If John Brown Were Alive, Could He Help in Ferguson?

 This year marks the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Although he isn’t the most revered figure in American history, he most certainly is honored as a revolutionary and a hero ranging from the likes of Malcolm X to Quentin Tarantino. A contemporary of Brown, famous author, poet, naturalist and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau, wrote an essay called “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and recited it publicly many times before the execution of Brown. He pleaded abolitionist supporters to remember him as a true hero, a martyr, and not as a fool for giving his life for what he believed.

If John Brown, abolitionist, insurrectionist, and self-proclaimed martyr, who called for the immediate end to chattel slavery in the United States were still alive, he most certainly would be of great help in Ferguson, Missouri. His enthusiasm, passion, and belief that no person should be subjugated to slavery or injustice is what people of color in the United States need from the white majority. Although what is happening in Ferguson isn’t slavery, John Brown’s call to action during his lifetime motivated members of the white community in the 1800’s willing to support direct action efforts of achieving equality and justice for the African-American community.

John Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut, where he grew up in a religious household. His father, Owen Brown, was not only an abolitionist by belief, but also an active participant in the Underground Railroad, a network of people, safe houses, and pathways that helped fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada.  John Brown’s name has been etched into American history for his famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia). On October 16, 1859, John Brown along with 20 other men attacked an arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with the intent of stealing enough weapons in order to start a slave revolt. His plan failed and he was eventually captured by local soldiers and U.S. Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. John Brown was tried, convicted of treason, and executed by hanging on December 2, 1859. His legacy lives on as a polemic character in American history whose martyrdom is honored by some members of the black community and condemned by others who described him as simply a terrorist.

2014-10-02 12.46.34

So where does John Brown fit into contemporary American social issues? One can argue that a person like John Brown hasn’t existed in the white community since his death.

When white Americans says,  “there is a lack of leadership in the black community” they must recognize that there is also a lack of leadership in the white community regarding racial equality and the call to justice for all people living in the United States. John Brown would be a perfect example of a leader for the white community who could command them in their efforts to combat institutionalized racism and injustice.

The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, has sparked a new wave of protests condemning not only the use of excessive police force, but also racial profiling, the criminal justice system, and the apparent apathy white Americans have for the plight of minorities in the United States. Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer on August 9, 2014. Although there is overwhelming evidence and witness testimonies conveying that Michael Brown had indeed tried to surrender to the police officer with a “hands up” motion, he was shot multiple times by Wilson. At an estimated distance of 35 feet from the police cruiser, and no visible weapon possessed by Brown, witnesses heard Wilson fire approximately 10 shots. Based on the evidence present, one can conclude that officer Darren Wilson did not act in self defense, and that Michael Brown was murdered in cold blood.

Two months after the shooting of Michael Brown, Darren Wilson is still on paid administrative leave and has not yet faced charges or arrest. The state and federal investigations are taking a long time to reach a conclusion. Protesters believe this is deliberate, concluding that the local government is hoping that protests in and around the Ferguson – St. Louis area of Missouri will die down. The fact that charges haven’t been formally brought up against Darren Wilson is just the tip of the iceberg for the African-American community as they can foresee the murder of Michael Brown going unpunished. Below the murky waters of American race relations there is a lot of racist backlash against African-Americans coming from the white community with respect to demonstrations and vociferous opposition to unpunished white-on-black murders.

The fundraising efforts of people who support Darren Wilson was one of the first things outside of the investigation that struck a nerve within the African-American community in Ferguson. There were wristbands that read “I am Darren Wilson” being worn by members of the Ferguson police (as if to say that they also supported extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals). There were online fundraisers that had raised more money, about $400,000 for Darren Wilson and his family than for the family of the Michael Brown.

The amount of money raised for Wilson is nothing compared to the vitriol and racial hatred perpetrated by television news pundits and online social commentators. Young black men, who dress, act, or look a certain way are victims of verbal abuse in the media when they are all referred to as “thugs” “gangsters” and “hoodlums”. There has been an additional racial polarization in the United States regarding white America’s negative perception of young black males, hip-hop culture and whether they are innocent/guilty in the eyes of the law. As if the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, wasn’t enough to cause deep-seated racism to surface, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and John Crawford, by white men has opened up old wounds in the African-American community, reminding them of lynchings and unpunished murders, which lasted from since the end of the American Civil War up until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s.

The American prison system is disproportionately filled with African-Americans compared to white Americans. It is estimated that “one in three black males will end up in prison”. Similarly, African-Americans, along with other people of color, make up approximately 30% of the U.S. population, but represent 70% of all arrests and 60% of the prison population.

Constant police surveillance, police brutality, harsher punishments and longer sentences for people of color is akin to modern-day slavery and social injustice. John Brown would condemn the American prison system and fight tooth and nail until all unlawfully imprisoned people of color were released. Missouri is one of the states continuing the tradition of disproportionately sending people of color to prison.

