Muhammad Ali and Dylann Roof: Contested Meanings and Contested Lies

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The announcement by the United States Department of Justice that it would prosecute and pursue the death penalty against Dylann Roof, the White nationalist who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina and the death of Muhammad Ali are two events that appear on the surface to be completely disconnected. Yet – in the ongoing ideological struggle by the state and capitalist institutions to shape and control mass consciousness – both are intimately intertwined.  

When Loretta Lynch, the African American Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice, announced that the state would pursue a death sentence against Dylann Roof, some in the African American community applauded the decision as an appropriate response that would lead to something they defined as “justice.” However, for many other African Americans, justice for a racialized and colonized people is an impossibility in a colonial state in which racial and class dominance, violence, and systemic de-humanization represents its internal logic and core values.

The decision by the DOJ to pursue a death sentence for Roof should be seen as no more than another tactical move by the state as part of the last phase of the counterinsurgency launched against the black liberation movement almost five decades ago. The ideological component of this counterinsurgency strategy had and still has one primary objective – to cement the psychological identification of oppressed African Americans with the colonialist, white supremacist state and the white supremacist, capitalist system that it upholds. By appealing to African Americans, the group in the country most consistently opposed to the death penalty, state propagandists saw this as a perfect opportunity to undermine opposition to capital punishment and facilitate the process of psychological incorporation.

Lynch claimed that it was the nature of the crime and the “harm” it created that compelled her department to pursue a death sentence. This of course begs the question as to what constitutes “harm” and who is harmed.

The implication of Lynch’s statement is that societal harm is the measurement that guides decisions by the DOJ to intervene or not. But if harm to the society or groups in the society was really the measurement, how then does the state measure the harm produced by police beatings, choking, and shootings of African Americans? Apparently, the overwhelming amount of video evidence and testimony of anti-black state police violence does not rise to the level of a collective harm that compels the state to act in the form of prosecutorial actions.

The racist pandering and ideological character of the DOJ’s announcement is even more apparent by the fact that it is premised on the assumed success of the state’s efforts to distort critical consciousness. The presupposition of this position is reflected in the arrogant assumption that no one is going to notice that while the DOJ moved to impose the death penalty on a young white nationalist, that same DOJ only brought one indictment against the slew of killer cops involved in the murders of young African men and women across the U.S. over the last eight years under two black Attorney Generals and a black president.

And while both black Attorney Generals offered elaborate justifications for why the Federal government could not intervene in those state level cases, the black public is not supposed to notice that the DOJ did not hesitate to interject itself on the state level to bring the full weight of the Federal government down on four young members of the black working class who are now serving or facing years in prison for their activities during the Baltimore uprisings. In a telling statement of the importance attached to property over black lives, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein explained that “The rule of law must be upheld, and criminals who destroy property and jeopardize lives must be held accountable.”

The “King-ification” of Muhammad Ali

With the passing of Muhammad Ali, we are witnessing a phenomenon similar to what we saw with Dr. King when the family allowed the state to define the meaning of Dr. Kings’ activism and the movement that created him. The announcement that Bill Clinton, the rapist and petty opportunist politician, had been chosen to deliver the eulogy at Ali’s funeral suggests that his family is heading down that same path. And while it has been important to see all of the references to Ali’s early anti-war positions again circulating in social media, it was no surprise that few direct contemporary connections were made by the ex-president of the U.S. empire and most of the speakers

Passing references to his courage and principles in his early life were made, but it is already clear that the focus of the state and corporate propagandists have already shifted to the period of his life when he was involved in some dubious political projects before his inability to communicate. In this rendition of Ali’s life the prodigal son has come home. Lighting the Olympic torch and “transcending race” and religion will be the narrative of “national” reconciliation that supposedly characterized his post-1970s life. The implication that he might oppose the state’s strategy of permanent war to maintain U.S. and Western dominance will not be a part of the official story of his life.

These two events demonstrate that nothing is innocent; including the death of a cultural icon like Muhammad Ali or an announcement that justice would be done by pursuing capital punishment. Like the civil rights, women’s and even the anti-war movement, the state attempts to de-politicize and co-opt movements and individuals by reinscribing the meanings of nominally oppositional social movements and individuals and re-incorporating them into the grand narrative of “America’s” striving for a more “perfect union.”

That narrative is a death narrative for Africans/black people because the price for inclusion requires the ideological, psychological, ethical and cultural erasure of black people and any claims for black self-determination.

But unlike Barack Obama, Loretta Lynch and the other members of the black petit-bourgeoisie who have become the living embodiments of the partial success of the state’s attempt to colonize the consciousness of Africans/black people, the life of Muhammad Ali and the black liberation movement that he was a part of in his early years and our movement’s moral positions on state violence in the form of the death penalty stands as counter-narratives to those attempts by the state to “Americanize” the Africans in the territory called the U.S.

Ajamu Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. His latest publications include contributions to” Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (Counterpunch Books, 2014), “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA” (Harper Collins, 2014) and “Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral” (CODESRIA, 2013). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com