Re-shelve civil rights, we need something stronger today

If the Trump era means an outed celebration and recommendation of colonial atrocity, what we need is anti-colonialism.

Trump Rally reuters
Supporters cheer as US President Donald Trump rallies in Manchester, New Hampshire US on August 15, 2019 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

An American presidential candidate once told a story about an American general, John J Pershing, in the Philippineswho supposedly dipped bullets in pig blood and summarily executed 49 Muslim prisoners. He left one prisoner alive so he could carry the news of what he had seen to the rest of the enemy forces. The American army had no further problems with “radical Islamic terrorism” after that, the presidential candidate claimed to raucous applause.

Historians have since debunked the story of that particular massacre. That an American presidential candidate would use a false story to whip up a racist audience is not itself new. The public celebration of colonial atrocities and the suggestion of committing war crimes as an effective anti-terrorism measure by a presidential candidate, however, was – or at least in the era post the Geneva Conventions. This was in South Carolina in 2016. By this time the candidate had already called for a total and complete shutdown on all Muslims coming to the United States. He had also floated a Muslim registry where Muslims would be surveilled and have special ID cards stating their religion – a policy reminiscent of those enacted against the Jewish population in Nazi Germany, the passbooks in apartheid South Africa and the “kipande” in Kenya Colony. For this candidate, colonial violence was not to be erased, or minimised as part of a “flawed” history, or deflected while tarring other national pasts. Colonial violence was to be celebrated and was recommended.

In his Discourse on Colonialism, Aime Cesaire wrote that Europe could not forgive Hitler, not for the crimes against “Man”, but for “the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the [colonies].” Europe countenanced Nazism, he says, as long as it was inflicted on black and brown populations.

Today, while Nazism metastasises over American institutions and public space with the speed of a Proud Boy flash mob, many academics and media personalities can only watch slack-jawed. They fling over-worn, feckless phrases at the monster: “This is unprecedented”, “racially charged”, “not normal”, yet it does not die. It is a monster that has lived atop slumped-over black bodies near grinning police officers in a time before cellphone cameras. It lives in “leave the past in the past” and “can’t we all just get along” brush-offs, and in the inabilities to speak not merely the names but even the numbers of those killed by supported troops. For many in the world, the monster is a neighbour. The monster is normal.

Trumpism is normal. There are norms to which it conforms – those of the settler-colony. When his administrators like Ken Cuccinelli and Trump speak of non-white foreigners they sound less like Lyndon B Johnson than they do Gottfried Feder or General von Trotha during the genocidal campaigns against the Herero and the Nama. You can almost hear a MAGA rally in Jan-Bart Gewald’s translation of the German general: “The Herero people must, however, leave the land. If the populace does not do this, I will force them with the [Cannon]. Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.” If this were today, the hardline European settlers in Namibia would be gathered into an audience, applauding the lines while donning their red caps. 

For those under the fists of American imperialism, colonial and settler-colonial violence is not a different era at all – it is a constant, lived reality. For indigenous peoples in US cities and reservations, blacks and Latinx in US prisons and probationary surveillance and people in villages under American occupation, or occupation by US proxy or clients, settler-colonial violence is home. Yet, until now, these were always kept quiet, and the attacks were presented as shadowy or rendered invisible to the consciousness of US society.

The Trumpian era, on the contrary, promises an end of hushed-up colonial hatred and settler-shaming. It is America’s parade of settler-colonialism. What is new is that the colony is no longer the secret gulag but the brand. The Trump administration understood – as do the European far-right and racially-marginalised peoples and immigrants the world over – that despite whatever camouflage the media and political classes attempt to hide them with, the Nazis have not gone anywhere. The silent majorities were always waiting for a chance to look up from their torture, discriminating, or trolling of non-whites for a charismatic (or, really, any forthright) leader. 

In the aftermath of colonial repression or massacres, even those outsourced to lone wolves, vigilantes or whatever the new names are for what colonial administrations used to call auxiliary forces – it has become traditional to talk about healing. Love, forgiveness and non-violent protests are immediately prescribed as genocidal violence’s only antidotes. Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks are trotted out – most excitedly by groups least threatened – and we are reminded that they are the models to be emulated. Still, in MLK’s day the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four girls, and it was enough to energise national protest. In ours, the Charleston church massacre killed nine, Pittsburgh synagogue 11, and no such groundswell was expected to emerge. The El Paso attack itself, whitewashed and spun as a “mental health issue”, is already beginning to recede from memory. Today, when white supremacists’ body count is beginning to rival pre-1940s levels what is required is not more protests, or, God-forbid, singing. The moment of re-foregrounded colonialism, of strident white nationalism’s state capture, requires a response that seeks inspiration from places other than Civil Rights history.

If we put a bookmark in our MLK and instead dusted off The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, we would, for one, be less dream-prone. For another, when pundits and presidential candidates speak of American values after an attack we would be reminded of the line: “In the colonial context the colonist only quits undermining the colonized once the latter have proclaimed loud and clear that white values reign supreme. In the period of decolonization the colonized masses thumb their noses at these very values, shower them with insults and vomit them up. Such an occurrence normally goes unseen because, during decolonisation, certain colonized intellectuals have established a dialogue with the bourgeoisie of the colonizing country.”

Considering American society, seriously, as a colonial situation, we might notice uneasy similarities between, say, the Congressional Black Caucasus and Native Advisory Boards or esteemed congressmen running to the defence of accused racists. If we are living in a time when hardline conservative settlers captured the state through the ballot, we might look at where this has happened elsewhere, say, the National Party’s capture of South Africa in 1948. We might skim the ANC’s responses to apartheid-era passbook laws and township raids when thinking about racial profiling during a raid on a chicken processing plant’s brown workers in Mississippi – not to mention Mau Mau. So much might be waiting once we loosen our “What Would MLK Do?” bracelets.

If the Trump era means an outed celebration, intensification and recommendation of colonial atrocity – real or imagined – we cannot be caught bringing placards to an extermination fight. We can return to MLK later. What the world needs now is anti-colonialism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.