“If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” –James Madison
“We recognize, however dimly, that greater efficiency, ease, and security may come at a substantial price in freedom, that law and order can be a doublethink version of oppression, that individual liberties surrendered, for whatever good reason, are freedoms lost.” –Walter Cronkite
On the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. you will search in vain for any significant crowds in our capitol celebrating the event. The National Mall is deserted today, in contrast to the masses of protesters gathered there in August 1963. The streets are not clogged with marchers carrying signs, and the air does not ring with We Shall Overcome.
A protest on the magnitude of the one in 1963 would be impossible today. What we once thought of as our democracy has declined to the point that real activism in the streets is inconceivable without
police military violence to suppress it. In 1963 the District of Columbia police were terrified of what might happen with so many protesters on their way from all corners of the nation, but it happened more or less without incident.
While the mainstream news media celebrates the march’s anniversary with special programs and remembrances of Dr. King’s words, the fundamental purpose of the protest against black oppression in America has long since been obscured and co-opted by the popular culture. It is now used to keep us in line rather than to inspire.
If faced with a protest of that size today a red terror alert would be issued and martial law declared, legitimizing the president to order troops, tanks, and air support to seal off the city. We would be told that foreign and domestic terrorists were planning events that would threaten public safety. We would be regaled on the news with a couple of investigations, plots would be hinted at but never revealed for “security reasons.” Great lip service would be paid to the right of everyone to protest, even while regrettably they must be prevented from doing so for their own protection.
Citizens today are unable to hold accountable their government officials or the corporations that own them without being subject to savage reprisals. The fact is that the attacks on September 11, 2001 succeeded beyond Osama Bin Laden’s wildest dreams. Americans were driven so far into paranoia by that tragedy that they willingly gave up their liberties for the myth of security. The result is we live day-to-day under the scrutiny of a spy state deluded by the notion that safety can be had by clandestinely sifting through people’s private lives for key words and shared associations.
There was a time in 1950s America when any change to the white oppression of people of color was impossible to imagine. But Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and others dreamed that things could be different. And they took to the streets to make their dreams become reality. Today it seems impossible to imagine a change in the status quo of our oppressive, corporate-owned, dangerously obsessed surveillance state. But someone out there is dreaming right this moment of a different world. For the sake of all of us, may your dream come true.