On 4 November 1979, nine months after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi State, revolutionaries affiliated with the Muslim Students of Imam Khomeini’s Line stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. They held fifty-two diplomats and citizens hostage for the next 444 days. Four days after the beginning of the embassy siege, Roone Arledge, then-president of ABC News, created the nightly television program The Iran Crisis – America Held Hostage. In 1981, when the hostages were released, ABC preserved the spot allotted to the “hostage crisis,” renaming it Nightline. On 31 March 1991, a decade after the end of the embassy siege and thousands of miles away from the locus of rebellion, four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers were caught on tape brutalizing Rodney King. On 29 April 1992, a jury acquitted all officers of assault and charged one with using excessive force. The jury’s decision to acquit the officers of most of their crimes ignited the “LA riots.” A team of Nightline journalists released Moment of Crisis: Anatomy of a Riot in the same year. They were awarded two Peabody Awards.
In 1992, former executive producer of Nightline Tom Bettag accepted the second Peabody Award for Moment of Crisis. In his acceptance speech, he recounted a conversation he had with Arledge, still the president of ABC, who told Bettag, “When the Gulf War is over we need to change the broadcasting . . . Roone said, ‘Eleven years of the same thing is enough.’” Nightline was born out of ABC’s coverage of the embassy siege eleven years prior. Though ABC presented coverage of the LA rebellion as a break from the past, the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran and the 1992 rebellion in LA had far more in common than they themselves were willing or able to see.
In retrospect, the 1979 revolution in Iran and the 444-day embassy siege took place as Islam appeared in the form of a public religion in the midst of the Islamic Revival of the 1980s. Coverage of the embassy siege foreshadowed the racialized visual fields that would color network media’s coverage of Islam’s appearance as a public religion. The United States’ foreign policy in the Cold War and its domestic policy shaped and informed each other: while anti-Black racism colored the United States’ understanding of social movements in the Middle East after 1979, the militarization of police at home in response to the specter of the Islamic terrorist has increasingly folded over into counterinsurgent policing of Brown and Black bodies. Responding to US domestic and foreign policy in the Cold War, Khomeini released most of the Black hostages in the first month of the takeover, explaining that Black Americans, like Iranians, were oppressed by the United States.
Arledge and Bettag insisted that coverage of the LA rebellion was a break from its past. Yet, ABC’s coverage of both events, produced and circulated at the outset of the era of nightly news and the attendant hypervisibility of racialized bodies, evinces how local and global counterinsurgency efforts by the United States have produced racial categories, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, how rebellions in opposition to counterinsurgency efforts disrupt those categories by giving appearance to more capacious political formations of trans-local solidarity. ABC disavowed the entanglements of policing abroad, war at home, and the racial geography of anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism, obscuring how both struggles in LA and Tehran were oriented towards the dismantling of local and global structures of domination, the dethronement of the agents that sustain and animate them, and the collective enactment of a common space of freedom.
The Entanglement of Anti-Black & Anti-Muslim Racism
The United States’ history of anti-Black racism continues to shape racialized psychological discourses about the “darker nations.” In 1951, at the outset of Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadeq’s campaign to nationalize Iran’s oil, John Cooper Riley, the US ambassador to Iran, remarked, “The paucity of competent public men in Iran is appalling. Like the story of the ten little ni—er boys, the roll call ends in Iran, ‘and then there was one.’ He was the Shah.”[i] Two years later, the United Kingdom and the United States engineered Operation Ajax, the coup that deposed Mussadeq from power, re-instating in his place Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been little more than a figurehead.
In 1961, the Iran Desk Officer at the State Department John Bowling penned two reports on the psychological profile of Iranians, sanitizing them of Wiley’s transparently vitriolic racism while retaining the elements of its racial logic: the Iranian middle class were irrational by nature, prone to expressing anger by taking revenge on the state, and diseased by an identity crisis.[ii] Since Iranians were irrational, unruly, and unstable, it followed, a heavy-handed authoritarian monarchy was the mode of government suitable to their nature. They needed to be policed–and were, with abandon.
After the 1979 revolution, the figure of the Muslim attained an increasingly prominent role in US domestic and foreign policy. The development hearkened back to a centuries-long history in which the zealot marked the limits of the liberal ethos of toleration. The zealot was incapable of the disposition necessary for liberal order: that of arguing in public while obeying the law in private. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have since given new life to the paranoid belief that Muslims may be “radicalized” as zealous enemies of the state.
