“We revolt simply because, for many reasons we can no longer breathe”
As millions of people continue to take to the streets in protest of the most recent expressions of apartheid brutality in the United States, it’s important to understand that it is not enough to simply demand change. In order for change to have a lasting effect, it must be brought forward in a rather concentrated way. For no matter how loud our collective demands may be, true revolutionary change can only be possible when we are able to completely dislodge the current debate from hackneyed relics of the past, re-imagining the ways by which we approach and define issues of systemic racism and police violence in a lexicon that can actually move the struggle forward, in a new direction. What is evident today is that part of the reason so many of us have grown so sick and tired of being sick and tired, is that for far too long the intellectual forward face of Black progressive struggle in America has remained mired in a set of rituals and strategies that grew stagnant and tired half a century ago and are no longer viable today. It is long past time to disregard these old traditions and unleash the enormous ingenuity of the young people who have been leading this movement for more than a decade, just as the youth of the 1960’s were prominent leaders during their time. Why should today’s youth be defined by the past and ignored in the media as the true heroic leaders of our time.
In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared the Civil Rights Movement had effectively come to an end. That was more than fifty years ago. In the wake of his assassination, a cottage industry arose among a far-flung group of activists within the civil rights community, who fed off of the ether of Dr. King’s immense popularity. Although a considerable number of prominent Black preachers quickly abandoned him after he spoke out against the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, many now staked their claim to power based upon their relative proximity, however real or imagined, to Dr. King. This nascent cabal of dream merchants formed the public-facing foundation of the modern-day Civil Rights Industrial Complex that created a pervasive mythology, re-imagining the 1960’s Black freedom struggle as simply a civil rights movement, when nothing could be further from the truth. All the while turning a blind eye to the heinous actions of the U.S. Government, using cold war counterintelligence strategies against American citizens, including warrantless wiretaps, illegal search and seizures, mass arrests and even assassinations, in order to roll up left-wing groups fighting militarization and police brutality. This “One Movement” narrative has proven to be as destructive to human progress as the Dunning School and the Lost Cause pseudo-history of a century ago.
With few exceptions, after King’s death the concept of creative non-violent civil dis-obedient direct action was sat down in the United States. The civil rights activists that survived the 1960’s did not care to develop it any further. They were more concerned with commemorative parades than laying down in the middle of a street. The burden of developing its potential fell mostly upon anti-apartheid activists, who could no longer breathe under brutal oppression in South Africa and began disrupting business as usual in the 1970’s and 80’s, routinely disturbing the peace and rendering Bantustan after
Bantustan and township after township ungovernable. Everything that he found useful in the philosophy and opinions of great thinkers from Imhotep to Jesus Christ, Socrates, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ralph Waldo Emersion, Mahatma Gandhi and more, Dr. King poured into his philosophy of creative nonviolent civil dis-obedience. However, it was in South Africa during the global anti-apartheid movement that it was fully developed. What they sent it back to the United States fully formed was evidenced during the winter of 2014, with millions of citizens demonstrating their ability to shut down large sections of major U.S. cities; something well beyond the scope of any instantaneous direct action during the 1960’s and unheard of outside of the Colonial era in American history.
After the November 24 grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri and the same result nine days later in the July 17, “I can’t breathe!” choking death of Eric Gardner on Staten Island, the pain and anger in the African American community was so raw that it became unbearable. Blackfolk had had enough and demonstrations broke out in big cities and small towns across the country. Thousands of people, Black and White, young and old marched together in unprecedented numbers, releasing a fury of popular discontent over the relentless genocide of Black Americans at the hands of police.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, protests sprung up in different forms and places. There was no centralized movement, only a hashtag and a common sentiment that “Black Lives Matter!”. Many of the protests were organized on social media by teenagers determined to live in an America free from the scourge of racism. High school students around the country staged walkouts. College students in St. Louis and Tennessee walked out of their classes. Professional athletes on the field and on the court took up the mantra: “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!” Pop-up die-ins became a frequent feature of creative non-violent direct action, disrupting business as usual in prominent places like Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall and Times Square, halting traffic flow in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Streets, highways, bridges and tunnels were shut down throughout the country.
