Fighting the System: Rhetoric or Theatrics

This week in class, one of the questions that came up and stuck with me was the question, “How do you fight the system?” What leads people to make certain choices and react in certain ways? As we’ve explored the texts, we have seen how MLK’s largest approach was centered in faith and rhetoric. He sought to share his messages in a passionate way, but with keeping the peace so that he could reason and share his message with other people in a calm and conversational manner. He knew what he wanted to say and found ways to peacefully but strongly state the change that he wanted to see in the country. He urged the avoidance of violence because he thought that this would never end in a positively impactful way.

After reading Huey P. Newton’s experiences and thoughts in Revolutionary Suicide, his approach was far different from MLK’s. He saw that his job was to give all of himself and to put himself in any and all positions, including dangerous ones, to fight for his mission. He saw violence and theatrics as a way to combat the racial injustices of his time and to make his message heard. Although these were tactics of his, it is also important to note that violence was not his only avenue for change. Newton also focused on social programs and creating a clear mission statement for the Black Panther Party to show that they had a mission and not just violent intentions. However, when discussing his view on Revolutionary Suicide, he explains how he saw that he must give all of himself and be a martyr for the cause, not stopping at anything, even violence, for the movement he was trying to push forward.

In contrasting these two viewpoints, each man took a different approach to changing and fighting the system. Peace and disruption. Rhetoric and theatrics. Which one was the better strategy? It might be easiest to automatically say that the peaceful option was the better one, but is this really the case? Did the theatrics encourage more people to join the movement, thus making the movement stronger? Did it seem to some that the peaceful rhetoric would get their message nowhere? In thinking of this, I think that both movements had their strengths and their weaknesses. Maybe it was important to dramatize the situation so that more people would buy in. Maybe to really get their points across and express themselves fully, people had to go to the extreme and perform outrageous acts. I’m still trying to figure out which approach I consider better, so right now I do not have an answer to the question, but I think it is interesting to think about. Is it important to keep your friends close and your enemies closer through rhetoric, or do you want to make them so frustrated that you physically or psychologically force them into change?

Ideology: Foundation or Justification?

When reading the American texts the past few weeks, one observation stood out to me: the authors had vastly different ideologies, yet their organization’s struggles played out with more or less the same actions and concrete goals. If ideology were the foundation of actions, should different ideologies not naturally call for different courses of action? On the other hand, since the actions were similar across the board, I wonder if the ideologies were just used to justify the actions that were already bound to happen.

Both MLK’s peaceful protests and Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party had similar goals and methods to achieve Civil Rights for underprivileged African Americans. For example, they both shared the common goals of black economic power, adequate living conditions, and an end to police brutality, which are found abundantly in MLK’s speeches and Newton’s Ten Points. In terms of action, both groups focused largely on peaceful demonstrations to raise awareness, such as MLK’s marches in various cities and the Black Panthers’ armed patrolling of black neighborhoods. However, MLK and Newton had complete different, if not opposing ideologies. MLK heavily preached traditional Christian values such as love and forgiveness, while Newton drew on a variety of ideas from his readings, such as Nietzsche’s existentialism, and completely rejected Christianity as enslaving. It is interesting that both groups sought alliance from groups with different ideologies than their own. MLK welcomed non-Christians to join the movement. Newton maintained correspondence with and borrowed ideas from Muslim activists, such as Malcolm X. It seems like their primary goal was to gain momentum for their movement and concrete actions, while their personal beliefs were used to justify their actions and label their movements in public events.

A similar phenomenon is seen in the Chicago Eight and the Catonsville Nine. The demonstrations led by the Chicago Eight and the burning of draft files by the Catonsville Nine were both protesting the Vietnam War. Both groups also used the trial as an opportunity to gain international attention and display political beliefs. An important difference in their actions, though, is that the Eight disregarded courtroom order in protest, while the Nine obeyed it to show their high moral standards. However, the purpose behind these different actions was still to expose the corrupt system. Despite similar pursuits, both had very different ideologies. It could be argued that the Eight did not have a unified ideology, as they were leaders of different organizations with different backgrounds. The Nine, however, were devoutly Catholic and used Jesus’ actions to justify their actions. Yet interestingly both groups deduced from their different ideologies that the appropriate action was to display anti-war sentiments publicly and use the trial for that purpose as well. Therefore, it seems to me that it was only the war that prompted their actions and they simply manipulated their ideologies to make an argument for their actions.

