On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (August 28th), Michelle Alexander (whose book, The New Jim Crow, I mentioned and quoted from here) posted the following Facebook status update:
For the past several years, I have spent virtually all my working hours writing about or speaking about the immorality, cruelty, racism, and insanity of our nation’s latest caste system: mass incarceration. On this Facebook page I have written and posted about little else. But as I pause today to reflect on the meaning and significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I realize that my focus has been too narrow. Five years after the March, Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War, condemning America’s militarism and imperialism – famously stating that our nation was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He saw the connections between the wars we wage abroad, and the utter indifference we have for poor people, and people of color at home. He saw the necessity of openly critiquing an economic system that will fund war and will reward greed, hand over fist, but will not pay workers a living wage. Five years after the March on Washington, Dr. King was ignoring all those who told him to just stay in his lane, just stick to talking about civil rights. Yet here I am decades later, staying in my lane. I have not been speaking publicly about the relationship between drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home. I have not been talking about the connections between the corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with zeal, all while private prisons yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants. I have not been connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations,” and the spy programs of the 1960s and 70s – specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations, and assassinated racial justice leaders. I have been staying in my lane. But no more. In my view, the most important lesson we can learn from Dr. King is not what he said at the March on Washington, but what he said and did after. In the years that followed, he did not play politics to see what crumbs a fundamentally corrupt system might toss to the beggars of justice. Instead he connected the dots and committed himself to building a movement that would shake the foundations of our economic and social order, so that the dream he preached in 1963 might one day be a reality for all. He said that nothing less than “a radical restructuring of society” could possibly ensure justice and dignity for all. He was right. I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will be born again, all because we did not do what King demanded we do: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.
Amen, sister. The side of Dr. King that challenged America by calling it the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” is the side of him we conveniently look past, ignore, or forget. It sure as hell was never going to be the quote that we’d put on his monument in Washington, was it? But non-violence was part and parcel of what he was all about. As Americans we’ve always justified our violence by claiming that whatever historical bogeyman was current at the time required it. In Dr. King’s time it was communism. Now it’s terrorism. Of course there are real threats in the world – there always have been and always will be – and some degree of self-defense against them is necessary. But amplifying these threats beyond what they actually are is a cynical ploy by those with their hands on the levers of power (both in government and in corporations – which are increasingly indistinguishable from each other). These hands are banking, quite literally, on our continued fear, which they proceed to ratchet up at every opportunity. Don’t let them do it anymore. Be clear-eyed, but unafraid. And refuse to stay in your lane. And start connecting the dots.