John Brown definitely could be of good help in Ferguson in order to show other white people what true support for justice looks like. After a few weeks of protests and demonstrations in Ferguson, Governor Jay Nixon deployed the Missouri National Guard. Protestors were met with excessive force in the form of tear gas, flash grenades, riot police and soldiers with high-grade military equipment. It basically looked like a war zone in Ferguson during the Governor’s “invasion.”

A parallel can be drawn between how white Americans feel about social injustices, whom they support, and how the media portrays key players during a controversial event. One example comes from the Cliven Bundy standoff. Bundy is a Nevada rancher who has been disputing with the United States Bureau of Land Management over unpaid grazing fees. With the threat of government repossession of Bundy’s cattle, protests ensued and armed militias, mostly right-wing white Americans, came out to support Clive Bundy in an armed standoff against federal agents. Although those who supported Bundy were armed and aggressive, the government agents didn’t fire cans of tear gas, flash grenades, nor did the Governor of Nevada send in the Nevada National Guard. Conservative news media personalities like Sean Hannity were quick to support Bundy and his anti-government crusade, but soon realized how racist Bundy was when he made comments like “are black people better off as slaves?”.

How would John Brown respond to Cliven Bundy’s remarks about black people being “better off as slaves”? He would have killed Clive Bundy and all who attest to racist ideology. John Brown would have joined the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri to support the African-American community against the local police, the state police, the National Guard, and federal agents. He would have mounted his own militia of fellow whites to help protect the African-American community from white aggression.

The importance of having white people fight alongside people of color in Ferguson is tantamount to how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was such a success. In the same way, John Brown represented the ideologue of vengeful justice through direct action since before the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, well known for upholding his abolitionist beliefs and declaring war upon the Confederacy for breaking up the Union, later paid for his beliefs with his life. Later on, during the 1960’s, John F. Kennedy was killed for unknown reasons, but speculation has it that he was killed for trying to end the Vietnam War, and for trying to give civil rights to African-Americans.

Although John Brown’s personality and legacy as a Christian religious fanatic and insurrectionist can be seen as somewhat of an ethical dilemma for pacifists, atheists, and the United States government, it would be interesting to see how much could been achieved as far as civil rights in America if a person like John Brown were around. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859 is said to have been one of the key factors in polarizing the country so much that it started the Civil War, which restored the Union and ended slavery. The positive aspects that came after the most devastating war in United States history is difficult to justify on both sides. In the spirit of the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, there is Ferguson October, which is a call for action and civil disobedience pleading for justice not only for Michael Brown, but all American citizens victimized by the prison-industrial complex. There are some things that aren’t as simple as being labeled as liberal or conservative. Morality, liberty and justice have no political party, and therefore, more people should abandon party affiliation and fight injustices for all people regardless of race, class, or gender.

By: Opton A. Martin

Are Reparations Still Relevant? Who Deserves it and When is It Acceptable?

 The controversial topic that debates whether or not monetary reparations are justifiable for people of African descent in the 21st Century.

It might be too late for some reparations, but not soon enough for others.

The question of whether or not European and American governments should give reparations for slavery to people of African descent in the form of money or land comes from a few different sources: African-Americans (in all of the Americas); Haiti, for declaring their independence in 1804; and the people of the continent of Africa, for the European Scramble for Africa.

Every region of the world has experienced epic tragedies that involved the massive loss of human life in the most inhumane ways possible. In order to recuperate from past injustices of human culture, sovereign nations have been trying to readjust their societies in order to prevent dissent, violence and mass-murder, but when profits are to be made from chaos, consolidation of power, and human exploitation, morality takes a dive, and unethical laws are written in order to protect the ruling class from future prosecution.

Using the logic of those in favor of reparations, there are a myriad of historical events in which those who had suffered, or their descendents, should also be given compensation for their suffering: The Nigerian Civil War, the Colonization of the Americas, Rwandan Genocide, Genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, and Bosnia are just a few examples of people being singled-out because of their religion or race, and subjected to imprisonment, forced labor and death.

Reparation activists worldwide point to the fact that other peoples have been offered reparations by governments for forced labor, genocide, confiscation of lands, and for losing an armed conflict (war reparations). West Germany paid $35 billion to Israel between 1953 and 1992 in an attempt to pay for subjecting the Jewish communities to forced labor, “apologize” for the rise of Nazi Germany, and for how they were brutally and systematically round up, forced into concentration camps, tortured, and killed. They were stripped of all their assets, wealth, and above all, were subject to genocide as part of a fascist, anti-Semitic ideology.

African-American reparation activists point to other examples of reparations like the Native-American community and their inclusion in the U.S. Government’s policy of establishing Indian Reservations and paying out millions of dollars to compensate for 19th Century Manifest Destiny land grabs.

Reparations for people of African-American descent: Should it be a reality? The answer is, it should have been, but now it is too late. Those who had lived through slavery, or at least their children, were going to be honored a small compensation for their labor in the form of property ownership, one of the pillars of capitalism, but the U.S. Government at the time had a history of breaking promises not only to Native-Americans, but African-Americans as well. Considering that the British and U.S. Governments had broken over 500 treaties with Native-Americans over profitable and valuable land, African-Americans were also denied what was promised, especially those promises that were made after the American Civil War during what historians refer to as the Reconstruction Era.

