What would it take?
On my way home from work today I started reading Michael Eric Dyson's "April 4, 1968," which chronicles the authors reflections on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. In a way, he says, this book is his first attempt to come to terms with the moment when, as a 9 year old, he heard the news first that King had been shot, and then that he had died. Between the two announcements, Dyson sat mesmerized for the first time by King's eloquence. He spent years thinking about that moment, and the moments leading up to it, and the consequences of not only the life, but the violent death of a man that cultivated himself as a symbol of nonviolence.
So in some ways it's fitting that I would pick up this book now, when I'm struggling with questions about violence and nonviolence and freedom and justice and peace. Especially when a year or so ago I set my intention to write more, and to write here, and to write now, starting on the anniversary of Gandhi's assassination. My goal is to write most days, if not every day, until April 4 about all of these themes. It's a Season for Nonviolence, so the least I can do is reflect. And while it's hard to plan reflections, as I put this into words now, it all feels much more real, more tangible.
As I read on the bus and on the train, I was struck that in talking about King's death, and the path that led so directly to that violent end, a different picture than usual comes out. Instead of celebrating the man's vision or his ability to move a crowd, or his power to lead a movement, it becomes much easier to know the man. Through his mortality he is ever closer, if still just out of reach. When you shed the layers of aura and know that those last years of his life were framed by the inevitability of death, the reality of his suffering, and of the suffering that still exists lays itself bare.
I was talking with friends the other night about the massive demonstrations happening in Egypt, and one of them said something profound, but easy to brush past. So easy, in fact, that that's exactly what the conversation did. We were talking about the economic roots of this uprising, which are as blaring as the social, if not more so, noting that the people in the streets in Egypt, and really across the region are there because they neither have access to opportunities, nor a voice to make a change. So when my friend said, between bites of his dinner, that it's interesting that in Anacostia, across the river way in Southeast DC, the jobless rates are the same as in Egypt--35-40%--it was just an example of something widespread. We moved on with the conversation, talked about how the Egyptian security forces were firing tear gas and rubber bullets and live ammunition into crowds of people, and how the US government should make a stronger statement denouncing such tyranny. That's the violence that's easy to see, and the violence that's easy to talk about.
So it's no wonder that in those parts of town we don't see anyone moving. In fact, most of us don't see anything at all. The talk in the media or in the political arena about jobs and the economic crisis doesn't pay much attention to the people who are suffering just as much now as they were before the stock market crashed and the banks were bailed out and the Tea Party started talking so loudly about taxes and saying no to health care. Still if up to 40% of the population is so blatantly left out, so stepped over or stepped on, I want to wonder: what it would take to make them stand up?
I wouldn't presume to know if this was a question that drove King to his action, but I think if anything it's a question he surely left us. Charismatic leaders come and go, but what really drives massive social change? I'm not talking about a romanticized vision of "spontaneous" revolution, as commentators seem to want to characterize the situation in Egypt. There, like anywhere else, there was something organized that had already happened, and had already been building, and those who were participating finally saw their chance to move together. I'm wondering instead about power, and what it means to claim power, especially when it might seem so far from reach.
In today's high tech world, it's clearly not enough to click on a petition and think that we're making a difference. In fact, that might be just another sympton of how a "free and democratic" society lulls us into submission. Maybe it's the very fact that there is an open public sphere that we don't see the need to really use it as a tool to challenge the system. By it's very use, we legitimize the power structure that created it. So what's next? Where does that lead us?
Ultimately, I think leaders like King and Gandhi taught that life and change are about power. When King started talking about fighting poverty more than fighting racism, and about ending war and imperialism, he was talking about claiming power. When we see Egyptian youth carrying members of the military with flowers in their hands, and making sure that the streets are clean and safe, you know that there's been a shift in power, not from above but from people themselves. They are really no longer demanding freedom. They are exercising it. There it's changed, just like when King spoke so many knew that it had changed. Just like when Malcolm X spoke, or when Dorothy Day wrote, or when Gandhi marched. There was really no longer a question.
So, I wonder, what would it take here, now, for that kind of power to be claimed?