Hard Road to the Promised Land

AFP/Kaster
By Francesca Fiorentini
August, 2013

“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

–Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at a Memphis garbage workers strike the night before he was assassinated

In part two of this special two-part Month in Review marking this column's 100th installment, Francesca Fiorentini analyzes the bitter contradictions of a moment when Washington simultaneously commemorates the historic 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and prepares to launch a military strike in Syria. The 99% are stirring worldwide, but the demands for racial and economic justice that galvanized people 50 years ago are still unmet, and the strivings of people in Syria (ACT NOW!), Egypt, Palestine, and beyond for self-determination and a livable planet remain unfulfilled. Can we weave today's fragmented struggles into an unstoppable surge of human solidarity so that even if we don't reach the promised land, our children will?

The words "I Have a Dream" were everywhere this month. But only if there is a whole new level of action inspired by Dr. King's vision will we be able to reverse the erosion of Civil Rights Movement-driven progress and again take steps toward a just and free society: King’s promised land.

The huge turnout at the 50th Anniversary March on August 24 was a sign that such a new freedom surge is possible. The spirit of the gathering was captured in one of the day's most popular chants: 

"Today's not about commemoration - it's about mobilization!

We're not here to celebrate – we're here to agitate!"

Signs demanding voting rights, placards featuring Trayvon Martin, applause for the speeches that militantly denounced racism and injustice all indicated the “keep on keepin' on” spirit of the overwhelmingly African American marchers. The young Black and Brown Dream Defenders of Florida who ended their month-long sit in of the state capitol this month in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal also pulled their weight to mobilize under the slogan #MarchOn. This new and energetic formation made the march their own, sidestepping the presidential commemorations and fanfare and directly living out Dr. King’s legacy. Having spread throughout Florida, the Dream Defenders movement has made clear that beyond a repeal of the Stand Your Ground laws it is tackling the school to prison pipeline and the broader structures of racial injustice.

If this type of renewed activism specifically in the African American and Latino communities swings into action on a scale paralleling the era of Dr. King, it will change the country's political equation. The punch line: there will need to be leaps in breadth, scope, and grassroots militancy for the potential seen on August 24 to become a country-changing force. 

For instance, the official demands of the March (the 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom) while strong on urgently pressing issues of racial and economic inequality – remain too narrow to undergird a 21st century freedom movement. A surge for full racial justice – not only legal equality – and against austerity, anchored in communities of color and the ever-expanding ranks of hard-hit working people of all backgrounds, will almost certainly have to stand at the core if progressive politics are to gain traction in today's U.S. And with the very livability of the planet under threat, the freedom agenda will have to expand to include climate justice and tap the energy of the millions of young people who see global warming as their number one issue.

And especially this week, the need to follow Martin Luther King's example and fight for Jobs, Freedom, and Peace stands out with burning urgency. The threat of a U.S. military strike on Syria is right now at the heart of the war vs. peace crisis. This column will help inform and embolden the efforts to ACT NOW against strikes on Syria.

BIG BROTHER, LITTLE TERRORISM

Washington has gone to chilling lengths to defend and maintain its vast spying apparatus against international criticism this month. August began with a generalized terror alert, a travel warning to all Americans, and a shutdown of 22 U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa, prompted after the NSA apparently intercepted an “Al-Qaeda conference call.” The embassy closures came at a convenient time for an intelligence community that has been under fire for unconstitutional blanket spying. Top Republican to the Senate Intelligence community SaxbyChambliss wasted no time in hailing the NSA spying programs for picking up potentially dangerous “chatter” saying that “if we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

But those ‘bad guys’ are increasingly journalists, whistleblowers, and millions of Americans whose communications are spied on every day. This month Washington declassified a 2011 FISA court ruling that called the NSA’s program of surveillance of domestic communications both misleading and unconstitutional. This on top of revelations that—contrary to what the President swore was not happening— NSA officials have ‘willfully violated’ spying programs. The intelligence apparatus is out of control, unpopular with the public, Congress, and the very court—FISA— supposedly monitoring it.

And now with army whistleblower Chelsea Manning sentenced to 35 years, the biggest ‘bad guy’ of all according to the Obama Administration’s actions is Edward Snowden. After Russia agreed to allow the NSA whistleblower remain in the country for a year under political asylum, Obama canceled his visit with Russian President Putin. Then, with Washington’s knowledge, the British government detained David Miranda, partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald who has been releasing Snowden’s leaks. ‘Terrorism’ therefore in this case means making information public about admittedly illegal massive spying programs that terrorists journalists could use to harm inform the public.

