“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” (Thomas Gray, “An Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”)
The horrific violence last week that took the lives of two innocent African Americans, followed by the killing of five Dallas police officers by a mentally disturbed Black veteran, has shaken the country. Anger and frustration mix with bewilderment and feelings of powerlessness. Signs of hope are harder to find. Appeals for racial justice now compete against calls for “law and order.” And the ground on which tens of millions stood a week ago, unstable as it was, has shifted and cracked in new and contradictory ways.
Whatever consensus was emerging to ameliorate the racial disparities in our criminal justice system and end the epidemic of black lives cut short by racist policing practices has been damaged under the weight of the events of last week. To what degree and for how long are questions that still don’t yet have answers. And this will probably not change anytime soon, given the contingency and fluidity of the moment.
Not unexpectedly, the media jumped into the fray, providing wall-to-wall coverage from disparate points of view. The Rupert Murdoch-owned right-wing media juggernaut did all it could to polarize racial divisions and turn Black Lives Matter (BLM) into an unwelcome stranger in its own land. Murdoch’s New York Post screamed “Civil War” on its front page on the day after the Dallas policemen were killed. Not to be outdone, its crosstown cousin – FOX TV – did no better. In fact, it did worse. FOX’s round-the-clock coverage of events went to great lengths to try to turn the demonstrators and their supporters, peacefully protesting the police killings of African Americans, into the responsible party for the tragic deaths of the five Dallas officers.
As for right-wing talk radio, its venom toward BLM had no bounds and its defense of indefensible police practices could only remind one of Hitler at the height of his oratorical powers. If the incendiary talk had a common thread it was to heighten racial tensions to a breaking point.
Other major media outlets did better, but by no means acquitted themselves honorably. I was dumbfounded when I watched Brian Williams on MSNBC – the “liberal” network – provide an uncontested platform for former New York City mayor and current Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani go on an irresponsible and demagogic rant about black-on-black crime, point an accusing finger at President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and label the Black Lives Matter movement “un-American.” That’s outrageous. BLM is continuing in its own way the long and honored American and African American democratic-radical tradition. Indeed, if there is a patriot in all this it isn’t Giuliani, or Trump. It’s BLM.
Though it doesn’t occupy the field of resistance to racist oppression and murder alone, its role – acquired by the force of its words and bodies – has been extraordinary. In insisting that a reluctant country, comfortable in the routine of its everyday life, turn its attention to what is an existential crisis facing young men of color, BLM has awakened a nation to a profound moral crisis that requires action from everyone of us. And it is this that drives the coordinated right-wing media gang-up to de-legitimatize BLM – and in doing so, to tame the entire movement to protect black lives and dull our moral compass.
Meanwhile Trump, to no surprise, was quick to appeal for “law and order,” while at the same time off-loading some of his most inflammatory rhetoric to his acolytes like Chris Christie and others. No doubt Trump and his advisors, well aware of their narrow pathway to the White House, see the events in Dallas as well as the attacks in San Bernardino and Brussels as unique opportunities to change the dynamics of the elections to their favor.
By contrast, both President Obama and Hillary Clinton appealed for healing, unity, and nonviolence, without burying the just demands of the protest movement against police violence and murder. In Tuesday’s powerful speech in Dallas, the president implored and challenged the many audiences that comprise this country. He also reminded everyone of how important it is to have someone measured and thoughtful, not given to recklessness, in the White House.
While nearly everyone condemned the violence that has left the country on edge, worried, and untrusting, few have acknowledged that state-sanctioned violence and coercion are foundational – if not singular – pillars in the formation and maintenance of structures and patterns of inequality and exploitation, and especially structures and patterns of racial inequality, oppression, and exploitation. No one should think that the police and security forces, prisons and mass incarceration, the hangman’s noose and the electric chair, “neutral” courts, laws, and sentencing practices, “Wars” on crime and drugs, and repressive and deadly police practices in the ghetto and barrio – not to mention the reservation – are simply to protect law abiding people in communities where people of color live.
Far more importantly, this far flung, well funded, and fully staffed apparatus is the necessary political and material infrastructure to defend a racial and social order from the actions of subordinate classes and people who are forced to live generation after generation in segregated, poverty-stricken, resource starved, and drug and gun-infested communities that cruelly deny their inhabitants their humanity and opportunities for a better life – a full and long life.