40 acres and a mule was an agreement met between African-American ministers, abolitionists and Union General William T. Sherman, who promised to some 40,000 freedmen land and seafront property, which was confiscated from the Confederates. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which occurred shortly after the American Civil War, was a way to punish the South for their attempts at succession, attacking the Union, and to break the link holding the finances between southern slavery and the Confederacy (not because of 250 years of chattel slavery). The 400,000- acre strip of land from South Carolina to Florida could have changed almost everything about modern American society and race relations in terms of education, culture, equality, and wealth in the African-American community.

The reason why so many people, black and white, are against reparations is that there is a cultural and temporal disconnect with previous generations in that Americans do not want to be held accountable, and are generally ashamed for their ancestors’ actions. Most importantly, in terms of the U.S. economy, the methodology of calculating and paying out 250 years worth of labor to descendents of Africans and African-Americans is culturally complex in that people will always contend whether or not some people of African descent deserve remuneration or not.

Whether or not reparations should be paid out, it will never happen because there are conflicts between American culture and economics. The majority of Americans are against reparations. The idea of giving a minority group of people ¨free money¨ because of a past injustice might not have the effect one would think from a cultural point of view.

Reparations for the people of Haiti: Should it be a reality? The answer is yes. The Haitian Revolution that resulted in the declaration of independence from France in 1804 came with extreme consequences. France demanded that Haiti pay 90 million gold francs for the loss of slaves and the French side of the island Hispaniola, which was called St. Dominique at the time, or risk another French invasion. From 1825 to 1947 Haiti continued to pay its “declaration of independence debt” to France, which was estimated to be more than $20 billion. Decades of economic warfare by the international community; the coup d’ état, which was suspected to be supported by the U.S., France, and allies; and the 2010 earthquake, which killed 100,000 civilians or more, were all recent events that have further crippled the sovereign nation of Haiti. At the very least, Haiti’s external debt was cancelled amidst the devastating earthquake, and $9 billion was giving in relief efforts, but it still falls short of the $20 billion that was extorted from Haiti post-independence.

Reparations for the people of Africa: Should it be a reality? The answer is yes, but not in the form of a simple payout. Reparations will come only in the form of true socioeconomic development. But first, bribery, corruption, and theft of capital must be identified, exposed, and dealt with in a way that prevents net wealth from leaving the continent.

An obvious, but not popular solution to corruption and embezzlement is transparency. Being able to track the flow of money between companies, governments, and banks will better inform the public of how their labor is paid, taxed and redistributed. To prevent government leaders from funneling money back to the U.S. or Europe, limiting the amount of money one can have in foreign bank accounts could help. However corrupt dictators may seem to the Western world, there are always enablers (Westerners) who permit this collusion of foreign aid by giving Africa money with one hand, while robbing with the other.

During the past few decades, government-to-government aid has not worked at all for economic development on the continent. Although the continent receives about $50 billion in aid each year, it is estimated that $1 trillion is stolen each year.  Most of that money ends up right back in Europe, the United States, and island tax havens. One of the best ways for economic development is to stop foreign aid as Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo describes in her critique of decades of failed policy.

“A constant stream of “free” money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power. As aid flows in, there is nothing more for the government to do — it doesn’t need to raise taxes, and as long as it pays the army, it doesn’t have to take account of its disgruntled citizens. No matter that its citizens are disenfranchised (as with no taxation there can be no representation). All the government really needs to do is to court and cater to its foreign donors to stay in power.”

Economic development cannot occur if local markets are flooded with free goods that could be produced locally. Agriculture and manufacturing take a big hit when products are routinely sent to Africa. One might think that it is generous to do so, but it effectively puts local companies out of business. Moyo offers another simple example of how foreign aid is having a reverse effect.

“A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to. They’ll have to get more aid. And African governments once again get to abdicate their responsibilities.”

In order to properly gird these concepts into the theme of reparations I must say that foreign aid to Africa does not count as reparations. The scramble for Africa by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries absorbed all but two (Ethiopia and Liberia) sovereign states into their empires, and the amount of wealth that was stolen by declaration of war against indigenous people continues to this day with the extraction of minerals and precious metals and the round-the-clock coup d’états that occur with the help of Western interests. The exigency in which raw materials are extracted from the continent to be sent to manufacturing plants in the European Union, China, U.S.A. and Russia, leave very little to be circulated within the continent – the flow of raw materials needs to be diverted inward.

The best kind of reparation high-income nations can give to Africa is to offer something tangible like renewable energy in the form of wind turbines and solar panels to help with their energy crisis. Combining the aforementioned with proper water irrigation systems and desalinization plants are also other true forms of economic development in which all citizens could eventually build upon and stabilize their societies. Only then will much of the conflict areas soon turn into places with cultural standards in which subsisting on foreign aid and pity will be a thing of the past.

 

By Opton A. Martin