Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dear White America: Please Stop Talking About Martin Luther King Jr., 'Non-Violence', and the Baltimore 'Riots'

Freddie Gray was killed by Baltimore's police. Baltimore's ghetto youthocracy responded with protests and an exhalation of random street violence. The killing of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man who was a victim of racial profiling and harassment by police, is the proximate cause of Baltimore's "riot".

The deeper and more substantive causes of Baltimore's violent spasm (and Ferguson and other sites as well) are long simmering grievances and righteous anger at an American police establishment that is racist towards black Americans, and a society where its supposed "meritocracy" is broken by the colorline and class inequality.

The United States may have a black man who happens to be President; racial equality, justice, and the radically democratic transformative possibilities that Obama symbolized seven years ago have not been translated into substantive improvements in the life chances for people of color more generally, or the black and brown poor in particular.

There is a ritual that accompanies these moments of protest by black Americans, and the wholly predictable urban unrest that follows the repeated killings of unarmed black people by police.

The high priests of public opinion take to the TV, radio, and Internet and summon the memory of Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn black folks who are "rioting", for the latter are violating the sacred covenant of "non-violence" for which King, as one of America's greatest leaders and martyrs, supposedly died.

The man and woman on the street participate in this act of American civil religion as well. They mutter some basic understanding of Dr. King's dream, spittle accompanying a phrase about the Civil Rights Movement, as they shake their heads in consternation at the violent protests in Baltimore and elsewhere.

The high priests of public opinion on the dais, and those who sit in the pews of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as civil religion, are engaged in futile acts of conjuring. They are trying to channel a weak and flattened memory of a man, one that has been reduced to selling fast food in January and February, made into an onerous statue at Washington's mall, and reduced to a paragraph that is ripped from a towering speech.

If the legacy of the real Dr. King--his radical politics, vision, and challenging words and deeds for an America sick with white supremacy, class inequality, war mongering, and hatred for the poor--was properly channeled, it would deafen the chattering classes and broad swaths of the American public.

The real Dr. King is akin to the Old Ones or the Elder Gods. They and he are not to be summoned without care, for reasons disingenuous, or to help with a fool's errand.

The impotent summoning of Dr. King in a time of crisis (with its righteous, justifiable, protest and rage against police thuggery, and a cruel State that cares more about protecting property and its out of control racist police, than in justice for black and brown Americans and the poor) is enabled by a flat and weak understanding of the Black Freedom Struggle and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in it.

The Civil Rights Movement contained multiple elements with often conflicting interests and strategies. Non-violence was not an empty phrase: it existed and found power in relation to those who wanted a more robust, direct, and if necessary, armed response to white supremacy and anti-black hatred. The Civil Rights Movement was able to use the media in the context of the Cold War, and white elites' anxieties about perception management abroad in an era of Jim and Jane Crow, to win its incremental gains.

Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been canonized as an American saint. At the time of his assassination and martyrdom, King was one of America's most hated and despised public figures.

In these times of troubles it is easy and intellectually lazy for people to mouth-breath some selection selectively misquoted and misappropriated from the I Have a Dream speech, as opposed to meditating on King's analysis of systemic power and inequality as embodied by his observation that "a riot is the language of the unheard".

King elaborated on the relationship of urban disorder to the struggle for full human rights and dignity for black American in his "The Other America" speech where he stated that:
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
If one persists in channeling Dr. King in these conversations about the urban unrest, "rioting", and exhalations by the ghetto youthocracy (and others) in Baltimore and elsewhere across the United States in response to police thuggery, it should be done with great care.

Black Americans have a special relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. He is "ours". As such, the black community has an obligation to ensure that his memory, legacy, and wisdom are not misappropriated. Unfortunately, the black chattering classes and elites are more often than not agents and enablers of a weakened vision of King's vision as political expediency and neoliberal governmentality pay great lucre to their agents.

Since before the Founding, White America has largely been on the wrong side of history regarding matters of race and justice. Because of this fact, all white Americans should exercise great care when trying to summon Dr. Martin Luther King's memory as a means of subverting, lecturing to, or deflecting the justice claims (and anger) of Black Americans.

Both white conservatives and white liberals should abide by such a rule.

This is especially true for white conservatives in the Age of Obama, a moment when conservatism and racism are fused together by the White Right in the form of a Republican Party that is the United States' leading white supremacist organization.

As such, the Republican Party embraces herrenvolk politics, is working to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, further criminalize the poor, and has actively worked to undermine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a better America.

If our white brothers and sisters are not willing to do the necessary work to understand and grapple with the radical Dr. King, and his role as one of the "founding fathers" of the new America that was made after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is best they not summon him.

