Independence Day for Whom*
By: Julian Cola, Elliott Gabriel
teleSUR spoke to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Thandisizwe Chimurenga, Konrad Aderer, Ron Gochez and Ameena Qazi to gather their thoughts on the U.S. holiday.
On July 4, the United States – a nation in the midst of doing all it can to preserve its hegemony and waning global dominance – gears up to celebrate its independence from former empire Britain.
Ambitions on such a day, even for a country whose political class routinely touts self-indulgent precepts of “exceptionalism,” run high. Additional masts are hoisted to fly the U.S. flag. Families and friends barbecue, cook, and drink beers from cans decked-out with stars and stripes. And, of course, a barrage of fireworks – in direct allusion to the belligerent national anthem verse, “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” – fill the night sky as the mainstays of patriotic pop music blare.
With its mainstream media stronghold echoing every ounce of “national pride,” the voice of oppressed nations within the “land of the free” is filtered from public discourse and conscious.
Do they exist or is it all a myth?
The United States didn’t emerge from an abyss. Indeed, the circumstances that produced much of the nation’s economic and material wealth were birthed through the genocide perpetrated against Indigenous people and subsequent robbery of their land, as well as the enslavement of African people for centuries.
While Indigenous people were corralled onto reservations and African descendants released into a racist society without compensation for their labors, the United States went about the business of building its brand and expanding its influence.
However, what do people of oppressed groups and nationalities living within the United States have to say about Independence Day?
Joining us in conversation:
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a Los Angeles-based award-winning, freelance journalist and author who identifies as an “Afrikan in America.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 78, lifelong movement organizer with Scots-Irish and Native roots in rural Oklahoma and four decades of work in international Indigenous movements. Dunbar-Ortiz is a retired university professor, historian and award-winning author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
Ron Gochez, 36, Mexican-Salvadoran organizer, educator and Political Secretary of Union del Barrio Los Angeles, a revolutionary socialist organization founded in 1981 to advance the fight for the liberation and self-determination of Mexican and Latino communities in the United States and the socialist integration of the Americas.
AmeenaAmeena Mirza Qazi, 35, civil rights attorney and Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild – Los Angeles, , former staff attorney and deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Los Angeles.
What does “independence” mean to you?
Aderer: Freedom from tyranny, oppression, exclusion, detention, internment.
Chimurenga: Independence means freedom from foreign control. It means self-determination, the right and the ability (power) to determine what we do, what happens to us, in the places/communities in which we live. In the U.S., that means freedom from the domination of a white supremacist state.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Personally, and as a historian, independence of the United States is one of the most tragic events in the history of humanity. For “my people,” meaning Scots-Irish early settlers, they were and are on the whole the most gung-ho U.S. patriots and believe U.S. independence was intended by God.
Gochez: As Indigenous/Mexican people, American Independence day is something that we cannot celebrate because the United States was literally built by African and indigenous slaves, right on top of our ancestral homeland. We don’t trace our roots back to the 13 colonies or to the so-called founding fathers. We trace our roots to these lands for thousands of years before July 4, 1776. We will truly be able to celebrate our independence when we regain our self-determination as a people. Today, we lack social, political and economic power in this country as a direct result of the settler colonial invasion so it would be nonsensical for us to celebrate “independence day.” We cannot celebrate the independence of our oppressors who continue to colonize us and treat us as foreigners on our own land.
Qazi: Independence means the ability to live freely and autonomously, to practice our faith without repercussions, to choose who represents us and to challenge those who don’t.
What are your thoughts about July 4, U.S. Independence day?
Aderer: It’s a day to commit to the true freedom which has not yet arrived.
Chimurenga: Afrikan people were not free on July 4, 1776. If you read Dr. Gerald Horne’s works, he argues U.S. independence from Britain was predicated on keeping my people enslaved. You know what Frederick Douglass said about the 4th of July, so you know what I think about the 4th of July.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Independence Day celebrates the July 4, 1776, issuance of “The Declaration of Independence” by the elite leaders of the 13 British colonies, declaring their intention to separate from the British Empire to form their own Anglo empire. I see it as a celebration of imperialism and colonialism. During the 8 years of counter-insurgent warfare that followed, mostly directed at the Native nations on the periphery of the colonies, the separatists created several land ordinances before the U.S. was actually founded outlining their plans to seize Indigenous territories all the way to the Mississippi River with aspirations beyond to the Pacific. The other principal motive was the determination of the majority of the founders, who were wealthy slavers to maintain and expand an economy based on African bodies as capital and free (slave) African labour.