But what is also surprising in these circumstances isn’t that crime or violence occurs. It is that it doesn’t occur more and that so many people in the face of what seems like insurmountable obstacles and oppression are able to live in dignity and peacefully with one another, go to work every day, raise their children, build caring and stable families, accomplish great things in varied fields of endeavor, productively contribute to their communities and our society as a whole, while finding hope, laughter, and courage in the best of days and the darkest of nights.
All of which goes to prove that racism not only dissolves hope, dreams and dignity, tears apart families; incarcerates, profiles, and sanctions official violence; cuts short people’s lives, and reproduces grinding poverty in hyper-segregated communities. But it – and more to the point resistance to racism – also begets courage and wisdom, brings together people, inspires freedom songs and dreams, and turns people of color into a powerful and prophetic voice, a material force for democracy, equality, and peace, and leaders for anti-racist progressive and radical change.
At a moment like this, I find it useful to return to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He taught that racism was neither natural nor eternal. He considered it a debilitating, dehumanizing, and deadly system of oppression and exploitation. At the center of King’s moral vision was nonviolence and nonviolent mass action. As a philosophy and practice, he considered it the best way to speak truth to power and change the hearts (and values) of the inactive and indifferent, as well as throw the perpetrators of violence on the defensive. Nonviolence for King stood moral witness for the sacredness of life in a world that is quick to devalue lives, especially the lives of people of color and the poor.
Freedom seekers, he believed, who resorted to violence narrowed down popular support for their cause, shifted advantage to the upholders of racism, and dehumanized its practitioners no matter how just and righteous their demands.
At the core of nonviolent mass action was the building of majoritarian, multi-racial movements to eradicate racism, poverty, and war – King’s triplets of destruction and death. Such movements, and especially one that counts in the millions, King knew, are seldom of one mind. Invariably, they include people of diverse backgrounds and experiences as well as different orientations on matters of analysis, strategy, and tactics. Nevertheless, King resisted the pressures – and they were considerable – to narrow down the movement to only those fully on board and ready to embrace the most militant forms of action.
While King never abandoned the focus on ameliorating the worst features of racist oppression, it wasn’t the only ground he occupied. In a speech at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, King said,
” … we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
King here is bringing attention to the structural and institutional – the material and systemic – sources of racial oppression in its myriad forms, much like BLM is doing today. That didn’t diminish the urgency to struggle for immediate and partial reform measures for him, but it kept in sight that the overriding imperative is to dismantle the whole “edifice” of oppression and transform “the whole Jericho road.”
If he were alive today, it is fair to assume that he would deplore the violence, appeal for understanding and multi-racial unity, extend a welcoming hand to the labor movement, join the marchers this week protesting the latest racist killings, and be the first to defend BLM and other protesters. But he would also remind the American people and white people in particular that what happened last week, including the deaths of the Dallas policemen, can’t be separated from the whole edifice of racism and segregation and until that edifice is torn down – and the time is NOW – our country will face difficult trials.
Finally, King would use this moment to urge people of good will to play their part in the effort to defeat Trump and the rest of Republicans up and down the ticket. – and do it in a landslide like the presidential election of 1964 when Lyndon Johnson trounced the Republican conservative Barry Goldwater. King, unlike some on the left today, didn’t stand aloof from politics or the Democratic Party. Indeed, he understood that his freedom dreams and beloved community stood little chance of becoming a reality if the main levers of political power were in the hands of right-wing extremists – Goldwater in his time, Trump and many others who infest our legislative and judicial bodies at the federal and state levels in ours. The notion of disengaging from electoral and legislative work in the name of some abstract political principle was anathema to him.
Even when the Democratic Party was filled with Dixiecrats whose record of obstruction, nullification, and resistance to the freedom demands of the Civil Rights Movement was a matter of record, King didn’t yield to the idea that political action was a fool’s errand, especially when the future of our country, democracy, equality, democratic rights, peace, and a sustainable planet could well hang in the balance, as they did in 1964. My guess is that he would express a similar position today.