The assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters before the inauguration of Joe Biden has brought out the stark reality that, despite the rhetoric, some American lives matter more than others, says Baffour Ankomah.
Finally, Donald J. Trump has been put out to pasture. The “end of the error” came on 20 January when Joseph Robinette Biden Jnr was sworn in as the 46th US President.
But this was an inauguration like nothing else before it. In addition to the social distancing for those invited to the event and the total absence of a crowd due to Covid-19, some 21,000 national troops were deployed around the Capitol in Washington D.C. This was four times the total number of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – and could constitute the entire armed forces of many countries.
The reason for this unprecedented level of armed protection for the incoming President was because, as we can all recall, two weeks to the day (i.e., on 6 January), a mob of Trump’s supporters had committed a near-sacrilege by storming the Capitol with the intention of “capturing and assassinating elected officials in the United States government”, according to US Justice Department prosecutors in a court filing.
How was this possible? Laurel Wamsley of the National Public Radio (NPR), writing on 15 January, made the important point that: “Washington DC is known for its multitude of law enforcement agencies – a fact reflected in the agencies involved in security on 6 January.
“The Metropolitan Police Department has jurisdiction on city streets; the US Park Police on the Ellipse where Trump’s rally took place; the US Secret Service in the vicinity of the White House; and the US Capitol Police on the Capitol complex.
“How could security forces in the nation’s capital be so swiftly and completely overwhelmed by rioters who stated their plans openly on a range of social media sites? President Trump had even tweeted on 19 December: ‘Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!’”
Congressmen and women holed up fearing for their lives and in the end five people died. Imagine if that mob had been Black. What do you think would have happened?
But the Trump mob was White! So the law enforcement guns stayed down. Some policemen even narrated to the CNN how they pleaded for their lives when caught up by the mob in the Capitol’s alleyways and nooks, telling the rioters “we have kids, we have kids” to induce sympathy so the mob would not kill them. Just imagine the space and time the police officers would have allowed the mob if they had been Black.
The thought of it took me to Prof Kwesi Kwaa Prah’s 2019 book, Kromantsihene – Before and After Garvey. The book’s subtitle summarises its contents: Marcus Garvey and his Contemporaries, the ‘Back to Africa’ Movement, and the Contradictions of African Nationalism Today. We shall stay with Garvey.
With an eye on the contemporary world, Prof Prah, a Ghanaian don domiciled in South Africa and one of Africa’s most respected academics, writes: “It is now 80 years since Marcus Garvey died. He had by then passed his peak politically by about 15 years. However, his impact on the thinking of many Pan-Africanist-inclined minds remains active. Many, particularly some of the contemporary militant youth, still espouse Garvey’s pronouncements with unstinting passion and fervency.
“This is hardly surprising, because the directness and trenchancy of Garvey’s message remains moving for those who must still live with the scourge of anti-Black racism.
“For as long as African-Americans disproportionately fill American jails; for as long as American police continue to shoot innocent African-Americans (yes, Black Lives Matter); for as long as excessively large numbers of America’s destitute and poor are African-Americans; for as long as people of African descent continue to suffer from racist attitudes in Europe, Garvey’s message will continue to speak sympathetically to people of African descent.”
In his book, Prof Prah explains that he chose the title Kromantsihene, which means chief of Kromantsi (also spelt as Cormantin by the British), because it is generally suggested in Jamaica that Garvey was a Kromantsi. Prof Prah goes on: “Kromantsi is an Akan coastal village in Fantiland in Ghana. It has a prominent and impressive rocky outcrop jutting out and descending dramatically into the sea.
“In the era of the slave trade, it was for periods a significant point of departure for slaves drawn from the hinterland and further afield. Many of the slaves who ended up in Jamaica left from Kromantsi and with time, the Kromantsi memory acquired a reputation for defiance, resistance, and marronage [the running away of slaves from plantations] in the Caribbean and Americas.”
Powerful militant voice
Born in Jamaica on 17 August 1887, Garvey embodied the Kromantsi spirit of “defiance, resistance, and marronage”. He became famous on American soil for his fight for African-Americans and Black people in general, whether they were in Africa proper or beyond Africa’s borders.
For this he was deported from America on 2 December 1927, though the charge purportedly concerned his failed Black Star Line shipping business. By then his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in Jamaica in 1914, had become renowned worldwide.
Interestingly, Garvey himself never set foot in Africa proper, where his vision was supposed to have played out. But Malcolm X observed in the 1960s that: “Each time you see another independent nation on the African continent, you know Marcus Garvey is alive.”
On the back of his newspaper, Negro World, which became a powerful militant voice of Africanist assertiveness and enabled the mass-scale sharing of political ideas among people of African descent, Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ movement became an exciting prospect.
Prof Prah attests that: “The economically disadvantaged and socially alienated masses of urban African-Americans found bracing and nerve-stiffening hope in Garvey’s message of return to the motherland; his idea of establishing a nation, using Liberia as a base, with himself as provisional president, resonated among the ghetto underclasses.
“By 1920, he was able to claim 4m followers. By 1923, the number had mounted to 6m. Garvey’s message triggered and bolstered nationalist outlooks and ideas.”
It was in this turbulent ambience that Garvey rose to the challenge of leading the Negro. Undaunted, he took up the cudgels. In this cause, he excelled, says Prof Prah. He deployed his tongue and talent for persuasion and used to great purpose his exceptional gift for riveting oratory.
Since he died on 3 June 1940 in London, aged 52, things have moved on dramatically in America itself, and elsewhere in the world, leaving some of the crude racist mythologies and baggage of prejudices behind.
Incidentally, during Garvey’s time, he himself shared some of the views of the doomsayers. For example, in 1923, as Prof Prah reminds his readers, Garvey suggested that “any vain assumption on the part of the Negro to imagine that he will one day become President of the Nation, Governor of the State, or Mayor of the city in the countries of White men, is like waiting on the devil and his angels to take up their residence in the Realm on High and direct there the affairs of Paradise.”
This caused Prof Prah to say: “We have had the fortune of seeing African-Americans in the US in all these positions in recent years. At the time Garvey advanced the above suppositions, Racist America was not ready. Up to today, rampant racism persists, but not with the same degree of unmitigated iniquity and institutionally unapologetic and maleficent character. Fortunately, after long and continuing painful challenges, Americans have been able, in our lifetimes, to put these specific challenges as spelt by Garvey behind them. Still more change is necessary, and there is definitely more to come.”
It is in this context that one shudders to find that there is still a huge gulf between how Black and White Americans are treated in America – one is routinely shot dead for merely and allegedly resisting arrest, the other is treated with kid gloves even when he attacks the Capitol with the intention of doing harm to the buildings and their occupants. God have mercy on our brethren who have to live in such a country.
Kromantsihene – Before and After Garvey by Prof Kwesi Kwaa Prah is published by Africa Century House (ACE) Press, Cape Town, South Africa