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Two Celebrations, Two Americas:
MLK Day and Bush’s Inauguration

by Derrick O'Keefe
January 20, 2005
First Published in Seven Oaks Magazine

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This week features two major celebrations in the United States, and the contrasts between the figures being feted couldn’t be starker. Thursday’s second inauguration for George W. Bush comes only three days after Martin Luther King Day was celebrated on Monday, January 17. The two celebrations couldn’t be more opposed, revealing the chasm between the two Americas. Gay and lesbian rights, and peace and justice issues were raised in a series of marches celebrating the birthday of the civil rights icon; the run-up to Bush’s second swearing in was marked by a continuing crisis in Iraq, and revelations of new covert war preparations for Iran.

The convergence of the King celebration and this inauguration is a particularly grim spectacle; Vice-President Dick Cheney was among a minority of Congressmen (along with Trent Lott and media darling John McCain) who voted against making MLK’s birthday a national holiday. This year Bush, of course, was obliged to comment on the legacy of Dr. King:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary American and a dedicated leader who believed deeply in liberty and dignity for every person. His faith and courage continue to inspire America and the world. (Associated Press, January 17, 2005)

For most participating in MLK day celebrations across the U.S., though, the president’s invocation of King’s legacy will have been viewed as a farce and an offence. In Atlanta, one of the largest marches took the occasion to “call for an end to the Iraq war, advocate affirmative action and speak out for gay rights” (AP). Martin Luther King III was among those who spoke, invoking his father’s anti-war legacy. Exactly one year before his murder, King delivered the speech “Beyond Vietnam” at New York's Riverside Church, in which he made clear his opposition to the U.S. war machine in terms that resonate to this day:

I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government. (“Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967)

Recent poll results, released on January 17, indicate a minor but significant decline in support for the war amongst the U.S. population. The CNN/USA Today/Gallop survey of just over 1,000 Americans found that 52% believed that sending troops to Iraq had been a mistake. While only 25% of respondents supported complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, an additional 21% believed that some troops should be brought home.

Of course, more critical than poll results are the kinds of expression that anti-war sentiment is given, and the resulting movement for U.S. withdrawal that continues to build, especially amongst soldiers and their overwhelmingly working class and oppressed communities.

The Bush administration, predictably, has maintained and even accentuated its imperial swagger in the wake of the November 2 elections. Responding to a critical question from the Washington Post regarding the situation in Iraq, Bush invoked his “mandate”:

Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I'm grateful. (Washington Post, January 16, 2005)

In fact, Senator John Kerry focused his criticisms during the campaign on the way in which the initial decision to invade Iraq had been carried out; in terms of dealing with the occupation and current counter-insurgency, Kerry, if in any way he could be said to have offered a “different assessment,” did so by advocating more U.S. troops and by portraying himself as a more effective war president.

As to what is taking place in Iraq, frequent attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi police and security forces continue in the lead-up to the scheduled January 30 elections. There is also increasing evidence that the U.S. is helping to foment sectarian tensions in Iraq. Veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk recently predicted, “this election is going to widen the differences between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in a way that not even Saddam Hussein was able to achieve” (The Independent, January 16, 2005).

Violence continued throughout Iraq on the King holiday -- in spite of Bush’s much-vaunted mandate and ever-optimistic “assessments”. Catholic archbishop Basil George Casmoussa was kidnapped in Mosul; attacks in Baquba and Tikrit killed at least 14 members of the Iraqi security forces; and two U.S. soldiers died in a gun battle and suicide attack in Ramadi. (, January 17, 2005)

U.S. authorities were also busy on Monday, MLK day, denying the latest revelations of veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, whose article in the latest New Yorker (January 24 & 31 issue) claimed that U.S. forces had already been conducting covert operations to identify targets throughout Iran. The veteran journalist broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and more recently exposed the high-level support for the U.S. policy of torture on display at Abu Ghraib. Pentagon spokespeople heaped vituperation on Hersh and dismissed his article as having “no credibility,” though they were careful not to categorically deny the main allegations of the piece.

Regardless of the details of the machinations within the Pentagon and hawkish Bush administration circles -- remember that just last week there was the news that a “Salvador Option”, i.e. death squads, was being considered for Iraq -- the obstinacy of the war-makers seemingly so firmly entrenched in power represents a difficult challenge for anti-war activists, and progressives more generally.

A number of anti-occupation demonstrations are indeed planned to coincide with Bush’s inauguration on January 20. This too will be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and all those struck down in the struggle for peace and justice.

Derrick O'Keefe writes for Seven Oaks, “a magazine of politics, culture and resistance,” based in Vancouver, BC, where this article first appeared.

Other Articles by Derrick O’Keefe

* An Interview with Allan Nairn on Aceh, the Tsunamis, and Indonesian Military Abuses
* Generals, and War Criminals, Die in Bed
* Colombia and Venezuela: Labor in Canada Builds Solidarity
* An Interview with Anthony Fenton on Haiti