Give Me Liberty,  Give You Death

So, here we are again at the granddaddy of all of the official U.S. celebrations of militarism and white power.  Only the hard won observances of Labor Day and MLK’s birthday are exceptions.

Independence Day this year though is different.  That’s because of COVID 19 and the eruption of protest over the ongoing murders of Black people.  Different too because of how the pandemic and the protests converge.

The resistance to wearing masks and other behaviors to mitigate the pandemic and the murders, including the disparities in infection and death rates for BIPOCs, derive from the same root.  A country founded from the toxic mix of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism.  A nation that violently overthrew its British colonial masters so that it could replace and surpass England as the dominant spreader-state of the whole ill-begotten colonial enterprise.

The bounty the property owners derived from relentless territorial expansion and the color-based enslavement of what was foreseen as a permanent component of the population was not, decidedly not, to be shared with London.  At least not on London’s terms.

And so the United States began.  Hiding behind a fog of high-falutin language almost all of which was appropriated from the better angels of England’s own people’s struggles.

Who best represents what it really was?  Patrick Henry that’s who.  Mr. “give me liberty or give me death,” himself.  Interestingly enough, there is some doubt in the historical record as to whether he actually even said those words.  Doesn’t matter.

They served a purpose and so were and still are promulgated.  What is not in dispute is that Patrick Henry was a vicious and brutal enslaver.  And vociferous in warning before the revolution that independence was necessary because of the danger that Britain might abolish slavery in its colonies.  Which in fact it did.

Rugged individualism? Rugged selfishness is more like it.  As Kali Holloway in Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Understood White Freedom Perfectly in The Nation and Jamelle Bouie in his New York Times essay A Twisted Conception of Liberty, have pointed out,  the liberty of property owning white men required the stealing of the land and the enslavement of Black people first by transcontinental then primarily, domestic, trade.

The right to territorial conquest and enslaving much of the labor force is what the Founders meant by liberty.  That England or Black Lives Matter or anyone at all might take it away is the perceived threat, now as then.

So, it’s no surprise that this July 4, the President of the United States is reasserting the right of residential housing segregation and the virtues of the Confederacy.  Or that gym owners,  barbers, ministers, bar owners and those who refuse to wear masks are proclaiming their CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.  The armed invaders who invaded state governments at the beginning of the pandemic said the same thing.  None of them are wrong. They are descendants and perpetuators of forces that have been shaping the United States since well before 1776.  The Declaration of Independence was written for them and so was the Constitution.

Fortunately,  they have big and growing opposition.  There is a liberation movement loose in the land that espouses different values.  We—I include myself within it—espouse inclusion, revolutionary kindness, concern for all life forms, non-violence and love.  Let’s repurpose July 4 to celebrate that.  Perhaps we should rename it Interdependence Day.

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Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a member of the National Writers Union (NWU) and is the former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement. He is currently working on a book about unlearning white supremacy.  

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