Old and New Challenges
During the last five-hundred years of colonialism and neo-colonialism, racism has played a central role in facilitating the expansion of Empire, resulting in dispossession of lands, devastated natural environments and human genocide. To be clear, racism exists within militarism; militarism being the mode through which capitalism dominates; and ecological and social collapse being the end result of this process.
In today’s world, not much has changed, as Arabs, Muslims and Africans are bombed, droned, tortured and occupied in the name of Freedom, Progress and Democracy. Simultaneously, Ecocide in the form of species extinction and climate change threatens the very existence of the human species, and life on the planet.
In short, some of these concepts are old (race, empire, war), some relatively new (drones, nuclear weapons, climate change). Regardless, these challenges provide us with opportunities to develop alternatives to the dominant institutions of our day.
Racism and Militarism
In the Marine Corps, commanding officers routinely referred to Iraqis as Hajis, sand niggers, camel jockeys and towel heads. Of course, this should sound familiar: during the Vietnam War American GIs and citizens commonly referred to the Vietnamese as rice patties and gooks. During the Korean War, American GIs called enemy combatants Zipper Heads because their heads resembled zippers after being run over by military jeeps’ tires.
Dehumanization of the Other plays a key role in persuading 18 year olds to fly 8,000 miles from home to kill people. The system must convince soldiers that they’re not indeed killing people, but rather exterminating rodents, animals or subhuman creatures. I’ll return to this concept of Human Supremacism later.
Indeed, racism of this kind has deep roots in Western Culture. For centuries, it helped facilitate the genocide of Indigenous peoples around the world. For example, in Australian, aboriginal peoples have endured Western “expansion” since 1606, when the Dutch first set eyes on the Pacific island-continent. By 1770, the English Empire controlled the entire eastern half of Australia. By 1850, they controlled the entire continent.
One Aboriginal elder reflects on this era:
the white man played a game called “Head Off.” English settlers would bury Aboriginal babies in the ground, up to their necks in dirt, and proceeded to kick the heads off the bodies of the children. They would laugh and challenge each other to see who could kick a baby’s head the furthest. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal mothers would be tied up, raped, and forced to watch the genital mutilation of the males, as settlers chopped off their testicles with axes and knives.
As a result, over 1 million indigenous peoples were killed, with over 250 languages now extinct.
During the same period in France, 19th century newspapers commonly printed cartoon-illustrations of French colonialists chopping the heads off indigenous Algerians. French citizens lauded the efforts of their government in Algeria. After all, the French, like the Dutch and English, were simply trying to civilize the savages.
It’s interesting to note the shocked look and cynical commentary expressed by the media, public and elite classes as they view images of ISIS beheading Western journalists. It begs the question: is the USA truly more civilized than ISIS?
In recent history, the US is responsible for the deaths of over 4 million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during its insane and murderous military campaign in Southeast Asia. Since WWII, the US has helped train, equip, arm and support some of the most brutal regimes in the world, from Saudi Arabia and Colombia, to Pakistan and Israel.
In the 1990s, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright told 60 Minutes that the deaths of over 500,000 innocent Iraqi Children due to the US-imposed sanctions was “worth it.” Since then, the US has also been responsible for killing anywhere from 250,000 to 1 Million Iraqis, 50,000-200,000 Afghans, and tens of thousands of Syrians, Libyans, Palestinians, Yemenis, and so on.
None of this is new. The US has a long history of atrocities, ranging from Native American Genocide, to the legacy of African American Slavery and murderous campaigns in Latin America. This, is the real legacy of US Empire and Militarism.
Ferguson and Solidarity
On August 23rd, several community organizers and I traveled from Northwest Indiana to Ferguson, Missouri. We felt an inherent urge to join the ongoing protests and lend our support and solidarity to the local community.
Ferguson, like many deindustrialized midwestern cities and towns, is littered with strip malls, big-box stores, Chinese buffets, sports bars, truck stops, fast food restaurants and decaying infrastructure. In fact, Ferguson is reminiscent of the many Rust-Belt towns adjacent to Chicago: Dolton, Calumet City, Whiting, East Chicago, Hammond, Gary or Michigan City.
Once we settled in and connected with some local activists, I spoke with local residents, and listened to stories about police brutality, political corruption, poverty and a lack of opportunities. A young man named Russel predicted, “Shit will get real if this motherfucker [Darren Wilson] doesn’t serve time. The community is sick and tired man. And we’re ready to fight. This whole city will explode if he gets away with this shit.”
Clearly, there’s a generational divide in Ferguson. The younger protestors were much more militant; they wanted confrontation with the police. Older protestors tried to keep the fragile peace and order. Older so-called “leaders” referred to the looting as “unacceptable” and “disgraceful.” Young protestors informed me that the objective of the looting was to hurt the city’s revenue and to send a message to local business owners: hire and respect young blacks.
The difference between the two groups is obvious: Older generations have careers, houses and retirements to protect, whereas younger people are lucky to be making more than $10 an hour. They have no benefits and will likely never retire.
The protests in Ferguson encounter the same limitations and shortfalls all progressive movements in the US encounter: organizing during a midterm election; lack of resources; navigating the electoral system; the prospect of democrats and other liberal groups co-opting the movement, and so on.
But the overwhelming opportunities to create solidarity outweigh these supposed challenges. Building new coalitions and bonds between African American and white communities is essential to rebuilding a serious left in the United States. Protests, such as those taking place in Ferguson this coming weekend (October 10-13, 2014), provide a grand opportunity to build such relationships.
Human Supremacism and Climate Change
Human Supremacism is the ideological core of ecological devastation. The notion that human beings are more important than plants and animals is absolutely insane. Such thinking has allowed Industrial Civilization to utterly obliterate the natural environment, rendering 200 species extinct on a daily basis. All of this in the pursuit of material wealth and power. Remember, the same logic is used by the racist who sees himself or herself above those with different color skin.
A few days ago, climate researchers released a study indicating that the Earth’s oceans are heating up at a pace far exceeding what they had expected. The journal, Nature and Climate Change found that the surface layers of the planet’s oceans are warming between 24% and 55% faster than previous estimates.
Last week, a major report was released by the World Wildlife Fund, estimating that, “the overall number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has declined 52 percent between 1970 and 2010.” The study goes on to blame humans as the major culprits, illustrating that human beings “have been wiping out other animals through hunting, fishing, deforestation, pollution and various forms of habitat destruction.”
Humanity and the natural world are running out of time. Human beings and the natural world can no longer live under these systems of oppression. We have, as some say, reached the “breaking point.” On the other hand, this period provides humanity with a grand opportunity to fundamentally transform society, as the interconnectedness of these issues becomes more apparent to the casual observer.
For me, activism isn’t a hobby, nor should it be. It’s also not something fun to do on the weekends. This work, if done effectively, could get you killed. It should challenge the very core of your being. This work should also be exciting. But it cannot become a feel good endeavor. I’m interested in winning, not simply struggling for the sake of struggle.
As environmental activist and author Lierre Keith reminds us: “Understand: the task of an activist is not to negotiate systems of power with as much personal integrity as possible—it’s to dismantle those systems of power.”
Let’s keep this in mind as we continue to fight for justice.
Thanks for your time.
This talk was given by Vince Emanuele on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 at a fundraiser for We Charge Genocide which has focused on documentation of youth experiences with the Chicago Police Department as well as popular education about police abuses and youth-driven solutions/alternatives to policing. Inspired by the legacy of the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition to the UN, these young people are submitting a report on Chicago Police violence against youth of Color to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
Vince Emanuele is a community organizer, writer and radio journalist. He lives in Michigan City, Indiana and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org