The group Ferguson Action called for a national “Wave of Indignation” to take place on December 13th. The Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), the NAACP and the Urban League took advantage of this initiative to organize a “Justice for All” march and rally in Washington D.C. This would be the second time in recent months that Sharpton departed from the national effort in order to hold a separate march and rally of his own.1
Although it was the disciplined and determined nonviolent civil disobedient direct action of the young protesters in Ferguson Missouri that lit the flame that became the shot heard around the world during the August 9th Uprising, none of these activists were slated to speak at Sharpton’s rally. True to form, the civil rights establishment feared the revolutionary spirit of the youth, whose independent activism had actually given birth to a new movement, not realizing that the fervor of the Ferguson Rebellion had already reverberated around the world. Later, Sharpton told The Root.com that his organization was “actively grooming Millennial leaders who believe in his civil rights tradition.” Few did. These were activists who in 2014 found themselves still having to fight for their humanity and they wanted to put the dead past behind them. They felt betrayed by the civil rights establishment. They had already lost faith in the old guard. Nevertheless, Sharpton was tone deaf. The preacher and talk show host was demonstrating in the 21st century that he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
After the mothers and fathers of lynching victims Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and little Tamir Rice addressed the crowd and Sharpton added his long oratory, it was clear that none of the original activist of the August 9th Uprising would be allowed to speak. Frustrated, after Sharpton left the stage two leaders from Ferguson, Jonnetta Elzie and Erika Totten walked onstage, as the rest of the activists who traveled all the way from Missouri chanted,
“Let them speak!”
“Let them speak!”
“Let them speak!”
“If we don’t get it!” “Shut it down!”
“If we don’t get it!” “Shut it down! “
The crowd was loud and unrelenting. For 126 days they faced down riotous
solider-police with heavy arms and military assault vehicles. They fought off tear gas, rubber bullets and character assassination and now, at a rally ostensibly meant to extol what their activism had brought to the world, they were being shut out, co-opted and ignored. In time, the long standoff became somewhat ridiculous as the continued reluctance of the National Action Network volunteers to simply hand over the mike even for just a minute so at least one of the young activist could have a brief chance to speak, only made the crowd grow angrier, the chants grow louder and the focus of attention fall even heavier upon the behavior of the N.A.N organizers, bringing the motivations of Sharpton and the civil rights establishment that he represented into question.
Rumor had it, that Sharpton and the N.A.N had a special area roped off and were selling tickets to this “V.I.P. Section”, which only solidified hardened animosities. N.A.N threatened to call security on “certain protesters”, if they did not know “how to act”. They admonished the Ferguson activists to be “respectful” even in the face of blatant disrespect.
Despite the controversy, this march was not in the vein of the truly comical August 6, 2005 Jessie Jackson-led march in Atlanta, set to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That revealing escapade was replete with posters and t-shirts carrying the preacher’s image for sale, as well as a marching band and half-naked dancing girls who had to be kicked off the program halfway through the march because they were far too much of a distraction. Nonetheless, Sharpton’s event was the traditional post-King civil rights march and rally. It had become a form of political ritual devoid of direct action, focused solely upon the power of the celebrity and “moral suasion” of a singular leader, which is at the core of both Jackson’s and Sharpton’s political worldview. Over the last 50 years it had grown stale, disconnected and redundant. The concept of civil rights had already exhausted itself in the United States.
