“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.
Protests in Chile Should Serve as a Model for American Activists
We must look at the mass actions that are making life difficult for the powerful in Chile and Lebanon and Hong Kong, and prepare ourselves to make the same kind of trouble at home.
With all the global significance connected to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, many people don't realize that September 11th has a very different set of meanings in Chile.
A memorial depicting Allende's broken glasses in the aftermath of the coup
On that day in 1973, the United States backed a coup that killed Chile's democratic socialist president, Salvador Allende, ushering in the brutal era of Pinochet. Chile has never fully recovered from the violence of that period, nor the sudden shift in economic policy that followed. For many Chileans, it has been hard to imagine a world in which the leadership could work for them, rather than the global elite. But now the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso are being taken over by thousands of protesters who've been unwilling to accept piecemeal concessions from President Sebastian Pinera.
In Chile, a billionaire president pushes austerity while the military represses protesters. Thousands have been arrested. Knowing Chile's history, this is very dangerous.
The solution here and across the world is obvious. Put power where it belongs: with working people. https://t.co/s6J7kOtDXs
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 30, 2019
So far many of these protests have been peaceful, but there have been instances of arson and of violent clashes between protesters and security forces. At least 20 have already died, but the activists there are not giving up. They are relentless, and they are only interested in substantive change—a fundamental restructuring of the Chilean Government to serve the working people. They want Pinera to resign, and they are calling for changes to the Chilean constitution.
For Americans, this kind of protest remains out of the question. Protest in America does not exist to be disruptive or to force action. It only serves as a salve for our powerlessness.
American protest is sanctioned by the system and restricted to its proper time and place. It makes the protesters feel better for a time—makes them feel seen, like they're a part of something—and maybe it raises some awareness for a cause or inspires some phone calls to congress. And if it attempts to do more, it is met with swift and violent crackdowns. It does not—cannot—break down the country's normal functions.
But what if the normal functions no longer work for the people? What if the interests that led the United States to back coups against Socialist leaders are also fueling mass propaganda campaigns against grass roots movements at home? What if they're defending those in power from the normal avenues of accountability?
The American media has a tight focus right now on the rapidly developing impeachment proceedings, and that makes sense. There is new information coming out of those efforts on a near daily basis, and there is a significant precedent for this kind of procedure to effect change. But it remains to be seen whether all this new evidence will survive the spin and propaganda from the likes of Fox News and One America News. We should not place our faith purely in the institutions of power to regulate power. To achieve anything for the people, the institutions of power must be afraid of the alternative.
We must look at the mass actions that are making life difficult for the powerful in Chile and Lebanon and Hong Kong, and prepare ourselves to make the same kind of trouble at home. Even if Trump is forced out of office and the Democrats choose a progressive nominee and the 2020 election fully flips control to the Democrats, the fight will only be getting started. The interests and forces that killed Salvador Allende in Chile will still be doing everything in their power to protect the status quo. We must be willing to upend the normal order if we want to produce real change.