John F Kennedy at a press conference in August 1963. Photo: Getty
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Where were you when JFK was shot?

Bonnie Greer remembers how “Mom and Apple Pie America” came to an end with the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago.

The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is becoming one of those archetypal measures of age, place etc. There are more people now who can’t answer than who can because either they were too young or they weren’t born.  But I can answer. I know.

A lot has been said about us baby boomers, mainly because most of us are still alive. Humans on the whole have never lived as long and as healthy as us, nor been as wealthy and active. It was all set up to be like this by our parents. We were the hoped-for babies after the catastrophe of total war and genocide. Our births would erase the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and so we were given golden childhoods. We boomers were brought up in a sunny Fifties and early Sixties “everything-for-the-kids” time.

Fathers and mothers were just that – with all of the safety/coddling and security/overprotection those two words imply if you’re old enough to remember “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” or the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or Alfred Hitchcock scaring the hell out of everyone weekly on TV.

Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, no matter, all of our parents tried their best to make our lives as sweet and as safe as possible. Yes, we had the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over our heads – “duck and cover” and the shrill alarm that went off every Wednesday afternoon to tell us to prepare for “the Russians”.

Protecting us from Khrushchev and his minions was an old guy in the White House who was like a grandfather and his wife Mamie who wore pearls all of the time and smiled a lot. How could we know that President Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in WW2? We weren’t around then, so who cared? That made John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts mine and my fellow baby boomers’ first president.

We were kids and young teens during his campaign and so didn't know much about the politics. I’m from Chicago and my hometown played a huge part overtly and covertly (nothing’s ever straight forward in Chi-town ) in getting him elected. His picture was everywhere. I was a young black girl with a dad who’d grown up in “Mississippi goddamn” as Nina Simone called it so I watched the Civil Rights stuff in the south on TV with a particular interest.  

All that mattered and at the same time it didn’t.

JFK seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a new deal. Maybe he could bring equality – help little black kids like me go to school in the south without an escort from the National Guard. Plus he was young, cute, his wife “Jackie” was beautiful and young and wore fab clothes and they had a sweet little girl, Caroline, and Mrs JFK was about to have a baby. If you’re a typical teenage girl – and I was – what’s not to like?

I had just turned 15 the week before the assassination. Chicago is in the same time zone as Dallas. I was at school in the middle of a lesson, Latin, I think. It was a girls’ school, the last fee-paying school that our dad could afford. The following year I would have to transfer to the local high school, leaving all my girlfriends behind. I was very focused because I didn’t know what my education would be like after the following June. In addition, I was one of a handful of black girls there. It wasn’t easy.

Suddenly, we were all called to assembly. I walked past an open door and peered into the empty classroom. I saw one of the nuns crying. I had never seen that before. Not a good sign. Had the Pope died or something?

After we sat down, we were told that the President had been shot. One of my friends (I was going to say “black friends” but we had no white friends) asked the principal if we black people were now going to go back into slavery.  It was a stupid question and embarrassing, too, but for a second I knew that all of us black girls had asked that inside of ourselves. We finished with a prayer and then were dismissed for the day.

It was raining outside, just like in a corny movie, and people were crying in the street. It was lunchtime and folks were just milling around in a daze. Some guy tried to hit on me and I told him off. He hadn't heard the news.

When I got home, Mamma was in front of the TV. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite, the most respected journalist in America – in short, God – announced that the President had just died. And I still remember this: Cronkite looked behind his right shoulder at the clock on the wall, turned back to camera, and slowly took off his glasses. Mamma and I broke down.

JFK was assassinated live on lunchtime TV. Lee Harvey Oswald – his supposed assassin – was gunned down – on live TV, too. Somebody else – we figured – pulled all of this off. Somebody Big.

My generation – whether left , right, or nothing – started developing a deep, deep distrust of “The Official Version”.  What Ed Snowden discovered doesn’t surprise a boomer one bit, whether they admit or not. We’re all conspiracy junkies. And we’re all a bit crazy, too. Because our golden childhoods got literally blown away. While we were at school.

“Mom and Apple Pie America” ceased to be on 22 November, 1963 at about 1pm CST right after our sandwich, apple, and milk.

I was there. I saw the end. Like Jim Morrison sang.


Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.