On a related note, after reading the several works mentioned above, what were the most relatable for me were not ideological arguments, such as how human dignity derives from God or how the will to power can make people good or evil, but instead their concrete struggles filled with vivid details. Therefore, I think what motivated people to join the movements would mostly be the anger and frustration of the system, and different ideologies were really only used to justify what must be done instead of guide the course of action.

The Mind of a Revolutionary

This week we read Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide. The excerpt from the film, A Huey P. Newton story was the most fascinating part of this section to me. The actor did an incredible job portraying Huey and there was an incredible artistic and emotional weight that came through each shot, sometimes with historical footage superimposed behind Huey as he spoke. I’m not sure what the rest of the film was about, but this alone was incredibly powerful and gave me the most insight as to who he might have been. The book’s anecdotes and rhetoric was compelling and interesting, but to see an interpretation of Huey’s mind brought to life through film was incredible. It got me thinking about the mind of a revolutionary. Throughout the class, we’ve seen into the minds of revolutionaries through different means. This book in particular though showcased the thought process, motivations, and upbringing of an impactful rebel. Huey P. Newton believed in all power to the people, and unlike how the media attempted to depict him, he was not uneducated or hellbent on violence. In the part of the film we saw, Huey reflects on his life as a revolutionary and describes the thought process behind the 10 point program. His gesturing, mannerisms, and way of speech reveal to us how passionate he was about bringing justice to black America. They also reveal how his many years of perseverance through oppression and revolution have affected him. His energy is nervous and he often stutters or stumbles for words. When we look at the way that 1968-69 has affected other protagonists and figures throughout our readings, it’s no surprise that Huey would be troubled in this way. However, it’s possible that Huey was already somewhat erratic and this led to him being such a powerful revolutionary. Maybe it takes a revolutionary mind in order to lead people into cutting edge progressivism. His ideas and programs for the youth, homeless, and jobless showcase the way in which he cared about his community, and yet his group was targeted by the government and media. Though Huey is a standout, there are many similarities between him and other leaders that we’ve read of. The particular aspect that speaks the most to me is their desperation.

Defining Revolutionary Suicide

What is Revolutionary Suicide? In our continued discussion of the late 1960s, this term holds much significance. One way to define this phrase is going against the current system, even though you know that it may seriously harm or even kill you. This is something that can be observed in many of the leaders from this time. People knew that going against the government and attempting to spark change carried a risk that there would be people who did not agree with them and would try to suppress their voice. The important thing to note is that this threat did not deter some of the great leaders from this time, such as Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, Robert Kennedy, and countless other people who lost their life. They were willing to give everything that they had, including their life, for the cause. 

Another way to look at this term of revolutionary suicide is that revolution itself was causing society to self-destruct. In this interpretation, it is not the person whose life is at risk, but rather society in general. The leaders of this time were not happy with what was happening and they wanted to create systematic change in whatever way they could. If this meant that they had to go after society by challenging the government, police, and other high standing people, then they were willing to do that. They wanted society to change, whether that was through reform or completely changing everything. 

Either definition of revolutionary suicide reflects the desperate nature from the radicals of this time. They were willing to do whatever it took to create change, whether that meant giving up their own life or challenging how our entire society works. I think it shows that desperate times lead to drastic measures. The drastic measures are remembered as historic events, such as the events that we saw during this short time. 

The Promise for Change

In Huey Newton’s detailed accounts of how the police persistently attacked him, it is undeniable the racism ingrained into the system. A system that allows policemen to harass a man who has just been shot in his own hospital room as he tries to recover. A country, as seen in the Voices of the Chicago Eight, doesn’t give a defendant in court the ability to have a lawyer to defend him. A country, as seen in The Trial of Catonsville Nine, that chooses to fight a war in Vietnam against an ideology (communism) and uses napalm to attack citizens, instead of using those resources to eradicate racism and poverty domestically. I am fortunate enough to never have been a victim of systemic oppression, but MLK and Newton were not that lucky. Unlike Newton’s dad, who played along with the system, and worked as many jobs as he needed to pay his debts, Newton did everything against the system. He protested as early as elementary school where he refused to learn how to read. This is when I wonder, how MLK and Newton had hope for a better future. When life seems to be turned against African-Americans, they both fought for change. They believed in the promise of a better life.

