This evening I had the privilege of attending a screening of Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” at Plainfield Public Library. The showing was put on by Councilwoman Rebecca Williams, who facilitated a discussion afterwards. While the movie came out 16 years ago, I had never seen it. “4 Little Girls” is a collection of interviews surrounding the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, almost 50 years ago to the day. With striking and sometimes graphic content, these civil rights martyrs are given the realness and humanhood that often evades victims, even to their most ardent sympathizers. This act of terror is put into the context of the struggle for Civil Rights in the Deep South in the early 1960s. As with all history that I read, or in this case watch, I tried to relate these past events to the situation that we now face.
Fittingly, we are also at the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The fall of the twin towers marks, in the psyche of many Americans, the beginning of having to live with the prospect of terrorism on a large scale. However, as proven by “4 Little Girls”, many Americans, black communities specifically, lived with the prospect of terror long before 9/11. This doesn’t only apply to times of movement, like the 60s, but to pre civil rights Jim Crow, to the Redemption that followed the Reconstruction, to the Black Codes, and, of course, to slavery. Therefore, in a historical context, to speak of the September 11th attacks as the beginning of terrorism on American soil is inherently dishonest.
During this film, I also thought back to Cornel West’s comments that I heard during the taping of part 2 of his interview with Black Agenda Television (see part one here – part two will be released soon). I’m paraphrasing, but on the subject of state repression, he pointed out that blacks have always seen the “fascist underside” of America, or something to that effect. NSA spying and data collection on all of us, indefinitely detention laws, mass incarceration, the unprecedented cruel treatment of whistleblowers, and corporate control of just about everything are all elements of quasi-fascist state repression of all Americans for the benefit of corporate interests. However, Americans working to wage a modern fight against these elements must understand that portions of the US population have lived under state repression that looked very much like fascism. Blacks in “4 Little Girls” surely lived under fascist-like conditions, as did Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, and Native Americans, amongst others. We must honor and link those struggles to our modern struggles. Anything less is disrespecting history, and alienating people, both the groups and the individuals, that already participated in those struggles.
This is all pretty obvious to me, but many activists don’t do it. I remember during the occupy movement, when all of those liberal activists were really pretending that they were doing something that was never done before. There wasn’t nearly the restpect for history of occupations in America that there should have been – I saw it first hand as I spent several days, and nights, at Zuccotti Park. It’s no coincidence that the Occupy Movement never gained the traction it should have amongst blacks, latinos, and other marginalized groups. In a stroke of irony, as a member of Occupy Harlem, I stumbled upon this New York Times article, from 1969, showing a Zuccotti Park-esque “Occupation” in Harlem (see attached PDF: HarlemOccupation).
The lesson is that, in America, when waging struggles, understand that many a struggle have been waged before. Pay homage to those struggles – and please, don’t engage in the “oppression Olympics” as they are often called, when one marginalized group claims superiority in the department of who had it the worst. Find common ground and create a broad movement.
But whatever you do, don’t ever think that it’s something new.