On MLK, Peace, Protest and Anarchy
By now, we’ve all seen the videos from the streets of Washington DC on Inauguration Day.
The burning trash can. The vandalized limo. The group of masked anarchists smashing windows.
And chances are we’ve shared our opinion on these images. Now as the masses prepare to march in demonstrations all over the country tomorrow, let’s talk about what was going on today. And let’s set it in some historical context.
On March 28, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in a march in Memphis, TN. This particular march was in support of a sanitation workers strike*. Dr. King was unrelenting in his philosophy of nonviolent protest, but his schedule had become so hectic that he was not involved in the organizational or training efforts for this particular march.
During the protest, a group of young men became violent. They smashed windows of downtown businesses, and chaos ensued. As some folks started to loot the businesses, the police aggressively moved to subdue the crowd. It was an incredibly ugly scene.
None of this sat well with Dr. King. As the Civil Rights movement progressed, he sensed greater and greater pushback from within the Black community to his call for nonviolence. He warned the broader American society about this when he characterized riots as the “language of the unheard.”
Indeed, these young men who “started” this particular “riot” did so because they had no patience for the process of nonviolent protest. They had no hope that things would change by way of nonviolence. While they couldn’t wage a full-scale war on their own, they did know that they could throw a moment into chaos that would perhaps pull others into the cycle of violence.
All of this greatly concerned Dr. King. So much so that it was imperative to him that a peaceful march occur in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers. A march was scheduled for April 5, but it had to be put off as The Southern Christian Leadership Conference fought a court injunction in order to get approval for the march. The march eventually had to be pushed back to April 8, the details of which were going to be agreed to at a meeting on April 5.
Unfortunately, that march on April 8 never happened. It was on April 4 that Dr. King gave his final famous “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis. A speech that one can hardly watch wondering how convinced Dr. King was in his heart that perhaps his life would be coming to an end soon. And indeed, it would be the very next day that Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in front of some of his closest friends.
Back to this moment in time, and how history informs our understanding of what we saw today. We saw thousands of people peacefully protesting on the streets of Washington DC. We saw a group of masked individuals smashing windows and burning a trash can and destroying a car.
This group has self-identified as a Black bloc style Anarchist group that focuses on the destruction of property as a means of protest. In reality, their chief goal is to destabilize the situation so that it will spiral into “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.”
The anarchists know that police forces will be on edge. The anarchists know that some folks intending to march peacefully can be drawn into violent reactions to authority. The anarchists know that images of them smashing and burning property will cycle on every screen that you own and make you feel raw emotion. Anarchists know that their actions will embolden others to follow in their footsteps if they lose hope that their institutions will provide the space and opportunity to peacefully protest.
For my friends who are protesting tomorrow, I commend you. It is clear that this administration is going to force us to relitigate many of the civil rights we have attained over the last 60+ years. That is worth speaking up against. But in your zeal and courage, please be smart. The beauty of these protests are that they are organic and broad and will bring together people from multiple backgrounds to speak with one voice. But there is a certain decentralized aspect to the gatherings that could make it difficult if people not dedicated to peace decide to show up. Stay aware. Have a plan. Dedicate yourself to peace.
For my friends who don’t understand why people would protest and who are watching on their screens, I encourage you to be skeptical and curious and a bit empathetic. Right now there are a lot of folks in this country who feel disenfranchised because a person who lost the popular vote rather handily is now the President. And this President has signaled through his rhetoric and appointments that he does not affirm the inherent dignity of all people. It’s foundationally important that people are allowed to exercise their first amendment rights, and that we take the time and effort to look at the complexities of these situations. This can take some digging since those complexities aren’t always presented to us by the media.
It took too long and the price was far too steep, but that peaceful march finally happened in Memphis. It was led by Corretta Scott King just a few days after the murder of her husband. History never remembers the bravery of women adequately, does it? But we should remember that in the midst of her grief, she not only led that peaceful march, but at the end of the march she offered up words that spoke of redemption.
Stark disagreement is never easy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to pay attention to what is happening and hear each other out so we can figure this out.
*The Smithsonian issued a documentary called “MLK: The Assassination Tapes” that I highly recommend. It covers the final days of Dr. King’s life and is a powerful film.