It can happen here
President Obama reminded Americans recently that racist murders of Black people have been happening for a long time in America. In addition to these continuing there are dangerous new signs of fascism including the entrance of armed mobs carrying nooses and Confederate flags into state capitols to try to intimidate lawmakers into ending measures intended to protect against the coronavirus. | Jason DeCrow/AP

The COVID-19 darkness that now surrounds us will pass, eventually. But there is another darkness haunting our land and people—fascism.

“If fascism comes to our country, it will start on the backs of African Americans.” That’s what a peace activist told me back in the early 1970s in the aftermath of two Black males being shot down by police in Waterbury, Connecticut. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—nearly 50 years later—is another example of the continuing police brutality aimed at African Americans.

As President Obama LeBron James and others have reminded us, it has been going on for a long time. These racist murders are now accompanied by other, related, danger signals.

Even before Trump was threatening martial law this week, there were already a number of recent warning signs that fascism is becoming a greater threat. Chief among them have been the state-level mobilizations to “reopen” our economy. Look closely and you will see nooses, conspiracy theories, Confederate flags, and individuals brandishing automatic weapons.

For me, seeing it brought back memories of earlier personal experiences. In 1969, I found myself in Brazil. I had drawn a modestly high number in the military draft lottery of death; a friend did not. So, off we went. It was one of those wanderlust trips that seemed to be required of youth then. But this one had another goal. We were sorting out how our lives were being jerked around by the U.S. war in Vietnam and the politicians who seemed to love it.

In one port city, a scene came into view that was right out of Dalton Trumbo’s movie Edge of the City. I saw a group of Black dock workers. There was one white guy among them. He had what looked like a whip in his hand and a pistol on his hip. When he barked a directive, all the moving parts on that dock speeded up. Then I saw the fear in the faces of those Black workers.

It took years to pass before I could make sense of that scene. Back home, I would see African Americans not making eye contact with white people. Historical perspective always helps some. Brazil didn’t rid itself of slavery until 1888. That was more than twenty years after the United States did the same, having to experience the carnage of a Civil War to do so.

But there seemed to be an added quality to my experience. What was it? In 1964, a group of generals had pulled off a military coup in Brazil. Unions, community groups, and progressive political parties paid a heavy price. Communists were rounded up. Disappearances, torture, and killings followed. Fear cast a pall over the land and people.

Big capital and big land owners ruled. They had their boys with the guns on the ground and total control of state power. That admixture essentially equaled fascism.

An old fan jet landed my buddy and me in Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest. We kicked around its dusty streets that had long since seen its rubber boon days wane. We were in an old frontier town of 20,000 people. It used to be 120,000. The vultures waddled behind us. They were telling us some of this story.

What we didn’t know was that deep in the forest, rubber tappers were still living out a rudimentary existence. Some 20 years later, rubber union leaders were being methodically killed. Big land owners wanted the forest cleared for cattle, including those rubber trees that gave sustenance to many families. Rubber tapping was sustainable in the forest; cattle raising was not.

Fast food in developed countries created the demand for beef. The land owners wanted to deliver and cash in. It was happening with a vengeance. Decades later, and we now know human-generated climate change was one by-product. The great Amazon, “the lungs of the Earth,” is being depleted.

By 1988, the military dictatorship in Brazil was waning, but in the forest, guns and leftover fascistic thinking by large land owners still ruled. Chico Mendes, union and environmental leader of the rubber workers, was murdered. Guns and profits were the order of the day.

The extreme right has always had antipathy to the environment and greens. An earlier signal in the U.S. was the armed attack and occupancy of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. States’ rights, just as racists used during the civil rights period, was the battle cry from these militia types and the sovereign citizen movement.

Another historical precedent stands out in my mind. When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, they took over a nature preserve and used it for hunting. Greens beware!

COVID-19 is generating one kind of darkness. The fascist threat in our country is another. The signs are deafening—guns at state capitols, those racist nooses, communists being outed by KeyWiki. Trump targets Joe Biden as “the bannerman of the socialist agenda” in an attempt to resuscitate the Cold War. Anticommunism and racism are the twin ideological thrusts of fascism.

Yes, both the darkness of COVID-19 and the threat of fascism will pass. The question is at what cost to working people—African Americans in the first place—and to all people?

Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o addresses some of these themes in the poem “Dawn of Darkness.”

I know, I know,
It threatens the common gestures of human bonding
The handshake,
The hug
The shoulders we give each other to cry on
The neighborliness we take for granted
So much that we often beat our breasts
Crowing about rugged individualism,
Disdaining nature, pissing poison on it even, while
Claiming that property has all the legal rights of personhood
Murmuring gratitude for our shares in the gods of capital.

Oh, how now I wish I could write poetry in English,
Or any and every language you speak
So, I can share with you, words that
Wanjikũ, my Gĩkũyũ mother, used to tell me:
tirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa:
No night is so Dark that,
It will not end in Dawn,
Or simply put,
Every night ends with dawn.
tirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa.

This darkness too will pass away
We shall meet again and again
And talk about Darkness and Dawn
Sing and laugh maybe even hug.
Nature and nurture locked in a green embrace
Celebrating every pulsation of a common being
Rediscovered and cherished for real
In the light of the Darkness and the new Dawn.


Len Yannielli
Len Yannielli

Long time environmental activist Len Yannielli was a professor of biological science at Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn.