From Mon Jan 17 07:15:07 2005
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005 12:40:18 -0600 (CST)
From: MichaelP <>
Article: 202046
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Echos of King's dream ring true in Chile

By Ariel Dorfman, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday 16 January 2005

It was only on April 4, 1968, the day he was murdered in a Memphis motel, that I first heard the voice of Martin Luther King. Through most of the '50s and ‘60s I lived in faraway Chile, and recordings of Dr. King's speeches were unavailable, even to the many young Latin Americans who followed with interest and concern, as I did, the struggle in the United States for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. It was not until I traveled to the United States as a research fellow at UC Berkeley that I had access to his spoken words.

I recall that I was sitting with my wife Angelica and our 1-year-old child, Rodrigo, in a living room high up in the hills of Berkeley, where we had arrived barely a week before. Our hosts, an American family that had generously offered us temporary lodgings while our apartment was being readied, had switched on the television and we all solemnly watched the nightly news.

And there it was, the murder of King. And then came reports of riots all over America, and then, finally, that voice of his, an excerpt of the I have a dream speech he had delivered on a sweltering August day in 1963 in Washington. It was sad and sobering to realize that I was finally connecting with the incantations of that man who had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called the world to resist oppression, only because it had been supposedly silenced that very day, strange to feel his dream and his death grievously linked in my mind.

Beyond my amazement at King's eloquence when I first heard him back in 1968, my immediate reaction was not so much to be inspired as to feel rising inside me a lash of baffled despair. After all, the slaying of this man of peace was answered, not by a pledge to persevere in his legacy, but by furious uprisings in the slums of black America, the disenfranchised of America avenging their dead leader by burning down the ghettos where they felt imprisoned and impoverished, using the fire this time to proclaim that the nonviolence King had advocated was useless, that the only way to end inequity in this world was through the barrel of a gun; the only way to make the powerful pay attention was to scare the hell out of them.

King's assassination savagely brought up yet one more time a question that had bedeviled me and so many other activists in the late '60s all across the globe: What was the best method to achieve radical change? Could we picture a rebellion in the way that King had envisioned it, without drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, without treating our adversaries as they treated us? Or does the road into the palace of justice and the bright day of brotherhood inevitably require violence as its companion, violence as the unavoidable midwife of revolution?

Once I returned to Chile 18 months later, I was soon forced to answer those questions, not in cloudy theoretical musings, but in the day-to-day reality of hard history, when Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 and we became the first country that tried to build socialism through peaceful means. Allende's vision of social change, elaborated over decades of struggle and thought, was similar to King's, even though they came from very different political and cultural backgrounds.

Allende, for instance, who was not at all religious, would have not agreed with King that physical force must be met with soul force, but rather with the force of social organizing. At a time when many in Latin America were dazzled by the armed struggle proposed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, it was Allende's singular accomplishment to imagine the two quests of our era as inextricably coupled, the quest for more democracy and more civil freedoms, on the one hand, and the parallel quest for social justice and economic empowerment of the dispossessed of this earth. And it was to be Allende's fate to echo the fate of King; it was Allende's choice to die three years later.

Yes, on Sept. 11, 1973, almost 10 years to the day since King's I have a dream speech in Washington, Allende chose to die defending his own dream, promising us, in his last speech, that much sooner than latera day would come when the free men and women of Chile would walk through the great avenues full of treestoward a better society.

In the immediate aftermath of that terrible defeat we watched the powerful of Chile impose upon us the terror that we had not wanted to visit upon them. It was then, as our nonviolence was met with executions, torture and disappearances, after the military coup of 1973, that I first began to seriously commune with King, that his life and works came back to haunt and to question me. As I headed into an exile that would last for many years, King's voice and message began to filter fully, word by word, into my life.

If ever there was a situation where violence could be justified, after all, it would have been against the junta in Chile. Augusto Pinochet and his generals had overthrown a constitutional government and were killing and persecuting citizens whose radical sin had been to imagine a world where you do not need to massacre your opponents in order to allow the waters of justice to flow.

And yet, very wisely, almost instinctively, the Chilean resistance embraced a different route: to slowly, resolutely, dangerously, take over the surface of the country, isolate the dictatorship inside and outside our nation, make Chile ungovernable through civil disobedience. Not entirely different from the strategy that the civil rights movement had espoused in the United States. And indeed, I never felt closer to King than during the 17 years it took us to free Chile of its dictatorship.

His words to the militants who thronged to Washington in 1963, demanding that they not lose faith, resonated with me, comforted my sad heart. He was speaking prophetically to me, to us, when he said: I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. King was speaking to us, speaking to me, when he thundered: Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.

He understood that more difficult than going to your first protest was to awaken the next day and go to the next protest and then the next one, the daily grind of small acts that can lead to large and lethal consequences. The dogs and sheriffs of Alabama and Mississippi were alive and well in the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and so was the spirit that had encouraged defenseless men and women and children to be mowed down, beaten, bombed, harassed, and yet continue confronting their oppressors with the only weapons available to them: the suffering of their bodies and the conviction that nothing could make them turn back.

And just like the blacks in the United States, so in Chile we also sang in the streets of the cities that had been stolen from us. Not spirituals, for every land has its own songs. In Chile we sang, over and over, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers.

Why were we singing? To give ourselves courage, of course. But not only that. In Chile, we sang and stood against the hoses and the tear gas and the truncheons, because we knew that somebody else was watching.

In this, we also followed in the cunning, media-savvy, footsteps of King: that mismatched confrontation between the police state and the people was being witnessed, photographed, transmitted to other eyes.

In the case of the deep South of the United States, the audience was the majority of the American people, while in that other struggle years later, in the deeper south of Chile, the daily spectacle of peaceful men and women being repressed by the agents of terror targeted the national and international forces whose support Pinochet and his dependent dictatorship needed in order to survive.

The tactic worked, of course, because we understood, as King and Mohandas Gandhi had before us, that our adversaries could be influenced and shamed by public opinion, could indeed eventually be compelled to relinquish power. That is how segregation was defeated in the the United States, that is how the Chilean people beat Pinochet in a plebiscite in 1988 that led to democracy in 1990, that is the story of the downfall of tyrannies in Iran and Poland and the Philippines and, just recently, Ukraine.

And what of today?

What would King say if he contemplated what his country has become? If he could see how the terror and death brought to bear upon New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, has turned his people into a fearful nation, ready to abridge its own freedoms in order to be secure?

And yet, on his anniversary, it is wonderful that an American can be held up as a world moral leader at a time when most of the planet's inhabitants see the rulers of the United States, and far too many of its people, backing away from a commitment to liberty for all.

How inspiring that these voices from the farthest reaches of the globe will be heard in the temple from whence Rev. King once ventured forth, that we can reaffirm that his dream continues to be rooted in the American dream and hope that, in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, his nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. His fierce and gentle voice will join our voices, calling on us to stand with him and today's defenders of human rights from everywhere on this earth, calling on us from beyond death and beyond fear to stand together for freedom and justice in our time.