Congress finding the necessary votes as a result of a small group of Congress Members pushing an agenda forward.

“In January of 1989,” Congressman John Conyers writes on his website, “I first introduced the bill H.R. 40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. I have re-introduced HR 40 every Congress since 1989, and will continue to do so until it’s passed into law.” This is the appropriate position and behavior for Conyers or any other Congress Member to take on this or any other important matter of social justice. One day, Conyers and others may succeed. And by putting their names on a bill, they make clear to citizens which other congress members are failing to take the same position.

On the question of impeaching Vice President Dick Cheney, however, Conyers takes a very different tack. He has published a book documenting the crimes of Cheney and Bush, but when it comes to supporting a bill, Conyers offers the “we don’t have the votes” excuse.

This would be aggravating enough on its own. The aggravation is added to when some badly confused individuals denounce those lobbying Conyers on this issue (or at least those doing so who are white) precisely on the grounds that Conyers supports reparations for slavery. Of course he does! Conyers supports single-payer health care. Conyers supports the right to organize a union. Conyers supports all sorts of good things. But none of those things qualify him to take the wrong position on impeachment and not be criticized or protested for it.

Of those who protested Conyers at his office last week, most if not every single individual – including the white ones – support reparations for slavery. I’ve publicly supported and written about that project for years. For years I had a big link on my website to an activist campaign for reparations. In January 2005, I wrote an obituary for James Forman [ ] in which I said:

“In 1969 he carried impoliteness so far as to disrupt a service at Riverside Church in New York to demand that white churches pay $500 million in reparations to African-Americans. If the movement for reparations ever succeeds, Forman may be honored as one of its pioneers. Until then, he’s known – where he’s known at all – as someone who pushed for a change that has not yet come (and must therefore be ridiculed or attacked). We forget how many things he pushed for that are now taken for granted.”

My point was not just that efforts like those made by John Conyers year after year may someday cease to be mocked and instead be honored. The larger point I was making was that Forman was willing to challenge even his allies when they were wrong, and to do so in ways that were deemed impolite and inappropriate. Why go to a liberal bunch of pro-integration church-goers, some of whom were no doubt funding and participating in important work, and disrupt their religious service to propose a project for which everyone knew we did not “have the votes”? The answer, of course, is that justice is more important than decorum, damaged lives more significant than hurt feelings.

In April 2007 I gave a speech in Portland, Maine, [ ] in which I said: “I spoke earlier today … at Faneuil Hall, where men like Wendell Phillips led a movement to abolish slavery, something the wise and knowing of that day said could not be done. Those abolitionists made their movement a fight for freedom of the press. And make no mistake: our struggle is the same.”

The struggle for the impeachment of Cheney and Bush is not in opposition to the struggle for justice from slavery. It is inspired and informed by the anti-slavery movement. Reparations for the horrors of slavery must come, no matter how many years later.

So too, must reparation for the crimes of today. We have killed nearly a million Iraqis, driven another 2 million from their homes, and caused yet another 2 million to flee their country all together. We have severely damaged the lives of every resident of that nation. At the same time, we have abandoned the people of New Orleans, many to their deaths. And, worldwide, our nation’s policies are leading the exacerbation of global warming, resulting already in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The time for reparations for today’s crimes will come. Those crimes include the use of slave labor in the construction of the US embassy in Baghdad. Now is the time to end those crimes, to put a stop to the suffering they are causing.

There is an urgent moral demand to put a halt to the destruction. Then the cleanup can begin. And it must include the establishment of new standards for future behavior, a whole new direction for our nation based on setting right our past abuses. The abuses we set straight must include the slaughter of the Native Americans, and must above all include slavery.