What Would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Say About The Ferguson Riots In Response To Police Killing Michael Brown?
Historians and archivists call it Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which was given in 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York. It is said to be the first time that Dr. King spoke publicly about his opposition to military intervention in Vietnam, as well as elsewhere in the world.
However, it is probably the most poignant thought ever given about how we should feel about violence at home, particularly in the ghettos of America. In particular (as transcribed by Stanford University’s The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute):
“My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
You can read the speech in its entirety here. Or if you prefer audio, YouTube has you covered too. And while you are reading the text or listening to his words, reflect on what have largely been haughty reactions in both the media and on social media to reports about rioting and other aggression in Ferguson, Missouri. Over the weekend, the local police took the life of 17-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, who at the time of his death (as told by witnesses at the scene), allegedly had his arms in the air as a sign of surrender. And on Sunday, riots broke out after the second night of protest proved fruitless in bringing charges against the officer responsible for Brown’s death.
Yet folks don’t get it. For whatever reason, folks just can’t understand why others would be so angry as to tear up things.
Very few people want violence. I know I don’t. As angry as I am that yet another young life has been snatched by the people paid to protect us, I’m not certain the answer to violence committed by the police is more violence. At the same time, I am tired of reading about or even watching video of another unarmed Black person being killed or maimed by the police. I am also tired of watching our government’s lax response to what are clear civil rights violations being committed in police departments nationwide while they talk about the atrocities of others elsewhere in the world. Take for example, the discussion about the Kurdish people trapped in barren northern Iraqi mountain ranges by ISIS (Islamic State) militant forces.
The situation there is supposedly dire. Various news reports tell us that Yazidi women are being enslaved, men are being killed and children are being beheaded. And last week, in a speech given in the State Dining Room, President Obama explained why the U.S. government couldn’t afford to sit around and wait anymore and opted to intervene with humanitarian airdrops for the trapped citizens and airstrikes against Islamic extremist militants, who have allegedly threatened violence, intimidated and even killed people of minority religious and ethnic groups. In particular, President Obama tells the White House press corp:
“When we are faced with a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help – in this case a request from the Iraqi government – and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre than I believe the United States of America can not turn a blind eye.”
And yet the federal government is perfectly okay with sitting on the sidelines as law enforcement representing local municipalities harass, and in some cases, kill citizens just because they happen to be the wrong skin color. And this is not conjecture. Racial profiling is alive and well. In 2012, police shootings rose steadily in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, even as crime as a whole declined. According to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black man is killed by law enforcement (or a person acting in the capacity of law enforcement including vigilantes) every 28 hours here in America.
Besides the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot eight times by police as he walked unarmed in the middle of the road with his hands up, there is also the mind-boggling police execution of John Crawford III, a Dayton, Ohio man murdered by police inside of a Walmart for carrying a toy air pump rifle he was interested in purchasing at the store. And before that, there was the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. And in between all of that, there were countless incidences (sometimes recorded for continuous replay on YouTube and Facebook) of mostly unarmed men, women and yes, even children, being harassed, abused and beaten by the police.
If this was Iraq, President Obama would probably be in the same State Dining Room giving some sort of flowery speech, condemning the perpetrator of this violence against ethnic minorities as enemies of justice, equality and democracy. And he would likely remind us of our role in helping the Iraqi people, considering our role in helping to create the country’s current conditions. But in communities of color, which often find themselves on the end of real abuses by authority figures, there will be no airstrikes and humanitarian drops. Instead, there will be talk of cooler heads prevailing, being a nation of laws and even considering our part in helping the police not shoot us. There will even be talk about being a good Brother’s Keeper by pulling up our pants, getting a good education and going to college, which is always ironic because that is just what Michael Brown, who was two weeks away from beginning his freshman year in college, was trying to do…
In 2011, the US Department of Justice announced that it would be opening civil rights investigations into 17 police departments nationwide, all of which had a long history of using excessive force and being accused of corruption. The results of that investigation have been consent decrees and years of court monitoring of several departments (most recently, one in Newark, New Jersey), who have vowed to reform rules, which govern the use of guns and other weaponry against citizens.
However, as this statement from the ACLU notes, court monitoring is only a first step. We also need citizen review boards that can monitor the police and their policies objectively and away from influences. We also need the prosecution of criminal law enforcement agents and agencies that will stick. We need those at the top in these habitually corrupt departments to be removed from their posts. We need a total eradication of policies which encourage profiling based upon the color of someone’s skin. We need consequences for funding dollars into those departments, which are habitually abusive to citizens, and we need the really bad departments either shut down or taken over completely by the Feds.
Until this happens, I will no longer entertain talk about Black-on-Black crime as a reason why police violence is justified. Or how Black people should dress up more or give their kids proper names to avoid being targets of racism and violence. I will also no longer talk about the proper way for Black folks to deal with the police. In the spirit of Dr. King, I have decided to no longer condemn my community for its collective response to the continued subjugation and aggression it faces – not until the country as a whole is prepared to deal with the violence and aggression that it fosters, creates and provides shelter for, both internationally and domestically.
I don’t know if this is what Dr. King would have said in direct response to the Ferguson riots, but if his previous words are any indication, I suspect that he would not have been surprised by such actions from a weary people.