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How Martin Luther King’s legacy speaks to our Canadian reality

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

My op-ed for The Toronto Star on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Most Canadians, even those with little knowledge of American history, will know King as a leader of the African-American civil rights movement, a Christian minister and a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. And many will be acquainted with the public address with which King is most closely associated, the I Have a Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August 1963.

The version of King commemorated on the third Monday of January each year in the U.S. — the version Canadians will be familiar with — is that of a prophetic, revolutionary voice tamed and made safe for an America — and a world — still characterized by racial, economic and social injustice. As African-American philosopher Cornel West has said, “Martin has been deodorized, sanitized, sterilized by the right wing and neo-liberals to such a degree that his militancy is downplayed.”

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his death, King departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech against America’s war in Vietnam. Standing at the pulpit of Harlem’s historic Riverside Church, King denounced the war, connecting his government’s military adventures abroad to the failure of the war on poverty at home. The programs designed to house the homeless, feed the hungry and provide jobs for the unemployed — “the real promise of hope for the poor” — were starved for cash as the war effort was ramped up.

As King said that day, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

He argued that America must “undergo a radical revolution of values” for “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King’s criticism of U.S. imperialism, his commitment to ending poverty, and his belief that the promise of civil rights could not be fulfilled without economic and social rights did not endear him to a broad swath of the American public. In the months before his death, his disapproval rating stood at 74 per cent; among black Americans it was 55 per cent. In the wake of his Beyond Vietnam speech, some mainstream civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King, fearing he had aligned himself too closely with the radical left of the Black Power and peace movements. The Washington Post declared: “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . and . . . an ever graver injury to himself.” In denouncing the war, he had denounced a president — Lyndon Johnson — who had taken political risks in supporting civil rights legislation. Financial contributions to King’s civil rights organization dried up. “I’d rather follow my conscience, than follow the crowd,” King replied.

This is the King we seldom hear from today, the King who called for a “radical revolution of values.” His message is a moral beacon, a light whose source may have been the black church, a prophetic Christianity forged amid the struggle against American apartheid more than 40 years ago, but it illuminates the dark corners of Canadian democracy today.

In Canada, we have spent $11.3 billion on the mission in Afghanistan, yet in the latest federal budget there was little for the 3.2 million of our fellow citizens who live in poverty.

We can afford to spend upward of $25 billion on new fighter jets to patrol the skies, but do not have the money to address the crisis of affordable housing that leaves so many Canadians homeless or precariously housed.

We live with racial inequalities — for example, racialized Canadians are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians and in Toronto black males are three times more likely to be carded by police — yet do little to address institutionalized racism in our labour markets and criminal justice systems.

One in five aboriginals lives in poverty and many live without access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. Schools on reserves face funding gaps between $2,000 and $3,000 per student each year compared with provincial schools. Yet we have a prime minister who is more eager to greet two visiting pandas from China than First Nations youth who have trekked some 1,600 kilometers to Parliament Hill.

Too many of our political leaders have become well adjusted to injustice. Too many are willing to sacrifice equality and dignity for all on the altar of free markets and the national security establishment.

In that same speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “These are revolutionary times . . . people all over the globe are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

From the Arab Spring to the global movement to end violence against women and girls, from anti-austerity protests in Europe to Occupy Wall Street, from rebellions of urban youth in France and the U.K. to indigenous struggles in the Americas, once again people are on the move the world over. We are waiting for new systems of justice and equality to be born.

At home, student protests in Quebec, union demonstrations for labour rights and, perhaps most important, the Idle No More movement, have questioned a social and economic order that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a world free from poverty, racism and militarism is a universal one. His is a legacy worth wrestling with as we forge the path to a more just society.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, April 4th 2013, p. A25.

Beyond Hip-Hop’s Malcolm

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Here’s the first post for my Politics-As-Usual blog at POUND magazine (www.poundmag.com):

Set as my desktop’s wallpaper is one of the most illuminating documents of the black freedom struggle. It’s a telegram from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., dated June 30th 1964 12:07pm, just less than a year before Malcolm’s assassination. Sent from the Organization of Afro-American Unity headquarters in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa to King’s Florida base in St. Augustine, the telegram reads: 

“We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attacks by the white races against our poor defenceless people there in St. Augustine. If the federal government will not send troops to your aid, say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defence units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine.  The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.” 

