Thursday, 20 December 2007

Respect goes West: Mikes letter from America #2

Earlier this month, I attended my first demonstration in the USA. 200 of us braved the snow to protest about a recent incident where a series of hangmen’s nooses were discovered in a classroom on the Central Michigan University (CMU) campus. The hanging of nooses, the tool of the lynch-mob, is of course, widely recognised as an act of racist provocation. The demonstration called for the local public prosecutor to take action against the culprit, and more generally for the issue of racism to be taken more seriously by the authorities. To date, over a month after the incident, nobody has yet been charged.

Going on a demonstration in the US, especially among African-American civil rights activists, was rather different from anything I’ve experienced in the UK. The feeder march from the university to the prosecutor’s office began with everyone joining hands in a prayer, reflecting the involvement of church groups in coordinating the rally. Several speakers were church ministers, and they brought an evangelical fervour to the event. The presence of US flags on the march was also unexpected. In part, the use of the flag on demonstrations reflects the timidity of American liberals who fear being branded unpatriotic, but it also has a progressive element in the context of an anti-racist march, sending out the message that ‘we are Americans too’, and demand equal treatment. This is why the flag was so prominent on the marches of the Civil Rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Unlike the Union Jack, the US flag was once a banner of revolution, and was carried into battle by black and white soldiers fighting to end slavery in the Civil War. Significantly, one of the flags was flown upside down, signalling protest or distress. Two of the speakers were military veterans, who made the point that they had not served their country in order to be treated as second-class citizens.

The appearances of nooses at CMU is the latest of a series of such incidents across the country since the Jena incident in Louisiana, when African American students who attempted to desegregate their school premises by sitting under a so-called ‘White Tree’ where greeted with a set of nooses hanging from its branches. It would be easy to dismiss this as a throw-back to the days of segregation in the conservative south, except that some of the ‘copycat’ incidents that have followed occurred in the ‘liberal’ north. In one incident, a noose was found on the door of an African-American professor at Columbia University, an Ivy-League school on New York. Michigan, like New York, is a ‘blue’ (that is, mainly Democrat) state, with a large minority population, and a tradition of anti-racism stretching back to the ‘Underground Railroad’, the secret network that smuggled escaped slaves to Canada, but this has not stopped a recent rise in racism.

The right (which, sadly, appears to include the CMU student newspaper) has responded by trying to minimise the significance of the noose incident. The perpetrator confessed (anonymously) on-line, claiming it was a ‘prank’, and that he had not known the significance of nooses as a racist symbol. This is hard to believe, given the publicity surrounding the Jena and Columbia incidents, but if true, it reflects the extent to which the assault on ‘political correctness’ has succeeded. The dominant consensus in much of the media and popular culture today is that racism isn’t really a problem anymore, and that anti-racists are hypersensitive about ‘jokes’. The reality, of course is very different: African-Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white compatriots, and if they are fortunate enough to find work, are paid on average about two-thirds the salaries of whites. However, the backlash helped the passage in last year’s elections of Proposal 2, a measure which bans the state of Michigan from promoting affirmative action programs that assist women and minorities. Needless to say, Proposal 2’s supporters did not say how they would end the affirmative action system that promotes idiot white male sons of ex-presidents to the highest job in the land.

Against his background, it was good news to hear about Oxford anti-fascists’ successful demonstration that stopped Nick Griffin and David Irving form speaking at the Oxford Union. And it’s even better news to hear o split sin the BNP. This just shows the effect that mass opposition to racists can have, and it’s a lesson and inspiration to us fighting racism in the USA.