In the toxic political environment of the US, love is an act of protest. At least, that is what Dr. Martin Luther King, whose 88th birthday we celebrate Monday, said in many ways.
As just one example, he wrote in his book Strength to Love, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, 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.”
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But today, with such dangerous and violent power at play, is love a priority? Should it, or even can it be a fundament of our organizing and mobilization, especially amongst the sectors suffering the rampant attacks and threats? As Mexican-American human rights activist Marielena Givens told me, “It’s easier to love when you are not the direct target of the hate and violent systems of oppression.”
Protesting for — and Loving — Humanity
A fresh generation in the US has become activated to resist the administration of Donald Trump. Youth know that their voice is needed to revive real democracy and rights, and their spirit is needed to keep human decency alive.
The day after the vote, some of my nephews and nieces were already at their new job of defiance. Liam, 21, attended his first-ever demonstration in Chicago. He sent a video of the crowd engaged in a Black Lives Matter chant, and wrote, “I will devote myself to opposing the presidency defined by racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.”
His brother Alex, 17, texted, “I will protest every day. When my [Washington-based] school walks to the inauguration, I plan on protesting. LOVE TRUMPS HATE!!!!!!!!!!!”
Despite Alex’s intentions, love is not, in fact, trumping hate at his boarding school. It took only one day after the election for the Latino cleaning staff to feel the need to stay home. Someone had already placed a threatening and anonymous note in a Chinese student’s knapsack which read, “It’s your time” and ended with an anti-Chinese slur. A kid at Alex’s lunch table had already used the N-word to denounce Black students. Alex told the boy to stop being a racist and wrote a letter to his school newspaper about the run-riot bigotry on campus.
My niece Elizabeth, mother to three young children, white and middle-class like me, emailed, “I can’t make it to any rallies right now, but I am protesting with kindness. Hate and fear got us into this mess, so my mission is love.”
When I read this note to Marielena Givens, she said, “Kindness and love are necessary, and I can see calling them acts of protest in this political climate. At the same time, this statement to me is steeped in privilege.”
King on Protesting and Loving
To get another opinions, I contacted Kazu Haga, a Buddhist and coordinator of the East Point Peace Academy in Oakland, which promotes Kingian nonviolence.
“Ah, love. A complicated question these days,” came Haga’s email response. “So many people don’t understand how aggressive, militant, and assertive love can be. And it’s that type of love that we need now much more than ever. Dr. King said, ‘Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.'”
Haga clarified that love does not equate absence of anger. “I think it’s dangerous to feel like part of the work of nonviolence is to ‘not be angry.’ There’s so much we need to be angry about, but it’s learning to channel the right type of anger, and moving it in the right directions so it’s sustainable.”
I also turned to the director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Havana, Rev. Joel Suárez. Suárez is a liberation theology-based Baptist preacher and an impassioned supporter of the Cuban revolution. He said, “Two people who had different methodologies in their revolutionary struggles were Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. But both were motivated by love. Che said, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love.”
“Even in the most difficult situations, where the human being has to rely on courage and a strong heart, we can’t lose tenderness,” Suárez said. “Our love has to start with the smallest battle — caring for our children and neighbors — and extend up to revolution: transforming the world in which we live.”
Protesting for — and Loving — the Earth
Suárez added, “I’ve learned this from indigenous peoples: There is another part of love which is essential, love for Mother Earth. This is the love that suffers when nature suffers and is assassinated.”
Shortly after the election, I took my 13-year-old nephew, Eightball, to Standing Rock. There, Eightball, a Puebloan Native from New Mexico, took his first political action, joining the Standing Rock Sioux as they protested and protected their lands, waters and sovereignty.
Indigenous peoples whose territories are bullseyes for theft, extraction and profit-led development are doing the same around the globe. For this, they face escalating repression.
Yet submission is another form of assassination.
Those in the US who are about to have much stolen from them, and who face violence, can learn many lessons from Indigenous movements. If the attacks happening at Alex’s school are the new normal, so must our fearless non-submission be.
One person who knew all about fearless non-submission was Berta Cáceres, leader of the Lenca people in Honduras. She was gunned down on March 2 of last year by the Honduran government, with backing from a multinational hydroelectric dam company and Washington. The group she founded, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), along with other Indigenous movements in the country, has stopped dozens of illegal logging and damming operations, while challenging the capitalist model behind them.
At the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Havana, I asked Berta Cáceres’s daughter, Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, about the connection between revolution and love. She said that the link was evident in the life and work of her mother. “She was so clear that love was at the root of struggles for [Indigenous and rural] communities, of women, of her people.”
Protesting and Loving Into Transformation
For the next four years, I’ll be encouraging my nieces and nephews, and everyone else I can, to speak out, fight like hell, and aim to be led by love. To refuse intimidation and silencing and acquiescence and hatred. To use our feet and voices and pens, our creativity and outrageousness, to bring into being a world where all fit, thrive, and are honored.
I’ll be holding reverence for the legacies and inspiration of Dr. King, as well as many others who were slain for their revolutionary love of people and planet: Che Guevara and Berta Cáceres, as well as Jean-Marie Vincent, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Rachel Corrie, Dorothy Stang, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Salvador Allende, Oscar Romero, Chico Mendes, Mohandas Gandhi, and countless more known and unknown.
And I’ll be surrounding myself with, and taking inspiration from, people everywhere who live by the Sandinistas’ slogan: “Here no one surrenders.”
I’ll also be finding joy everywhere I can, and loving fiercely. Especially loving. Because we can’t let Trump and his gang of malefactors take that away, too.