On Trayvon Martin, the Occupy Movement, and Radical Imaginations

At this moment I am reminded of something Vijay Prashad once said in regards to the Occupy Movement: "Let it breathe in all our grievances, and it will breathe out a radical imagination." I admire all the folks who are using this moment to spread the word in the real hope that it may lead to a nation that lives up to its promises. As students of history we are reminded that the work of the Dream is always "in progress," and that the other Dream, which explicitly excluded, can be made more perfect and inclusive with consciousness and effort.

I don't know what this moment in history will be called in the future. But it becomes clearer each day that we are in the midst of a great change, and perhaps on the verge of an even greater change. The nature of that change is yet unknown (though it seems everyone has an opinion on it). I think that's a good thing.

If our imagination's boundaries are limited only by what we can perceive as possible, let this moment be an opening of possibilities such that a true paradigm shift becomes possible. We have not yet reached the promised land, perhaps, because we have not yet begun to imagine it in its positive sense.

We know what's wrong with the world.

Trayvon Martin's death tells us that the civic practice of blatant racism is still alive in America, that the problem of the color line has yet to be resolved.  And from some of the comments on the stories posted about the Trayvon Martin case, we are reminded that the philosophies undergirding racism, of black pathology, of white fears of blacks in power (namely Barack Obama), are very alive as well.

From the Occupy movement, we are reminded that the United States--and thus the West, and thus, the World As We Know It--is still socially and politically dominated by the wealthy, whose influence through corporations and enterprise can be felt in every space of public life. While we can debate the extent to which wealth should be articulated as a crime, the Occupy movement also reminds us that capital concentrated amongst the few has been achieved and retained through far less ethically ambiguous means, including but certainly not limited to: slavery, debt peonage, union busting, nefarious economic practices (See: World Bank and IMF in pretty much any so-called Third World nation, see corporate-sponsored legislators who cut funds for education and sell prisons for profit), sweatshop labor, pitting the little people against one another, and through (my least favorite of all) the most sophisticated propaganda / distraction machine humanity has ever seen, the corporate-sponsored "mass media".

Before that, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks exposed what many had been saying for years--which is that the government of the United States says one thing in regard to foreign policy, and does another. What it says: We are Spreading Democracy. What it does: See the journals and correspondence of Christobal Colon, aka Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, et al, Manifest Destiny and so on--in a word, yes, "imperialism." I know, big shock there.

Indeed, all over the world, people young and old are rising up against racism, economic exploitation, genocide. They are demanding true democracy, and an end to totalitarian and oppressive regimes of all flavors, be they capitalist, socialist, "fundamentalist" or "liberal". If social networking platforms on the Internet are to be trusted, the young people of the second decade of the third millennium CE (or AD, if you please), are sending up a resounding "NO" to the old guard which justifies itself through methods that cause great suffering and death.

From the advances made in the 60s, I know this "NO" is complex, that its nature depends on the space from which it is uttered. A middle class white American anti-Kony "NO" differs from an Afro-Brazilian favella-dwelling anticapitalist "NO," which differs from the "NO" emerging from the spirit of a black mother in Tampa who fears for the life of her son, which differs from the "NO" emerging from the spirit of a mother in Syria who grieves over the loss of her whole family. And what about the "NO" of the villagers in Afghanistan who, after a decade of American occupation, now must somehow come to terms with the most senseless of massacres--17 men, women and children at the hands of a single US soldier? What about the "NO" I hear every day growing louder in Chicago for the boys and girls who die from gun violence every day in this city?

I would be remiss if I were to ignore the "NO" that comes up from more conservative spaces, that sees change in the name of the oppressed as fundamentally chaotic. Not all of this springs from elitist propaganda, bent on playing to the fears of the unwashed yet white masses whose anger against nonwhites acts as a buffer against class consciousness. There is a well-defendable logic to this fear, a logic whose human basis should not be ignored by those who wish for more progressive changes in the world. The complex, conservative "NO"s which come from all arenas, nations and races must be listened to, even at their most inhumane. Their atrocities must not be sanctioned, but their essential humanity must not be ignored, or else we all risk duplicating the philosophies which undergird their atrocities. Oppression is wrong, no matter who does it, no matter to whom it is done. As changes occur, we cannot allow this fact to slip our minds.

At this point, most people are aware of the grievances. Relatively few people publicly advocate slavery, oppression, genocide, racism. Yet they have been with us for as long as our memory goes. What is especially intriguing about the current moment is that more and more voices are rising up in concert against these practices, at a rate faster than ever before in human history. And the more voices that are added to the chorus, the more clear the complexity of our grievances becomes.

And now, back to Vijay Prashad, who foresaw that the accumulation of these grievances, that the interplay of a grievance from one space with a grievance from another, would give us clarity, and would initiate the processes that would bring about a "radical imagination." I think of this quote a lot these days, as public opinion swings like a palm tree in a Florida hurricane. I think about the fear of chaos that arises whenever real change is possible. I think about those who have died for the possibility of change, for the acceptance of the inalienable right to imagination.

I am reminded of that moment at the mall on Washington, when Dr. King told a nation of his Dream. And how radical a Dream it was. How antithetical to some of the foundations upon which many built their identities. We have yet to see that Promised Land. But that it was promised, must mean that at least in the mind of the Almighty, in the minds of those who believe, it exists. If it is possible, it exists. If we can imagine it, we can make it. As the grievances mount, let us not forget to also articulate the topography of that Promised Land.

At this moment I am grateful to everyone who, in the name of a better world, shares the story of Trayvon Martin, who puts marker to poster board and takes to the streets, who debates with their fellow citizen over the meanings of race in America and in the world, who raises a question that sparks a conversation around the water cooler. I admire those of us who slept on park benches, who took beatings from police officers, who screamed until their throats were sore about the atrocities being committed in our name, who have the nerve to believe that our collective unnatural capacity for harm is matched or even transcended by our power to heal. Love to those who gather in the name of the fallen, who pray for the weary and wretched, who love those who call them enemies.

We don't have to agree on everything. But we should listen to each other's grievances. We should share knowledge when we can. We should reckon with the humanity in each other. We are in this together. Let us reason together. It is audacious, but there must be something better than the apocalypse scenario so many people are advocating for now. Let us imagine that world, so that we may make it.