15 May 2003
‘If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own…. For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.’ — James Baldwin
‘First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.’ — Martin Niemoller
I think I owe both Pastor Niemoller and James Baldwin an apology (see ‘Knock-Knock’). But events have a strange way of leading one to green pastures. Haunted by my double misquote (both of Niemoller and of not attributing it to Baldwin, though it’s understandable I think), I had to re-buy Angela Davis’s book If they come in the Morning and low and behold, inside Davis’ book there it was, not only Baldwin’s quotation, but waiting to be resurrected as it were, into the night we have once again entered, the following:
‘Political repression in the United States has reached monstrous proportions. Black and Brown peoples especially – victims of the most vicious and calculated forms of class, national and racial oppression — bear the brunt of the repression even as it now engulfs the most presumably respectable groups and individuals including members of Congress. Literally tens of thousands of innocent men and women – fill the jails and prisons; hundreds of thousands more are the subject of police, FBI and military intelligence investigations…. It seems to us that the most important fact to be considered in the midst of this repression is that it and its attendant paraphernalia for coercion, manipulation and control reflect serious infirmities in the present social order. That is, while we do not underestimate the coercive resources – available to the state to suppress all forms of opposition (and the centralisation of control over those forces), we think that the necessity to resort to such repression is reflective of profound social crisis, of systemic disintegration.’
I think you’ll have to agree that it could have been written today, not 32 years ago. Yet who today has read this book? How many of you have even heard of Angela Y Davis or know of her frame-up by the then governor of California, Ronald Reagan? The assault on the Black Panthers during the latter half of the 1960s and into the 70s was accompanied by the same hysteria that surrounds the current ‘terrorist menace’. Surveillance, infiltration, the illegal detention of opponents by the Nixon administration and even cold-blooded murder, were carried out in an atmosphere of paranoia and the demonisation of all opponents, especially the Panthers, who not only dared defend themselves, but more importantly carried their mission into communities, creating schools and breakfast programmes for children, organised communities and defended them against a racist police and racist state institutions. It was for these, practical examples more than their armed defiance, that the wrath and the full force of the state descended on them and destroyed them. But the most important thing they destroyed was our power to remember. In erasing and perverting the memories of the Black Panthers or Angela Davis or for that matter, Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois, Mohammed Ali, not only by turning them into non-people by virtue of their politics but also, because of their colour, they are lost to us as a people and as people.
And as Iraqis are turned into ‘Arabs’ and ‘Arabs’ turned into ‘Muslims’ and ‘Muslims’ become ‘terrorists’, they depart the world of humanity and enter a demon world, where only monsters live. Once dehumanised, they can be destroyed without the ‘inconvenience’ of a conscience. That was after all, how Slavery came to be acceptable to ‘civilised’ people. It is after all, how young Black men can be incarcerated in their hundreds of thousands. It is after all, how we can justify dropping cluster bombs and depleted uranium on people. It is after all, how we can detain people without charge, trial or representation, by relegating them to a world where only monsters live. For once there, they are not only out of sight, they are out of ‘our’ world and eventually, out of our minds.
So what lessons can we learn? It seems to me, naïve fool that I am, that the one obvious thing we need to learn once again, is to remember. Our history is our guide, it is the only thing we have which connects and communicates to us from a common past, the experiences we have lived before. Or else we are doomed to forever repeat the mistakes of the past simply because, like some nightmare science-fiction story, we remain caught up in a demon loop? A treadmill on which we struggle, learn, resist, die…until the next generation. As our schools, our media, our governments, rewrite the past, even the present as it happens, like a bad dream, where you run and run and never seem to get any closer to your goal.
My memory may be faulty (put it down to age), but even though Niemoller wrote his words 59 years ago and Baldwin, 32, I have not forgotten the fact that they wrote them in the first place and most important of all, why.