Ignoring Empire: King, Gandhi, and the 99% Spring

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Common Dreams

Ignoring Empire: King, Gandhi, and the 99% Spring

‘99% Spring’ has been declared. ‘This spring, we will … rise up in the tradition of our forefathers and foremothers. We will not be complicit with the suffering in our families for another year. We will prepare ourselves for sustained non-violent direct action.’ The organizers of this effort list the many economic injustices and perils faced by America today and propose to train 100,000 activists ‘to join together in the work of reclaiming our country’ with methods of nonviolent direct action ‘We will take non-violent action in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi to forge a new destiny one block, one neighborhood, one city, one state at a time.’

99% Spring will address such crucial issues as shrinking pension funds, skyrocketing student loans, foreclosures, budget cuts to schools, a poisoned environment, diminished collective bargaining rights, all ‘a result of rampant greed—the deliberate manipulation of our democracy and our economy by a tiny minority in the 1%, by those who amass ever more wealth and power at our expense.’ Some other critical matters, however, will not be addressed by 99% Spring.

The organizers of 99% Spring do not find room in their list of our country’s problems to include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, spiraling spending military spending, new nuclear weapons built, or the role of militarism and colonialism on the economy and the toll it exacts on America’s working people in general. They pledge that they ‘will not be complicit with the suffering in our families,’ but do not express the same refusal to be complicit in the suffering of families in Afghanistan, Colombia, Palestine or the many other nations blighted, threatened and murdered by the same forces that 99% Spring decries here at home. Not to give the war as much as footnote is a startling omission, especially as recent polls show that a growing majority of Americans are against it. This omission may define 99% Spring more clearly than the proclamations surrounding it.

I know that neglecting to mention militarism might be justified to the satisfaction of many as a deliberate strategic choice. Of course, no one can do everything and no one can address every injustice. I accept, too, that in building a coalition that includes some labor unions that promote armaments contracts and organizations like MoveOn,org that regularly support candidates for office with decidedly pro-war agendas, silence on the threat of the military industrial congressional complex is required for the sake of unity. However prudent it may seem, though, this omission raises serious questions.

What is all the more disconcerting is that 99% Spring claims the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Neither of these teachers held that justice at home was possible in a country engaged in murder and thievery abroad.

Gandhi’s life work was to free his country from British colonialism and he warned his English opponents and friends that they would never enjoy peace and prosperity at home while holding and tormenting India and their other foreign colonies. Is it conceivable that in this country today a movement can take action in Gandhi’s spirit without using the most decisive and clear language and action against US imperialism?

In 1967, Dr. King was asked why he, a civil rights leader, criticized the Vietnam War, a move that threatened to polarize the civil rights movement. 'Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war,' King said from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York. He had come to realize that it was not possible to condemn the violence and oppression suffered by America's poor without 'first speaking clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today- my own government.'

If it was true in 1967, as Dr. King noted then, that 'America can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of (people) the world over,’ is it possible that 45 bloody years later, America can destroy the deepest hopes of the people of Afghanistan and yet be saved? Has something fundamental changed, so that unlike in Dr. King’s time, a movement can now be concerned for the integrity and life of America and yet ignore the present war?

Along with the spirits of Gandhi and King, 99% Spring invokes the example of Occupy Wall Street, a movement in which in many ways the words and work of these two prophets do resonate. In their ‘Declaration of Occupation of New York City,’ adopted by General Assemblies around the world, OWS lists these among the crimes of corporatism: ‘They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas. They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.’

'The time comes when silence is betrayal,' and Dr. King confessed that he was ‘moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.’ Condemning the destruction of Vietnam and the wasting of fortunes and lives for an arms race in the face of poverty at home and abroad was not a strategic choice he could make or not, nor is it for us. Dr. King recognized that he and others would find that ‘the calling to speak is often a calling of agony.’ Despite this, he insisted, ‘we must speak.’ No one, Dr. King said, was exempt from the responsibility to protest the war in Vietnam. No one today is exempt from the responsibility to protest the war in Afghanistan- our credibility in all matters and our humanity depend upon this. Silence is betrayal.

I hope and pray that 99% Spring is more than successful in its goals, which are certainly worthy ones, even if limited. I fear, though, that its silence on the root of the problem, the military industrial congressional complex, will prove fatal to its ends. A movement that engages in ‘non-violent action in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi to forge a new destiny’ is desperately needed in America in 2012. That movement will necessarily be one that demands economic justice at home and that clearly and unequivocally condemns the war in Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, militarism and imperialism in general. 99% Spring, unfortunately, is not that movement.

Brian Terrell

Brian Terrell (terrellcpm@yahoo.com) lives and works at the Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, IA.

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