In the so-called “war on terror,” the Muslim serves as a foil against which the United States draws legitimacy to justify its military exploits in the “Middle East.” In the United States, anti-Muslim racism and anti-Black racism have historically been woven together. Since many Black Americans discovered “a liberatory racial identification” in Islam, being Muslim “[translated] into a threat to white Christian supremacy that was then used to further racialize immigrant Islam.”[iii] The figure of the Muslim “encompasses a broad race concept that connects the history of Native America to Black America to immigrant America in the consolidation of anti-Muslim racism.”[iv]
The entanglements between anti-Muslim and anti-Black racism are tightly woven together in the concept of “the riot.” By the second half of the twentieth century, the term “riot” was racially coded in American media,[v] part of a longer history that traces back to November 1898, when white residents in Wilmington, North Carolina brutalized Black members of the community, inciting unrest. Former Confederate officer Alfred Waddell delegitimized the uprising against white supremacist rule, scornfully calling it a “race riot.”
Contemporary media similarly use the concept to delegitimize rebellion, refurbishing entanglements between anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism for public consumption. After the 1979 revolution, the revival of “political” Islam in the Middle East invited orientalist portrayals of crowds on the streets as “warlike jihadists, frenzied zealots, atavistic crazies, paranoid xenophobes, and enraged fundamentalists driven by homicidal if not suicidal martyrdom complexes.”[vi] In coverage of the mass demonstrations in Tehran the year prior to the Shah’s departure, The New York Times portrayed the crowds on the streets as unruly mobs, regularly describing organized resistance on the streets as “riots.” Coverage of the embassy siege retained the orientalist portrayal of rioters before 1979 in its caricature of revolutionaries after.
Covering “the Hostage Crisis”
Reflecting on coverage of the embassy siege, specifically its depiction of “us” against “Islam,” Edward Said observed: “it seemed that ‘we’ were at bay, and with us the normal, democratic, rational order of things,” while “[o]ut there, writhing in self-provoked frenzy was ‘Islam’ in general, whose manifestation of the hour was a disturbingly neurotic Iran.”[vii] Media coverage of the siege was equally shaped by the mutual imbrications of the broad race concept consolidated in anti-Muslim racism. The demands of the revolutionaries who stormed the embassy were by no means novel: they asked that the United States cease and desist from interfering in the internal affairs of Iran. Their demands continued a century-and-a-half long history of riots, protests, and demonstrations against foreign intervention and local collaborators who yield to foreign powers.
On America Held Hostage, ABC propagated images of Iranians setting fire to US flags and chanting “Death to America.” The nightly broadcasts vilified Iranian demands for self-determination. In the backdrop, armed and funded by the United States, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, confirming the revolutionaries’ critique that the United States was invested in undermining its self-determination. On day fifteen of America Held Hostage, however, ABC’s captivity narrative was internally disrupted. The network aired a question-and-answer media event with Marine Sergeant Ladell Maples, Marine Sergeant William Quarrels, and US Embassy Secretary Kathy Gross, the former two of whom were Black men. Gross began with a surprising answer: “I believe that any country that does not want another country to interfere has the right to say so.” Maples echoed Gross’ sentiment, voicing that he had cultivated friendships with his captors, and lamenting that he was “very saddened about some of the things that have been going on during the Shah’s regime.”