Genocide and slavery is what is celebrated on Independence Day.
Gochez: The 4th of July represents independence for the descendants of the colonists who broke away from their European brothers and sisters during the war. For Africans, Indigenous people and other people of colour, we have never experienced that independence in this country but that’s why we remain in struggle and continue to fight to defend our rights here, inside of the U.S.
Qazi: July 4th to me represents an aspiration rather than a truth. Practically, it’s a time to spend with family and friends during this hot summer month.
At what moment did you realize that the 4th of July didn’t pertain to you and your people?
Aderer: I realized that the 4th of July didn’t apply to Asian Americans when I learned that my grandparents were incarcerated along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans solely because of their ethnicity.
Chimurenga: Once I became a teenager and began to study my history. As a child I loved July 4th. Adults off from work, kids out of school, barbecue and fireworks at night. As I grew older I began to recognize the contradictions between the propaganda I was fed in school and popular culture, and my peoples’ lived experiences.
Dunbar-Ortiz: I always hated the 4th of July, but did not know why until I began studying history in my late teens in Oklahoma.
Gochez: I was never very patriotic growing up so I never celebrated the 4th of July but I did learn a lot a lot about my history and culture in my first year of college. I was able to clearly understand that the 4th of July didn’t have any positive effects on my family, my people or on any people of colour.
What’s your opinion about the state of oppressed nationalities in the United States?
Aderer: Oppressed nationalities are continuing to grow in numbers in the U.S., but even as whites themselves become a minority, people of colour will need to work and organize as never before to dismantle racism that has been systematized in our democracy (e.g. gerrymandering) and overcome the anti-democratic policy-making and state violence unleashed by white racists galvanized by demographic change.
Chimurenga: I think all oppressed nationalities are fighting a cultural/psychological war – a war that keeps us from understanding that we are oppressed nationalities with a right to fight for our self-determination; to fight for the freedom of our nation’s peoples.
Dunbar-Ortiz: The white nationalism upon which the United States was founded and all its political and cultural institutions fashioned expanded from Black and Indian-hating to Mexicans (taking half their territory between 1828 and 1848), then to (excluding) Chinese, to other darker people, with anti-Black racism maintaining a central place.
Gochez: All oppressed peoples in the United States share something in common – we all lack independence. We are systematically oppressed and the two-party system in this country is set up to maintain the status quo. For this and many other reasons, people of color who have been able to learn about the true history of this nation understand that we truly have very little to celebrate on the 4th of July.
Qazi: I don’t think anyone is truly free in this country, because even people who benefit from oppressive structures are chained to those structures, and can’t live a better reality.
What should be done?
Aderer: Continue building resistance to today’s resurgence of racist, oppressive policymaking, with the understanding that it is not a sudden phenomenon and requires long-term strategy beyond any particular elected official’s term.
Chimurenga: I think that with the election of Donald Trump we are living in a very good time where we can easily draw out the contradictions of this government, but we have to organize better in our own communities to show our people what the alternative looks like.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Massive education, which will have to be done through popular education, first for social justice movements and organizations to understand the history, then build it into organizing projects that lead to dismantling the U.S. as it exists.
Gochez: As oppressed peoples, we need to continue to organize so that we can one day actually take back our freedom. We need to coordinate our work across various sectors in this country so that we can include the struggles of as many people as possible. Once we are united, we have to push to dismantle the current oppressive system that is in place in the United States and replace it with a government that will serve the needs of the masses of the people. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh used the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a framework to declare independence for his own people when they were facing U.S. imperialism. We can and will do the same one day when we declare ourselves free and independent from U.S. capitalism and imperialism.
What’s your impression of white Americans celebrating Independence Day and their collective denial to acknowledge the aspirations for freedom and independence of oppressed groups in the United States?
Aderer: It is a natural human reaction to the threat of embedded hegemony slipping away. As someone who carries various privileges and advantages from my own background, I need to view this denial with understanding, yet aid the forces of change that are developing a paradigm of national commemoration that can respect people of all backgrounds.
Chimurenga: I don’t think it’s surprising. It’s how all conquering civilizations and empires act.
