In the early weeks of the pandemic, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy brilliantly laid out the stakes of one of the coronavirus’s reverberating impacts. According to Roy, COVID-19 profoundly disrupted everyone’s modes of living under global capitalism. “It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a halt,” she wrote. Roy then powerfully asserted that the pandemic was — among other things — “a portal,” or a moment for us to “temporarily, perhaps … make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it [capitalism] or look for a better engine.”
The rebellions against state violence the following summer, prompted by the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others, also contributed to the sense that we were on the precipice of a reckoning. Millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest against structural racism in a multitude of ways — marching, direct action, property destruction, and the tearing down of monuments to racism and colonialism.
Meanwhile, however, as scholars such as Kathleen Belew, Hakeem Jefferson and Victor Ray have noted, many white Americans used the moment to resist any movement toward racial and social justice, through both white power groups and ad hoc counterrevolutionary tactics. This massive backlash manifested in the January 6 attack on the Capitol and in the passage of what historian Timothy Snyder has called new “memory laws” prohibiting the teaching of histories of race and racism, as well as sexuality and gender. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has exacerbated economic inequality as the 400 richest Americans increased their wealth by $4.5 trillion even as inflation cuts into working Americans’ incomes. The U.S. remains devoted to militarism. Antiwar activists Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies found that the U.S. dropped an average of 46 bombs a day over the last two decades. Our fixation on bombing manifested itself in an extremely cynical manner toward the end of the disastrous pullout from Afghanistan when the military lied about killing 10 civilians in a drone strike.
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Like today’s racial justice organizers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also wrestled with a national and international reckoning in the last years of his life by questioning the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism and militarism at the base of U.S. society. In his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon delivered in April 1967, King issued a damning condemnation of the war in Vietnam and U.S. militarism. “They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home,” King said, “and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” In an interview 10 days before his assassination, King told Rabbi Everett Gendler, “[W]e’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation.” He continued, “I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on.”
In his last Sunday sermon, King articulated an analysis of the reckoning in what might serve as the closest equivalent to Roy’s analysis of the pandemic as a portal. In “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” King told the audience that they were living through a revolutionary moment, in fact, a “triple revolution” — a revolution in computer technology, “a revolution in weaponry” and “a human rights revolution.” After laying out the stakes, King implored Americans to respond to the moment by developing a global perspective when dealing with poverty, racism, colonialism and war. Americans desperately needed to change their priorities. Ultimately, to do this, as King wrote a year before, Americans needed to undergo a “a radical revolution of values” if it hoped to defeat the giant triplets.
And how might Americans take advantage of this potentially revolutionary moment? For King, the answer lay in building a coalition of poor people and workers and engaging in mass civil disobedience. He told the crowd who watched his last Sunday sermon that, “We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign.” And King planned for this coalition to disrupt the normal operations of government until Congress took proper action to eradicate poverty. He speculated in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, “If 100,000 Negroes march in a major city to a strategic location, they will make municipal operations difficult to conduct; they will exceed the capacity of even the most reckless local government to use force against them; and they will repeat this action daily if necessary.” If the triple revolution was a portal for King, the poor people’s campaign would burst through it.
In today’s world, as in King’s, it’s clear that the Democratic Party is not the vehicle for our pursuit “for a better engine.” Right now, under a Biden presidency, we have broken records in the number of coronavirus infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) recent confusing guidelines for work and schooling seem to be more concerned with preventing further disruptions to the economy. The federal government has pulled the plug on the range of economic benefits keeping people out of poverty, such as rent relief, expanded unemployment benefits and the monthly enhanced child tax credit payments. Unequal vaccine distribution on the part of the U.S., global corporations and the rest of the West leaves much of the world at risk of emerging variants. Yet, we continue to live in a moment where the U.S. Congress can pass giant defense budgets in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion.
Continuing his crusade against militarism in the weeks before his assassination in 1968, King argued for redistributing resources away from militarism to ending poverty and promoting jobs, health care, education and housing. King also issued a warning about the direction of the U.S. that aptly describes our existential crises of entrenched economic inequality, a deadly pandemic and climate change. He told members of Local 1199 National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees on March 10, 1968, “Something is wrong with the ship of state. It is not moving toward new and more secure shores, but toward old destructive rocks.”
However, the work of grassroots movements continues in our time, as it did in King’s: Since the beginning of the pandemic, hundreds of activists in cities like Portland, Oregon, and universities such as the University of Southern California have rallied around the demand “Care Not Cops” in an effort to reorient priorities away from criminalization, policing and incarceration, and toward an ethic of care. This ethic of care applies not only to fighting against racist state violence, but also to developing COVID-19 mutual aid efforts. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) continued the trend of workers exercising leverage to secure better COVID-19 protections to improve working and learning conditions for educators and students. Although antiwar organizing and protests have not garnered as much attention, organizations like Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition continue leading antiwar protests against U.S. bombing in the Middle East. Indigenous people and antiwar activists struck a win against U.S. militarism in Hawaii when they successfully forced the Navy to drain the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility at Pearl Harbor where its jet fuel leak in the water supply sickened thousands. O’ahu-based Water Protectors led protests and engaged in community organizing, while established groups like the Sierra Club amplified activists’ calls to shut down the facility.
Despite his recognition that the U.S. might pass through its revolutionary situation into a darker moment, King maintained Americans had a choice. Despite white resistance to civil rights, the Vietnam War and the federal government’s unwillingness to escalate the war against poverty, King told striking Black sanitation workers the night before his assassination, “[W]e, as a people will get to the promised land.”
The path to the promised land for King was through meeting the revolutionary moment by undergoing a revolution of values and a reevaluation of society. And while King did not minimize voting rights, he did not see the ballot box as the only strategy for restructuring a society. He strove to convince Americans, especially all his allies in the civil rights movement, of the importance of building a multiracial coalition of poor and working people and engaging in massive civil disobedience.
We are in a similar moment. Only mass action — combined with the slow work of grassroots power-building — can break through the crisis. To paraphrase Roy and King, we must constantly put our “bodies and souls in motion” in our search for a “better engine,” or a sustainable, and good, life. We cannot confront the portal meekly; we must burst through it.