Perhaps, as White America tries to understand the anger, upset, and pain of black Americans in an age of surveillance, police brutality, cruelty, class inequality, and mass incarceration, it would be an easier task from them to read some poetry by Yeats or Eliot.

For example, as black folks are killed on video by America's police and the latter usually go free because of the white racial paranoiac gaze, the specter of black death (and its inherent threat to black folks' full humanity) is captured by the inevitability and malaise of Eliot's The Wasteland:

The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs

Yeats' The Stolen Child is also an appropriate theme for black life in an age of mass incarceration and police violence with its refrain "for the world is more full of weeping than you can understand".

Perhaps it would be best if most Americans simply took Dr. King out of their mouths, defaulting to different wisdom as offered by other people, for they are not really interested in understanding the true power of Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s radical vision and truth-telling about white supremacy and class inequality in America?

Ultimately, "non-violence" robbed of meaning and context is just an empty incantation for America's civil religion of "racial equality".


KissedByTheSun said...

Today "non-violence" basically means "take it, as if you like it". That in the face of mounting injustices black people should quietly utilize all of the inept processes that ensure the stability of the status quo. So something something about doing the opposite of not voting, pants below the butt, living outside of ones financial means, listening to rap music, and so forth will be trotted out as superior alternatives to "rioting".

I was going to say something about how rioting doesn't help but you know what forget it. I'm not apologizing for other black folks behavior to the same people who applauded "Arab Spring".

Wild Cat said...

I live in Northern Manhattan. I commute downtown on the A train each day to perform propaganda duties to hold the masses in check by making them feel wonderful about themselves or providing them with a fantasy. (Right now I'm at work making a few measly bucks glorifying some of our most odious military scumbags intruding on nations that did them no harm---my profession is full of cheap whores such as myself.)

Whatever, back to the A train (and it's not Ellington's because it has no beauty, but it still goes through Harlem and Harlem's crumbling subway-station infrastructure). The A train during each rush hour features many people. Low-paid White trifles such as myself; white students; Latino and African-American women neatly dressed for office jobs; some Asian people, also on their way to work. However, there are missing demographics: African-American males and Latino males. They are the ghosts of this odious machine, this machine of prisons and stop-and-frisk, the machine of segregation and intimidation. The machine that murders souls.

I'm rambling. Forgive me. But these White shits---and they are shits---when not enslaving and when not killing in the Congo will just as easily kill each other (100,000,000 White-on-White killings in the 20th c. alone). They're addicted to Death, and their machine must be stopped.

Gable1111 said...

The calls for calm ring hollow. People were "calm" in the wake of many of these killings, and got zero response as a result. The only purpose for it is to maintain the status quo, which continues to be deadly to black and brown people.

Its sickening to hear the people who couldn't give a rat's behind about King when he was alive, quote him now, as if in so doing that somehow inoculates their participation in the evil King called out, and masks their true intent, which is to let things "quiet down" so as to not be reminded of the injustices perpetrated in the name and maintenance of white supremacy. Injustices that become too acceptable in the lack of any response. These riots are that response.

Were he alive, King would probably be calling for the violence to stop, but he would also be calling to account those who condone the state violence and do nothing so long as it is projected at POC and the poor. He'd be calling out the police violence as well.

What we need to do as black folk, allies of black folk, POC and the poor is to understand King beyond the fairy tale commercialized, "Dream" version that white America has misappropriated for their own ends, to feel good about themselves, as if being able to misquote King on "content of character" is equivalent to them being proactive or actually giving a damn.

We need to understand the revolutionary side of the man, the side that got him killed, and the speeches and quotes he made that, if they really wanted to cite King, they'd be citing those quotes in response to the state violence that is visited upon the poor and POC.

TenarDarell said...

The non-violence that the news media advocates, while kneeling at a false memory of Dr. King, was never non-violent. There was tons of violence. It was the violence of the police and white mobs performed over and over again in front of the gaze of cameras.

I do wonder about the links between the media, violence and their choice of images. There were peaceful protests all last week. Yet in the 24/7 news cycle, it appears that no one in the news was really paying attention in advance of #HackProm; now that they have a few violent images to show, it's a big, 24 hour, CNN sending in Don Lemon story. There's something there.

To me, it seems like the media doesn't show the images from Baltimore of the cops in riot gear charging towards the peaceful protesters that much, or creates false balance by showing images of mob violence. (IIRC this happened in Ferguson too). What changed between the 50's and 60's and now? Or, was there really only a brief moment, before the status quo in the news managed to reassert itself?

Kameshwari Kate said...

