Muhammad Ali and Dylann Roof: Contested Meanings and Contested Lies

The announcement by the United States Department of Justice that it would prosecute and pursue the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the White nationalist who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina and the death of Muhammad Ali are two events that appear on the surface to be completely disconnected. Yet – in the ongoing ideological struggle by the state and capitalist institutions to shape and control mass consciousness – both are intimately intertwined.  

When Loretta Lynch, the African American Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice, announced that the state would pursue a death sentence against Dylann Roof, some in the African American community applauded the decision as an appropriate response that would lead to something they defined as “justice.” However, for many other African Americans, justice for a racialized and colonized people is an impossibility in a colonial state in which racial and class dominance, violence, and systemic de-humanization represents its internal logic and core values.

The decision by the DOJ to pursue a death sentence for Roof should be seen as no more than another tactical move by the state as part of the last phase of the counterinsurgency launched against the black liberation movement almost five decades ago. The ideological component of this counterinsurgency strategy had and still has one primary objective – to cement the psychological identification of oppressed African Americans with the colonialist, white supremacist state and the white supremacist, capitalist system that it upholds. By appealing to African Americans, the group in the country most consistently opposed to the death penalty, state propagandists saw this as a perfect opportunity to undermine opposition to capital punishment and facilitate the process of psychological incorporation.  

Lynch claimed that it was the nature of the crime and the “harm” it created that compelled her department to pursue a death sentence. This of course begs the question as to what constitutes “harm” and who is harmed.

The implication of Lynch’s statement is that societal harm is the measurement that guides decisions by the DOJ to intervene or not. But if harm to the society or groups in the society was really the measurement, how then does the state measure the harm produced by police beatings, choking, and shootings of African Americans? Apparently, the overwhelming amount of video evidence and testimony of anti-black state police violence does not rise to the level of a collective harm that compels the state to act in the form of prosecutorial actions.  

The racist pandering and ideological character of the DOJ’s announcement is even more apparent by the fact that it is premised on the assumed success of the state’s efforts to distort critical consciousness. The presupposition of this position is reflected in the arrogant assumption that no one is going to notice that while the DOJ moved to impose the death penalty on a young white nationalist, that same DOJ only brought one indictment against the slew of killer cops involved in the murders of young African men and women across the U.S. over the last eight years under two black Attorney Generals and a black president.  

And while both black Attorney Generals offered elaborate justifications for why the Federal government could not intervene in those state level cases, the black public is not supposed to notice that the DOJ did not hesitate to interject itself on the state level to bring the full weight of the Federal government down on four young members of the black working class who are now serving or facing years in prison for their activities during the Baltimore uprisings. In a telling statement of the importance attached to property over black lives, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein explained that “The rule of law must be upheld, and criminals who destroy property and jeopardize lives must be held accountable.”

The “King-ification” of Muhammad Ali

With the passing of Muhammad Ali, we are witnessing a phenomenon similar to what we saw with Dr. King when the family allowed the state to define the meaning of Dr. Kings’ activism and the movement that created him. The announcement that Bill Clinton, the rapist and petty opportunist politician, had been chosen to deliver the eulogy at Ali’s funeral suggests that his family is heading down that same path. And while it has been important to see all of the references to Ali’s early anti-war positions again circulating in social media, it was no surprise that few direct contemporary connections were made by the ex-president of the U.S. empire and most of the speakers

Passing references to his courage and principles in his early life were made, but it is already clear that the focus of the state and corporate propagandists have already shifted to the period of his life when he was involved in some dubious political projects before his inability to communicate. In this rendition of Ali’s life the prodigal son has come home. Lighting the Olympic torch and “transcending race” and religion will be the narrative of “national” reconciliation that supposedly characterized his post-1970s life. The implication that he might oppose the state’s strategy of permanent war to maintain U.S. and Western dominance will not be a part of the official story of his life.    

