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ZNet Commentary

Boondocks Cartoon Censored
December 05, 2001

By Frances M. Beal, a political columnist for the San Francisco Bayview newspaper.

[all images © Aaron McGruder]

The missiles and bombs raining down upon Afghanistan have claimed another victim, this one within the borders of the U.S. of A. His name is Huey Freeman and he is the surly son of Aaron McGruder who conceives and inks the ever-popular Boondocks comic strip.

Huey is the main protagonist in the strip, a pre-teen black revolutionary who sports a huge 1970's style Afro hairdo and trades quips about the vagaries of Black life in white America, usually with his grandfather.

The strip's hard hitting social critique of race and racial discrimination in the U.S. has earned it a faithful following - particularly among African Americans - in the many newspapers throughout the country that carry it daily. That is to say, the strip appeared daily until it was pulled from many papers this week, allegedly for "patriotic" reasons.

In some ways, this action on the part of Corporate America is not surprising. Despite strong messages from the White House that dissent from its domestic or foreign handling of the post September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will not be welcomed, McGruder has been unrelenting in his social satire of current events.

In one strip, for example, Huey sits before the TV watching the Attorney General intone that it is his duty to protect us against terrorism while protecting the rights of all Americans, including those of Middle Eastern descent.

In the next panel, however, Huey is seen clutching his Afro while the AG says "so I would like to reassure Congress that my proposed Turban Surveillance Act, which would allow the FBI to covertly plant listening devices in the headgear of suspected terrorists, is in no way meant to single out Arab or Muslim Americans."

The strip that allegedly went beyond what is considered the acceptable political pale these days and which got it booted from competing with the likes of Mary Worth or Family Circus is a panel that featured Huey calling the FBI's terrorist hot line number.

What is particularly ominous about this incident is that it strongly suggests that those who insist upon their right to dissent, or in the case of Aaron McGruder, to the right to satire and yes, even to ridicule government policies, will face serious consequences.

In sum, you will be subjected to economic and possibly political sanctions that will threaten your livelihood and your standing in the community if you challenge government policies.

Those who have an appreciation for history are already making comparisons with the McCarthy period when dissent with America's cold war policy abroad was equated with a lack of patriotism and even treason, and accompanied by a stultifying censorship of thought and a curtailment of constitutional freedoms on the domestic front.

Those who think that the McCarthy comparison is an exaggeration should take a look at some of the provisions of the so-called Uniting and Strengthening America Act ("USA Act") of 2001 (S.1510). Behind the mask of fighting terrorism, the law was pushed through the Senate without even a review by that body's judiciary committee and with minimal debate.

In one of those ironies of history, the sole dissenting vote came from the late Sen. McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin and was cast by Russ Feingold. Advocates of civil rights and civil liberties are aghast claiming that the legislation is nothing more than "a prosecutor's wish list of powers that allows them unchecked discretion to curtail the civil liberties of all Americans." (Karen K. Narasaki, President of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium).

One of the most precious freedoms we have is that of dissent - and not just in times of peace and harmony. Our Attorney General John Ashcroft should take a refresher course in Constitutional Law 101. The right to dissent by citizens, journalists and commentators is particularly important when our government undertakes a military adventure that can cost the country and the world untold misery in terms of ecological and human devastation.

If the government's expansion of police, military, security and domestic intelligence agencies cannot be criticized by artists like Aaron McGruder, and if the new powers, resources and freedom to detain, and spy upon "suspicious characters" are not open to discussion, we are further along the path to the establishment of a police state than some had feared.

What is frightening about all of this is that we have been down this path before. McGruder's satirical pen and biting wit stands on the shoulders of Black cartoonists like Ollie Harrington. His most famous character was Bootsey who made comic reference to Black love and life, but he too was a social critic.

Harrington's criticism of what he called nationwide apathy about legislation against lynching came under scrutiny from the FBI during the McCarthy era. Finally, Harrington left the United States and lived first in Paris and then in the former East Germany until his death in 1995 at the age of 84.

Let us hope we can build a strong enough movement for peace and justice that we can turn back the tide of reaction and the repressive measures that would force a young talent like Aaron McGruder onto the sidelines.

Frances M. Beal is a political columnist for the San Francisco Bayview newspaper and National Secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Contact