A need for dis­rup­tion

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - PERSPECTIVE - By Mark Mish­ler ▶

Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign con­fronts so­ci­ety’s in­jus­tices

Civic lead­ers, up­set by a se­ries of dis­rup­tive demon­stra­tions for jus­tice, said, “We rec­og­nize the nat­u­ral im­pa­tience of peo­ple who feel that their hopes are slow in be­ing re­al­ized,” adding that the protests by “out­siders” were “un­wise and un­timely.” They noted that, “these days of new hope are (not) days when ex­treme mea­sures are jus­ti­fied.” The lead­ers said the tac­tics were “not re­ally very con­sid­er­ate of work­ing-class peo­ple who are just try­ing to get around,” and that the demon­stra­tions were led by “pro­test­ers who bus and drive into our city to dis­rupt it.” They ad­vised the pro­test­ers that there were “bet­ter ways to de­liver the mes­sage” and pro­posed to meet with the ac­tivists to try to per­suade them to change their tac­tics.

The first two of those sen­tences come from a 1963 let­ter by white clergy in Alabama, who were an­gry at Martin Luther King, Jr., and other ac­tivists re­gard­ing a se­ries of dis­rup­tive and con­fronta­tional demon­stra­tions in Birm­ing­ham. The sec­ond two de­pict the re­sponse of Al­bany Mayor Kathy Shee­han and her chief of staff, Brian Shea, in 2018, re­spond­ing to the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign.

It is im­pos­si­ble to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween those ex­pres­sions of hos­til­ity. It’s been said that when his­tor­i­cal events re­peat them­selves, the first time is tragedy, the sec­ond time farce.

In 2018, a cri­sis af­fects ev­ery as­pect of the lives of poor and work­ing peo­ple. Around the coun­try, thousands have joined the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign: A Na­tional Call for Moral Re­vival. Poor peo­ple, clergy, la­bor ac­tivists, fight­ers for racial jus­tice, women’s equal­ity, LGBTQ rights, and the en­vi­ron­ment, along with their com­rades, have com­mit­ted to six weeks of con­fronta­tional yet peace­ful, non­vi­o­lent ac­tions in Washington, D.C., and in close to 40 state cap­i­tals. These ac­tions call at­ten­tion to the con­nected and solv­able evils of racism, poverty, mil­i­tarism, and eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion, and de­mand the im­ple­men­ta­tion of com­pre­hen­sive so­lu­tions. Build­ing on King’s 1968 Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign, the 2018 cam­paign is mod­eled on King’s prin­ci­ples of cre­ative and con­fronta­tional non­vi­o­lent civil dis­obe­di­ence.

In Al­bany and other state cap­i­tals, these ac­tions have seen hun­dreds of car­ing, ded­i­cated and lov­ing peo­ple block in­ter­sec­tions and oth­er­wise demon­strate that “busi­ness as usual” is no longer ac­cept­able.

Pos­i­tive change in times of cri­sis re­quires dis­rup­tion.

With­out dis­rup­tion, work­ers would not have the right to or­ga­nize, Africanamer­i­cans would not have won vic­to­ries in the civil rights era. Women would not have won the con­sti­tu­tional right to vote, con­trol their own bod­ies or recognition of their right to equal­ity at work. We would not have ended the ter­ri­ble U.S. mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Viet­nam. LGBTQ peo­ple would not have had their hu­man rights rec­og­nized.

Strikes are dis­rup­tive. The protests of the 1960s civil rights move­ment in­ter­fered with busi­ness as usual in Birm­ing­ham and cities across the South. Stu­dents made col­lege cam­puses un­govern­able. Stonewall was la­beled a “riot.” And so on.

And, when­ever peo­ple have joined to­gether to de­mand jus­tice, those in power have an­grily de­clared that their tac­tics were too con­fronta­tional.

In 1963, in Birm­ing­ham, it was a tragedy when white clergy im­plored King and thousands of brave ac­tivists to be more pa­tient. The pro­test­ers were la­beled as out­siders. King was locked up in the Birm­ing­ham jail when white clergy pub­lished an “open” let­ter, chastis­ing him for the demon­stra­tions in the streets of Birm­ing­ham. King wrote his fa­mous “Let­ter from Birm­ing­ham Jail” in re­sponse. He showed how their crit­i­cisms were base­less and served no purpose other than the per­pet­u­a­tion of the evil of vi­o­lently en­forced seg­re­ga­tion. In 2018, in Al­bany, his­tory re­peated it­self as Shee­han and Shea went out of their way to pub­licly chas­tise the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign for hav­ing caused some in­con­ve­nience.

Non­vi­o­lent di­rect ac­tion, in the tra­di­tion of King, causes ten­sion, dis­rup­tion, in­con­ve­nience and cri­sis. It does in

2018 as it did in 1963. “There is a type of con­struc­tive non­vi­o­lent ten­sion that is nec­es­sary for growth,” King said. “(T) he purpose of di­rect ac­tion is to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion so cri­sis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to ne­go­ti­a­tion.”

In 1963, King re­sponded to the ar­gu­ment that he and oth­ers were “out­siders” by clar­i­fy­ing that there were res­i­dents of Birm­ing­ham en­gaged in the strug­gle for jus­tice, that he and his staff were in­vited to Birm­ing­ham by ac­tivists in the city, and, fi­nally, by not­ing that there is an “in­ter­re­lat­ed­ness of all com­mu­ni­ties” and that “in­jus­tice any­where is a threat to jus­tice ev­ery­where.”

The same holds true for Al­bany in 2018. Al­bany is the seat of power in New York. What hap­pens here res­onates through­out the state. There is noth­ing wrong with peo­ple join­ing us in Al­bany to fight for jus­tice. Also, far from be­ing “out­siders,” many of the peo­ple in­volved in the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign live in Al­bany.

Sim­i­larly, the de­mand that peo­ple suf­fer­ing in­jus­tice ought to be more pa­tient is as un­jus­ti­fied in 2018 as it was in 1963 when King ob­served that there has never been a “di­rect-ac­tion move­ment that was ‘well-timed’ ac­cord­ing to those who have not suf­fered un­duly from the dis­ease of seg­re­ga­tion.”

Rather than hold­ing news con­fer­ences or launch­ing tweets to at­tack con­sci­en­tious fight­ers for jus­tice, Shee­han and her staff could have bet­ter used that time to read King’s “Let­ter From Birm­ing­ham Jail.” The op­por­tu­nity still ex­ists. Take a few minutes. Read how King re­sponded to crit­i­cisms that sound ter­ri­bly close to the words you have spo­ken. Then, join with your con­stituents and their al­lies in stand­ing up for what is right.

“There is a type of con­struc­tive non­vi­o­lent ten­sion that is nec­es­sary for growth. The purpose of di­rect ac­tion is to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion so cri­sis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to ne­go­ti­a­tion.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Mark Mish­ler is an Al­bany at­tor­ney and long­time civil rights ac­tivist. King’s let­ter can be read at http://tinyurl. com/47u7qm

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