“I put the black glove on my right hand and Carlos the left one of the same pair. My raised fist meant the power of black America. That of Carlos the unity of black America. Together we formed an arc of unity and strength”
Now that I see that image again, I understand the reason for my emotion. I understand it only now, after forty years: I was almost in love with Tommie. I took the poster with the memorable scene from house to house, city to city, until a few years ago. Then it disappeared, lost in one of the last transfers.
I contemplate the photo with a kind of lump in my throat. I am still moved by his right fist gloved in black, facing the sky, his long slender and muscular arm, his beautiful head bent almost in prayer. I am still impressed by the imposing but gentle figure for its perfect proportions, all tense in that gesture as ostentatious as it is intense: a body exposed with challenge and pride yet collected as in meditation. Above all his bare feet have always struck me. Not only for the message, all too explicit and eloquent, but also because they express an unconscious Franciscan humility that is touching.
Only now, after forty years, does that image also evoke to me a sort of symbolic crucifixion: Tommie Smith, at the center of the podium, is the black Christ rising above the two thieves next to him. The good African-American thief, John Carlos, repeats his gesture with his left fist and wears a necklace made of small stones, almost grains of a rosary, each of which alludes to a black man lynched or killed just because he claimed his rights. The second thief, Peter Norman, with his arms softly along his almost mute body, is in fact not insignificant, he seems just a little less involved. Sure, he is a participant and accomplice, but although he fought for the rights of the Australian Aborigines, he is not the main author of that subversive message.
Nevertheless, he too wore the badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a movement that gathers the best African-American athletes and claims equality, justice, respect, not only in sport, but also in every other field: economic, social, civil, political ... It must be said, en passant, that many other athletes belonging to the same acronym had decided not to participate at all in the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and this as a form of protest for the assassination of Martin Luther King, which occurred on April 4 of the same year, which would be followed on June 5 the same year by that of Robert F. Kennedy.
I was almost in love with Tommie because he was a seductive body that made itself a political message. Because it was a political message that became an erotic body. I then, in the mythical 1968, had just begun to stammer that kind of message. I felt that they were true, but too many and too loud. I was afraid that their truth might get lost in the echo of the screamed and repeated slogans.
I knew that our bodies were too domesticated to say without words. Not free enough — as can be the bodies of those who have preserved the memory of slavery — to be so erotically subversive: our eros, which we had just discovered, was still locked in private however multiple intercourse.
Carlos e Smith, 50 years later
A peaceful and subversive protest
So far this is what I was writing, for myself, on October 16, 2008, forty years after the memorable protest, as powerfully symbolic as it is sober and silent, made by Tommie Smith, aka The Jet, and John Carlos, with the complicity of the white Australian, Peter Norman, during the award ceremony of the Olympic Games in Mexico City: just in the city where a few days earlier, on October 2on the Three Cultures Sqare, in the Tlatelolco district, the State massacre of hundreds of people, mostly students involved in the movement, had taken place.
When, in the stadium, the notes of The Star-Spangled Banner began to resound, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads and raised their closed fist gloved in black: a powerfully subversive gesture. And all the more courageous was their protest for the fact that the three of them, in the final 200 meters, were winning: in the first place there was Smith, who with his 19″83 was the first in the world to go under 20″; in the second there was Norman (20″06), in the third Carlos (20″10).
They could, therefore, take advantage of their brilliant performances to start a bright athletic career. And, instead, as soon as they left the podium, it would be crushed and their life would become hell. Their protest had, of course, immediate and very broad resonance and success, so much so that it became almost mythical, also thanks to the echo exerted by the spread of the 1968 movement in a very large area of the world. Nevertheless, Smith and Carlos would be forced to leave Mexico within 48 hours, then marginalized, forced to do the most humble jobs, so insulted, threatened, persecuted that the wife of the latter would end up committing suicide.
Even Norman, once back in his country, would be treated like a pariah and never again run for the Olympics, despite being the greatest Australian sprinter ever seen at that time. After he died of a massive heart attack on October 3, 2006, Tommie and John rushed to Melbourne to attend his funeral: they carried his coffin.
I can't breathe: today's widespread revolt against police ferocity and social inferiorization
One might wonder whether the mythical protest of October 16, 1968 still retains such a symbolic and political value that it makes sense today.
One thinks of the revolt, not always peaceful, that broke out in Minneapolis and immediately spread widely, following the atrocious and completely arbitrary police murder of the defenceless African-American George Floyd, suffocated by the knee of a policeman who nailed him to the ground, without any resistance from him. It was followed by many other racist murders, equally by the police, brutally instigated by Donald Trump, who threatened to use the army against the insurgents. All this contributes to demonstrate how ferocious and structural racism is still in the United States, institutional and not, against African-Americans, but also against people of Hispanic origin.
So much so that Barack Obama himself recently stated that “for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’ — whether it’s while dealing with the healthcare system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park”.
Such an abnormal ferocity and seriality of police repression, up to the normalization and trivialization of murder, has caused, in this case, that a not insignificant number of white people joined and participated in the revolt; and even a part of the same police who, in New Jersey and elsewhere, even took to the streets to protest alongside the demonstrators. It should be added that even the approach of the local authorities was mostly one of understanding and dialogue with the demonstrators.
All this not to mention the health emergency that has caused taht most affected by Covid19 were African-Americans, with a mortality rate three times higher than that of “whites”. The pandemic also caused an extremely high level of unemployment: at least 40 million people lost their jobs. Among these, the percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics, men and women, is enormously high.
In short, to solicit such a widespread and widespread uprising, there is not only the senseless and serial police brutality, but also the progressive inequalities and the dramatic growth of unemployment and social marginalization. It is no coincidence that the revolt is influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, which already in 2014, when it was born, affirmed a political vision capable of combining antiracism with class struggle and anti-sexism.
After all, such a dialectic could be represented, even today, by the symbolism of that distant October 16, 1968: the black fist raised, the bare feet, the necklace of small stones symbolizing the lynched African-Americans.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.