The events of the last three days have been devastating. While I want to say that its all been unreal, the truth is the last few days are a microcosm of the times in which we live: police brutality, unfiltered black death recorded on cell phones, protests, mass shootings, calls for peace, love and brotherhood and an onslaught of voices attempting to move forward specific agendas on the back of all of this. It has happened close together, but make no mistake- this is the world in which we live.
So how are we to understand these events? Right now Im seeing a lot of appeals to MLK. In speeches, in photos, in tweets, in prayers, in interviews it seems the man killed by a sniper is the voice everyone wants to appeal to now. i understand why. MLK was brilliant and much of his wisdom has stood the test of time. The quote I am seeing most often right now is but one that seems as relevant today as it was when first written: "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
MLK certainly doesnt need my approval, but before I begin I want to say that I do agree with MLKs assessment of violence. While I agree with these words, we must stop taking MLK out of context. We must stop using MLKs words to reframe conversations, inserting them like weapons of our own to mean what we want them to mean. MLK did not chidingly say these words to his flock of protestors and then sit down. In an attempt to affirm the words but also give them context I have a few things I would ask you to consider.
1. Please read the entirety of Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? It is a book MLK wrote, not a two sentence speech that we have made it. In this book MLK is building a case for nonviolent action as the most useful weapon for the liberation of black bodies in America. He wrote it during the rise of the Black Power movement and is seeking to put that movement into context while also declaring his commitment to maintaining the principles of nonviolence. Why is this important? Because MLK was not suggesting through this statement that black people shouldn't demand justice. MLK was promoting a specific way through which he hoped black people would continue to seek justice. In this pages preceding the quote we love so much, MLK lays out the vast number of ways black Americans suffered injustice: murdered civil rights leaders, political clowns being elected to office based on white backlash (his words, not mine), black people's disproportionate rates of infant mortality, substandard housing, lower incomes, higher unemployment and a host of other issues that have yet to be resolved. But MLK does not leave us with these injustices, he outlines many prospects for their rectification including organized labor, eliminating discrimination in employment, credit, and public service, using political power, and eliminating poverty and much more. Some of the ideas King raises in this book would be considered radical today. So why does he end up talking about violence? Because he is nervous that the Black Power slogan/movement will lead to violence without a plan. To this end MLK begs black people not to be violent (catch this) in the same way that white people are violent. MLK is saying that if we (black people) imitate the violence of white people, than only more violence will follow because white people are not sympathetic to our cause for justice and are looking for reasons to stand against the cause for justice. In MLKs estimation, black people becoming violent is not only against his principal, but in his estimation simply will not work to achieve justice. That is the context of this statement, and we must be aware of that when we use it. MLK wrote every word in support of radical forms of justice, and the weapon he hoped to use in that endeavor was non-violence. Because returning white hatred in the form of violence would not work.
2. Which leads me to my second point. The use of this quote in response to the Dallas shooting is unfair. The protests were not violent. On this the protestors and the officers present have agreed. The man/men responsible for the Dallas shooting, then, is not an example of violence begetting violence. Perhaps what could be said for violence begetting violence is that the sniper was trained to war or that the multiple instances of police brutality/violence is the source. We need more details about his service and experiences before we could be adamant about either. The point is that chiding black lives matter protestors or supporters with the admonition that violence begets violence is unfair but it is also limited- on to point 3.
3. MLK is espousing/building an entire philosophy of nonviolence. So it is disingenuous to post about violence begetting violence when an officers life is on the line, but not when black civilians lives are on the line. If violence begets violence, than we all ought to be upset with EVERY unarmed murder of a black life, with EVERY mass shooting , with EVERY terrorist attack (local or global) and with EVERY form of violence at political rallies, school playgrounds, private residences and yes twitter feeds and comment sections. To use this phrase discriminately is to suggest that only violence against certain members of society promotes darkness and hatred. Either you believe King's entire philosophy for nonviolence as a way of life for all or you need to stop posting MLK quotes.
4. I humbly ask that you be vigilant in coming days as folks try to discredit not only the organization black lives matter but the very notion that black lives matter. You can absolutely mourn the loss of all the lives taken, without reducing the importance of systemic change.
5. I want to repeat what I have already stated on social media. This attack was frightening for everyone. During a peaceful march, a peaceful protest, bullets rained down on officers and civilians. A display of unity was violently interrupted and that should anger us all. It is deeply concerning that Im hearing on CNN (some) officers suggest that black lives matter is the problem instead of being angry that someone would so violate a peaceful protest by taking the lives of police. This would be true brotherhood. This would be the beloved community of which MLK speaks. And I fear what comes next when the Dallas Shooting is interpreted as anything other than a violation of both black lives matter and police officers, together. For this is exactly what King was trying to get us to understand, we have a choice between chaos or community.
I leave you with this, also from Where Do We Go From Here?
"One of the great liabilities of history is that too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we all live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together perish as fools.
We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually."
*I apologie for typos. I will try to circle back and fix them at a later time.