By Max Wilbert
Anthropologist Stanley Diamond once wrote that “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” Empires and the elites that control them have, as Diamond notes, been repressing their opposition for thousands of years. At this point, they have turned suppression and violence into an art form. From blacklisting to blackmail, from false lawsuits to frame-ups, from jail to torture and murder, their methods are sometimes subtle, sometimes direct, but almost always effective.
In his book on U.S. government repression of communist, black power, feminist, and indigenous movements during the 1960’s and 70’s, Nelson Blackstock writes that “The total picture [revealed by declassified COINTELPRO documents] is of cool, calculating technicians, not crazed paranoids, going about the business of secretly combating people who are challenging the rule of the rich.” He concludes: “That’s the FBI’s job.”
History is littered with the corpses of those who spoke truth to power, organized, and fought back, and who proved themselves too dangerous to be allowed to live. But as Steinbeck reminded us, there is a “little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.” The struggle for justice is bigger than can be covered up by one corpse, or a thousand, or a million.
When Che Guevara was on the firing line in Bolivia, his last words were: “Shoot, coward. You’re only going to kill a man.” Fred Hampton, murdered by the police as he lay drugged in his bed at age 21, once said “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution.” And the Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara, on the eve of his betrayal and murder, said “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you can’t kill an idea.”
We are surrounded by ghosts. The ghosts of ancient forests, long ago cut down. The ghosts of verdant meadows plowed for fields and cities. The ghosts of bison, slain for their skins turned to leather belts and sent east to drive gears in factories. The ghosts of indigenous people. The ghosts of extinct species. And the ghosts of those who have fought back.
Those in power—the overlords of our neo-colonial world order—use violence because it is dreadfully effective. Their drone strikes are effective. Their special operations raids are effective. Their hundreds of billions of dollars spent on weapons of war are well spent. That is why they do it.
Thomas Friedman, that prototypical liberal justifier of imperialism once wrote in a rare moment of clarity, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglass [an arms manufacturer that has now merged with Boeing]. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.” He is right. Violence maintains modern industrial society.
Revolutionaries generally do not live long lives. Perhaps this is melodramatic to say. But then again, I have received death threats, and expect to receive more. The threats do not scare me. At least not yet. They will not silence me—but a bullet would. And that is well known to those behind the “hidden fist” of the market.
The real danger to revolutionaries is not simply repressive violence itself, but maybe even more so the fear that it creates.
In 1990, members of the Mohawk Nation began a protest camp among a pine forest at Kanesatake, west of Montreal, to oppose a “development” project that would have destroyed the forest. They began carrying weapons after racist vigilantes targeted them, and a standoff began when police were sent to evict them. After a firefight in which one policeman was killed, the Canadian military was called in, beginning a 78-day armed confrontation between 3700 professional soldiers and a small contingent of Mohawk warriors and families.
One Mohawk warrior explained the effect that their total commitment to land, nation, and mission had on the Canadian soldiers they faced. “They aren’t scared of us because we’re willing to take up arms,” he said, speaking to a journalist. “They’re scared of us because we’re willing to die.”
Courage is not the lack of fear, but the ability to continue despite fear. When we master our fears in this way, we have taken a vital first step towards defeating the repression. For every act of repression, our acts of defiance must be more fierce, more lasting, more total.
Violence is all around us. It is written on the tags of our clothing reading “Bangladesh” and “Vietnam.” It is engraved by child slaves and captured by “suicide nets” on the circuit boards of our cell phones and televisions. It is bone-deep in the stolen indigenous land we walk upon. It gushes forth into our gas tanks alongside ghosts of Ogoni and Falluja stillbirths.
Someday, that violence will catch up with all of us. The end may come fast or slow. A 9mm police bullet. The machete of an illegal logger. The slow death in a hospital bed. We are immersed in the violence every day, our lungs the shellfish of the atmospheric ocean, filtering out every carcinogen and toxin they can grasp and sequestering them deep in our soft bodies.
The question that faces each of us is “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” Like Mary Oliver, I’ve spent my fair share of hours reclining in meadows, watching grasshoppers crawl up long stems of grass—and I plan to continue this pastime until I die. Living life, experiencing ecstasy and grief and the full range of human feelings, is our birthright as living beings. But an ethical life today requires more.
When I die, I do not intend to have lived for nothing. As Lierre Keith has written, life is a combat discipline. Every day on this planet could be my last, and in the event of my demise, there will be more work to be done. I hope those who survive will bury my body in a beautiful place, mourn, laugh and tell stories of me, and remember that I lived for a belief and died for a principle. Then, I hope they will straighten up, take a deep breath, and get back to work.
Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. His essays have been published in Earth Island Journal, Counterpunch, and elsewhere. His first book, an essay collection called We Choose to Speak, was released in 2018.
Featured image by Max Wilbert