This theme of hope is very big in tying together all the texts we’ve read in this course. At times where I do not think I would have been able to have hope myself, the characters in all texts, use hope as a vehicle to get through the tough times. In Mojo and MIckybo, we see the young boys use their imagination to hope for a different and better life. In Pentecost, we see Marian move to a house on the border of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, a house and location that would seem unpleasant to most, shows how far she is willing to go for a better life. Marian and Ruth are the embodiments of hope, as their characters learn to live with their grief throughout the play. These characters all seem to be holding onto a promise for change, which is getting through the tough times.

The Struggle of Morality

One of the connections I’ve seen between a number of the texts we’ve read is the struggle of balancing one’s value of their morals versus finding “safety” by allowing whatever injustices they see the system causing continue. This is most evident in the trials of the Chicago Eight and Catonsville Nine. The relative safety one would find by not participating in any sort of protest is different in each of the readings we’ve done, but nonetheless these people made the decision that their morals were more valuable to them then allowing the system to continue in its discriminatory ways which affected many, not just them.

The Catonsville Nine set out to make a statement in their acts. I think this is evident in the fact that they decided to be tried together despite playing vastly different roles in the act of defiance. What was important to them was making the statement that they felt the Vietnam War and the killings that came with it was wrong. They could have easily done nothing, let the war rage on, and not have faced the jail time they did. Morally, they felt the need to make a statement. The same can be said about Huey Newton. The “safety” he would have found is different than that of the Catonsville Nine, but he still chose to be outspoken against the system and make himself a known target. Had he not said anything he wouldn’t have seen his name on thousands of pages of FBI reports. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been noticed by the police officer who pulled him over, leading to him being hospitalized and beat. He could’ve accepted the injustices handed to him by the system, but chose to speak out for the ultimate safety of himself and others. I’ve personally found these acts and the other acts we’ve read about whether it be the Chicago Eight or MLK’s works to be courageous.

Movie Betrayal

This past week, I had the opportunity to watch the movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix. Although I felt it was a well-made movie, I was disappointed with some of the character portrayals, and I think some of my disappointment has to do with the themes of the book. The book, at its essence, is I think about the Court and government’s poor treatment of the defendants, particularly Bobby Seale. Although I feel the movie gets it right in reference to Judge Hoffman, I felt that the movie fell short with respect to lead prosecutor Richard Schultz. In the movie, Schultz at times gives off an air of sympathy towards the defendants, especially in contrast to the feelings of DA Foran. However, the book really displays no such feelings. At one point in the book, Hayden outlines a short speech Seale gave to his supporters in the courtroom before Judge Hoffman had arrived. In Hayden’s account, much of what he said was fairly harmless. He speaks about their right to self-defense from the marshals in the courtroom, but he asks his followers to leave if they are asked to leave, to not resist their authority. However, as Hayden puts it, Schultz claimed when Judge Hoffman entered that “minutes before this court was in session, the defendant Seale was addressing his followers back there about an attack by them on this court.” This does not portray a sympathetic response to the defendants. However, it is understandable to question the credence of an account my Hayden, he has some reason to have bias after all. Yet, even Schultz himself has recently made clear his feelings of the defendants. In fact, in a piece written by the Chicago Tribune about the movie that was released this past Monday the 19th, the article states that Schultz “thought that he was falsely portrayed as somehow embarrassed by the whole prosecution when in reality, ‘it was precisely the opposite.’”. I know that the movie is made this way for Hollywood to be exciting and intriguing; however, I feel that it lets the government off the hook. Just as we have read about in the Revolutionary Suicide and other texts, the government and their prosecutors most definitely played a role in the poor treatment of these defendants and other civil rights activists of this time.  

