I keep hearing over and over that people agree with the issues we are protesting, but that they disagree with our methods of protest. To me, and to anybody else who knows the history of Civil Rights and Black Power in the United States will recognize this as something right out of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). While sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested for yet another peaceful demonstration during Project C (for confrontation), King wrote a letter in response to many of the white clergy who chastised King for the methods the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were employing. It is interesting that these clergy members chose to chastise King and SCLC, instead of Bull Conner and his police department for unleashing firehoses and attack dogs upon peaceful protestors; or for the segregation and discrimination that was rampant in the Birmingham at the time. The clergy were not writing to chastise the federal government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for sitting idly by and watching Freedom Rider buses be bombed and the Freedom Riders beaten within inches of death. No, they chastised the oppressed for challenging their oppression in one of the only manners left for them to do so. These people that I am hearing agree with our message, but disagree with our methods sound and feel to me as being no different than the white clergy that King was responding to.
When I receive messages like this what it reveals to me is that people are telling me that the suffering our people are forced to undergo can be withstood longer, while we proceed through the acceptable and respectable channels. It’s like they are communicating; “I know you people are suffering and that many of you are being killed unjustly, forced into slavery via the New Jim Crow, that intimidation and coercion are common tactics used by the establishment to maintain the status quo and to keep you and your people subjugated and relegated into positions of inferiority, and humiliation. But, you have not right to do what you are doing to compel this unjust and unfair system to change.” These statements are made as if we have not been to the Board of Regents of the University of Washington, as if we had not been to the Seattle City Council, to the King County Metropolitan Council, to the legislature in Olympia, Washington to lobby and petition for amendments to our policies and practices. We have been to them all, and I have been to each one personally, and so have many of the people I work with. When you go to one of these places, you only get two minutes, if that, to speak and to present your case and most often, the people you speak till will never respond to a single word you have said. Now if the issue was about the height of a curb, or putting a bench in a park—things that you are very likely to hear during public comment—then that is the place and the forum for it. However, when we are talking about institutional discrimination, the political assassinations of our people being executed by the police, the school-to-prison pipeline, or any other institutional or systemic issue those two minute time slots are merely not enough.
Once, when we went to the King County Metropolitan Council to testify in behalf of King County not building the new juvenile detention center, a black man who had more to say than two minutes worth, was rushed by the police and taken into custody; he was arrested. A black man spoke just too much, shared just a bit too much truth, and they took him down. This is what happens when we follow the prescriptions of the acceptable and respectable channels. The King County Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to build the new juvenile and our youth are continuing to suffer through the school-to-prison pipeline. Nobody who makes the statements that we agree with your message, but disagree with your methods is or has written to King County to protest that behavior or the building of the new youth jail, but they will chastise us in a heartbeat for occupying an intersection, or taking over a meeting to make sure that our testimonies are heard.
While marching through Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington during the Decolonize UW Walkout, a woman came right up to me to chastise me about our interrupting their study time to tell me that she agrees with our message, but that she disagreed with our methods. Granted, studying for mid-terms is important, there is no doubt about that. However, the people who were in the library studying only had their studying interrupted for but a few minutes. While the prison industrial complex is responsible for destroying generations of families, and the police brutality that goes hand-in-hand with it destroys our neighborhoods, and both rob us of our brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. When death is the result, often we never get to see them again, “justified” by the establishment or not. The systems and the structures we were protesting and that we will continue to protest until we have eliminated the problems are constant interruptions in our lives and the lives of our loved ones. So, breaking someone’s concentration, or interrupting someone’s commute to or from work long enough for people to pay attention to what is really going on, given what they propose an acceptable and respectable channel of active opposition is to the establishment, and the results of those actions, the interruption is completely justified. As a matter of fact, they should be happy that we have pulled them away from the broken education they are receiving, or interrupting their continuing complicity in the structure of oppression and subjugation.
What is worse is when these statements come across with the intent of suggesting that we have no right to protest, that we have no weight behind our complaints and grievances, and that we should be happy with the state of affairs as they now stand. What that is suggesting is that we should be thanking our oppressors for having their knives only half in our backs, paralyzing us, and not all the way in and killing us. Let the government steal their children and force them into slavery; let the government start denying their children access to higher education; let the police start executing their children in the streets and see how fast they take to the streets and shutting down the status quo. They chastise us from the moral standpoint of a double standard without fully divulging the entire story, and argue against our position and methods as if we were wrong and bad. These are half-truths and contradictions, and most of the people who spew them are hypocrites who merely enjoy the privileges their position in this society grants their status.
Until it becomes clear the premises and precepts that underlie these statements and these people’s frustrations we will continue to be at odds. They simply do not understand that the same methods that are open to them to address their grievances and harms, are not open to us. They simply do not understand, that the issues we are contending with require and obligate much more than the acceptable and respectable channels permit.
Returning to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who is often misquoted and misrepresented to us today as a foil for what a “good negro” should be in today’s society, it was King who after the Watts Rebellion in 1965 said that “I will not let my oppressor dictate my methods.” These people can sit on their high horses, and armchair moralize about what they think is appropriate or not all day long, and they can get upset that their days have been interrupted, but that will not change that we are doing what we must because there are very few practical and reasonable options left to us to select from. Instead of chastising us for being compelled to resort to the methods we have, they should be chastising the systems, and the structures, the administrations, and the governmental officials for creating and sustaining the unjust, inequitable, and subjugating conditions that have forced us to employ these methods. Perhaps if they did, then our struggle would be over much, much sooner and they could get back to the comfort and ease they so seem to love and our people can have some of that too.