It was profoundly unsettling to watch those that represent the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opponents and assassins take up his mantle on Monday and exploit the celebration of his birthday for their own political gain. But there we were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as a series of politicians unironically read excerpts from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and excoriated those privileged business leaders of Birmingham who King took to task for refusing to give up their own political clout and stature to hasten the coming of justice.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) kicked off the event. A supporter of the Iraq War and expanded drone warfare, a fierce protector and booster of Wall Street, he crowed about his current support for a $10 minimum wage — an issue he champions after 14 years in the Senate. With no mention of the four decades that dragged on between King’s Poor People’s Campaign and his own Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, Schumer, who has been notoriously squeamish about discussing the structural aspects of poverty, described himself as taking up with all deliberate speed King’s call for equality.
Even more surreal was the presentation of New York City’s new/old police commissioner William Bratton, whose zero-tolerance policing criminalized poverty and became the primary driver for the racial disparities in our criminal legal system who as commissioner of the Los Angeles Police Department, saw his officers use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters and journalists at a peaceful May Day rally for immigrant rights in 2007; who drove Stop and Frisk numbers to nearly one million in L.A; who criticized former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly for showing restraint — of all things — in his militarized take-down of Occupy Wall Street encampments; whose first two weeks in office included a sting on jaywalkers in Manhattan that left one elderly man bloody after he was beaten by police officers because he did not speak English and was confused by their orders. At the podium, Bratton suggested he would pick up where King left off to usher in a new era of equality for all New Yorkers.
Given the racialized police violence that has continued from the civil rights era through today, Bratton’s inclusion in the event — he was not listed in the official brochure — appeared to be solely for the political purpose of ingratiation before the mostly black audience at BAM. I wonder what Bratton, who on Mondaydeclared public safety the essential foundation of democracy, would have made of King had they met back in 1968? What would King think of Bratton today? King, of course, was considered by law enforcement to be a grave threat to national security and public safety, and Bratton, who was 21-years-old at the time of King’s assassination and serving in the Military Police of the U.S. Army, was not linking arms with King as he marched in Selma.
The federal government’s COINTELPRO program put King under heavy surveillance, blackmailed him, sent him death threats and tried to induce him to suicide. King’s quest for racial and economic justice, his strivings for redistributive politics and a revolution of values, his ideas, were viewed by most politicians as tremendously dangerous to the racialized social order, developed during slavery and maintained through economic and physical violence. And so it was that the government tried to kill him, as they did with varying degrees of success with Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Fred Hampton and Angela Davis — who also spoke at BAM on Monday, after most of the politicians had scurried out the back door.
As Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, and others have clearly set out, it was the backlash against the gains made by Dr. King and others fighting for equality during the civil rights era, that gave birth to the “get tough on crime” rhetoric and the retributive punishment regime of the prison industrial complex that Schumer and Bratton have supported for their entire political careers. This backlash was enforced not primarily in the streets by racist vigilantes, but in boardrooms and legislatures where those feted on the stage Monday spend most of their time. Responding to civil rights activism, these laws and regulations were created specifically to weaken the abilities of marginalized groups to gain power. These new laws — couched in a vocabulary of justice — devastated black communities and continue to drive ever-increasing inequality. Oft-repeated refrains of “colorblindness,” “legal equality,” and “post-racial society” have also left white America, as James Baldwin pointed out, in a state of utter confusion as to the structural machinations of a society that is very much of their own making.
So maybe we shouldn’t find it bizarre when one white politician after another, who owe their very presence on that stage to a combination of racial and economic privileges they have spent their entire lives maintaining in the face of King’s historical protests, claim to be the bearer of his legacy. Maybe it’s not bizarre to celebrate people who would not have the prominence to be asked to speak at the event had they truly supported King’s vision or if he himself had been successful in his campaigns – had his dream not become, in his own words, a nightmare. Howard University Professor Dr. Wilmer J. Leon has noted that King himself would not likely have been invited to speak at the 2013 event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington he organized because of his views on war and poverty. In the aftermath of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, King took on the Schumers and Brattons of his time: “The policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness: they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of white society.”
The United States, and New York City in particular, are beset by an unprecedented level of inequality and ever-increasing methods of social control and surveillance, leading many to argue that racial justice and equality are actually in worse shape now than before the civil rights movement. In New York City, 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, 300,000 people are arrested each year, 74percent of all state prisoners come from just a handful of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx. This is the legacy of the long-standing political insiders addressing the crowd on Monday. These people represent the legacy not of King, but of the very people who he described as the greatest threat to freedom and justice for the black community.
Tellingly, there is a section of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail omitted from the festivities:
Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”