All while the drone war continues, despite Obama’s promises to wind it down. Though there has been a momentary alleviation of strikes in Pakistan, the U.S. struck Yemen twelve times this month. The last was said to have killed a top Al-Qaeda leader, news that is supposed to make Americans feel safer, feel that the drone war is worth it.  Pay no attention to the new enemies and extremists created with every drone dropped in the tragedy that is the “war on terror.”

EGYPT: HOPE LIES IN THE 'THIRD SQUARE'

The “war on terrorism” rhetoric hasn’t just helped Washington’s crackdown on political dissent but governments the world over. A chilling example has been the violent repression by Egypt’s military junta that seized power eight weeks ago amidst mass uprisings against former president Morsi. Egyptian General Al-Sisi and the media have roundly labeled and targeted Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Democracy Party members as “terrorists” – killing and arresting 70 of their leaders and provoking a (perhaps desired) violent backlash

On August 14, in what Human Rights Watch deemed the worst mass killings in Egypt’s modern history, police forces open fired on a pro-Morsi sit-in in the town of Rab’a, killing 377. The day’s total death toll including police rose above 700, and at present over 1000 have lost their lives in the crackdown and clashes. 

The definition of “terrorist” has expanded beyond Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, as police have arrested and held dozens of journalists, filmmakers, striking steelworkers, and the marginal political activists that haven’t thrown their weight behind its rule. Then came the transfer of former president Hosni Mubarak from prison to house arrest, a clear sign that his powerful supporters are alive, well, and assisting the military in disfiguring what began as popular discontent into consent to martial rule.

As the country becomes dangerously polarized, much of Egyptian civil society has been lost in the headlines. It is caught in a false divide between two dysfunctional and dangerous paths of leadership: the “deep state” of the military and old Mubarak elites or the ineffective Muslim Brotherhood. Those trying to build some kind of nonaligned “Third Square”—like the April 6 Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists are an organized minority and have also been targeted by the military.

What is clear now is that instead of curbing the abusive power of the military, Morsi’s mismanaged and highly pressured administration further strengthened it. It was a wrong move among many that the Muslim Brotherhood made that ultimately paved the way for Morsi’s ousting. As analyst Ahmad Shokr says, the military’s actions have revealed that it believes itself to be “the final arbiter of Egyptian politics.” 

The U.S. has given a reluctant but tacit nod to Al-Sisi’s crackdown, despite American representative’s attempts to prevent the bloodshed on August 14.  Though it did suspend joint military exercises and the shipment of F-16 jets, Washington has no foreseeable plans to cut the $1.3 billion purse strings to a military that has and will continue to ensure its regional interests: the Suez Canal, Israeli interests, and the ability to use Egypt as a military launch pad for the ongoing “war on terror.” 

So for the U.S. it will be another “coup that wasn’t” and gradually legitimizing the interim government as it attempts to rein in its audacious repression.

SAVING U.S. 'CREDIBILITY' OVER SAVING LIVES

“Let’s not honor MLK in Washington with our words and disgrace him tomorrow in Syria with our deeds,” tweeted progressive talk show host Tavis Smiley. The chemical attacks on civilians outside of Damascus and the ensuing drive from the White House to attack the Assad regime quickly became a dark cloud over the activities honoring a stalwart of nonviolence.

Events escalated within days. Two and a half years after a popular uprising was met with murderous repression, the civil war in Syria had already claimed over 110,000 lives and made refugees out of 2 million, 50,000 of whom have sought refuge in the increasingly unstable Iraq. Behind the war lie not only national but regional and international interests. As Institute for Policy Studies Phyllis Bennis told Democracy Now!: “There’s a sectarian war. There’s a regional war for power. There’s a war between the U.S. and Russia. There’s a war between the U.S. and Israel and Iran. All of these wars are being fought to the last Syrian.”

Until the August 21 chemical attacks, the Obama Administration seemed to be proceeding with caution—wary to openly send arms to aid the splintered and extremist (Al-Qaeda laden) Syrian opposition groups, and finally moving ahead with diplomatic talks with Russia. A day before the attack, Joint Secretary General Dempsey reported after a trip to the region, that while the U.S. could intervene, strikes would “not be militarily decisive” but would “commit us decisively to the conflict.”  He also cautioned that there are no moderate forces within the numerous opposition groups to constructively fill any vacuum of power, never mind support Washington’s interests.

Then, just 10 kilometers from where the recently arrived U.N. chemical weapons inspection team was staying, someone crossed Obama’s invisible “red line.” Perhaps over a thousand civilians, many of them children, suffered horrid and inexplicable deaths indicating the use of chemical weapons. The U.S. did not waste time in laying the blame on Assad, issuing a detailed report missing nothing less than concrete evidence. The now departed U.N. weapons inspectors have yet to present their findings.