Dunbar-Ortiz: White nationalism remains bedrock in the United States
Gochez: The masses of white Americans in the United States are themselves not fully aware of the real history and the devastation that was caused by the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples. For that reasons, they do not fully understand that their so-called independence comes at the direct expense of people of colour. Without the genocide of the indigenous people and the blatant theft of their lands, how could there even be a United States today? Without slave labour, the U.S. would not have developed into the economic power that it is today because the foundation for the U.S. economy was slavery. Today, those experiences are the reason why people of colour are still at the bottom of the social strata in the United States. Any attempts from those groups to gain their own independence from the U.S. have been met with brutal violence that has included assassinations, beatings, disappearances, false incarceration, et cetera. So today, white Americans have to understand that the concept of independence is abstract to many people of colour in the U.S. because since the birth of this nation we have not enjoyed that same independence.
Qazi: I don’t think people really use this holiday to raise their fists and declare “Yay! We’re free from British tyranny!” It’s a time for many people to wear their patriotism, whether true or farcical, on their sleeves. Otherwise, families just get together to barbecue and watch fireworks, and like so much in this country, the day is devoid of meaning.
How does the U.S. media and education system inform the national and international community about “U.S. independence”?
Aderer: As the U.S. media and education system adapt and evolve to respect and incorporate previously suppressed histories into the retelling of U.S. independence, a more accurate understanding of the contradictions and uneven nature of revolutionary progress will inform a living history that can help our democracy move forward and not backward.
Chimurenga: The same way they inform the rest of the world about the United States way of life: that the United States is a superpower that it is superior and that this is who you want to be like. This is the land that you want to come to because the streets are paved with gold, the land of milk and honey and it is the standard-bearer for civilization and it is the standard-bearer for civilization, not just Western Civilization but World Civilization. The U.S. propaganda machine tells the world you want to be just like us. It is up to the rest of the world to reject and resist that narrative.
Dunbar-Ortiz: The U.S. media and educational system follow the official line of the heroism (“warts and all”) of the founding fathers and the nearly perfect system of government they devised.
Gochez: The U.S. corporate media continues to provide grossly false information about the true nature of U.S. independence. The media and the text books in the United States boast of freedom, equality, democracy, but in reality, those are concepts that have never truly existed for people of colour in the United States. Even today, the majority of the people who are incarcerated in the U.S. are people of colour and the U.S. continues to benefit financially from the economic exploitation of their labour. In terms of democracy, the world knows that the U.S. has the least democratic electoral system of any of the so-called developed nations and that voter suppression of people of colour is still a reality. The U.S. is in no moral position to teach the world anything about independence and/or democracy.
How does your work help to resist the prevailing ideology underlying U.S. Independence Day?
Aderer: My work is making documentaries about the resistance of immigrant communities to policies of detention, profiling and criminalization and using them to inform and inspire current resistance movements. My current documentary, Resistance at Tule Lake, tells the long-suppressed story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who dared to resist the U.S. government’s program of mass incarceration during World War II. Branded as “disloyals” and re-imprisoned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, they continued to protest in the face of militarized violence, and thousands renounced their U.S. citizenship. Giving voice to experiences that have been marginalized for over 70 years, this documentary challenges the nationalist, one-sided ideal of wartime “loyalty.”
Chimurenga: Right now my work and activism primarily takes the form of writing – writing, as Toni Cade Bambara says, to “make revolution irresistible” – to not only show the contradictions of this white supremacist state but to show that it is absolutely illegitimate, that it must be resisted, that we have the right to resist, and that we can win.
Dunbar-Ortiz: I research, write books, contribute to Indigenous projects of sovereignty and decolonization, against police obsession/violence against descendants of enslaved African, carrying on the tradition for which they were founded in controlling enslaved Africans (slave patrols, 2nd Amendment to the Constitution).
What’s your message to the U.S. government this 4th of July?
Aderer: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Chimurenga: Your time is up. It may not happen tomorrow it may not happen this year it may not happen for another 5 years but your hegemony, your domination, your time, is coming to an end.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Capitalism must die for us to be free; meanwhile stop celebrating white nationalism with a federal holiday.
Gochez: We will continue to resist against the neo-fascist regime of Donald Trump and we will continue to organize in our communities so that one day we can truly celebrate our genuine independence. We will continue to raise consciousness so that the masses of working class people in the United States understand that the patriotism, the fireworks, the sales at the mall are all there to distract and confuse them about the true nature of this country.
We cannot celebrate independence while millions of poor people are locked up in prisons on poverty related crimes. We cannot celebrate independence while people of colour are viciously killed on the streets of this country on a daily basis without any repercussions for the police officers who murder them. We cannot celebrate independence while millions of oppressed people – immigrants, LGBTQ, women – face systematic discrimination in this country.
We can’t celebrate independence until we are all truly free and independent.