The entire country is burning right now. In places where there’s no actual fires, there’s smoke and fear and gung-ho declarations of what will happen when/if it starts there. This isn’t news to anyone, everyone around can see this and a year or two from now it’ll be something we all experienced, just like the Covid pandemic (which is still ongoing, by the way). Like, every part of everything that’s going on is just flooding all your feeds right now and you’re probably more up-to-date than I am – I had to take time off from the world because there’s just too much going on and I expended all my angry, all my sad, all my indignation, and all I have left is just jaded resignation.
You’ve also, no doubt, seen plenty of people evoking the name and words of Dr. King in the face of the rioting, looting, arson, and unrest in the past week. A bunch of people will always bring him up because he was a pacifist and he lead a nonviolent resistance movement in the midst of nationwide race riots. Often, it seems to be a method of trying to shame people into calming down, like the asshole version of “You’re not being the person Mr. Rogers believed you could be.”
The counter argument is his quote from his Other America speech, where he says “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Sometimes that quote goes on to detail what America hasn’t heard, “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 and humanity.”
But rarely is it ever said why it is that Dr. King wouldn’t condemn rioting. Part of that is due to how little most of us actually learned about the times in question, and were kind of just told that Dr. King’s nonviolent solution worked, but not why it worked. Ideally, a nonviolent solution works because the violent opposition recognizes that you are hurt, that you are a fellow human in pain, and begins to wonder what the fuck caused them to do this to you. But when that fails, and it did almost every time, it works because the option is to appeal to the nonviolent movement for fear of the violent movement. This is what happened, in fact. The South, the moderate liberals of the rest of the nation, and everyone in between found themselves facing down an angry and violent uprising and rebellion from every other group out there. Malcolm X, Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, but he changed his name in ’69 and it just seems rude as hell to accept my friends choosing their own identities but not to respect others’ choices), the Black Panthers, and others were militant, violent, and armed. But in King, there was an alternative that didn’t involve unnecessary bloodshed, so appeals went in his direction for solutions. With those appeals, however, were also calls to denounce the other movements, to denounce the riots and the violence. And it would’ve been easy enough to do, while getting his pacifistic movement more clout, but Dr. King was aware that such tactics were essentially attempts to delegitimize all other movements and to set the entire Civil Rights movement against itself in infighting. While Dr. King was dealing with other black leaders calling him out publicly for refusing to revisit violence on their oppressors, he was still unwilling to publicly denounce the other groups. Had he done so, it would’ve meant that it would be open season on those he denounced. It wouldn’t have stopped any violence being perpetrated, but instead multiplied it, since those appealing to his pacifist ways to divide the Civil Rights Movement would seize the opportunity to attempt to erase the no-longer-legitimate groups he’d denounced. Dr. King was the most hated person in the US at the time, and even then, his words could be used to silence opposition to the status quo, and he understood that.
I sat down today to wonder where our Martin Luther King was these days. Wondering if there was a Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Leonard Peltier, or any other nationwide leader we could look towards to guide us through these times. I thought maybe in the Information Age, where we could find any amount of data, facts, fictions, pictures of cats and other cute animals, and even videos of murders in an instant on our phones, someone would be breaking through the noise to make statements we could all agree on. You can find those voices in the conservative sectors, the Trumpers and the Shapiros, Petersons, Owens (I imagine we’ll be hearing from her pretty soon, her brand is probably fading and could use the boost), and the old reliables of Rush and Alex Jones. But they mostly remain relevant by forming cults around themselves and having all their words written by smarter, more fluid speakers whose faces we never see. They remain relevant not because they can do no wrong, but because their followers will accept anything they do by pretending it isn’t a problem or refusing to accept that they did anything, rushing to their defenses with handy explanations and brushing off all offenses as “the same thing you’d do in that situation.”
Instead, on the left, we have local leadership, some louder-than-normal voices, and more groups than you can shake a stick at. It’d be easy to paint it all as too much litmus testing of our activists and leaders, but considering the apparent dichotomy, I would really rather not hang my entire personality on someone who makes me erase vital parts of me in order to fully accept them.
I don’t know though. It’s hard to have heroes at this time from my position. Literally everyone, including me, has some dirt somewhere or a skeleton just hanging out in a closet. Hell, the leader of Canada, the world’s most polite, nicest, and largely progressive countries out there wore blackface to a party in the 21st century. We found out because a picture of it got put in the yearbook of the school he was teaching at and someone brought it up recently. Hell, there’s still shit coming out about MLK these days, like a mistress and that parts of his dissertation were plagiarized. If Captain America were to show up and be the perfect Captain America tomorrow, then by Friday we’d have found out every shitty thing he’d done and a dozen things he might’ve done and a few lies about him not actually being encased in ice for the past 70 years and working with terrorists while he was sleeping through the cold war.
I don’t know how to end this properly. I’m pretty sure the first bit about Dr. King and riots was the important bit and I’m just rambling now, trying to get a grip on where the world has moved to while I slept. I was really hoping something new would come out of all of this, that a couple of months of quarantine would lead more people into realizing how interconnected we all are and that society as we know it is far too important to expect to never have to make sacrifices. I was hoping that as everything shut down, it would become apparent that so much of the crap we do week in and week out is so fucking unimportant because it doesn’t do anything but keep us busy while moving currency back and forth between large groups of companies in order to multiply wealth and keep as much of it within the ownership classes as possible. I was hoping when the lockdown protests began that people would see how fucking ridiculous it is to go storm government buildings armed with civilian arms and make demands. I hoped that when we returned to a normal, it would be a new normal. Instead, we got the old normal back, but now with a background radiation of literally anyone could kill any of us without having to do anything more dangerous than leave their house and breathe near us. Instead, I watched two people get murdered for having the audacity of being born black and being around people who believed they had the right to do whatever they wanted to subdue them. Instead, I hit the bottom of what I could handle in a week and still have no way of recovering from it, not alone. Not in my home. Not as everything everywhere is falling apart.
And it is falling apart as we speak. I started writing this about 8 hours ago and there’s new realities out there already, and I honestly have nothing I can offer to help or lessen the load for anyone.
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