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Blackwater Rising

“I learned of Blackwater when most of the world did,” said investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. “March 31, 2004, when four Blackwater guys were killed, ambushed in Fallujah, their bodies strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates. I had spent time in Fallujah, over five years, going in and out of Iraq, and when I saw the Bush administration destroy that entire city, I said, ‘the deaths of four private contractors was worth the life of an entire city?’ ”

Scahill, who will be speaking at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media on Monday night (April 16), explained in a recent telephone interview that, at that time, there were nearly 100,000 such private contractors operating inside of Iraq. They were performing such delicate operations as patrolling the war zone, manning the prisons (like Abu Ghraib), and guarding top U.S. officials like Ambassador John Negroponte and Paul Bremer. Blackwater USA was then, and it is now, the largest security firm in Iraq.

A private military company based in North Carolina, Blackwater was envisioned, bankrolled and is headed by 37-year-old multimillionaire and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince. Prince, a politically driven right-wing ideologue, has said that his mission for the company is to offer a private military force powerful and efficient enough that any government will call upon it just as they would the National Guard or other branches of the military. To this end, he has built a 20,000-man elite military force, capable, as Scahill said, of overthrowing many of the world’s governments.

Scahill, a Polk Award-winning reporter, has spent years investigating Blackwater and what he referred to as “the radical privatization policy of the Bush administration.” His reporting, which has appeared in The Nation and on the airwaves of Democracy Now!, culminates in his recently published book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

In 2005, Scahill was on the street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he said, reporting on the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina when he again encountered Blackwater employees. They were heavily armed, cruising the streets in vehicles that had no license plates. These operatives, he would find, were “policing” the damaged city, part of a haphazard force of local and transplanted cops, National Guard troops, and others charged with keeping the peace.

“I had this hour-long conversation with this handful of Blackwater guys,” he recalls. “Some of them had just been in Iraq two weeks earlier. And while I am talking to one guy, another is on his cell phone saying to his buddies, ‘Nah, you don’t wanna come down here and work for Blackwater, they are only paying $350 a day.’ Another guy tells me it doesn’t compare to Iraq. It’s like a vacation.”

Blackwater men are used to receiving more than double that daily rate in Iraq.

When Scahill pushed the issue of whose authority they were operating under, he was told they had been deputized by the governor of Louisiana, and were sleeping in a camp that had been organized by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Blackwater found it so profitable to operate in New Orleans after the hurricane,” Scahill says, “that they started a whole new division of the company for domestic operations.” The company has also, he points out, filed for operating licenses in every coastal state.

Scahill is currently touring the country in promotion of his book. At every stop, he says, he has encountered a packed house.

“I think that it is tapping into a very deep level of concern on the part of people across the political spectrum,” he says. “People are really outraged, not only at the fact that there seems to be no end to the occupation in sight, but that the Bush administration, behind the backs of the American people, essentially doubled the size of the occupation force through the private sector.”

Scahill says that he is receiving a lot of correspondence from military families and soldiers who are outraged that service in the military pays so little, and service for Blackwater can easily pay six digits. Conservatives, he says, see it as “spitting in the face” of American values.

“I get a lot of e-mails that begin, ‘I never thought I’d be writing someone like you a positive letter,’ ” he says. “It taps into something that defies traditional political labels.”

Jeremy Scahill will speak Monday (April 16) from 7 to 9:30 PM at the Sanctuary for Independent Media (3361 Sixth Ave., Troy). For more information, call 272-2390 or visit thesanctuary

—Chet Hardin

Visiting Auteur

We’ve been lucky over the last week; it isn’t often that an extensive retrospective of a major European filmmaker’s work is held in the Capital Region. The week-long Margarethe von Trotta Festival at Skidmore College concludes tonight (Thursday) and Friday with a few more events.

Von Trotta came out of the same New German Cinema movement of the 1970s that birthed the careers of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorf. In fact, she began as an actress in films by both directors, but quickly moved on to make her own, woman-centered films like the moving, memorable biopic of Communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and the great Marianne & Juliane (both screened this week).

Tonight (April 12), in Skidmore’s Gannett Auditorium at 6 PM, there will be one more screening of Marianne & Juliane, followed at 8 PM by von Trotta herself, who will discuss her career and works in the 35th annual Frances Steloff Lecture. Tomorrow (Friday, April 13), von Trotta will participate in panel discussions of her films at 11 AM and 3 PM, followed by an audience Q & A with the filmmaker from 5 to 6 PM.

For more information on these events, visit

—Shawn Stone

Remembering Mae

Mae G. Banner, 73, passed away on April 6 at Saratoga Hospital. The longtime local dance journalist and critic for Metroland and the Saratogian had been ill for some months, and, according to the Saratogian, died with her family at her side.

Our thoughts are with her family.

Here at the paper, Ms. Banner’s work will be missed. Over the last decade, Banner reviewed in these pages, with wit and insight, dance performances by national, regional and local companies at the Egg, Jacob’s Pillow, Skidmore College, eba Theatre, Proctor’s, the Palace and, of course, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, summer home of her beloved New York City Ballet. She combined an aficionado’s passion with a critic’s discerning eye. She possessed a generous, nuanced appreciation for the form at the multiple levels: technical, theatrical and cultural. When the SPAC powers-that-were capriciously decided that the New York City Ballet would be banished from the venue, Banner chronicled the grassroots efforts that eventually reversed the decision.

Our names may be on the same masthead and in adjacent sections of the paper, but even at an independent operation like Metroland, the staff editors and freelance contributing writers don’t necessarily know each other much—if at all. Writers are given assignments, and we publish the work. That’s why I feel lucky to have finally, after editing her for a couple of years and having only phone conversations, met Mae Banner at a ballet performance at the Palace Theatre in March 2006. She was as gracious, warm and funny in person as she was in print.

Ms. Banner wanted others to follow in her footsteps, so memorial donations can be made to the Mae Banner Dance Writers’ Scholarship Fund, c/o Adirondack Trust Company, 473 Broadway, Saratoga Springs NY, 12866.

—Shawn Stone

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