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May 4, 2011 marks the forty-first anniversary of the murders of four students by the National Guard at Kent State University in the United States. These murders by the state’s armed forces, which were followed by the police murders of six black men during an uprising in Augusta, Georgia and two more students (also black) at Jackson State in Mississippi, proved to be a turning point in the prosecution of the US war on the Vietnamese. In short, the desire to continually expand that war was no longer the consensus among those who plan such things in Washington. The war itself would continue for five more years, but Washington’s belief in its ability to win had been broken.
Of the deaths mentioned above, the six in Ohio and Mississippi occurred during protests against the US invasion of Cambodia–a clear expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. The murders in Augusta were related to the ongoing struggle by African-Americans for equal rights in a country that had not only never granted such rights to these members of their nation but had by forcibly removed them from their homelands to become chattel slaves in the New World. That struggle had been going on since the first families arrived in the American South. It had seen its worst violence during the civil war and what was perhaps its second bloodiest episode in the decade preceding the aforementioned Augusta slayings. It seemed like in each of the previous ten years, there had been a bloody outbreak of anger and rage somewhere in the United States that was related to the freedom struggle of black people in the United States. From the bullwhips and police dogs of Bull Connor’s police in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to the US Army’s tanks moving down the streets of Washington, DC and a dozen other cities in 1968, the forces of US law and order (read white supremacy) brutally shed the blood of these people who refused to remain in bondage any longer.
The freedom struggles of African-Americans did release them from legalized apartheid. Admission to schools and employment can no longer be legally denied to them because of their skin tone. Neither can housing or other accommodations. These reforms were realized due to the cooperation of certain elements of the freedom movement, well-meaning liberals in government, the media and the general population, and conservative politicians that understood the need to allow blacks into the system in order to maintain their dominance. Some considered this cooperation to be something much more akin to a hijacking of the movement than anything else.
As most everyone will acknowledge, a divide between white skinned and darker toned people continues to exist in the United States. The divide derives from a fundamentally unjust economic system that conspires by its history and continued existence to keep most black people poor and a few white people very wealthy, with the rest of the population fighting each other to get ahead. This situation will not, indeed can not, be resolved until a new economy comes into existence. That scenario involves a struggle most of us seem unwilling to undertake.
Anyhow, I mention the freedom struggle of African-Americans in the Sixties here primarily to make a comparison to western governments’ reaction to the uprisings currently taking place across northern Africa and the Middle East. As I see it, the comparison between the two works like this: in almost all of the nations involved, millions of people have been denied their basic rights by a system that is nothing short of dictatorial in its dealings with them. The struggles of these millions are not new but in most cases have recently reached a critical mass and, like the movements of the Sixties, know no borders. The movement in each nation is unique, yet is also universal. Furthermore, most seem to be contrived of a multitude of political, religious and other philosophies.
The most common factor found in each movement is the response of the national government. In every instance that response has been repression. While the brutality and duration of that repression has differed, there is no denying either the repression or its brutality. Nor is there any denying that, with the possible exception of Egypt, the repression has been greater in those nations that Washington has multiple dealings with. Indeed, it can easily be argued that the closer the relationship (once again with the possible exception of Egypt, which can probably be attributed to Washington’s unpreparedness), the greater the repression of the freedom movements. The general fact of the bloody repression is the similarity to the African-American freedom struggle that strikes me as the most evident.
At the same time, it is the one which is not discussed, especially by those in the Washington establishment crowing the loudest for more US intervention in some of the nations now experiencing an uprising. In other words, while blacks in the US were fighting, often quite violently, for their freedom in Sixties, the regime in Washington sent its military to quash those uprisings, killing hundreds in the process.
Yet, never once did anyone in the circles of power in DC, London, Rome, Paris or any other western capitol suggest that the government in DC should be overthrown and replaced. In contrast, not only are there voices in each of those capitols calling for regime change in the affected region today, there are military forces from those capitols involved in aiding those forces attempting to overthrow those governments. Naturally, the regimes being attacked by western forces are the regimes whose interests differ from those that direct those forces. Meanwhile, with the exception of Egypt and Tunisia, repression by regimes that serve western interests continues virtually without comment. This alone causes one to wonder what the true motivations of the western governments actually are.
The point of this comparison is not to oppose the legitimate desires for freedom by those fighting across the region. Instead, it is to point out that those of us who genuinely support the freedom struggle in northern Africa and the Middle East should be wary of those governments who claim to do the same. After all, if the same scenario were unfolding within the borders of those nations, would the repression be any less? The experience of black freedom struggle in the US some forty years ago makes it quite clear that the answer is no. History can’t hide hypocrisy.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night will be available in print by mid-May and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org