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Can revolution be etched in stone?

United States

As a veteran of the civil rights movement, numerous anti-war movements and an associate of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis knows a thing or two about campaigning. When her political views were used as an excuse to sack her from her teaching post, campaigning got her reinstated. When she was imprisoned, campaigning got her acquitted. And despite considerable efforts to smear her over the years, today she is one of the US’s most respected radical scholars. In her new book, The Meaning of Freedom, she offers a word of advice to younger activists: ‘Our victories attained by freedom movements are never etched in stone.’

Boston's Freedom TrailPeople could be forgiven for thinking this was otherwise. Despite the US government’s longstanding tendency to repress existing radical social movements, publicly funded monuments to revolutionary struggles of the past are literally etched into stone in many city centres. In Boston, a red line in the pavement – dubbed the ‘Freedom Trail’ – leads around statues of some of the protagonists of the American Revolution and the places where the story was played out. For a fee you can even board a replica boat and re-enact the most famous direct action in US history by dumping pretend tea chests (on ropes) into Boston Harbor.

But there is something unsettling about the way it is presented. The Freedom Trail ends in a naval dockyard – the final resting place of the USS Constitution – next to a museum which charts the beginnings of US military interventions abroad to ‘defend commerce’ and ‘protect American freedoms’. The words ‘Revolutionary Boston’ are even accompanied by a registered service mark.1

For many social justice activists, revolution is a participatory, on-going process, not a period in history, and certainly not a tradable commodity. For many working-class people, women, native Americans and people of colour, the Revolution was no revolution at all; and despite progress on some fronts, those struggles live on today. How different would the effect of the Freedom Trail be if it encouraged people to think about who today’s élites are and what kind of struggle might be necessary to continue the cause of freedom against them?

Another story frequently recounted in the nation’s official autobiography is the struggle for African American freedom, perhaps symbolized most iconically by a giant monument to Martin Luther King Jr in Washington DC, flanked by uplifting (if non-specific) quotes. Again though, imagine: how different would the effect be if the designers instead chose to inscribe those writings where King speaks of his ‘anti-capitalistic’ outlook? What would people think if there were a reminder that, according to a Senate investigation, the FBI tried to ‘break’ him? And I wonder if, in the context of the recent ‘Occupy DC’ camp, people draw the parallels with the ‘Poor People’s Encampment’ King established in the same public park?

Often at book talks I quote US trade unionist Nicholas Klein, who – before Gandhi adapted and immortalized the words – declared ‘first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they attack and want to burn you, then they build monuments to you’. Some people have responded by asking whether the erection of monuments represents the final act of co-optation by the establishment.

Histories as presented by official museums tend to present freedom struggles as evidence that the US is a place where liberties have been consistently extended since independence, somehow as a characteristic of the country itself. To some extent social movements have used this to their advantage. In their introduction to a new book on the Occupy movement – Dreaming in Public – the editors critique US movements of the 20th century and earlier for implying through their rhetoric that ‘a ‘true’ America was lurking within the real one, if only we could recover it’.

Although they argue that Occupy tentatively steps away from this tendency, it seems to be there for the progressive movement more broadly. For example, according to an activist quoted in Pittsburgh’s independent New People newspaper, ‘there are two Americas: the America of Popular Democracy and the America of Empire’; continuing, ‘I fight to extend the former and to reduce the latter’.

But however activists define themselves, and however much the radicalism is played down by governments, such monuments, if accompanied by reading the words of the activists themselves, could still strengthen movements for the redistribution of power. As US historian and social activist Howard Zinn put it: ‘Human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacri?ce, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magni?cently, this gives us the energy to act.’

Seeing the gains won by such ‘magnificent behaviour’ come under threat provides another incentive to campaign. And on this, the words of Angela Davis are a further call to action: ‘What we often perceive under one set of historical circumstances as glorious triumphs of mass struggle can later ricochet against us if we do not continually reconfigure the terrain of our struggle. The struggle must go on’.

1 Similar to a registered trademark

Photo: Boston Freedom Trail by Joel Reyes under a CC License
Slideshow photo: Out of the Mountain of Despair A Stone of hope by krossbow under a CC license.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, 2011. He recently completed a speaking tour of the US.

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