John Lewis was right when he said as long as there is injustice, we need to keep making “good trouble.” Dr. King was right when he went to Memphis to campaign for economic justice, arguing that without economic justice, and the demonstrations demanding it, there can be no other justice. And he was murdered for his work.
The movie One Night in Miami reminds us that Malcolm X was saying, back in 1964, that they’re killing black people everyday and not enough is done to stop it. And he was murdered for his work. As was Fred Hampton, Mark Clark and so many others.
But Rodney King wasn’t killed. He was abused and brutalized by policemen, but left alive. Also left alive are the thousands of victims of police violence who don’t become tabloid press features. After the nationally televised funerals, speaking and book opportunities, the significant others, children, other relatives and friends remain, living with the memories and the losses. They are no less victims of police violence than those who die and reap headlines.
The focus on police murders of black men, women and children is important. It is necessary. It should not lessen. But it should be a lesson, without becoming a distraction. We should not allow either corporate “liberal media” or pseudo-”revolutionary” hucksters to drive focus on the dramatic and immediate violence with the effect of distracting from the problems that real revolutionaries confront and work to overcome.
The focus on police murders of black men, women and children is important. It is necessary. It should not lessen. But it should be a lesson, without becoming a distraction.
Dr. King was murdered, after decades of race-related civil rights work, when he turned to working more broadly for economic justice for all races. Malcolm X was murdered when he broke from an exploitative “revolutionary” religious movement to work for real social justice, rather than religious hero worship. Fred Hampton was murdered in the same year that he organized the Rainbow Coalition to push for better housing, better education, better nutrition for the poor of all races, and for reduced spending on militarized police departments. Fred Hampton wanted those monies spent in ways that would eliminate the “need” for harsher policing.
There is nothing new in the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nat Turner rebelled, in 1831, against the oppression of slavery. There is nothing new in the terrified reactions of the oppressors. As a direct response to Nat Turner’s rebellion, Virginia, where the rebellion happened, and states across the South, passed legislation criminalizing education of black people, criminalizing their exercise of religious, including Christian beliefs, and criminalizing the mere possession of abolitionist literature. 19th century cancel culture!
Today’s rush to enact gerrymandering and voter suppression measures is simply the recapitulation of the antebellum legislative efforts to tighten control over a population that is trying to wrest control over their own lives.
The underlying issues have not changed. Individual and racial freedom is pitted against the institutional business of increasing profit margins by oppressing workers. When some workers were nothing but property, other workers’ labor value dropped. When unions started to organize factory workers and miners, the factory and mine owners, while opposing unionization, were also insistent on persuading the unions to exclude racially identifiable “others.”
When unions perpetuated racial segregation, they helped oppressive owners to retain power. Human nature and emotional biases overcame rational economic self interest. When some workers were excluded from sharing in the struggle for economic justice, the labor value and incomes of other workers suffered.
The same process is at work today. Everyone agrees that our national infrastructure is falling apart. Politicians from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Donald Trump promise to rebuild our infrastructure. And when a real infrastructure bill is introduced, the forces of entrenched economic interests revert to their age-old divide and conquer strategies to protect their interests.
Today, they tell us that “infrastructure” means only roads and bridges, with maybe a deep water port or two to help increase global trade. Although the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electrification to millions of people in the name of improving infrastructure, we are told that it is not “infrastructure” to bring high speed internet to the millions who do not yet have it, who do not enjoy the benefits of social communications with fewer corporate controls, or of better medical record keeping which improves health care in urban areas, or of access to education in towns too small to afford good schools.
We are told to fear, and thus to hate, the future, new technologies, and to eschew anything that threatens the economic systems on which we rely. If god had wanted us to use electricity to power transportation, he would never have given us oil fields and natural gas.
According to too many alt-whites, Derek Chauvin is a victim of too much modern technology, wielded by all the wrong people. If random 17-year-old children didn’t have more technology in their pockets than NASA used to put men on the moon, with the ability to record Chauvin and his co-workers murdering a man, Chauvin would be a free man today.
But it isn’t only the cellphone videos. It is the automatic record keeping that electronics now allow that made it possible for the entire world to read the police report that Chauvin, et al. crafted, saying that George Floyd died from a medical emergency, rather than from knees on his back and neck for 9:29. It is the body-worn cameras, that so many police still resist wearing, that so many departments still resist releasing, that show judgments, led by a drawn gun rather than even a millisecond’s pause to assess high stress situations before drawing the favored tool.
There were no body-worn or cell-phone cameras for Nat Turner’s revolt. 60 Minutes didn’t exist to report on how equal “separate but equal” segregated schools were. When Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were developing their polio vaccines, in the early 1950s, they didn’t know about DNA, let alone mRNA, which powers two primary Covid-45 vaccines. Each generation moves the world forward with the tools it has.
But some things remain constant. Whatever tools are available, each generation moves the world forward only when people pick up the tools and use them. It isn’t necessary for a child with a cellphone to know that a video she shoots in front of a convenience store will contribute to a world shaking change in the treatment of police misconduct a year later. It is enough that she knows what is right and what is wrong, and that she has both the right and the duty to use what tools she has to address right and wrong.
We must continue to confront evil where we find it, in our time. The confrontation needn’t be violent or even angry. It is enough that evil be documented and thereby challenged. In Minnesota, we saw cellphone video and we saw evil stare into the camera, not with malevolence, but with the blase disregard so typical of the ruling class and of their servants who live in the certainty that their evil will be unchecked.
But we must confront it. When the Hennepin County DA sought to protect the police by drafting the initial charges against Chauvin, et al., in ways to protect them from conviction, Keith Ellison stepped in, confronted the local oppressor, and formed a team to really prosecute. Some in the established order say that he usurped the proper authority, disrupted the status quo. If he did, he did one of John Lewis’ “good trouble” things, and built on the cell ‘phone video of a child.
IF we believe in a society of equality, in which each person gets to participate in the good and the bad, if we want such a society to develop, evolve and improve, we need, each of us to pay attention, to confront with our cell ‘phones, our ballots, our shopping choices, and our own behavior, that which we perceive needs change.
It is 67 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools must be desegregated, with “all deliberate speed.” It is 66 years since Emmet’ Till’s mother decided that pictures of her son’s mutilated body were more important than a peaceful, mournful, private funeral. If Emmett Till had lived to grow up, his grandchildren today would still be waiting for “all deliberate speed” to reach their schools, their local clinics, their neighborhood parks, their diets.
Maxine Waters was correct. If we want the better society so many talk about, each of us must be part of the process. We must confront what’s wrong when we see it. We must confront what needs change, as long as change is needed.