During the demonstrations that August, the young activists asked Jessie Jackson to leave Ferguson. His presence was no longer welcomed there. The two-time presidential candidate had introduced himself to Millennials during Obama’s 2008 campaign, while sitting in the Fox News studio in New York City. Jackson contributed his thoughts to the historical moment by stating under his breath that Senator Obama “should have his nuts cut off!”. Jackson later claimed that in a live television studio, one in particular that would have been considered akin to the lion’s den for him, he had “no idea” that there was a “hot mike”. In the midst of sustained civil disobedience on the streets of St. Louis, forty years after the coup that brought him to power, a man considered a civil rights icon was being dutifully dismissed and told by a younger equally passionate and determined generation, “We don’t want you here!”. https://www.youtube.com/embed/xfMPXAkU1GU?enablejsapi=1
Andrew Young maintained during the 2008 primary that he was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton. The former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta mayor explained why, “Bill Clinton probably had more black women than [Senator] Obama”, Young casually opined. In the twilight of his life, yet another man considered a civil rights icon suggested to a new generation that black consciousness could be spread like a venereal disease. The civil rights establishment had become completely tone deaf, not to one but two generations. An editorial in the Final Call titled, “And a little child shall lead them”, made it plain:
Look back at the annual commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington and similar marches and see the small crowds, despite big bucks from labor and other groups that were not very spirited…. Many times those marches seemed stuck in a time warp and were more like class reunions for those who could remember their heyday and the protests of the civil rights movement.
During that spectacular Saturday in December, amid the Wave of Indignation when history was being made around the country and the world, under the banner of “Black Lives Matter”, on the mall in Washington D.C. dream merchants, 46 years after his death were still pimping a forged legacy of Dr. King.
While this was going on in D.C., 226 miles away in New York City, something amazing was beginning to take shape. More than fifty thousand people showed up for a day of creative non-violent civil disobedient direct action. This was indeed a tale of two cities. Unlike the demonstration against the demonstration in the nation’s capital, a large multi-cultural group of activists in Manhattan were disturbing the peace, halting traffic down 5th avenue, staging pop-up die-ins all over the city, doing their best to render the municipality “ungovernable’”, expressing the true zeitgeist of a new era of political engagement; chanting,
“Hands Up!” “Don’t Shoot!”
“Hands Up!” “Don’t Shoot!”
“I Can’t Breathe!”
“I Can’t Breathe!”
Their overwhelming presence made the world stand up and take notice. They yelled,
“Do You Know What Democracy Looks Like!”
“This Is What Democracy Looks Like.
Never before had such a large protest movement shut down prominent areas of New York City. From retail shops like Sachs 5th Avenue and the Apple Store in Times Square, to major streets, roads and bridges. This is what creative nonviolent direct action was meant to do. Never before had civil disobedience in the United States demonstrated such awesome power and resolve. Never had the United States seen such a large disciplined movement instantly come to life without a single discernible leader to demonize. It was a truly historic occasion.
In D.C., the world was watching a pitiful display of the arrogance of power. In New York City, a multicultural army of tens of thousands of protesters shut down traffic on three major bridges. In D.C., the only non-violent civil disobedient direct action was against Sharpton and his National Action Network. True to their determined sprit, the Ferguson activists started chanting once again,
“If we don’t get it!” “Shut it down!”
“If we don’t get it!” “Shut it down!”
The scene became rather ridiculous when a preacher began praying over and competing with the loud voices of disapproving youth who seemed to be in no mood for prayer. Finally, the Ferguson activists captured the mike and were able to address what was left of the huge crowd. This is what one of them had to say:
“Hello, my name is Johnetta Elzie. This movement was started by the young people. We have been protesting in the streets of Ferguson for more than one hundred days. We started this movement. I was shot by a rubber bullet. I was gassed nine times! Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!
Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!
Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!”2
On the theroot.com Kirsten West Savaii wrote:
“This is a generation of black activists for whom rage is something to be neither quieted nor shamed in the face of continued assaults on black lives”.
Dr. King said it best, “There is a certain kind of fire that no water can put out!” Nine months later, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marylyn Mosby made it plain, “As young people, this is our time!”.
