I want to preface this blog post by saying that I know that critiquing black movements as a white person is inherently problematic. As a white person I cannot begin to know the struggle and baggage that influences the dynamics of something like the #MLK50 Commemoration events in Memphis this month. My attempt to understand what happened in Memphis are going to be imperfect and lacking. What I will attempt to do is report what I heard and observed, and ask questions.
You may have heard that there were a lot of amazing events planned for the first week of April commemorating the 50 years since the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th 1968. I am sure there were events all over the country, but in Memphis, streets were blocked, the police were working overtime, and scores of people from all over the country came to be there. It was a stunning parade of powerful black leaders, artists and reporters. We ran into CNN reporter Van Jones at a food truck on the street. I have never been treated so kindly by police officers who gently asked me to step onto the sidewalk as the march approached. It was surreal to me.
The day before all the official festivities, some local activists along with a friend of mine, Elizabeth Vega, performed a street theater action intended to amplify immigration issues. Vega, as we call her, is a beautiful and fierce activist who has been very vocal for Black Lives Matter and was one of the early activists on the scene in Ferguson. Her courage is tremendous and I cannot say enough about her depth of love and commitment to racial justice movement work. She is a cultural organizer in St. Louis and she helps a lot of people in her work. I was in touch with her the night before the action and the next day I couldn’t get ahold of her. What I found out from Facebook in the coming days ways heartbreaking and alarming.
The Memphis Police came down hard on the action and showed an egregious use of force against protesters. Vega told me, “We were doing street theater on the sidewalk when they started grabbing folks, including a journalist with press credentials. When I said leave them alone, they grabbed me by the hair and slammed me down.” The reporter was Manuel Duran, owner of Memphis Noticias, who has been reporting the news Memphis’s Spanish speaking population for a decade. His charges were dropped but then he was handed over to ICE custody. I responded to petition that was set up in his defense on April 6th and I got a reply from Bill Oldham from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Dept. who simply said, “He has been surrendered to ICE.” Duran has reporting on immigration issues and the feeling is that he was targeted for his work in this area.
Meanwhile, at the official #MLK50 events, the police were ushering in deacons and celebrities to the official events. Vahisha Hasan, an activist and professor who recently relocated to Memphis told me, “Local activists were targeted to get them off the street or intimidate them before the official events, but they were protesting the same things that MLK fought for. What’s so sad to me that we didn’t hear about those things from the main stages of these official #MLK50 events. Activists were beaten in the streets and a LatinX man was being arrested by ICE, but we heard little about these things, outside of long time activist Earl Fisher and journalist Wendi Fisher.”
It seems that there is a respectability politic at play here. Hasan asked, “How did we not have the version of the song Precious Lord the way it was sung for King? Where was the Mahalia moment? Where was the soulful aspect of this movement? It wasn’t on the main stage.” We talked about the style of the televised program that was very formal with a huge choir singing African American spirituals in a very western choral style. “I cannot dismiss that this is part of the African American experience, but where was the diversity of black culture and expression?” Hasan said.
Respectability is so often at play in our movements where “bad activists” are often the poor people, the people without organizational backing and resources who are further marginalized by parts of the movement who don’t want to be associated with them. And then “good activists” are well dressed, well resourced, and well received in spaces where stakeholders are making decisions about issues that impact people and disenfranchised people. I think we have to consider that class is a strong aspect of this dynamic. Class and social standing can be a big influencer for the structural tradition in social change. Activists often describe this as the “non-profit industrial complex” which I think, is an attempt to describe the dominance of the structured tradition of organizing as well as the tensions of classism in our movements.
So my question to all of us as we endeavor to make a social movements healthier and stronger is this? How are we holding the door open for directly impacted people to express themselves directly to the stakeholders and how are we closing those doors? How can we invoke relationships and connections along lines of class in our movements. It’s up to the people with the power to try.