At first it seems inconsequential, a brief six line note from one civil rights leader to another. Hundreds if not thousands like it discussing strategy and tactics must have been sent between the likes of King, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmiachel and so on. But this one was between Martin and Malcolm. While the two men had had little formal contact, the telegram reveals the centrality of their dynamic symbiosis to the black freedom struggle. 

What lay behind the effectiveness of non-violence as a political strategy was not solely King’s appeal to the morals, empathy and sense of fairness of white America – of which there was too short supply – but the real threat of violent reaction, of armed militancy, that was represented in the philosophy and prophecies of Malcolm X, who so effectively channelled Black rage in his oratory and politics. Malcolm was fully aware that such a telegram would be intercepted and read by the FBI. His emergent politics after breaking with the Nation of Islam saw him thinking and acting more carefully and strategically in relation to the mainstream civil rights movement of which King was leader, an evolution  which Elijah Muhammad (head of the NOI) had actively discouraged. By ’64 Malcolm was a free radical, no longer under the censure of the NOI and its narrow, cultish and ultimately self-serving philosophy. Breaking the Nation’s organizational chains, and positioning himself as the potentially violent alternative to King’s non-violent crusade, would result in his death, the product of collusion between the NOI and the American state. But without the nascent threat of violent insurrection, would the American state have moved to recognize the civil rights of African Americans? Would the War on Poverty have been waged had the ghetto rebellions of the late 60s not set alight American cities? 

I’ve yet to arrive at this moment of the telegram as I read the new biography of Malcom, entitled Malcolm X: A Life Reinvention (authored by the late Manning Marable). It’s a truly magisterial work and I’ve been encouraging everyone and anyone I speak with to go out and cop it. 

There are things in the book which might trouble peeps who came to Malcolm as I did, through hip hop and the superficial representation of Malcolm in the culture in the early 1990s (a representation reinforced in part by Spike Lee’s biopic). The Malcolm X adopted by Public Enemy, X-Clan, BDP and other afro-centric artists, was  a caricature of the man: the hyper- masculine black activist and saviour whose “by any means necessary” philosophy stood in sharp contrast to the effete MLK, also represented one-dimensionally (As Chuck D bellows in front of a backdrop of Malcolm at the beginning of the video for Fight the Power  “That march in 1963, that’s a bit of nonsense; we ain’t rolling like that no more”; deriding King, elevating Malcolm). Marable reveals the complexity of Malcolm’s life, at times assaulting hip hop’s Malcolm X with revelations that he could not sexually satisfy his wife Betty and once played the black stud to a rich, white, homosexual socialite in Boston. In hip hop’s world of male braggadocio, this shit will not go down well. Reading the book, you realize these are mere asides which have been overplayed by the media and are minor to the long arch of Malcolm’s life. The Malcolm who emerges from the biography is a man whose complexity, intellect and courage makes him a far more compelling  figure than the commodified and reified Malcolm of early 90s hip hop. We can thank Marable for rescuing Malcolm X from mere imagery, now to be fully appreciated and understood by the hip hop generation.

Published at Poundmag.com, July 1st 2011

Cornel West calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats”

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Throughout the Obama presidency, Cornel West has provided some of the most trenchant criticism of the administration. Along with less well-known public intellectuals, such as Paul Street and Adolph Reed Jr., West has taken Obama to task on what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the three evils’ of modern America: racism, imperialism, and economic exploitation. But unlike Street and Reed, West supported the Obama campaign, making numerous public appearences and speeches on Obama’s behalf. His public criticism of Obama is thus all the more revealing and relevant. In a recent interview with Chris Hedges, West blasts Obama, calling him ”a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Read the interview here:

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_obama_deception_why_cornel_west_went_ballistic_20110516/

And below I’ve reproduced the brief column I wrote for POUND magazine just a month after Obama was elected:

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as an acknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters.  Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’.  In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights (http://ccrjustice.org/) has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/157292/mobilizing-jobless

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/14/why_is_glenn_beck_obsessively_targeting

G20 Protests and the Criminalization of Dissent

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Last week I made another appearence on DisRespect Radio to discuss the G20 protests in Toronto and the criminalization of dissent. DisRespect host Geoff Langhorne and I touch on how media failed the alternative voices at the G20; how alternative media air a fuller view; and how implications for civil liberties hinge on demands for an inquiry into G20 policing.

Follow the link below to listen to the podcast or download the show:

www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/44014

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as anacknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters. Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’. In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Published in POUND, 44 Winter 2008