In January of 1898, French writer Émile Zola penned an open letter to the French government, entitled J’accuse (I accuse). The letter accused the French establishment of crimes against the Republic, suppressing evidence and permitting the unlawful life imprisonment of an army officer, Alfred Dreyfus for the high-crime of espionage. A crime Officer Dreyfus did not commit. The French government was complicit in a horrible injustice against an innocent man. The Dreyfus Affair shook the conscience of a nation, and is remembered as a quintessential example of the self-serving nature of power – how governments must constantly be held to account.
Today, more so than ever, the centers of power in the United States must be held to account. Not for a single instance of injustice, but a far more pernicious institutionalized state violence. J’accuse awoke the indifferent masses of France. In a similar manner, a moment of consciousness has arrived in the United States. In the short span of two weeks, two police officers have failed to be indicted by grand juries for the killing of unarmed African-American men: Michael Brown of Ferguson Missouri, shot dead by Officer Daren Wilson, and Eric Garner of Staten Island New York, who died as a result of a chokehold placed on him by Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Indeed, the only person to be indicted in the death of Eric Garner, was the man who filmed the incident.
The subsequent uproar is not only about American citizens being killed with impunity by police officers; however tragic these instances are. The nationwide protests are about a much greater imperative. The utter perversity of an economic system which impoverishes its citizens while lavishing wealth on a narrow plutocracy. A system which chronically under-funds its public institutions and social safety nets, while millions of Americans are left in forgotten and derelict communities. A system which criminalizes meaningful dissent and employs the full military and policing might of the state against the individual. A system which privileges the arbitrary imposition of penalties on ordinary citizens, while profiting grossly from their incarceration. This is the constant state of life in the United States for millions of Americans, who are desperate for relief, desperate to be heard, desperate for something better.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, ‘Who does not know the truth is simply a fool, yet who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a criminal’. The facts are indubitable . The Department of Defense 1033 program has transferred upwards of 4.3 billion dollars in military equipment to municipal police since 1997. Who are these localities preparing to go to war with? The answer inexorably is with the American people themselves. As the growing socio-economic divides which permeate our societies become ever more pronounced, the agencies of power have prepared to keep the status quo at any price. To protect a system which purveys massive violence on the global stage through endless wars, and reaps billions in profits for corporations which continue to exploit and befoul the planet.
There will be those who misread any criticism of power centers as naïve, as both counterproductive and deeply destabilizing. They will deplore the anger on the streets and yearn for a quiet complacency. This complacency, however, is wrong. There is a responsibility that comes with knowledge. The French philosopher Jean Guéhenno explained, ‘The greatest betrayal of intelligence is finding justifications for the way the world is’. What we know to be true today does not have to be true tomorrow, it is incumbent upon every member of a democratic society to fight for their fellows, to join hand in hand and demand redress. Indeed, demand that the world we live in may not be marked by outlandish disparities in wealth and opportunity, demand that our security forces do not arrest, degrade, and humiliate us. The panoply of human history tells us that change is possible.
And what does this change look like. Join with people in your communities, employ peaceful tactics of civil disobedience, draw attention to these critical issues, organize. One need only look at the photographs from Ferguson Missouri to understand the nature of this imperative. Police officers in full military fatigue marching down suburban streets. Journalists being systematically arrested and tear gassed. Men and women ordered off the streets in a manner reminiscent of East Germany, not the liberal democracy that is the United States. The edifice of state power is explicitly designed to intimidate and stifle dissent. Our institutions pillory those who stand-up and speak out. Despite this, or perhaps more so because of this, young people must carry the banner forth for a better tomorrow. We must defend civil liberties and enlightenment values against the encroachment of state-corporate power. We must defend the lives of our fellow citizens regardless of race, class, or creed.
I’ll end this call for change as it began – J’accuse (I accuse). I accuse the US Government of crimes against its own people: of the steady encroachment of our liberties, of the casual killing of our young men and women of colour, of excessive force and violence perpetrated against peaceful dissenters, of an economic system which enriches a minority, while real wages for ordinary people stagnate. Those in comfortable positions of power, blinded to the realities of life in America, are betting on our apathy. Let us prove them wrong.