Maybe white Americans, especially those that consider themselves liberal oriented, would consider the politics of Ghandi, instead of MLK. Everything changes with that perspective.

OldPolarBear said...

Chauncy, this is just superb and I can hardly add anything to it. But this is a comment board, so I will go ahead and mention a couple of things it made me think of.

Among other things, I liked how you said "non-violence" just become an empty incantation. I think I have mentioned Derrick Jensen here before. His main area is environmentalism, but he also ties that into abuse and oppression of people of color, women and indigenous people. He said something in one of his talks regarding how particular audiences of especially white liberals react when being urged to take action of some kind. Before anything else, they have to assert and affirm their commitment to non-violence. I tried to find the video of him saying this with no luck, so I have to approximate: "Whenever the question of violence even comes up," he says, "it's like a mantra with them: gandhimartinlutherkingrobertkennedy." In other words, a way to avoid doing anything before they even get started.

Not that any sort of levity is really appropriate here, but if at some point you want to try some comic relief, Jensen does kind of a funny bit in one of his talks mocking the non-violence fetish by describing an earlier version of Star Wars that was written by environmentalists. It goes for about 8 minutes, and then he has some other interesting comments about what is and is not considered violence, starting about 30 minutes in.

chauncey devega said...

Violence and rioting are good for "them" and always bad for "us".

chauncey devega said...

Revolutionary King? You mean the one who sells McDonald's and Apple products? They wouldn't know what to do with his true words and vision.

chauncey devega said...

America is a death culture. I will share something on that later this week.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for the link. Glad you liked the essay. Just trying to say what must be said.

chauncey devega said...

Gandhi's politics are misunderstood and flattened to. He was one hell of a complex man.

chauncey devega said...

Black folks are violent ingrates who are barely removed from civilization according to the White Gaze. The white racial frame and anti-black narrative playing out as we speak is obvious as to be pathetic.

seeknsanity said...

I just think it is rather perverse considering King was violently killed by one of them, as a reward for all of his peaceful protesting. Just playing the suggestion out in the mind, to its ultimate end. Translates to "be quiet and wait for us to kill you."

Char said...

What was a strategy has been perverted into a moral expectation that Blacks not meet violence with violence.

Char said...

They have a major political faction named after a riot.

Gable1111 said...

The King they know is the commercialized "McKing."

They couldn't square their insistence on whiteness validating King who said this:

"White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo. … There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity."

King regularly dropped similar bombs of truth such as this:

"It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle; the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism."

Now safely dead, this is the King they want to pretend did not exist.

balitwilight said...

Ghandi's politics were based on the leverage inherent in a British colony - India - and its indigenous majority to bring the machinery of British colonialism to a grinding halt with general strikes and other actions.
America's "white" majority *could* bring the machinery here to a grinding halt (the "black" minority can't). Unfortunately, the "white" majority doesn't even attempt this in matters of its own economic exploitation, largely because (and here is the supreme irony and intersection) the "white" majority is more concerned with maintaining its privileged bogus identity of "whiteness", than resisting its condition as an exploited class.
Simply put - after 400 years of a culture marinating willingly in the lies and mythology of race, most "white" Americans are more motivated by tribalism, contempt and fear than they are by hope.

Veri1138 said...

He played hard ball when he had to. Wasn't above fighting dirty when it came to politics, even after The British exited India.

Veri1138 said...

Could be that so many White Americans have been disenfranchised that they seek to lash out against anyone. Consider that The Baby Boom generation had everything in their grasp, and then lost it all through their own votes and actions.

People don't like to look in the mirror. They like to find Others to blame for their own actions.

And in doing so, they lash out with violence. And support violence. Anything to make them feel better if they believe *key* that they are winning.

Veri1138 said...

Forgot to add: that America has been turned into a death culture. That many have lost so much hope for the future, that they believe there is almost no other way.

Veri1138 said...

Kind of like Che Guevarra being sold on t-shirts by H&M to rich kids going off to a G20 protest as a form of rebellion, before joining their parent's in the corporate world, later on in life.

Actually happens.

kokanee said...

Righteous anger, Chauncey. Righteous anger, Baltimore. WTF did people expect to happen when black men are repeated harassed, demeaned and killed by white police officers? Why are people more concerned with property damage rather than a string of murdered people, many only children and young adults?

"Black police officer kills unarmed white man. No charges or indictment expected," said no one ever.

James Scaminaci III, PhD said...

