On April 3, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King rendered his now famous “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon in Memphis, TN, beautifully crafting and articulating his support of the sanitation workers in the city of the blues. In the early part of this masterful sermon, Dr. King continued to develop his understanding of the interconnectedness of national and international struggles. To be sure, in the early part of his involvement in human rights movement, Dr. King had a specific focus on national issues while examining international figures for influence and guidance. It was when he positioned himself against the Johnson administration concerning the Vietnam War that he began to appreciate and comprehend the very real connections of struggles in the domestic and global sphere. As he put it, Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."
For Dr. King, it did not mean that there were not serious and real disparate political contexts whence national and international movements emerge. Nevertheless, they were all connected by the universally malleable yet durable thread of struggle. Certainly his accurate and, indeed, prescient sermon resonates with us still, especially as we closely follow the revolutions in North Africa, the Middle East, and even the United States.
There are striking distinctions between the revolutions and uprisings in these geographical and political hotspots; the political circumstances that necessitated these movements are real; the moral and social sentiments are honest and serious. The formations of these respective movements are unique, and each need to be carefully examined. Yet, the simultaneity of these movements does speak to a larger issue concerning the power relations between the people and their governments. Specifically, they reveal in very clear terms the disastrous nature of global capitalism and the kinds of politics that spawn from it.
In North Africa, beginning with Tusinia and Egypt, the world witness the popular removal of US backed dictators, demonstrating that the US’s long tradition of supporting anti-democratic rulers will face serious opposition down the road. Focusing primarily on Egypt, the movement was led primarily by the youth - thoroughly yet surreptitiously planned. This segment, which constitutes most of the Egyptian population, responded to police and internal security service crackdowns, abductions, the suppression of free speech, and torture. The labor movement in Egypt has, for at least a decade, engaged in small level protests, defiantly expressing its discontent regarding wages and benefits. Therefore, it is important to note that the popular revolution in Egypt did not emerge from the sky - instead, it was the culmination of decades long resistance to the US backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. But outside of Mubarak, it was also a revolution against the invidious International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) policies in Egypt. In an interesting yet “ill timed” move, the IMF, weeks before the popular uprisings in Egypt and Libya, praised both countries for the “reforms” they were implementing. Unfortunately, these so-called reforms did not take effect in any meaningful way to the masses. The great disconnect between institutions of unfettered and invisible capital to the people is striking. More to the point, it is being challenge in larger scale movements. Such popular, democratic, and unified resistance continue to emerge in parts of Gaza and the West Bank, challenging the crippling apartheid policies of Israel, policies that violate international law from United Nations Resolution 242 to countless votes by the General Assembly. Uprisings are continuing to be reported in Yemen; and despite the sheer brutality of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya - thousands have been reported dead, and countless others face daily torture - the popular movements have ceased the western portion of the country, as well as locations surrounding Tripoli. With a few exceptions, and considering the political contexts, these protests have been peaceful, evincing how nonviolence in the face of pernicious acts of state terrorism and violence can be an effective method of retaliation.
The attack against unadulterated capitalism finds firms grounding when examining the developments in the United States. Much of the resistance taking place in the US is by a collection of workers, teachers, students, and others to stop the brutal crackdown on unions. In the media, this crackdown has been framed as an attack on “collective bargaining” but it is more than this: when unions cannot collectively bargain for wages, proper working conditions, leave, and so on, they are effectively eviscerated, immediately becoming voiceless. In Ohio, SB 5 is soon up for a vote, and dirty, unjust tactics are being used by Republican leaders to make sure the bill passes without meaningful opposition from legislatures on both the Democratic and Republican sides. While this is taking place, Wisconsin workers mobilized for a twenty straight day to put an end to Governor Scott Walker’s draconian proposal to eliminate collective bargaining. Similar pieces of legislation are being presented in Indiana, Tennessee, and Florida, all in the specious name of austerity. Indeed, college students are not outside of the attack on public institutions and public sector workers. For the first time in the history of the University of California system’s history, the students will pay more money than the state will allocate. In 2009, students, professors, and workers rallied outside of the administration building to protest an increase in tuition by 32%. Lastly, the House of Representatives this past week has voted to reduce funding for Pell Grants, potentially placing the hopes and aspirations of college students in financial limbo.
These measures and acts by both Democrats and Republicans are clearly drawing the battle lines. The analytical framework against these measures of unregulated, run amok capitalism cannot be the rich vs. the poor. It is and has always been workers versus capitalists, with various and varying gradations. This is not to suggest that the poor are not being slaughtered by the wealthy - there is much truth to this claim. However, those who are rich (not wealthy) cannot be blamed for the structural dynamics of capitalism that establish obvious bifurcations between the wealthy, the capitalists, the middle class, the working class, and the poor. Moreover, such a false dichotomy (e.g. the poor vs. the rich) does not provide us with a strong basis to launch a fight against those who control both the wealth and the means of production within and without the US. The anti-union and anti-student legislations in the aforementioned states are not specific attacks against the poor. They are attacks against workers, students, and the middle class, attempting to relegate these communities into the abyss of the poor.
It is important to note that the majority of Americans supported the overthrown of Hosni Mubarak; now the majority of Americans, despite the right wing propaganda apparatus, support the workers in Wisconsin. The support of workers’ rights has been a constant for decades; it has only come more pronounced when the lines have been more clearly drawn. Moreover, the billionaire Koch brothers have openly funded anti-union measures and candidates such as Gov. Walker. And President Obama, although verbally supporting the workers in Wisconsin, backed away from a campaign pledge of physically standing next to workers if or when their rights were compromised by legislations being proposed in these moments. Yet, these precious and critical moments are not about the Obama administration or the Koch brothers. Instead, they are about ordinary people doing what they have always done when facing internal threats - they resist. Gone now are the arguments of Americans being apathetic, lazy, and careless. How far these movements will go are largely up to us. Much is at stake, and losing ground now may prove to be disastrous to any semblance of democracy in the near future.
Emahunn Raheem Ali Campbell