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Farrakhan’s legacy can inspire new beginning

Photo by Glenn Tucker ¬ Minister Louis Farrakhan Rene interview at Fairmont Hamilton Princess.

It has been six years since Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, visited Bermuda. He came to deliver a national address regarding the grassroots call of the Emperial Group of Companies for the adaption of “Unity in the Community — World Vibe fighting with peace, not for it”.

His visit was part of a sustained campaign to galvanise public opinion in the face of a range of controversial issues, including racism, gang violence, the Guantánamo Bay deal with Barack Obama and the uncertainty of the global recession.

Many, including myself, were surprised to find that Farrakhan was welcomed to Bermuda by the United Bermuda Party. My colleague, and now Premier of Bermuda, Michael Dunkley, who was then the Shadow Minister of National Security, took the bold step of welcoming this event and endorsing the vision behind it and the organisers.

Many have probably forgotten that this event ever happened. But the present outcry in the US about racism and social violence obliges us to look at our own progress, or lack thereof, on these vexing issues. They say “when America sneezes, Bermuda catches a cold”. So what would make us believe we are truly immune this time around? Bermuda is another world in our isolation and complexity, but we are not immune to the pervasive influence of American culture and perhaps never will be.

Farrakhan’s visit to Bermuda marked one such high-water mark of the “Big Conversation” that enabled us to set the stage to overcome our racially polarising tendencies. By accommodating the firebrand character of Farrakhan, we were equipping ourselves to work together on our own “hardcore” differences of opinion.

In many ways, Farrakhan’s visit was the ultimate test of our ideological tolerance levels. The UBP had banned him from Bermuda in the 1980s and the black community rallied to have him visit the Island in the 1990s. The five-day visit in 2009 paved the way for a focused atmosphere across the community on matters of racial transparency. And it worked. The big question is, why didn’t we follow through?

The minister brought a supercharged spotlight to the substance of racial collaboration by virtue of his unmatched legacy as the creator of the unprecedented Million Man March on Washington in 1995 with a message of atonement.

Without a doubt, I had to take the words of Michael Dunkley to heart as he called for new leadership to enter the national stage. I decided to work with people of similar thinking to pursue a strategy for structural change which led to the formation of the Bermuda Democratic Alliance and ultimately the dissolution of the UBP. The rest is history.

I know that I was especially inspired by the 2008 election campaign of Barack Obama to look at Bermuda politics in a different light. I borrowed heavily from his playbook to advocate an agenda for change that ultimately led to the formation of the OBA. There is no doubt in my mind that this decision also helped to persuade the people of Bermuda to give the OBA an unprecedented victory at the polls.

America’s present state of race relations has far more sobering implications for Bermuda. Unlike the Obama campaign, which ran on aspirations of unity and hope, their present circumstances seem far more polarising and destructive. America is now visibly at war with itself regarding its racist legacy, and so is Bermuda.

We cannot afford to simply shrug our way through the latest headlines. International scrutiny on our tax structure, the predictable jousting about Bermuda in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election and the global spotlight of the 2017 America’s Cup do not afford us the comfort of our usual blinkered perspective.

So now, I am calling for a national strategy of racial atonement in keeping with the standard set by Louis Farrakhan when he visited Bermuda in 2009. It’s important to remember rare moments of racial healing such as this for their intrinsic value.

With the strong flanking of the Emperial Group, Farrakhan showed us how his own Bermuda heritage and the legacy of the Million Man March could be used to go beyond the “Big Conversation” and bring self-forgiveness to the cause of “Unity in the Community” between our various factions.

This same process can have transformative implications today given that we are on the cusp of the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March in October. There is a looming tidal wave of American public opinion arching in favour of the “Bermuda Farrakhan” model. Like any approaching hurricane, we need to prepare for the worst now and hope for the best later. I feel compelled to repeat that I can’t help but see the strong, positive implications that exist.

As Bermudians, we have the prerequisites to forgive ourselves for any failures of the past and take ownership of our immediate challenges whether they be environmental, political, economic, social or spiritual. We must pull together our island strengths, work together for the common good and growth of the Island.

The celebrity and activist alumni of the Million Man March have constructed a blueprint called the BlockTek U-Campus, which is a multi-tenant business incubator and technology theme park that the Emperial Group believes may provide an opportunity to reignite the national agenda in the same spirit of the Million Man March.

I champion its willingness to propose a practical initiative that I believe is one way that we can begin to ignite “Unity in the Community”.

• Craig Cannonier is the Minister of Public Works and MP for Devonshire South Central (Constituency 12)