These two events demonstrate that nothing is innocent; including the death of a cultural icon like Muhammad Ali or an announcement that justice would be done by pursuing capital punishment. Like the civil rights, women’s and even the anti-war movement, the state attempts to de-politicize and co-opt movements and individuals by reinscribing the meanings of nominally oppositional social movements and individuals and re-incorporating them into the grand narrative of “America’s” striving for a more “perfect union.”

That narrative is a death narrative for Africans/black people because the price for inclusion requires the ideological, psychological, ethical and cultural erasure of black people and any claims for black self-determination.

But unlike Barack Obama, Loretta Lynch and the other members of the black petit-bourgeoisie who have become the living embodiments of the partial success of the state’s attempt to colonize the consciousness of Africans/black people, the life of Muhammad Ali and the black liberation movement that he was a part of in his early years and our movement’s moral positions on state violence in the form of the death penalty stands as counter-narratives to those attempts by the state to “Americanize” the Africans in the territory called the U.S.     

 

Ajamu Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. His latest publications include contributions to” Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014), “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” (Harper Collins, 2014) and “Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral” (CODESRIA, 2013). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com

 

Beyonce and the politics of Cultural Dominance

I confess, I am a culturally alienated, old, disconnected 1960s and ‘70s radical trying to live and struggle for revolutionary change in a world that might have passed me by, because I cannot for the life of me understand how Beyonce’s commodified caricature of black opposition was in any way progressive. Instead what I saw was the cultural power of neoliberal capitalism to co-opt opposition, monetize it and provide some mindless entertainment all at the same time. I didn’t see opposition; I saw the imagery and symbols of authentic black radicalism grotesquely transformed into a de-politicized spectacle by gyrating, light-skinned booty-short-clad sisters.

I am told that I am being too harsh. That there were positive messages encoded into Beyonce’s performance. In their rebuke of my interpretation, my friends return to that old canard that “we got to meet the people where they are at” and take every opportunity within the domain of popular culture to push positive messages.

This sad and reactionary position only reflects the deep cynicism and alienation of black radical politics that has never recovered from the systematic assault on our movement from the ‘70s onward. An assault that was not only military, but as a centerpiece of its strategy, pushed for a cultural and ideological assimilation of the Black/African working class and the artificially created middle-class. Understanding the power of ideas to shape consciousness, the objective was to “Americanize” the African American. Saner people would call that process genocide, but in the U.S. it is called racial progress.

The success of that strategy – the elimination of the “us,” an emerging “people” committed to radical transformational politics with a healthy psychological and emotional distance from “them,” the U.S. state, its racist and colonialist/imperialist history – was on display in Selma at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the march. In Selma, Barack Obama, the living personification of that strategy, delivered a version of the American narrative that was infused with all of the racist jingoism of bold settlers and the marginalization of genocide and slavery. But instead of Obama being run off the stage and out of town, his rendering of the story of white manifest destiny, U.S. exceptionalism and black advancement within the context of capitalism, was warmly embraced and praised by the new Negroes of empire.

In an era where the image is dominant and meaning fluid, what is still real, concrete and observable is the operation of power. Situated and controlled by an elite that bell hooks refers to as the White Male, capitalist Patriarchy, it’s a power that exercises with devastating efficiency its ability to shape consciousness through its control of the major means of communication and cultural production. It was those white men and their representatives that placed Beyoncé on that stage at the Super Bowl. It is incredibly naive to think that anything subversive or even remotely oppositional to the interests of the capitalist oligarchy would be allowed expression on a stage that it controlled.

Beyonce’s performance and her video is as conservative and accommodationist as the demand for justice for …, fill in the blank, after one of the defenders of the capitalist order executes one of our folks. Everyone can give lip service to the demand for racial justice or oppose the “bad apples” in the police forces that abuse their power, and most people, (except the most rabid racists) can and do get behind the idea that black lives should matter. That is why the movement has not been shut down, at least not yet!

No folks, real opposition to this white supremacist, colonialist/imperialist order is not cool, or sexy. Being a black revolutionary means the possibility of death, it can mean facing decades of incarceration as a political prisoner, it can mean exile or the inability to make a living because your liberal friends consider you dangerous. It is facing the naked power of the national security state with its power to engage in extra-judicial murder with impunity, surveillance and infiltration.

