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(Editor's Note - Michael Kaneb is the co-founder of the New England Peace Center in Torrington, Connecticut, and has a keen interest in John Brown. Kaneb sat down with Observer Publisher John Murray to discuss Brown's use of violence to achieve his goal, and to discuss what lessons from the Harpers Ferry raid might be relevant in today's ongoing struggle for equality in the United States. Cover image of "Tragic Prelude" is a mural painted by Kansan John Steuart Curry for the Kansas State Capitol building in Topeka, Kansas. )
What is it about John Brown that draws you to him?
“I admire his commitment and his underlying feeling that Black and White people could live together as brothers. Not only that Black people should be free from slavery, but that they could live next door, or in the same house, or the same family with White people. That was very rare belief 160 years ago.”
Why should anyone care about John Brown right now?
“Well, even though he lived a long time ago, the fight he was fighting is still happening today. Slavery isn't over, it just changed, and abolitionism needs to continue.”
How can someone from a peace center be a fan of John Brown?
“John Brown is a really good figure for us to discuss revolution and violence and the effectiveness of violence. John Brown did use violence in Kansas, and in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. And he had beautiful intentions of freeing slaves and living as brothers. In order for pacifism and non-violence to have legitimacy, it must be truly revolutionary. Fierce and ferocious. No less so than John Brown.”
His intentions were pure, but his methodology was in question?
“Yes, I believe the ends and the means need to align. I don't believe that ends justify the means. I think the means dictate the ends. They can't be separated from each other.”
You said that slavery is still here, just in a different form, wearing disguises. Young people born into oppression are frustrated….
“Slavery is still here in the form of racist mass incarceration, in the form of wage slavery, and in discriminatory policies that make life more difficult for people with dark skin. More broadly, modern day slavery happens through imperialism and globalization, a small group of elites conspiring to consolidate their power and keep billions of people trapped in poverty.”
What can the Black Lives Matter movement get from John Brown?
"The Black Lives Matter movement can draw inspiration from John Brown's deep commitment to anti-racism and racial equality. John Brown believed more than most any white people of his time that Black people truly were his brothers and sisters. We can also learn from his successes and failures, to make determinations on how to best continue the work of abolition."
What can the John Brown of 1859 teach America in 2021? The country is still struggling with race relations, is violence an answer?
"Someone once said, “the more violence, the less revolution.” Violence only emboldens the state to use more violence to suppress the rebellion. John Brown’s failed insurrection set the stage for a terrible, needless war, and in the end, the war didn’t liberate Black people from slavery, it just gave them a new version of slavery to live under.
Now it’s up to us to accomplish what John Brown couldn’t and Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t. To abolish modern day slavery once and for all, we must wage a massive, relentless campaign of revolutionary nonviolence that spreads across the globe, and we need to live this revolution in perpetuity.
The first step is to convince ourselves that it can happen. We must reject the pessimism, defeatism, misanthropy and fatalism that are taught to us. We must deprogram ourselves from our indoctrination to believe violence and forced coercion is the only way to achieve order.
We need to realize that human beings are capable of evolving as a species to coexist more peacefully. Many people don’t believe a more peaceful future is possible because they are incapable of imagining what they can’t see. In reality, they are only creating artificial barriers in their minds. This inhibits our growth. We need to dare to dream, we need to remember how to dream. We need to reconnect with the intuition of the child, who knows that nothing is impossible. We are more powerful than we realize. Together we have the power to accomplish our dreams of peace and justice."
What do you think of the idea of erecting a 50 foot-tall statue of John Brown over the Naugatuck River in downtown Torrington?
"I admire Mark Linehan’s ambition, and I agree that we should do more to commemorate John Brown in Torrington. However, I believe rivers are beautiful just by themselves, and I'm hesitant to crowd them with man-made structures. I think we should have a dialogue as a community about how to commemorate him." •
Check out two other Observer stories about John Brown at...