With phrases like “the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished,” “limited strikes,” and “not seeking regime change” to describe the possibility of military action, it is clear that intervention has nothing to do with defending the Syrian people but rather Obama and the U.S.’ reputation as the world’s police. While the strikes might help Washington save face as hegemon, they would come not only at the cost of more civilian death but the huge risk of igniting full-blown regional and/or sectarian war. The price of “sending a message” is one that the region and the world cannot pay. 

Ironically, as the Obama Administration decries chemical weapons as violating international law, it has no problem doing the same by bypassing the necessary U.N. Security Council vote to authorize military action. Why? It would vote no. A decade after the Bush Administration did the same in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq—of which Obama based his presidential campaign opposing— this is a wrenching moment of history repeating. Obama cancelled meetings with Russian president Putin to specifically discuss Syria and instead began to tap NATO allies like France and the U.K. 

But after days of ratcheting up the rhetoric against Assad, the combination of a “no” vote by the British parliament, pressure from the peace movement, the war weariness of the U.S. public, and demands from lawmakers that Obama obey the constitution and go to Congress, Obama flinched. This decision – a victory for possible peace and, some speculate, a chance for the President himself to find a way out of the box he put himself in with his earlier 'red line' statement – gives time for those of us who mobilize for peace to build pressure.

In other words: NOW IT’S TIME TO WRITE, ACT, AND ORGANIZE.

ISRAEL, IRAN, AND NO, NOT THAT ‘PROMISED LAND’

When we refer to the promised land we certainly shouldn’t confuse Dr. King’s use of that metaphor from the Black prophetic tradition expressing the dream of a just and free society for all, with the Zionist appropriation of that concept to justify ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians. And in discussing U.S. policy toward Syria, it's impossible to avoid the connection to Israel and Tel Aviv's desperate attempts to incite U.S. confrontation with Iran. As soon as Obama decided to put the strike to a congressional vote, there were already headlines of Israel’s “worry” that the delay to attack Syria foreshadows “weakness” on Iran. And John Kerry is playing right into Netanyahu’s hands, stating that striking Syria is also about making sure Iran does not feel “emboldened” by the use of nuclear weapons (that it does not have). 

Strange that it’s still about Iran when there hasn’t been a better moment for diplomacy after the country’s election of moderate Hassan Rouhani, who has stated his eagerness for direct negotiations with the U.S. But it is exactly that, diplomatic relations with Iran, which truly worries Israel. In July, after 131 members of Congress signed a letter to the President urging negotiations with the country, the Israeli lobby sprung into action and penned its own letter to Obama and proposed legislation to maintain and even toughen sanctions. It was supported by a majority of the Senate, including many progressives (like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) and not including those who aren’t up for re-election. Once again AIPAC pulls its political weight in Congressional contributions. We will see if Obama is sold on further dampening diplomacy.

As is always one motivation for Israel’s fixation on Iran, world attention has shifted away from the 1200 new settlements announced just days before restarted peace talks were scheduled to proceed. Then on August 23 Israeli security forces shot and killed two protesters and a U.N. worker in the Qalandia refugee camp, causing the Palestinian Authority to halt all talks. This is how Netanyahu 'confidence builds' for peace?

CONNECTING DOTS, WALKING THE HARD ROAD TOGETHER

The road to dismantling militarism is tough one. The empire, even if in a gradual decline, still is designed and ever-poised to kill. The structure of the surveillance/security state is entrenched. While public opinion might be against more war, politically the right still has the initiative. The left is unorganized, on the defensive, and working within “issue-based silos.” As professor and anti-prison organizer Michelle Alexander said at the March on Washington we must, as King did, “connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism, and materialism,” vowing to get out of her “lane” and build a broad-based movement that would “shake the foundations of our economic and social order.”

Luckily we have giants like King on whose shoulders we can stand, and we know one day we will get to the promised land that he spoke of seeing the night before his assassination. Perhaps if we think about it, we have seen it too—in the faces of the young immigrant rights DREAMers and Dream Defenders, full of loving solidarity and hope against hope. We see the promised land in the way we come together and live out our longing to be part of something larger than ourselves, the desire to see humanity thrive in a peaceful, habitable planet. What higher calling is there than doing our little bit to move the world another step on that hard road, and remember that the seeds of that promised land are right here within every one of us. We need only water them. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Francesca Fiorentini is an independent journalist and comedian based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Before working with War Times she was an editor with Left Turn magazine andWIN: Through Revolutionary Nonviolence, the magazine of the War Resisters League. She writes, produces, and directs the comedy video blog Laugh to Not Cry.  Follow her @franifio

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