In the 1980s United States, Iranians were suspended in what Neda Maghbouleh calls the “limits of whiteness.” Jingoistic Americans responded to the embassy siege by organizing anti-Iranian rallies and demonstrations. In Los Angeles, five thousand people gathered calling for the hostages to be freed and for “the Ayatollah’s” death.[viii] Two of the more popular slogans in the air were “Fuck Iran” and “Piss on Iran.” Local television stations in Los Angeles gave the rallies and demonstrations widespread publicity. Across the country, store owners invoked the history of Jim Crow, hanging signs in restaurants that read, “No dogs or Iranians allowed.” President Carter called for Iranians to be “registered” while universities employed overt and covert mechanisms to force Iranian students to withdraw from their studies. Ironically, in 1978, the same federal government had classified Iranians as “white.” They were in a position to choose between uncritical loyalty to the United States or to risk inviting suspicion that their loyalties were divided, much akin to the dichotomy between what Mahmood Mamdani has described as the “good Muslim” and the “bad Muslim.”[ix]
Recall that in 1992, Bettag rehashed a private conversation with Arledge, quoting the president of ABC as saying that “eleven years of the same thing was enough.” Though from 1980 to 1989, the United States benefited from Iraq’s war with Iran, in 1990 and 1991 it shifted course out of pure self-interest, mobilizing to put an end to Iraq’s attempt to annex Kuwait. While Iran asserted its difference from the Arab world, network media propagated the idea that to cover “the Middle East” was to cover “the same thing.” There was a kernel of truth embedded in the presupposition that the Middle East was the same thing, its spatial boundaries the scorched battleground where the United States satiated its thirst for blood and oil. In other words, by propagating the concept of the Middle East, ABC shed light on the United States’ militant production of a shared identity among “Middle Easterners.” In contrast, Bettag and Arledge suggested that the LA rebellion had no relation to the embassy siege and the contemporary history of the Middle East thereafter. Their coverage of the LA rebellion, however, makes visible continuities between acts of rebellion in 1979 and 1992.
From Revolution to LA Rebellion
Bettag and Arledge’s maneuver to break from past programming required a disavowal of the nexus between race, war, and policing. The afterlife of racial apartheid in the carceral state during “the new Jim Crow”[x] draws together policies and projects defined as “wars”—on poverty, crime, drugs, and, most recently, “terror.” During the Cold War, the United States acted as the world police abroad while it militarized the police at home as an instrument of urban warfare.[xi] If we insist on the homologous (rather than analogous) relation of modes of ruling here and there, we see resonances between domestic and foreign race relations in justifications for counterinsurgency. Compare Riley and Bowling’s claim that Iranians were natural slaves in need of a monarch and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s justifications for the policing of bodies marked by race in the United States in his 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Moynihan argued that a lack of strong patriarchal authority in Black families called for “white assistance.”[xii]
The LAPD has carried out counterinsurgency actions with unabashed force.[xiii] During the war on drugs, “[p]unitive campaigns against drugs and gangs in Los Angeles rationalized a new martial infrastructure” in which “[the] state applied militarization unequally by focusing on historic African American and Latino neighborhoods in the south-central part of the city.”[xiv] By defining the war on drugs as a war on gangs, officials “justified the criminalization of everyday life in black and brown Los Angeles,” such that “[m]odes of dress, movement, color of shoelaces, hand gestures, and mere association became defined as a prosecutable defense . . . The prescription for joblessness and illicit economies that accompanied urban divestment was simply to remove a significant percentage of the population through prison warehousing.”[xv] In 1992, at the end of the Gulf War and standing on the ruins of the war on drugs, Bill Clinton slammed his iron fist, claiming that no Republican would be tougher on crime. Meanwhile, LA city sheriffs listed almost half of the Black male population under twenty-five as “gang members”––part of a carceral strategy that lent itself to a prison population disproportionately comprised of Black and Latino members of the community.
These histories frame the jury decision in 1992 to acquit four LAPD officers of most charges after brutalizing Rodney King. When jury members perceived King’s body as a danger to the law, at work in their perception of the tape was “the racial production of the visible,” namely, that the Black body was already constituted as an existential threat to the life of the police.[xvi] The visual field that conditioned the jury’s decision would condition perceptions of the LA rebellion. In his opening statement for Moment of Crisis, Ted Koppel explained the difficulty of attributing responsibility for what had come to pass, including “the social and economic inequalities” that produced “the sort of rage that erupted here a month ago.” The report would examine “how things got out of control so quickly and so completely.” The riots were symptoms of a nondiagnosable disease. The report emphasized why it spread: the inability of the police to enforce law and order.
Koppel’s reportage recalled the Moynihan Report: “This city . . . resembles nothing quite so much like a dysfunctional family . . . Over the past four months, the LAPD police department has lost two of its three assistant chiefs.” If the dysfunction of the LAPD and city officials ostensibly caused the crisis on the streets, the first symptoms of the disease, Koppel diagnosed television as the medium of its virality:
Tens of millions of people around the country are mesmerized by what is happening in around that crossroad of South Central Los Angeles. It is television at its most riveting and horrifying. But live TV also becomes the carrier of a virus: at one and the same time, television conveys the fever of street violence and the impotence of the police. The beatings, the looting, the arson, spread.