I shared this on my Facebook page. I am so glad you wrote this, though it seems like you've written this before. It seems with white folks they need repetition to learn something; they are slow. I am so sick and tired of my Facebook comments coming from white people quoting what Cornel West called the "Santa Claus" version of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. They think that if they recite the "I have a dream part" that they are enlightened. And then they call the protesters "animals," "thugs," "garbage," "from the jungle," and want the police to shoot them. Goddamn, even when I tell them point blank that their "inner Klan" is showing, they just double down. The white supremacist mentality is so hard to get through.

Kameshwari Kate said...

I didn't intend to suggest that I believed that Ghandi was non-violent. The facts are out that he created opportunities for types of violence in order to move his message, actions and results. From what I read, he not only did this in the political arena, he used a type of violence in his own ashram among his closest aides. It is my understanding that he used a form of violence to get leverage for getting his most desired results.
Yes, he was a complex man!

Wild Cat said...

They were always violent here, whether toward themselves, Native Americans, or their slaves. In Europe, they're savages---public hangings of the poor were family fare for ages.

The various white tribes moved here and in modern times they joined forces by making African Americans the Common Enemy. You have normally disenfranchised ex-Europeans (Jews, Italians, Irish) pissing on Black people for eons over here. It makes them feel "American."

Look at your average White American's solution to every human problem: "Bomb them!"

The US is a psychotic nation.

joe manning said...

Cornell West's "Radical King" accurately characterizes the man's uncompromising politics. beacon.org/The-Radical-King. While Michael Eric Dyson represents the white washed black bourgeoisie of Baltimore and all big cities, including cops and city officials of color. They exemplify the "class imperative" of "whitening," which corrupts us and turns us against the poor and the inexorably "getting poorer." Witness division and conquering in action.

Wild Cat said...

You should see their enablers in my profession: White, usually gay, upper-class editors so rabid for a book that sells they'll publish (with great fanfare and excess) the most racist and homphobic feces from and for the Fox Fascism crowd. I know Chris Hedges is a tad off these days from religious despair, but his "Death of the Liberal Class" lecture hits on these points.

Buddy said...


You got mentioned on boingboing.net


Cory Doctorow (author of "Little Brother") Xeni Jardin (journalist, cancer survivor and SO of Miles O'Brien) and others run that blog. Expect an uptick in traffic.

BobbyV said...

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

James Baldwin, Letter to My Nephew on the One
Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation

Black Romulan said...

There's a ongoing white riot going on in Nevada over grazing fees as we speak...

Black Romulan said...

"Why are people more concerned with property damage rather than a string of murdered people, many only children and young adults?"
Because blacks aren't property any more, thus we aren't valued as such (in some people's eyes). Hell, when blacks were still slaves white Americans were willing to fight a couple of wars over us; now, not so much.

kokanee said...

Which only bolsters my argument that northern whites are just as racist -if not more so -as southern whites and that abolishing slavery was an economic decision and not a moral one.

Dan Kasteray said...

Well like a wife beater whose spouse is leaving him,the powers that be ramped up every bad behavior

Dan Kasteray said...

Well conservatism is the worship of dead radicals. Whether its Chris Kyle or Martin Luther, a dead man can neither verbally kick your ass or stick his foot in his mouth

Muttonbird said...

On America as a culture of death....
I came to this country as a ten year-old and not by choice to a Midwestern city, St. Louis, Missouri. Through those child-eyes, I was shocked by the the absurdity of inequity and the racial system of this country. Crossing Delmar Boulevarde to see beautiful brick buildings left to rot. I had never seen that before before. Why? I have spent a lot of time trying to understand better and have come to realize that this country was founded on the idea that it's okay to treat humans like a raw material and toss to the side that which is not needed. Where is the humanity?
American capitalism treats natural resources the same way. We can only go on plundering for so long before we start to butt into the consequences of such shortsightedness and abuse. It seems like a confluence of all these chickens coming home to roost. This "culture of death" seems to be catching up with us in the United States but also on a global scale.

Steve SanFrancisco said...

Cool. You're talking about framing. My favorite topic. Hope to hear more detailed framing analysis in the future.

sdlawrence said...

You lost me at "...responded with an exhalation of random street violence."

Seriously? There are no sacred cows here. Clean the police state up completely, and other, much larger problems will remain which have nothing to do with a police culture that is certainly corrupt and out of control. These are all symptoms of the roots of problems that run far deeper than the nebulous and ever-ill-framed 'race' issue, problems which affect people of all ethnicities. Or, we can wax obtuse, divorce ourselves from all critical thought, and continue to non-proceed as if race really was the core issue. That way we can continue to operate with circular non-reasoning, and not enjoy, but continue to endure, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as you address "White America" with regard to "Black America" -- WHATEVER THAT MEANS.