Six years later, popular outrage has exploded once again. This time, in the wake of George Floyd’s public lynching and the brutal execution of Breonna Taylor. After
all the protests and moral outrage over the public lynching of Eric Gardner, the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, little Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and Freddie Gray, not much has changed and here we are again. Last time, we simply had had enough! This time, we are simply exhausted! The ethos of Black America is central to the cultural heartbeat of the United States and now the pain has become unbearable. As a result, demonstrations have erupted in all fifty states and more than one hundred cities around the world. Protesters have filled the streets every day for nearly a month and there appears to be no end in sight. Many of these massive demonstrations resemble the audience of an Earth Wind and Fire or Michael Jackson concert, with far more Whites in attendance than Blacks; revealing the beauty that lies at the core of who we are as Americans.
We must not lose focus. The heart of what we are fighting against goes by the name “systemic racism”. But, make no mistake about it, this is apartheid plain and simple and what we’re fighting for are human rights. The peculiar way in which police in this country approach communities of color is the brutal outward manifestation of the apartheid state. But the beast expresses itself in deep disparities throughout American society; in access to healthcare, education, housing, jobs, the ballot box and more. Yes, Americans have always talked a good game. –— “This is the world’s greatest democracy!” “The greatest democracy there ever was!” “Land of the free!” “Home of the Brave!” “Blah… blah… blah…” However, these patriotic fables that we tell ourselves, have always been little more than a convenient façade. In what manner of democracy are we living that could justify the public lynching of countless unarmed men? What is the worth of a democracy that could justify the murder of innocent women and children over and over again? Why is the American dream available to some Americans, while others are forced to live a perpetual nightmare?
What we are witnessing today is a Wizard of Oz moment. The cloak is being pulled back from the vicious brutality of the American Apartheid State, in a way that cannot be simply ignored or explained away. In reality, America has always been an apartheid state and until all of us are free, none of us is truly free. We are fighting a war for the soul of this nation.
Understanding the war that we are engaged in is the first step to winning it. In the 21st Century, there is something fundamentally discordant about an era fraught with the increasing scourge of man’s inhumanity to man, met with a mid-20th Century strategy erected upon a persistent push for civil rights. Is it reasonable for us to assume that George Floyd found time to be concerned with the everyday indignities that might imperil his civil rights when his humanity was being snatched away from him? It should be clear that a certain level of tone deftness exists in this kind of thinking. Could it be that we are continuing to engage in the wrong battle? Posted up on the wrong battlefield? Employing the wrong set of weapons? Mired in the wrong set of concepts and ideas? It took a combination of civil disobedience, international boycotts and sanctions to win the war against apartheid in South Africa. What is the Declaration of Independence, if not a human rights document? Why does it appear that everyone else in the world is fighting for human rights, while Blackfolk in America seem mired in a lesser struggle for civil rights? Is this some kind of cruel joke? In one form or another, Fredrick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Monroe Trotter, Marcus Garvey, George Patmore, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela and countless others Black and White, all said it best, “You cannot have civil rights until you have human rights.” Does it really matter? Of course, it does. The concept of civil rights is but one minor focus on the greater spectrum of the International Convention on Human Rights.
Quite frankly, from the initial kidnap and capture, the brutal Middle Passage and the bullwhip days, on through Jim Crow-Apartheid and the current era of mass incarceration and a third now global phase of public lynching, there has never been a time that informed the overwhelming majority of Blackfolk in the United States that a struggle simply prefaced upon civil rights will do. Look at it this way. Imagine that you lived next to Jeffrey Dahmer (the cannibal). What would you consider your immediate concern would be? That he might not be kind to you when he sees you in the hallway (civil rights)? Or, that he just might eat your children (human rights)? Like any human endeavor, the struggle for Black freedom in the United States is one of priorities. We are fighting for our full human rights! Mere cultural window dressing will not do. Ripped out root and branch. Apartheid must die!
Sundiata Keita writes from Jacksonville, Florida, USA.