Public Perception’s Influence

When discussing Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide,” the theme of “to be born black is to be born dead” was mentioned. Newton was quite blunt about how this notion affected the way he lived his life as this can be seen in the title of his memoir, “Revolutionary Suicide.” But this idea played a large role in the bold and somewhat daring connotation that is associated with Newton’s name. Whether it was growing up short-changing cashiers, his reckless love life or even starting a breakfast program for students, there has always been a mysticism that surrounds Newton and the Panthers.

This plays into the idea of public perception influencing the way groups and people fit into society. I didn’t know much much about the Panthers before this class. All I knew about them was that they portrayed themselves (or were portrayed) as a somewhat militant group who organized groups to defend themselves. However, the clip of the play we watched and his memoir helped me fully understand the aims of the Panthers. It’s shocking that a group could be so greatly misrepresented, even years after its disbanding.

This notion of public perception’s influence on the conflict we’ve studied is extremely relevant to the conflict in Ireland. It’s amazing that two groups of people who are from denominations of the same religion can have such a bloody and tense history. Mojo Mickybo and Pentecost are two examples of Catholics and Protestants having decent relationships with each other – at least for a little bit. When people from the different sects or races in the literature we’ve studied view each other as individuals they’re able to have a shot at getting along. But when they view each other as part of a group or party public perception entirely affects how they get along. When we read Huey’s memoir it humanizes him. But to the police he was just a part of a group that they viewed as a threat to national security. When Mojo and Mickybo start to understand the conflict that consumes their lives, they can no longer be friends. But when the characters in Pentecost are secluded from the conflict in Lily’s old house, they’re able to reconcile.

The Media

At a time in society where media platforms (and our choice of settings) have the ability to censor and filter the information that individuals receive, I felt myself growing curious as to what the media would have been like in the late 60s and early 70s. Watching the video clip of Huey Newton in class, I noticed that, although he said otherwise, he was an entertainer. And, I assume, in those days you had to be entertaining in order to fit the TV culture at the time, and to get people’s attention. Today, with platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, an individual with a voice can record himself or herself proclaiming his or her message about anything — freedoms, politics, religions, or ideologies. That is both the beauty and the downfall of technological innovations: how can we digest all of this material and decide if we agree with, disagree with, resonate with, or abhor any and every sentence?

Would people have resonated with Huey Newton as a leader of a movement today? Would his messages be censored by Facebook or Twitter? I would argue that Huey Newton and his method of speech — the fast-talking, repetitive, sarcastic and ironic speech calling out the leaders of today and the issues that are prevalent in the country would get people to watch, listen, and try to understand. If that truly is the case, would the media publish the ten-point program and showcase Huey as a hero of 2020?

Frustration and Patience

When reflecting on the themes found throughout all of the literature we have read up until this week, what really resonated with me was the frustration expressed by the authors. This frustration was not directed at any one thing, and seemed to be an overall feeling of the era. This struck a chord with me, as I feel the sentiment is very similar to the overall feeling of our time right now. I think that this feeling might have come from the absurd amount of time it actually takes to make substantive change. Sometimes it can feel that one is fighting so hard and continuing to push forward but not moving at all. Although many of the people we have read about are famous for making change, it took so long for them to accomplish each thing that the frustration is completely understandable. While reading the platform of the Black Panther Party, the language used and the principles being fought for are almost identical to what the movement is trying to accomplish today. Overall, it seems as though our society has progressed by leaps and bounds since the time all of this literature was written; but, looking more closely, one would think that in the 50 or so years that have passed since the Civil Rights movement that our country would have fixed a lot more than they have.

The same applies to the Irish texts we have seen. The Catholics and Protestants have been at odds since before 1916, and as Eamonn McCann shared with us, not too much has changed, aside from being less violent today. Justice for Bloody Sunday has never been served, and the communities of Northern Ireland are still pretty segregated.

I think that the overall frustration found in all of the texts is the same thing we see today– people do not want to wait centuries for progress. It seems that the system is extremely hard to change, which results in a general feeling of helplessness, frustration, and anger directed at nothing specific.