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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.

An Imperial Liberation?

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Some musings on Libya from my Politics as Usual blog for POUND magazine (

Muammar Gaddafi is dead. Forty years of dictatorship has come to an end. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed. The Libyan people are in control of their own destiny. Or are they?

The promise of the Arab Spring is contained in a truth that the West has denied for so long: The Arab people want democracy, want freedom, and are capable of bringing it about on their own terms, of their own volition.

This truth has been realized in Tunisia, which has just elected its first democratic government since achieving independence in 1956. Egypt, on the other hand, is still very much in the hands of the military; the revolution stands incomplete.

But in Libya, it appears that the West has reasserted control over an Arab nation, re-imposed its imperial will, and checked the historical forces which have the potential to threaten its interests in the region and beyond.

Yes, it can be said that the NATO intervention in Libya may have stopped a massacre or a prolonged civil war. In the early days of the revolt, Gaddafi’s troops amassed on the city limits of Benghazi poised to viciously beat back rebel forces. NATO intervened and the tides were turned back in the rebel’s favour. Could the Libyans have toppled Gadaffi’s regime without NATO’s backing? We will never know.

Those who supported the intervention argued that a game of historical ‘what ifs’ cannot be played when the lives of thousands are at risk (Check Makaya Kelday’s article in the latest issue of POUND for an excellent account of the positions for and against Western intervention in Libya). Those who oppose Western intervention should not easily dismiss the question of when force can be justifiably used to prevent or stop mass slaughter; though many recognize that the interests of imperial powers are almost always hidden behind the mask of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (The DR Congo – where civil war has led to the death of more than 5 million people – serves as a tragic counterpoint to the arguments of the humanitarian interventionists. It seems that as long as the resources continue to flow out of a country and into Western pockets, and geopolitical interests are not threatened, the West is happy to rely on diplomacy in the case of humanitarian crises).

So in the name of “protecting civilians” and under the cover of a UN resolution, NATO imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, crippled Gadaffi’s air force and carried out numerous attacks that weakened the regime’s infrastructure and military capabilities.

Yet as Seamus Milne of the Guardian newspaper recently argued, if NATO’s intervention was to protect civilian life, it has failed miserably in its mandate. According to reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the victorious rebels have engaged in mass detention, beatings, torture and execution; exactly the type, and the degree of violence that NATO claimed to be preventing when it intervened.

Now it is reported that rebel troops are engaging in ethnic cleansing as migrant workers from neighbouring countries (who are identified as black Africans and not Arabs) try to flee. And black Libyans are subject to racist attacks as rebel troops question their loyalty to the new government. One has to ask where NATO’s human rights rhetoric is now. As with any imperial adventure, duplicity and hypocrisy are the order of the day.

In a turn of events that summed up the whole Libyan episode, it was a NATO fighter jet that attacked Gadaffi’s convoy, leaving Libyan rebels on the ground the easy work of detaining and subsequently murdering the dictator. After a video of his killing went viral, the Americans and Brits cried foul, calling for an investigation into Gadaffi’s death, maintaining the imperial posture of ‘civilization’ and ‘the rule of law’. But surely they didn’t want Gadaffi to stand trial in the International Criminal Court, giving him a platform to tell the world about his long friendships with Western powers; friendships that lasted right up until the first NATO missiles were launched destined for Libyan soil. And now in typical imperial fashion, French, British and Italian oil companies are negotiating contracts with their new friends in Tripoli.

It appears then that in Libya, the West has wrested control of the Arab Spring from the Arab people.

It remains to be seen whether the Arab people can take it back.

Published on POUNDMAG.COM

From The Flood to an Eathquake: A review of Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Even the most natural of disasters have man-made dimensions. Droughts, tsunamis, and earthquakes do not occur in political and economic vacuums. If Hurricane Katrina had alerted us to this point, Haiti’s earthquake is a tragic reminder.

Just days after the earthquake struck, the US military had commandeered Port-Au-Prince airport, diverting a number of aid shipments from NGOs to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, creating a 48 hour delay in their delivery; priority landing being given to American troops. And while the 82nd Airborne Division was parachuting into the ruins of Haiti’s presidential palace, doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres were scouring Port-Au-Prince markets for a saw to carry out amputations; such was the lack of medical supplies. All this would come as no surprise to someone who has read Peter Hallward’s contemporary history of Haiti, Damming the Flood. Even in the time of their greatest need, the needs of empire seemed to displace those of the Haitian people.

A professor at England’s University of Middlesex, Hallward is better known for his writings on continental philosophy than for his political analysis. But in Damming the Flood, he has produced a biting history of Haiti, uncovering in detail the imperial machinations behind the country’s economic misery and political turmoil. And importantly for a Canadian audience, the role of our government does not escape his critical pen.

Hallward devotes Damming the Flood’s opening chapter to the first two hundred years of Haitian history. Broad in its sweep, chapter one provides the socio-historical context – including the US invasion and occupation of 1915-1934 and American support for the Duvalier dictatorships – necessary to understand the rise of Lavalas (“the flood” in Haitian Kreyol) and its charismatic leader, the liberation theologian and activist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A popular movement rooted in Haiti’s poor majority, after winning the 1990 presidential elections Aristide and Lavalas challenged the country’s rich and powerful by starting to “dismantle the structures of military and paramilitary oppression that had dominated life on the island all through the twentieth century”. A coup soon followed as the Haitian elite took revenge on Lavalas. Yet under domestic and international pressure, the Clinton administration restored Aristide to power in October of ’94; but this was just the beginning of a decade long struggle between popular forces and those invested in the country’s status quo.

At the heart of Damming the Flood is Hallward’s quest to understand why the international community, including prominent NGOs, came to see Aristide as a ‘threat’ to Haitian democracy a decade after rallying to restore him to power. Re-elected in 2000 with a landslide majority, Aristide was deposed a second time four years later, escorted onto a US forces plane while Canadian troops secured the perimeter of Port-au-Prince’s airport. This curious turn has much to with a President and party who refused to play by the rules of the neoliberal game and sowed the seeds of a social revolution that threatened US imperial dominance. As Hallward writes, since the slave revolt of 1791 which established the world’s first black republic to the emergence of Lavalas, “Haiti is the place where people broke the chains of imperial domination not at their weakest but at their strongest link.”

Hallward reminds us that at its height, Lavalas represented a movement to change Haiti, to wrest control from an elite who have long colluded with international forces in the exploitation of everyday Haitians, leaving them poor and powerless. That movement now lays lifeless under the dust and rubble, the concrete hopelessness of a Port-au-Prince slum. Its resurrection will be testament to a people who have consistently refused to be history’s victims, despite the disasters, both natural and man-made, they’ve so bravely confronted.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (2), March/April 2010