Speaking Truth to Power
On November 24th, when the St. Louis Co. grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, the Ferguson area erupted in righteous outrage, and there were protests across the nation that unfortunately interrupted some crass Black Friday consumerism. The following Sunday, the NFL’s St. Louis Rams were about to play the visiting Oakland Raiders. Five of the Rams players walked out onto the field with their arms raised, the now iconic “Hands up — don’t shoot” gesture, in what they later said was in support of nearby Ferguson. It drew more outrage from the Right, and from the local police union, who fired off a blistering letter condemning the act as “tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory.” Never mind whether Brown actually raised his hands in surrender before he was gunned down. The prosecutor and grand jury denied us all the truth that might have come out of a trial, with cross examinations and jury deliberation. Now we’ll never know what really happened.
The Rams’ players reminded me of another incident in the 1968, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Two American athletes on the medal stand while our national anthem was playing, raised their right hands with a black glove, in protest. It was a time of much turbulence back home; the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations were a continuing reminder of something askew in the national psyche. In both these cases, there was the familiar cry — “That’s not the time or place for that sort of thing.” I would say that is precisely the time and place for such statements. When you speak truth to power you want as large an audience as possible. That’s why people make political statements at awards ceremonies, to reach millions, not a few.
To the white power structure, back sass is unacceptable. It wants only blind obedience and no questions asked; it’s how the authoritarian mind set works. So when courageous people take on this massive force, they should know that they will face retaliation. We only need to look at those who took on the system and how dearly they paid. The example of Jesus serves as a starting point, the white power structure then being Rome. But there are many more: Thomas More, St. Thomas a’ Becket, Crazy Horse, Nelson Mandela, Karen Silkwood, Salman Rushdie, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To that list we could add Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. If you’re going to “Fight the Power,” as Public Enemy puts it, keep in mind the old axiom about safety being in numbers.
In the turbulent 1960s we saw the Montgomery bus boycott, Selma, the Freedom Riders, and a reawakening of feminism, not to mention the numerous anti-Vietnam protests. In Seattle in 1999 were the protests against the World Trade Organization. The Arab Spring, the Canadian First Nations movement Idle No More, and the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are reminders that this phenomenon is global, because the power structure is all about globalization. The Occupy movement ignited the important national conversation about the vast wealth inequality in this country. Many of their organizers have been arrested and convicted of felonies, robbing them of the vote, prospects of finding decent employment, and in large part ruining their lives. Contrast this treatment to that of the beer-bellied bubbas who went to Cliven Bundy’s ranch to support him in his refusal to pay federal grazing fees. They brought their penis extenders, I mean guns, and we can even see one of them aiming at a federal officer as he says, “I’ve got him in my sights.” What happened to those white people? Not a goddamned thing. They’re not a threat to the power structure.
The mainstream media has abdicated its duty — speaking truth to power, which was the original intention of the Founders. The idea was of a free press in an adversarial role to the power structure (formerly governments, now more of a corporate state). Today nearly all those radio and TV stations are owned by about a half dozen corporations, and so the media is part of the power structure. You can see that in how it tends to marginalize civil unrest, when they report it at all. It’s to their benefit to control the information we get, and this has led people to get more of their news from the internet. The problem there is confirmation bias — we tend to go to liberal or conservative websites that support and affirm our own views. This nation was born out of revolution, of refusing to succumb to British authority. It’s in our national DNA, this streak of rebellion.
More recently we’re seeing multiple protests over the multiple killings of multiple unarmed black men by multiple police officers. People are pissed off at the institutional racism that still permeates the system. They don’t hate the police, as the conservatives like to portray them. They hate bad police, that’s all, and they’ve had enough. It isn’t only minorities who are victimized by such practices, but all people without power; the poor, the mentally ill, LGBT people and women. It’s enough to make us wonder who the police are working for, the public they’ve sworn to serve and protect, or the corporate state. This nation was born out of rebellion and revolution against authority; it’s in our national DNA. We saw it forcefully in the 1960s with the civil rights and anti-war movements. Cultural trends have reflected it through the years, from rock music, through punk, to today’s alternative and rap.
One of the most powerful ways of speaking truth to power has always been through satire, which goes way back to the Greeks and Celtic bards. If authority doesn’t like backtalk, it really hates being ridiculed, and we have only to look at recent history. The North Koreans hacked Sony Pictures because they were about to release a comedy about a plot to assassinate their leader. The tragic events at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satire newspaper in Paris, remind us of the sad fates of those mentioned above who stood up to the system. Still another unfortunate situation is that of Saudi blogger/activist Raif Badawi. He started a blog to invite political debate, but the Saudi religious police arrested him for “insulting Islamic religious leaders.” He was fined the equivalent of $266,000, and his sentence was 1000 lashes and ten years in prison. On Friday, January 9th he was given the first fifty lashes, and will receive another fifty for nineteen more weeks (in public, right after Friday prayers). If you choose comedy to speak to power, remember the golden rule: always kick up, never down. Making fun of the poor or disabled isn’t that funny, is it?
There’s a fatal problem with authority structures; they never last. Don’t any of these types ever read history? A society that benefits the few at the expense of the many never works, because people must be free. We will resist being pushed around by governments, armies, or corporations, because we have the right to make a living and be left alone, and anything else is unacceptable. That’s not an American thing; it’s hard-wired into every human. As the corporate power structure squeezes more and more out of us, civil unrest will increase, and the police know this. That’s why they’re looking increasingly like an invading military force. But freedom, once tasted, is hard to give up, and so we can’t give up. Resistance is really all we have left. It’s going to be a big mountain to climb, though.
“There comes a time when the operation of the Machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
— Mario Savio, Berkeley, California, 1964