I learned this from Angela Davis.
I wish I could say we are great friends but I'm afraid we've never met.
Recently Angela Davis, the famous 60's black activist, came to Hamilton to deliver a speech: "150 Years Later: Abolition in the 21st Century." I was very excited. And the city of Hamilton, true to working class form, came out to see her with bells on! Beautiful old LIUNA Station was packed; I'm sure there were more than 1000 people there. Davis spoke eloquently -- and with visible passion -- about the modern prison system in the United States, which she thinks has perpetuated slavery. The facts, unfortunately, support her thesis. The U.S. has more prisoners, (and prisons) than any other country in the world. And this is a new phenomenom. In 1980 there were only 160 people in prison for every 100,000 in the USA; today there are 760 per 100,000. A disproportionate majority of those serving time in U.S. prison are there for possession of illegal drugs, and approximately 60% of the prison population is black.
Davis's discussion of the relationship between racism and the prison system was fascinating. But what interested me most was her deconstruction of the myths surrounding Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Davis told us our contemporary image of the Martin Luther King doesn't match the real man. Apparently, near the end of his life, King stressed that the issue of civil rights was not the ultimate answer in the battle against racism. Davis quoted one of King's last speeches in which the great man spoke of challenging the inequities of the capitalist system. The jist of King's message -- and the heart of Davis's ideas -- is that in order to rid our culture of racism we must make fundamental changes in the structure of society. Davis was pleased to see Barack Obama elected president, but she took the opportunity on March 27 in Hamilton to remind us that Obama is the black president of a racist and imperialist nation.
So what does all this have to do with us queers?
Well I would remind you of one thing. The same day that all those nice gays and lesbians were celebrating the possibility gay marriage might become legal on the steps of the Supreme Court, Governor Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota was drafting legislation specifically calculated to offer a constitutional challenge to Roe vs. Wade. In other words, while queers were celebrating civil rights as the ultimate answer to homophobia, Governor Dalrymple was proving to us all that, unfortunately, you can't legislate away hate and prejudice, no matter how many laws you pass. It's one thing to make it illegal to discriminate against blacks or queers, its quite another to eliminate racism and homophobia from the human heart.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against civil rights. But the danger is that we become so hypnotized by civil rights that we forget that new laws are ultimately a rather tiny, embryonic step for man, not the giant step we need for all mankind. It really saddens me to see those conservative gays and lesbians rallying on the steps of the Supreme Court with their cute little kids, looking like they are on their way to PTA meetings. They too closely resemble the middle-of-the-road gay civil rights crusaders from the 60’s – the ones who ousted the Communist founder of the Mattachine Society (Harry Hay) in order to establish a new, more acceptable face of gay activism (focused on the law). Hippies and the summer of love intervened -- and we all got very sexy and sexual for awhile -- but no. We’re back to civil rights again. Civil rights are far easier for people to accept than the radical alternatives that might make real change possible.
Those who support undiluted capitalism oppose affirmative action, or any government intervention that would help to mitigate racism and homophobia. And when – as is happening today – certain people of colour and some queers gain access to middle class jobs -- the only value they learn from capitalism is greed. The capitalist system teaches us happiness can only be found by families who work hard, bring home the bacon, and then consume endlessly, with mindless dedication.
Remember -- Rosa Parks wasn't just a nice little lady who was too tired to stand at the back of the bus. She was a radical socialist activist. And in the later part of her life she enjoyed chilling out with the likes of -- The Black Panthers!
It's not just about civil rights. It's about resisting an unfair economic system and seeking to change our deepest, most fundamental notions that too often remain unchallenged.
And I sure know.
Does anybody else know?