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Issue #1736      June 22, 2016

Culture & Life

Mohammed Ali and US gun violence

The death of Muhammad Ali brought forth the usual media avalanche of tributes, most of which concentrated on his sporting record. Ali however was much more than that, as the following extracts from the tribute in the journal Foreign Policy In Focus by Phyllis Bennis show. Ms Bennis is director of the New Internationalism Project at the USA’s Institute for Policy Studies.

“In the history of our movements for peace and for justice, the most strategic activists, analysts, and cultural workers were always those who understood the centrality of racism at the core of US wars. They grasped the ways in which US militarism relied on racism at home to recruit its cannon-fodder and to build public support for wars against ‘the other’ – be they Vietnamese, Cambodians, Nicaraguans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Somalis, Yemenis, Afghans, or anyone else.

“It was Muhammad Ali who first described the Vietnam-era draft as ‘white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from the red people’. He said no to the draft, refused to step forward to accept the legitimacy of the coerced registration, and was convicted of felony draft resistance. Even though he faced years in prison, he insisted, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.’

“What’s perhaps less well known, but absolutely consistent with this man of extraordinary principle, is Ali’s 1974 statement in Beirut. That year, Ali visited refugee camps filled with Palestinians dispossessed of their homes in the 1947-1948 Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’ – the war that attended the founding of the state of Israel. After visiting the camps, Ali announced, ‘I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland.’

“All of those statements were massively controversial at the time.

“Not least, Ali’s initial resistance to the draft led to his being excluded from professional boxing for years. Yet the boxer and the anti-war and anti-racism movements he was a part of continued their work. And Ali’s own presence, principles, and influence was such that in later years the tributes poured in – including his memorable lighting of the Olympic flame at the otherwise corporate-controlled, ultra-establishment 1996 Atlanta games. ...

“His incandescent presence that night made undeniably clear, once again, that the movements against war and racism that Ali so eloquently spoke for – and that he remained such an elemental and principled part of – had already succeeded in transforming public discourse, if not yet public policy, across the United States.”

As Ali discovered, the USA is run by big business, corporate heavyweights whose principal concern is how to increase their profits. And their biggest profit-making enterprise by far is war and preparation for war. To assist in this noble endeavour they keep the American people in a constant state of paranoia, afraid of foreigners, their neighbours, gays, the homeless, the UN, “black helicopters” and their own government. One consequence of this all-pervading paranoia is a country awash with guns in private hands and a culture of promoting gun violence as contributing to one’s personal safety.

As Marian Wright Edelman, President of the USA’s Children’s Defence Fund points out, however, “a gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher, and accidental death four times higher. For each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defence, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven gun criminal assaults and homicides, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.”

In short, guns do not make people safer. Quite the opposite, in fact. We already knew that, of course, but powerful business and political interests campaign constantly to keep Americans armed, with horrendous consequences. Over 35 thousand Americans are killed by guns every year! Edelman again: “Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native children and teens are disproportionately likely to die from a gun. These horrendous facts are not acts of God. They are our indefensible choices as Americans.”

After the latest massacre in Orlando, it beggars belief that the gun lobby would still argue that it is everyone’s “right” to own a gun (or even lots of guns). Gun deaths in the US are clearly a huge public health crisis but even researching the prevention of gun injuries and fatalities by US public health agencies has been blocked by Congress for the last 20 years!

Marian Edelman says: “We cannot stay numb, cowed or intimidated by bullies who value profits over human life.” However, ending the USA’s national gun violence epidemic under capitalism is no easy task. Even opponents of gun ownership are so browbeaten they hesitate to even call for the banning of assault weapons or ammunition clips that effectively turn sporting rifles into machine guns.

Incredibly, despite tens of thousands of people dying from gunfire in the US every year, guns remain the country’s only unregulated consumer product. However, some of the steps US anti-gun activists call on people to take are truly astonishing, such as “Make clear that you will not let your child play in a house with unlocked guns”. Well, duh! Perhaps not so astonishing in the United States when you realise that one in three homes there with children also has a gun in it!

No wonder the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Paediatrics have thought it worthwhile to produce a pledge called Asking Saves Kids (ASK) which calls on adults to ask about guns in the homes where their children play. It clearly meets a need, as more than 19 million parents and grandparents have taken the pledge.

On the other hand, a move that has the potential to be very productive but has yet to get effectively off the ground is to get US workers’ superannuation schemes to divest themselves of any investments in gun and ammunition companies.

For Americans, the nightmare of Orlando is all too likely to reappear in their neighbourhood, at any time. To prevent such a thing will require fundamental changes in the country’s culture – and economic system.

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