Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., protested our country’s counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. King passionately decried the bombings and civilian deaths, the destruction of families and villages, and the herding of the population into “concentration camps.” King denounced our imperialist arrogance and urged “a radical revolution of values.” From the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City, King declared: “These are revolutionary times.” Indeed they were. And if anything, they have become even more so today.
Today the United States continues to govern through counterinsurgency warfare. It is no longer aimed at communists, but this time at Muslims and other persons of color. It is not only in the theater of war, but this time also outside conventional war zones. And it is not only abroad, but this time at home as well. With drone strikes and indefinite detention, total information awareness, and hypermilitarized policing on our streets, the United States today governs others and its own citizens through a generalized counterinsurgency warfare paradigm.
Which is why we would do well, as Brandon Terry urges, to reread King’s work with a generous but critical eye—and not just King, but Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, and Audre Lorde, as well as Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, Mohandas Gandhi, Michel Foucault, and other critical thinkers. Rather than canonize any one of them—or, for that matter, spend our time defrocking them—we should, as Terry counsels, study their texts and practices of resistance in order to challenge the injustices that surround us today.
King recognized the dual fronts of injustice—abroad and at home—and actively protested both: the inhuman disregard for the Vietnamese women, men, and children sacrificed to U.S. interests and also the intolerable inequalities at home, such that, disproportionately, the men who sacrificed themselves abroad did so in the name of liberties “which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Terry similarly recognizes the dual fronts today: the indiscriminate “unilateral assassination orders” issued by past and present presidents, the militarized policing against Black Lives Matter protesters, and the massive incarceration of people of color. Terry wants to draw on those who, like King, rose up against injustice and oppression to rethink our present more critically. And in so doing, he productively identifies three areas of King’s mature thought.
First, on the question of race, Terry builds on King by identifying “new features of our racial order.” He negotiates a careful path between the liberal search for intentional discrimination and the pessimistic resignation in front of structural racism. Indeed, I would argue, it is crucial to explore how racial, ethnic, and religious differences are being reconstructed today to reshape our political imagination—specifically, to create a new category of “internal enemies” that must be understood through the lens of counterinsurgency warfare strategy. It began early, in the 1960s, with the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations and the violent repression of the Black Panthers, but it has now become generalized and pervasive in an unprecedented way.
The newest elements include the FBI’s recent designation of “Black Identity Extremist (BIE)” as a target of concern and surveillance. These efforts are transforming the way racial and ethnic differences are being constructed: today, the framework of the internal enemy is displacing that of master/slave, of second-class citizenship, of the ghetto, and of the prison. This has potentially drastic consequences since the counterinsurgency strategy is to eliminate internal enemies—not just to enslave or oppress.
Second, on the question of direct action and civil disobedience, King’s writings and practices are productive, as Terry suggests, especially in conversation with Gandhi’s more holistic notion of satyagraha, or insistence on the truth. Though it is crucial in this context not to reify situated practices, even King’s. Situated practices of revolt are precisely that, situated. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, may have achieved some success, however limited, under the Obama administration, but would face very different challenges under Trump’s presidency. Fanon’s call for violent insurrection may have been appropriate against a militarized colonial superpower, but would likely backfire in a liberal democracy—even a pseudo-liberal democracy overrun by corporate interests.
We are at all times en situation, as Jean-Paul Sartre emphasized. Modalities of revolt that are appropriate in certain contexts may not be in others. Along these lines, even the liberal legal strategies that Terry rightly regards with suspicion may at times be effective. In the first year of the Trump administration, civil rights litigation has been the only effective tool to slow down the Muslim ban, the transgender military ban, and the effort to withhold federal monies from sanctuary cities. Direct action did not match the impact of the attorneys general in Washington and Hawaii suing Trump in federal court. And as Alabama relentlessly seeks to execute a sixty-one-year-old terminally ill man who has languished on death row for thirty years, I still have more faith in a judicial stay than in mass mobilization or a gubernatorial reprieve. As Robin D. G. Kelley argues, there is virtue to a multiplicity of strategies and tactics. “Sometimes we confront power directly,” Kelley notes, “other times, we struggle to build power where we are—through collectives, mutual aid, community economic development, and the like.”
Third, Terry poses the question of ethical virtues in activism and social life. This inescapably raises deeply subjective matters. I personally tack toward the ethical—believing sincerely in the humanity of others and the fragility of life. I aspire to a justice that is forgiving and that does not define each and every one of us by our weakest acts. I seek to instantiate today the just society that I imagine for tomorrow.
Despite that, I resolutely respect others who rise up even when they deploy tactics I might not. King once declared, “Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits [their] convictions, but we must all protest.” Indeed we must, and in ways that allow each of us to remain true to ourselves. In this respect, I am inspired by Foucault who, after being accused of failing to condemn the Islamic uprising he witnessed in Iran in 1978, laid bare his own personal ethic: to be utterly respectful of those who have the courage to rise up against oppression, and to reserve his intransigence and condemnation for the power that reasserts itself against them.
In the end, I share Terry’s call to reread King, alongside other revolutionaries, with respect and a critical eye. That is precisely what we are doing in the public seminar “Uprising 13/13” at Columbia University, which brings together theorists, writers, practitioners, and the public in an effort to nourish our practices of resistance and our courage of conviction. Terry’s ambition is admirable: to inspire new ideas and modalities of revolt to help us, in his words, “shape a new world out of our [human] dissatisfaction with injustice.” Or, in King’s words, to bring about that “radical revolution of values.” I would only add: to get us beyond our new paradigm of governing through counterinsurgency warfare, abroad and at home.
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s print issue, Fifty Years Since MLK. Order your copy today.