On November 8th, 2016, millions of Americans were unable to vote for our future president in what was arguably one of the most contentious presidential races of modern American history. Donald J. Trump is the president elect of the United States of America. As the Republican nominee, Trump ran an anti-establishment campaign that openly embraced xenophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia. Hillary R. Clinton, an established Democratic political figure most known for her time as First Lady and her recent role as the Secretary of State was unable to galvanize the support needed to beat her unlikely contender. Trump called Clinton, “crooked Hillary,” and it stuck. While the media focused on the email scandal, left leaning Democrats criticized Clinton for her investments in Wall Street, support of mass incarceration, shaky support of environmentalists, role in the imperial warfare state, and dogged commitment to neoliberalism. In the end, America chose an entrepreneur and former reality television star who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan over a woman with decades of political experience. In the wake of this election, our lack of voting rights is both a reminder of our dehumanizing history and a call to action.
The marginalization of people in America’s Insular Areas is the result of American colonial laws that date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, some argued that denying territorial inhabitants the right to full citizenship would ultimately undermine America’s democratic principles. Others argued that we were an inferior people of “alien races” and full citizenship would allow us to have a negative impact on the social fabric of the Union. Those who supported formally colonizing territorial inhabitants won. In the 1901 to 1922 Insular Cases, namely Downes v. Bidwell, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that we would be “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense.” In essence, the United States Constitution and its protections would not necessarily follow the flag. Instead, our rights would be determined by the United States Congress. The history of America’s insular areas is riddled with systemic disenfranchisement in the form of annexation without consent, militarized governance, truncated voting rights, no constitutional right to citizenship, and peripheral economies to name a few. We must continue to address our present political status under the American flag because it entails a robust history of human rights violations.
We deserve more than a continuous struggle under the political status quo. It is 2016 and we are still under the plenary power of the United States Congress. We cannot vote for President and we cannot elect a voting member of Congress. How long are we going to send loved ones to war under the directive of leaders that we did not elect? The young people of this territory ought to be acutely aware of the fact that we deserve more than “second class citizenship”.With the Transfer Day Centennial on the horizon, this is an opportune time for these discussions. There are many U.S. Virgin Islanders who are addressing the issue of our political status; there are many more who are willing and able to do the same. We should all be as engaged as possible. We inherited this struggle for self determination and we each have our role to play.
The landscapes of these islands are beautiful but the beauty of this place also lies in the love and legacy of a people who fervently struggled for freedom. We inherited an incredibly rich radical tradition. Our home is the site of one of the first insurrections led by enslaved Africans in the Western hemisphere, the 1733 Slave Rebellion. Black Danish West Indians demanded the emancipation of the enslaved in 1848. The 1878 Labor Riots continued this vein of resistance against exploitation and domination. I’m talking about the vision and grit of Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Matilda. I’m talking about coal workers who dared to strike and intellectual giants like Edward Wilmot Blyden, the father of Pan-Africanism, and Hubert Harrison, a prominent Black socialist organizer. Our history includes people like David Hamilton Jackson. He was a man who pushed for freedom of the press, the rights of working people, and equality. These islands were critical to the development and sustenance of Rastafari. This radical tradition continued with union organizers and members going to bat to mitigate some of the more dehumanizing aspects of the early tourism industry in the Virgin Islands. This territory raised people like Theovald Moorehead, who worked tirelessly to stop the condemnation of an island and the displacement of a people for the establishment of the Virgin Islands National Park. There are so many others in our radical tradition and this is our tradition to build on.
Frantz Fanon, the Martinique born revolutionary, said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
We must decolonize our territory. Decolonization is a significant portion of this generation’s mission. We have several status options to consider— independence, free associated status, the status quo, and statehood. Decolonization will include a lot of work. We do not presently have the infrastructure needed to support autonomy. We have to ensure that our culture, economy, political system, and education system are ready for the transition that we choose to make. However, this is no time for complacency. We must choose.
A plan of action could be organized around five phases.
- The first phase would center research. There are a lot of gaps in the academic literature on the period of American rule, 1917 to the present. We, however, need to have a clear understanding of the the impact of American rule on our local infrastructure. We have to conduct more research on the territory and comb through the existing literature. How has American rule helped us? How has it hurt us? How have other nations pursued decolonization? What were their successes and what were their failures? How has America treated other people of color who sought full access to American citizenry— namely Indigenous people, Native Hawaiians, Blacks in America, and Immigrants of color? What discourses are circulating in America’s other territories— Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa? What can we learn from these histories and how can we use all of the above information to assess our strengths and our weaknesses? Finally, what are the pros and cons of each status.
- The second phase would focus on community awareness campaigns. Those who actively participated in conducting and compiling the research will need to disseminate the findings to the public. We will have to host more community discussions for two key reasons. We want to make sure that every Virgin Islander understands the issue and we also want community input. Often, researchers have blind spots that our community can point out before it is too late.
- Phase 3 should focus on infrastructure building. We will incorporate the research data and community input to do the work needed to improve our economy, advance our education system, lower crime, decrease political corruption, and increase the viability of a smooth transition. This is the phase where we focus on accumulating the resources needed for an increase in autonomy.
- Once we have done all of this, we can enter Phase 4, the Vote. If we ask people to vote before we do the research and build infrastructure, the outcome will be skewed by the limitations of our current socio-political and economic climate. We do not want a vote that was overdetermined by fear. Instead, we want to vote from a space of increased clarity.
- Phase 5 is the transition to the form of governance chosen. In order for any of this to be possible, we have to believe in our capacity to enact change.
The election of 2016 was a reminder, a warning, and a call to action. While the two candidates were not comparable, they shared investments in white supremacy, imperialism, American hegemony, neoliberalism, and predatory capitalism.
There is no part of me that believes that voting rights can solve our problems. Our issues are greater than that. We’ve been colonized for so long that each of our prospective political options could make things worse if we don’t do the work necessary to actively decolonize this space.
A call to action is just that. The question is, “how will we answer it?”
In solidarity always,