“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
The event was a powerful challenge to capitalism and climate change.
This Friday, over 300 protestors from Extinction Rebellion took to the streets to draw attention to the climate crisis—as well as the undercurrents of excessive consumption and corporate greed that created and perpetuate it.
This week's protest was labeled a "Meditation Rebellion," and it featured speakers from a variety of different faiths, who gathered to call for unity and solidarity on the steps of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park. Though the event wasn't linked to any specific religion, in spirit, there was an underlying sense of worship.
Personally, I'd been a bit worried about the event's theme, worried it would be a bunch of white people idealizing Eastern religions, especially because it's widely argued that XR and the climate movement have a race problem. Plus, climate activists have long been written off as hippie tree-huggers.
The event wasn't free from these issues, but at the NYC rally, speakers didn't over-emphasize the meditation aspect and mostly featured speakers of color, who all called for an intersectional approach to fighting the climate crisis. Overall, the event's organizers emphasized compassion, interconnectedness, and solidarity. The result was something that felt immensely powerful and regenerative.
After several speeches and songs, protestors marched silently down to 34th Street. To march in silence in New York City, especially on Black Friday, is a bit of an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Even if you weren't meditating, simply being silent with a group of protestors sharing the same pain and hopes created a sense of unity, despite or maybe because of the lack of conversation.
During the march, I found myself really feeling my grief about climate change and its related and intersecting issues for the first time in a while. The grief formed a heavy mass in my chest. But I knew I was walking alongside people who felt the same thing, who were aware that this pavement-covered, ashen city was built on top of forests that were stolen from the Lenape, that it still bears the scars of that breach.
I knew I was walking alongside people whom, instead of marinating in fatalism, still hoped and believed change was worth fighting for and whom were willing to stand up and sacrifice to see that change become real.
Once the group reached Herald Square, which was completely lit up by garish Black Friday advertisements, 27 protestors sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic until they were forcibly removed by the police. (It's important to note that despite the aggressive police presence, the relatively peaceable nature of this removal was something that only could have been afforded to white protestors).
In the glow of Sephora, right outside of Macy's and H&M, the circle of trust formed by the protestors risking arrest felt temporarily unbreakable. As they were handcuffed and taken away by the dozens of cops that showed up at the scene, crowds of supporters cheered and sang from the sidelines.
Why Protest Black Friday: The Connections Between Capitalism and Climate Change
Why protest Black Friday as a climate change-focused organization? Climate change and capitalism have always been blood brothers. As Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, "Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life."
The consequences of this war, of course, are not distributed equally. Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are often on the frontlines of the crisis's worst consequences. Like the climate crisis, capitalism (particularly in its vicious neoliberal form) disadvantages those who have less while propping up those who already have more (hence why a billionaire can effortlessly announce himself as a top-running candidate).
While individual consumers' choices won't singlehandedly end capitalism or stop climate change, mass movements, paradigm and consciousness shifts, and massive government action (such as plans like the Green New Deal) have that ability.
AOC and Bernie Sanders unveil their Green New Deal for Public Housing Grist
The climate crisis is not the fault of individual consumers and working people, and eradicating consumption completely isn't the answer. Instead, change will come through creating a movement large enough to pressure governments into holding corporations accountable for their actions, and it's going to be vital for these movements to connect issues like capitalism, climate change, and the ways they influence us internally as well as externally, and to stand in solidarity with those who they most affect.
Extinction Rebellion is part of this movement. It's also an arm of a worldwide reaction to frustration with economic inequality and neoliberalism, a movement that stretches (in different forms) from Chile and Hong Kong to Indonesia and Iran.
In recent months, NYC has seen an increase in anti-authoritarian protests (though they are far from new). For example, in October and November, the organization Decolonize This Place held two massive rallies in response to the MTA's crackdown on subway fare evasion.
Globally, a rising disillusionment with the false promises of billionaires and age-old toxicities rooted in white supremacy seem to be coalescing into a cohesive, if unstable, movement. Certainly, as these movements grow, things will break down and shatter, and roles and ideologies will shift and change.
As people with the privilege of choosing whether or not to protest, we have to be willing to be quiet and learn from each other during this time of instability, rage, and irrational, beautiful hope.