Was John Brown Right?

On the morning of his execution by the State of Virginia on December 2, 1859, John Brown penned these words:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done


Not many years passed before the Civil War unleashed such a purge of blood as this nation had not seen before and has not, since. But the crimes of which he spoke were not washed away. Far from it. The legacy of slavery, almost the slavery itself, remain alive. In the words of William Faulkner, this past is not dead; it is not even past. The new Legacy Museum with its national lynching memorial only covers up to 1950. It needs an expansive annex to include the state-sponsored and -enabled murders of the past seventy years. George Floyd’s name is only among the most recent links in a long chain of innocent men, women, and children martyred by domestic terrorism.

As so many times in the past — think the aftermath of the murders of Martin Luther King, Rodney King, Malcolm X, Michael Brown — American cities exploded and burned. Irrepressible flareups of anger filled the streets with shouting voices and raised, unarmed hands. As always, the mainstream of peaceful protest rubbed against a narrow margin of vandalism, arson, and looting, and the media, following an old established playbook, blew up that sideshow into the main event. Next in the playbook comes the curfew and more police brutality, and the National Guard, and the cities turn into military fronts, where the establishment makes war on the people.

Shut the f**k up, America, about Hong Kong. Shut up about Venezuela. Shut up about Iran, and Russia, and every other country that doesn’t meet your imaginary standards of democracy. Hong Kong, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, all of them are right here. The moral high ground has long worn a veil of hypocrisy. Now once again, the veil is shredded. We stand here naked, bloody, covered in excrement, leering with sanctimony, every word a lie, every act a crime, everything we touch, corrupt and dead.

This is not about Donald Trump. He stands apart not for his resort to military repression — they all did that — but for his personal cowardice, hiding in the bunker as peaceful demonstrators massed outside the White House. Are there any voices with moral courage among the clubs of billionaires that own and run the country? If there are leaders of the establishment who can not only speak the necessary words, but begin the required actions to demolish the monstrous mausoleum of injustice that weighs on the country, they are silent.

Hope then shifts to the Democrats. What a pathetic lot. Joe Biden, who owes his status as presumptive nominee to the Black voters of South Carolina, has no vision beyond restoring normalcy. What does normalcy mean? Normalcy for many decades has meant not only police brutality, but job discrimination, housing discrimination, medical discrimination, school discrimination — racism in every dimension and every moment of life from conception to burial. Biden is likely to ride a tide of national disgust with Trump into office. But little, if anything, will improve, and many things will get worse.

This is a time when the whole edifice of government and the economic structure have lost their legitimacy. It’s not only that we have a climate where cops and white vigilantes can murder black people with impunity. It’s a life where authorities can order people to avoid the virus, but don’t provide them with masks, gloves, shields, or gowns to carry out that directive. It’s a system where employers can order millions of people not to come to work, but don’t provide them with the money to survive. They order other people to show up and work extra hours, but don’t provide them with protective equipment on the job, or with sick leave. In the greatest health crisis this country has known in a century, millions of people have lost even basic health care coverage, and the medical system is in tatters. The powers on high have pushed tens of millions of Americans off a cliff. And you wonder why there are mass demonstrations, and why there was also looting, despair, open defiance of authority all across the country. Government only endures with the consent of the governed, and this consent has worn out.

This is one of those historical moments when America desperately needs a revolution. Among the wealthy classes some see “mobs with pitchforks” on the horizon, and have prepped their getaways, hideouts, safe rooms, and arsenals. On the other side we hear revolutionary voices calling for the overthrow of the imperialist ruling class and the establishment of socialism, but these phrases remain abstract.

Bernie, Elizabeth, and the “squad” have the right idea. Concrete proposals: free and universal health care, free and universal education, for starters. But that doesn’t go nearly far enough. The math doesn’t work: how to pay for those things, if everything else stays the same? And what exactly will begin to level the bleeding gaps of income and wealth between the classes and the races?

We need to think pragmatically. There is enormous, unimaginable wealth, but it’s in the hands of a tiny club of private owners. It’s time for a capital levy, followed by a steeply progressive wealth tax, levied at the corporate sources. Both are reasonably well understood economic measures with historic precedents, capable of generating the revenue needed for social reconstruction.

A massive campaign to rebuild America offers the staircase for elevating communities of color to parity. Begin with free schools for hundreds of thousands of men and women of color to learn the construction business: carpentry, plumbing, electrical, iron, sheet metal, computer aided design, architecture, civil engineering, project management, AI and everything else required for a huge popular DIY mobilization to clean up, upgrade, renovate, restore, rebuild and/or build new housing, new industry, and the infrastructure to support it, in America’s depressed urban and rural communities. The reward, besides a living wage, will be equity. Workers will become owners of the rebuilt or newbuilt apartments and houses. The wealth gap between the races will narrow and vanish in one generation.

To solve the education gap, there needs to be a huge make-up investment in black colleges and universities until their endowments equal or surpass those of the big ivies, and in black high schools and lower grades right through to preschool until their facilities, assets, and staffing equal or surpass those of the best white suburban schools. When that is done, in two generations the attainment gaps in education, and segregation itself, will fade into history.

But to make any of those measures work, there has to be a thorough purge and turnover of our machineries of government. Too many police departments are saturated with Klan ideology; they must be re–educated or weeded out. Too many “public servants” are whores for wealthy donors. The revolving door between public office and private profit has turned the headquarters of many, perhaps all government agencies into cesspools of corruption and conspiracy against the public interest. Nothing useful can be achieved with this kind of governmental apparatus. It must be cleansed and reoriented, and in some cases smashed entirely and rebuilt from scratch. A thorough purge of the state machinery at all levels is the precondition of progress in every other area.

If this vision, broad as it is, can be made real by deep democratic reforms, then John Brown’s gallows prophecy will prove to be hollow. But if all that comes out of the current upheavals is a return to “normalcy,” then God help America. This normalcy is a knee on the neck not only of African-Americans, but of all Americans whose dream is to breathe free. If “normalcy” prevails, we will come out of the emergency more divided, with greater wealth in fewer hands, with greater poverty and sickness, with less security and protection from governmental abuse, and in an atmosphere more saturated with deadly poisons of the body and the mind than before.

Demographics is the foundation of hope for America. We are becoming more diverse, more free thinking, tolerant, clear eyed, primed for change, angry, and willing to take action. The current power surge of rich racist old white men is a rear guard action. It will not last. The only question is whether a brighter, cleaner, fairer, authentic, and secure America can be won through methods that are mainly peaceful, or whether we must reach the future in the manner foretold by the great emancipator John Brown.

John Brown’s Christmas raid into Missouri 1858, freeing 11 slaves. Unsigned painting, 1940, Kansas State Capitol Building.

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