By any means necessary. The phrase, delivered by Malcolm X in a speech given at the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964, has become a chant among activist groups throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In Malcolm X’s speech, he announces, “That’s our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”
His words planted the seeds of hope among the minorities the represented, and yet, in November 2014, University of Michigan students still shout out that same motto — “We want equality by any means necessary” — as minority enrollment is at its lowest number in years, comprising only 10 percent of the student body.
On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 20, The Michigan Daily reported that the organization By Any Means Necessary protested directly outside of the meeting of the University’s Board of Regents, prompting the evacuation of the regents and executive officers from the room. The organization insisted upon the University’s recognition of serious minority issues that plague campus and notably, the group proposed the implementation of the 10 percent plan — a rule allowing any high school student in the top 10 percent of his or her class to be admitted to any public university in the state of Michigan. According to the Daily’s coverage, University President Mark Schlissel implied that the plan is infeasible. In Schlissel’s defense, such a plan wouldn’t necessarily ensure minority enrollment. But, the issues of segregation and underrepresentation of minorities stem way beyond the control of the University.
As American citizens, we’re well aware that these are systemic concerns, dating back to American slavery and the absolute control of the white man. Today, the American forces of oppression aren’t as easily identifiable in broad daylight. Oppression exists in more subtle, less blatant designs — the confinement of minorities to ghettos, perpetuated mass incarceration of African-Americans, cycles that leave children uneducated and prompt a lack of education for future generations. This has been coined as “The New Jim Crow.” But I have to wonder, when oppression manifests itself inconspicuously to the uncurious eye, is it worthy of being challenged by any means necessary?
I spent a semester studying abroad in Cuba, which I can say, for all intents and purposes, is governed by an authoritarian regime. Despite the palm trees, the Caribbean sun and the colors that illuminate the old, dilapidated buildings, oppression runs high on the island. My Cuban friends, who quietly despised the system and uttered words of discontent when given jolts of liquid courage, were trained to be quiet about their criticisms of Cuban socialism. From the rhetoric they’d been taught, opposition is bad and compliance is good. Alberto, my Cuban boyfriend at the time, was taken to jail simply for walking alongside my American friend. The police officers assumed that he was selling himself to the American girl he accompanied on the street. Being a white foreigner, I was the only one with the power to get the arrest expunged. A Cuban attempting to explain the same situation would have been written off as a liar, a counterrevolutionary or an accomplice to foreign exploitation.
I often wondered why there wasn’t more opposition to the system, why Cuban citizens who’d only been able to eat grains of rice and a few beans that day weren’t marching along the oceanside promenade demanding more resources and more rights. But fear burdened their activism. Under the Cuban system, every citizen lacks liberty. Was this means for a radical movement — one that would come into existence by any means necessary? At first I thought so, but then I thought of Cuba’s past.
In 1959, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a myriad of other young, hotheaded revolutionaries overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista — a tyrant maintaining severe economic and social inequality. They achieved their goal of subversion by any means necessary: guerilla warfare. Now, the system has returned to its dictatorial roots — but under the guise of socialism. Having achieved the revolution’s goal by any means necessary, such violent and oppressive tactics associated with the doctrine became accepted, normal. Castro’s use of radical guerilla warfare in order to dismantle inequality was commendable, but now, the violence that was used as a means of subversion became the reason for Cuba’s application of violence in its contemporary police state.
Come back to contemporary America. Come back to the BAMN protest that forced Schlissel out of his seat. Radical activism is needed on college campuses. Radical activism is still needed when injustice is no longer blatantly obvious, but lurks in the shadows, pulling certain people away from the potential for achievement.
As Americans, we’re afforded the ability to fight for our liberties. But it’s hard to get behind a dogma that propagates violence and seemingly opposes active discourse. BAMN is trying to get things done. BAMN is fighting for something we should all be fighting for, regardless of our race, gender or class. But, when the motto “by any means necessary” infiltrates the situation, one is left to wonder: how far are they willing to go? I personally believe that BAMN intends to promote social equality using radical means — radical, non-violent means. This is a movement that pioneered activism for racial equality, one that exists beyond the University. It’s a movement that’s important to our time, that demonstrates the courage of activists and the power of their work. But, being an organization that is present on this campus, in order to not alienate a less radical, and more numerous population, I would urge BAMN as a group to redefine what “by any means necessary” really means. Otherwise, I believe people will look to radical, revolutionary movements that have incorporated violence, such as the Cuban revolution, and associate such dogmas with the dogma of BAMN. And that would really be a blow to the work they are doing.
Abby Taskier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.