Those who claim that Assata taught them should have been outraged by the brazen, commodified blackness being pushed by capitalist marketers. Didn’t Assata say that we could never be free while the American government and American capitalism remain intact? That is a call for total resistance that can’t be co-opted by bourgeois culture.

I recognize that we are in a new era. Structural and ideological changes have profoundly altered the U.S. social formation. Even in the period of the most serious crisis of the capitalist order, the ethical framework of liberal capitalist individualism is still dominant. And within the black community, post- modernism is in open competition for hegemony with our ever-developing radical tradition.

In this period of media-driven pseudo-opposition in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Beyoncé or even Bernie Sanders, it is increasingly difficult to make the distinction between image and reality, especially when the production of images and symbols is controlled by dominant forces with an interest in keeping us all stupid.

It is only through ruthless criticism and a commitment to struggling beyond the accepted paradigms that we can penetrate the BS and engage in a politics that is truly subversive. And that kind of politics will not be brought to you in living color in the safety of your homes while you stuff yourself with poison foods and spirits to dull the mind.

 

Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. His latest publications include contributions to” Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014), “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA”(HarperCollins, 2014) and “Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral” ( CODESRIA, 2013). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com

 

Threats against Afro-Colombian Leaders from Buenaventura

Danelly Estupiñan, a powerful Afro-Colombian human rights activist and personal friend of mine, is now facing a mortal threat from the fanatical criminals aligned with powerful economic interests who are committed to keeping Black people subjugated in the port city of Buenaventura and throughout Colombia.

An activist and member of the Black Communities Process (PCN), Danelly joins a long list of woman, labor and youth activists who are facing death or have been murdered for daring to organize Afro-Colombians to defend their dignity.

At 5:30pm on November 23, Danelly received a death threat stating “Danelly you are close to the end.” Less than five hours later, she received a call from a friend where a distorted voice was interposed that stated “we know where you are, we know where you are.” These threats follow a November 22 visit by the community human rights ombudsman, UNHCR and PCN Congal members to the Inmaculada neighborhood. The visit was prompted by the November 19 threats against community leader Rocio del Pilar Segura. Neighbors informed Ms. Segura that personnel from the TCBUEN posted a sign outside her house without her consent. Ms. Segura moved the sign and on November 20 personnel from TCBUEN arrived at her door and told her daughter “that they will make Rocio pay for the sign.”

The Black Communities Process (PCN) Buenaventura office, Palenque el Congal, works to defend the rights and dignity of Afrodescendant communities located in the Bajamar area of Buenaventura’s Cascajal Island for decades. Afrodescendants living in this area, many of whom are the displaced and their children, who fled conflict and abuse in nearby river communities are living in sub-human conditions due to the abandonment of the State. Not only have they had to confront extreme marginalization, poverty, lack of basic services, and had little access to employment opportunities, but they have also become the targets of the armed groups. For years, these residents have suffered brutal homicides that involve torture and dismemberment, disappearances, and displacements. PCN has accompanied and advocated for a stop to these abuses and justice for the victims.

I know this community; have walked its street and broken bread with its inhabitants. The government wants this community to be gone because it wants to build a beautiful new boardwalk in the city that it hopes will attract more tourist dollars. The only problem is that the expansion requires the displacement the people living on that valuable land. Danelly and PCN’s Palenque el Congal represent the organized resistance to those plans and as a result have become the target of the paramilitary groups who protect and enforce the interests of the Colombian elite.

These threats are taking place at a time when more than 143 death threats against activists were reported in the region. On November 9, paramilitaries killed Afro-Colombian youth activist Jhon Jairo Ramirez Olaya in Buenaventura. They also coincide with numerous leaders of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), of which PCN forms part, receiving threats and being intimidated for their work promoting justice, peace and human rights.

We must stand with the people of Colombia. We must make sure that Black lives matter in Buenaventura and that our dear sister is protected. For more information and how you can help, go to http://afrocolombian.org/2015/11/25/the-lives-of-afro-colombian-leaders-from-buenaventura-must-be-protected/