“… I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting…” -Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
One hundred and sixty years ago, freed slave, abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass delivered a speech called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It sharply brought out the hypocrisy of America by highlighting how Americans had revolted against a monarch for independence but yet maintained the institution of slavery. And, in a sense, the address makes Douglass one of the first Americans to “occupy” the Fourth of July when he delivered this address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society.
He delivered this searing condemnation of American slavery:
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is American Slavery…
…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…
The attention Douglass brought to American delusions in the 1850s can be compared to Occupiers, who are likely to bring attention to delusions of freedom and liberty today. Certainly, Americans have every right to celebrate. It is doubtful that the majority of people involved in the Occupy movement would question this statement made by Douglass in his speech:
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
Yet, the capitalist society has wholly failed to serve the human needs of many of the people who have occupied. They, like the Americans who rose up to fight for independence, feel—to lift a few words from Douglass’ speech—harshly and unjustly treated and seek redress.
How can anyone deny when they look at this list of grievances that the system has failed the masses?
As listed in the Declaration of Occupation: homes have been stolen through an illegal foreclosure process, taxpayer bailouts have been granted with impunity, inequality and discrimination based on age, skin color, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation have been perpetuated in the workplace, the food supply has been poisoned by negligence and agribusiness monopolization and torture, confinement and the cruel treatment of animals has become profitable.
The right of workers to negotiate for better pay has been undermined, students have been saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt that is tantamount to having a mortgage, labor has been significantly outsourced leaving Americans without jobs, equal protection under the law has become virtually nonexistent, millions of dollars have been spent by private insurance companies so people’s health care is not covered, privacy has been wholly lost in a culture of surveillance, the police have been militarized in such a way that inevitably inhibits freedoms and liberties from being practiced in an unrestrained manner in the public sphere, the president now claims the authority to execute American citizens abroad without judicial process, the military now enjoys the authority to detain people indefinitely without charge, economic policies have perpetuated in ways that guarantee catastrophic failures and politicians have been bought off by corporations and the richest of the 1%.
Alternative forms of energy have been blocked so the oil industry can maintain a stranglehold on the American economy; oil spills and environmental accidents have been covered up; the media have decided to look the other way and not report on corrupt and malfeasance so they can maintain access to the halls of power; policies of colonialism have been perpetuated against foreign countries; torture and murder of civilians has occurred overseas; and as the country experiences record-breaking heat, capitalists subdue and undermine any effort to meaningfully address climate change.
There should be no question why Occupiers are out demonstrating today. They, like Frederick Douglass and abolitionists, have a duty and moral obligation to call attention to the policies of inhumanity. They have a responsibility to wake people up and highlight the hypocrisy of Americans, who profess to live in a free society yet suffer from so many constraints and repression. They have a burden to awaken the consciences of people so that not only people are able to live free and with dignity but people are able to live freely without fearing Earth will be turned into a beast that savages humans, who have no regard or respect for the planet.
Occupiers have taken the bold step of making it permissible and not taboo to question capitalism. Capitalism breeds inequality. The American state responds to this inequality by advancing politics that pit factions of people against each other and by enacting policies of repression that control populations. And, so, it is extremely necessary for there to be a movement out their indicting the whole American project.