In the last four months, the world has collectively experienced an unprecedented array of trials and tribulations. For the first time in a long time, and if ever, the majority of the world was experiencing the same level of uncertainty and fear. For some, this fear and uncertainty stood as a wakeup call on the inequalities present within our world; for others, it was a reaffirmation on why certain movements and work is necessary; and others, their own ugly truth was exposed to either themselves or to the masses. For a while, it had seemed that every person and every community was stuck in or on the path to individualism. Oppression olympics were played, tragedies were buried and overlooked and everyone was somehow stuck in their own world. In “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” (I highly recommend reading this book if you haven’t) Angela Davis states “Progressive struggles— whether they are focused on racism, repression, poverty, or other issues—are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism.” When I think about capitalist individualism, I don’t reflect on it in the sense of just one individual - but as individualistic populations. Individualistic populations in the sense that our communities have been divided on the dependence of familiarity. Different communities advocated for one another, but to a certain extent - every community was swallowed by their own worries and tribulations which lead to a certain divide.
While this division may occur naturally, in some instances it has also been used as a strategy by the oppressors in order to deteriorate the unity of any subjugated groups who are fighting for liberation and justice. This technique has been referred to as the “divide and conquer” strategy and is utilized to maintain division. It’s usually successful through the creation of a narrative that blames each group or community for others problems and works towards cultivating a sense of mistrust among them to obscure the systematic inequalities that stem from the oppressor. However, as Audre Lorde has expressed, "There is no hierarchy of oppression." The truth is that, as oppressed peoples, our pain is interconnected and all forms of oppression must be recognized and fought against simultaneously. And despite the fact that that narrative gets lost during the fight, we must actively work against the intentions of the oppressor to divide us. After all, most oppressors, no matter where in the world they reside and cause calamity, use similar tactics and are after one end goal - power and hierarchy.
At the same time, there are entirely horrifying moments of injustice that arise and are not to be deemed as isolated incidents. So terrorizing that they summon a discrete kind of attention. These moments of injustice occur worldwide, and we should be able to grant each moment, and each movement that stems from it, an exclusive form of attention. That’s not to say that any of the other issues in the world have been lost or entirely forgotten, but that it’s okay for us to exclusively highlight each injustice as it comes and grant it our unwavering attention. It means being there for another community because that community matters and they need us, not for the sole reason of being in solidarity in order to find a way to defend our own struggles through it. And only through going into these movements with the sole purpose of seeking justice for one another, and not competing or comparing oppressions, can we fully understand the ways in which we are connected.
In the midst of a global pandemic, anyone with a conscience has been forced to reflect on the role they play within this world and on the knowledge they may be missing. Even I, as a person who is dedicating my life to human rights and change, have been forced to reflect on just how much there is left to know and how much I’ve been missing (and that’s a lot). Something I really appreciated about the abundance of free time we’ve gotten via this pandemic (not really for me because I was still doing grad school with two jobs) is the ways in which I was forced to shift my narrative and unlearn/relearn the definitions of oppression, genocide and mass atrocity through my studies. One thing I’ve been reflecting on since April is how we, as activists, academic scholars, advocates, and lawmakers can cause more harm (without intention) through the way we define and phrase certain things. Even more so, I was forced to reflect on and come to terms with the realization that the concept of human rights is relatively new within society and within our governance systems, leaving a lot of room for grey areas to cloud individual and collective judgements.
One of the grey areas that exists for most, I’ve found, is the very definition of genocide. I’ve had the habit of throwing the word around for any mass atrocity I felt resembled a genocide. As I learned more throughout the last two months, I kept going back to a quote from Genocide - A Modern Crime when Lemkin was explaining how Rundstedt had proposed that genocide, as a term, does not necessarily refer to mass killings alone, even if it means so by definition. He stated the following: “More often it refers to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight. The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their nationalistic attachments and their religion. It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity. When these means fail the machine gun can always be utilized as a last resort. Genocide is directed against a national group as an entity and the attack on individuals is only secondary to the annihilation of the national group to which they belong.” As I pondered on that, I began to understand why so many individuals, myself included, misuse the word genocide. It could be due to the fact that what characterizes a mass atrocity as a genocide is the last resort, the violence of it all. But the truth is, much of what we see in the world, whether it be settler colonialism, systematic oppression, or even war - usually carry the same end goal of disintegration. At some point, many of us begin to merge all tragedies together which leads to the use of this word. And oppressed groups may have begun to use it because it validates their oppression more, especially on the level of law and governance. They begin to feel as though their oppression can only be recognized by the world if the things they were experiencing were defined as a genocide.
The foundation of America’s inequality lies in the way it was structured and something that is often overlooked is the way in which the United States is a post-genocidal society. It was built through the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native Americans, and built by enslaved and transported Africans. After taking the majority of the land that had been occupied by the Native Americans and building a new society, the U.S supreme court made slavery legal, acceptable and even “moral”. After slavery became illegal, the U.S government maintained the idea of racial hierarchy and white supremacy through law. This was exemplified in 1867 when the U.S v Cruikshank case led to an acceptance of violence and deprivation of rights against newly freed slaves. While barely existing, the citizenship rights and equal protections of the law were being deprived by the very justice system that was supposed to be protecting them. Congress created the Enforcement Acts in order to make way for legal authority to enforce the constitutional rights of African Americans and when the acts were reviewed, they were deemed unconstitutional due to the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment provisions only applied when states were taking away those rights but not when an individual was violating the rights of another.
