America’s complicated relationship with uprising
On Sept. 17, the president announced the establishment of the “1776 commission.” “It will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th of our founding,” said the president. This commission acts as a painfully obvious response to the recent reckoning of the nation’s 400-year racial problem, especially the large-scale protests spurred by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy.” The President excoriated anarchy in defense of a nation founded by anarchy.
American Independence is one of the most celebrated events in American culture. Every July 4th, the country celebrates the revolution and founding fathers. We hold the ideas of freedom and rebellion as sacrament, we put the faces of these revolutionaries in our wallet; in Hamilton, one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time, the presence of revolution looms so large, it’s practically a character itself. We rarely if ever examine how the Boston Tea Party intentionally destroyed property as a form of protest against the British government’s tea tax and its stranglehold on the market. The Stamp Act riots, often regarded as lighting the fire of revolution, involved the Sons of Liberty ransacking and attacking the home and office of the commissioner of a tax they perceived as oppressive. When we do acknowledge these events, at least in my experience in K-12 schooling, these acts are exalted. “Look at what brilliant God-like founders did into order in the name of independence and freedom.”
Once the United States established itself as a nation, rebellions and revolutions were cast aside. The Whiskey Rebellion, where whiskey farmers in Pennsylvania rebelled against the excise tax on their product, occurred in the infancy of our nation. It came to a point that the rebels set fire to the home of the tax collector. In response, the force of the 13,000 strong United States militia marched into Pennsylvania. End result:150 men tried for treason, very little death, and the fortification of the strength of this new upstart nation and it’s the ability to squash dissent and rebellion.
Almost 40 years later, a different type of rebellion occurred. Nat Turner, a slave preacher, assembled a group of slaves and led a deadly, bloody rebellion throughout Southampton County, Virginia. Of course, it would be irresponsible not to include the fact that the rebels killed 60 white people, including 10 children. So, it’s appropriate that this rebellion ended with brutal force and the execution of Nat Turner. However, the further response of the rebellion made the impossible possible: somehow making slavery worse. The slaveholding south installed stricter laws such as prohibiting slaves from meeting in private, making an already oppressive practice and regime even more oppressive. A century later, a different approach to black liberation occurred.
The decades long Civil Rights Movement asked for one simple thing: can we, as black people, be treated as humans? Police beatings, house bombings, church bombings and most importantly, FBI interference answered the question. If one looks for an example of FBI surveillance look no further than the apostle of love himself, Martin Luther King Jr. King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s form of rebellion involved sit-ins and marches, not murder or destruction. The only thing they attempted to destroy: white supremacy. And when met with the force of police, King always advocated for his supporters to not strike back or resort to violence. Yet in the eyes of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, he was a threat. According to a 1975 US Senate committee, operations within the FBI conducted efforts to discredit Martin Luther King, going so far as to send an anonymous letter to King to expose King’s adultery and that they ambiguously claim that “there is only one thing left for [him] to do.” But mind you, the FBI did not only focus on King.
Although they didn’t share in King’s nonviolent resistance, The Black Panther Party did share one goal: black liberation. What they also shared: the FBI’s attention. FBI Director J.Edgar Hover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” To Hoover, it meant he was justified in squashing this “insurrection” at whatever cost. COINTELPRO, an FBI program created to counteract domestic groups practically infected the party like a germ in the body. They would send informants within the party to sow conflict. According to some agents, the FBI arranged for the Panthers to get guns and then later be arrested for possessing them during raids. Ultimately. one of the most violent of the FBI’s involvement was the assassination of Black Panther Illinois Chapter chairmen Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Turner, King and the Panthers asked for the same thing: black people being treated like people.
In 2020, we see this type of dichotomy in the tale of two movements: Black Lives Matter and anti-maskers. One movement demands for the end of state destruction of black bodies. The other rebels against public safety advice of wearing masks to protect against a deadly virus. One movement has, according to a report by US Crisis Monitor, 93 percent of its protest as peaceful. The other’s very existence endangers lives. One protest has been denounced and condemned by the president while the other has shared sentiments of the president by saying “I want people to have a certain freedom.” Why is a protest about the sanctity of black bodies vilified while protests about not covering one’s face are not? Why is the black revolution vilified, but the American Revolution romanticized?
It seems that revolutions and rebellions in this country are generally accepted when it comes to whiteness, but revolutions for dark-skinned lives are regarded as a threat to the country. James Baldwin put it best when he said: “If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds. When a black man says the same thing word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one. And everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” I must admit, it’s not surprising that a country founded on “all men are created equal,” but only for white men, would have a contradictory relationship with revolution.
Kevin Gyasi-Frempah is a second-year writing major who wasn’t impressed by Hamilton. They can be reached at [email protected].