Kopple’s reportage equally recalled continuities with past foreign coverage––despite ABC’s intentions to chart a new course. In concluding remarks, Koppel acknowledged the police as a counterinsurgent force:
There’s a familiar dissonance to it: US troops patrolling the neighborhoods of an American city, as though they were on a foreign mission. If their presence alone is intended to restore tranquility, it’s not enough. The disorder, the chaos, the open lawlessness, extend well beyond Thursday and into Friday. Until more from exhaustion than the realization of any goal, the anarchy burns itself out.
Moment of Crisis and local media coverage of the LA rebellion frame the unrest as a crisis for a racial order of things, a war between Black Angelinos and the rest of the community. Resonant with portrayals of crowds in the Middle East, the rioters are in a self-provoked frenzy, beholden to disturbing neuroses that move them to foment anarchy.
In covering the embassy siege and the LA rebellion as they did, network media de-politicized both events, obscuring their place in a longer history of freedom struggles against unjust state coercion. Sina Kramer’s analysis of the LA rebellion gestures to these entanglements: “[w]hen marginalized and oppressed people fight back against intolerable political conditions on the streets and are rendered ‘thugs,’ criminals, or terrorists, and not as political agents making a political critique of political conditions, constitutive exclusion is at work.”[xvii] That work is “the work of the exclusion of a difference intolerable to a philosophical system or political body.”[xviii]
ABC’s coverage of the embassy siege in 1979 and the LA rebellion in 1992 evinces, in retrospect, the mutual imbrication of anti-Muslim and anti-Black racism. Reading ABC’s coverage in 1979 through the future of its coverage in 1992 renders visible the broad race concept consolidated in anti-Muslim racism. Reading ABC’s coverage of 1992 through its coverage in 1979 renders visible how local and global counterinsurgency efforts give life to entangled racial categories. A pivotal question that the phenomena of rebellion poses is how to bear witness to them in a way that does not sacrifice the possibility of acknowledging our mutual entanglements on the altar of an atomistic understanding of sociohistorical injustice. While, on the one hand, rebellion has been mediated on nightly news in a racialized visual field, on the other hand, rebellion materializes in the order of aesthetics more capacious political formations of trans-local solidarity. Against the policing of rebellions in our racialized visual fields, we might respond in turn by witnessing them as orientations towards the future enactment of a common space of freedom.
[ii] Andrew Warne, “Psychoanalyzing Iran: Kennedy’s Iran Task Force and the Modernization of Orientalism, 1961-3,” The International History Review 35 (2013): 407.
[iii] Junaid Rana, “The Story of Islamophobia,” Souls 9 (2007): 150.
[iv] Rana, 151.
[v] See Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (New York: Verso, 2016): 112-113.
[vi] Ervand Abrahamian, “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution,” Radical History Review 105 (2009): 14.
[vii] Edward Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 83-84.
[viii] See Neda Maghbouleh, “In the Past,” in The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017) for an account of backlash against Iranians after the hostage crisis.
[ix] See Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2005).
[x] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
[xi] Nikhil Pal Singh, “Race, War, Police,” in Race and America’s Long War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 55.
[xii] Singh, 64.
[xiii] See Sohail Daulatzaei, Fifty Years of the Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Observing the influence of colonial France’s military strategies to suppress rebellion in the Algerian War on the United States’ post-September 11 counterinsurgency policy, Daulatzai claims that Islam and Muslims occupy what Frantz Fanon named “a zone of non-being,” encompassing the imbrications of anti-Muslim and anti-Black racism.
[xiv] Donna Murch, “Crack in Los Angeles: Crisis, Militarization, and Black Response to the Late Twentieth-Century War on Drugs,” The Journal of American History (2015): 164.
[xv] Murch, 166-67.
[xvi] Judith Butler, “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising ed. Robert Gooding-Williams (New York: Routledge, 1993), 16.
[xvii] Sina Kramer, Excluded Within: The (Un)intelligibility of Political Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 180.
[xviii] Kramer, 5.
This article is part of the new Jadaliyya Iran Page launch. To inaugurate the Iran Page, its co-editors are pleased to present the following articles, interviews, and resources:
New Texts Out Now (NEWTON) Interviews