While the era mentioned above has been referred to as the “reconstruction era”, no proper systematic reformation was ever truly conducted. The oppressive nature of our governance has not vanished, but rather, it has been consistent in different forms. The American legal and socioeconomic order was heavily built on racism and it was never reconstructed to tend to the diversity of this country. Rather, the federal constitutions, along with the constitutions of our states, have merely been molded through policy, leaving the origins of the system as is and only “adapting” to our diverse society. Despite the implementations of the Civil Rights Act and other legislation alike, the American system has never adequately addressed or reformed the systematic inequalities in which it has built its foundations. Because of this, the oppression of our black and brown communities remain consistent via the criminal justice, education, and healthcare systems and range from racial profiling to racial disparities in sentencing, arrests, education attainment, healthcare access, etc. The structural racism we witness within our society today is heavily dependent on the institutional oppression that has long existed throughout the nation’s history. Without acknowledging that fact, and the fact that the oppression and injustice we witness today is institutional and stems from the construction of this country, the success of justice and equality will remain hindered.
In its foundation entirely, the creation of the United States set the precedent for what these communities have endured for so long. How has the United States maintained these oppressive systems? Why are black men and women unjustly killed at such disproportionate rates? As complex as these questions may seem, the answer is not so complicated itself; we have been fighting a system that was never built for racial equality and justice - one not built for black and brown people in general. In the foundations of this nation, equality and justice were never the goal as it was built at the expense of our Black, Indigenous, all communities of color and the equality and justice they deserve. One cannot fix a system that was never built for them without dismantling and rebuilding it in its entirety. In this case, it is very evident that this nation was built by the white man, for the white man. As Bryan Stevenson has said “I still believe in the rule of law, I just have come to recognize that we’re not going to achieve the justice that we need, the equality we seek, if we stay in the courts alone. If people with power are unwilling to get proximate, they won’t do uncomfortable things.” In order for equality to be reached, and for justice to be served, we must dismantle the very system which is oppressing us. We, along with our allies, must become comfortable with the uncomfortable. In order to dismantle oppression and reach the success of equality and justice for all, our ideas of development and reform must shift. It must be acknowledged that the root of inequality stems from a single source; the original structure of the United States. The success of development and growth lies in the hands of structural and systematic change.
Angela Davis said “Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome. Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change.”
This has never been more true than it is today. In the last two weeks alone, justice has begun to be served in many ways. Organizations have been forced to reflect on the systemic racism they may carry within their policies; new laws have been passed holding police forces accountable; corrupt leaders have been exposed; knowledge has been dispersed to the masses; statues of confederate and racist leaders have been taken down; and the most beautiful thing of all, the people and the oppressed have regained their voices and taken back their power. A new found revolution for change has begun. And that is what has helped me gain a new found hope in this world and the resiliency and resistance that stems from these tragic events. - but one must not allow this hope to linger and turn into blind optimism, for there is much work left to be done. And that work begins with us, as a collective, as communities binding as one to combat injustice in a way never before done. We mustn’t allow our bonds of resistance to dwindle down, or the goal of the white man to divide us to succeed - for this work requires the binding of all.
How can we carry on the fight?
To be silent is to be on the side of the oppressor.
Educate Yourself: There’s much to unlearn and learn. Stray away from basing your knowledge and stances from the masses of social media. If you see something on there that sounds right to you, be sure to back up the idea with your own research. The truth is that we can never know it all, no matter how much we’d like to believe we do. Much of our knowledge is taught to us through conversations these days, to be comfortable in the fact that we have gone out of our way to retrieve and carry the right information is to be empowered.
Let's take back our power: If you have the privilege to - VOTE. VOTE. VOTE and RUN. While abolition requires dismantling these systems, voting has proven to make an impact. Nothing good can come from relieving our powers and privileges to the oppressors. The more black, brown and indigenous people we can get into these spaces, the better. And don’t forget to hold your elected officials accountable, they work for you so; call them, email them, testify on legislation and have your voice be heard. And if you’re compelled to have your own ideas be established as law, pitch your them to legislators who have carried similar legislation.
Hold yourself and others accountable:
- Decolonize your own mindset. We were taught history in a way that holds the oppressed responsible and not the other way around, and that’s not necessarily our fault. But through this process, we may have carried on certain language that we shouldn’t be using. Pinpoint what it may be and educate yourself on it. And if you’re called out on it, take it as a source of grace and change it - it’s never too late to change your ways.
- Check your friends, families, colleagues and organizations. Talk about anti-blackness and use your knowledge to shift generational mentalities towards anti-racism (some of our friends and families don’t even know they carry the sentiment or use racist language, check them!)
- Again, speak up no matter how uncomfortable it may be. And this goes for EVERYONE: silence is a form of siding with the oppressor.
Petitions to sign:
· Andile Mchunu (Bobo) - change.org
· Chrystul Kizer - change.org 2
· Free Siyanda - change.org
· Abolish Prison Labor
· Hands Up Act - change.org
· Willie Simmons - change.org
· Life Sentence For Police Brutality
[TIMES Cover by David Von Drehle & Photograph by Devin Allen]