Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Candle Or The Dark?

Image credit: Occupy Wall Street

Apparently, today is a day to light candles:
January 15th, 2012 @ 7:00pm in Each Time Zone Globally

Via On his birthday and in the spirit of Dr. King’s vision for racial and economic equality, peace, and non-violence, we are holding candlelight vigils to unite our world in a global movement for systemic change.

The Vigil for Unity is followed by Occupy the Dream on January 16, and the first day of Occupy Congress actions, on January 17.

Wherever we may be, whether in our homes, in city squares, online, Occupies, or at work, we lift a beautiful message high above the political dialogue. We light the dream of a more equitable world in our hearts. We can overcome!

Dr. King said ‘A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and say: ‘This is not just.’

Occupy Wall Street announcement about Jan. 15 vigil
I'm not much into candle burning, but I love the expression "Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness", so consider this a virtual candle in our virtual world.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For anyone who is active in politics, or wants to understand how activism works, one of Dr. King's most important legacies may have been the Letter From A Birmingham Jail (see UPDATE 2 below). While being held for his actions in a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, King used the time to compose a letter that explained the reasons he and his compatriots used demonstrations and civil disobedience to protest the injustices that African Americans faced in the South of those days. One of the paragraphs that stands out for me, as if it were calling directly from that time to this is:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]
We, too, live in a time of monologue. Our press is largely controlled by the people who don't want things to change, who like them fine the way they are. Until the Occupy movements changed the discussion, we seldom even saw discussions of the widening gap between the upper few percent of our population and the rest of us. As first the poor and lower middle class, and now the rest of the middle class have lost ground, we have been told by the people who are pleased to call themselves our leaders, that everything is just fine, and we should just shut the hell up.

Caption: Where did all the economic growth end up? Into the hands of the richest people in the country, mostly.

Image credit: Economic Policy Institute

What Dr. King was saying, in essence, was what I was saying:
You don't arrange a protest to deliver a doctoral thesis. You arrange a protest to deliver one simple demand to your rulers: Get it done.

The Place Is The Message
Demonstrations happen because there is no talk, or nothing but talk. All we have gotten the last few years, when we haven't gotten screwed, is talk. And that talk has been a monologue.

Absolutely nothing has changed since I wrote this on MLK Day a year ago:
Caption: Soldiers from Company A, 3-187th Infantry watch from an observation post as bombs are dropped on insurgent positions during Operation Iron Blade II in Ghazni Province Nov. 28.

Image credit: Lt. Col. David Fivecoat/U.S. Army

In a time when we have no real enemies worthy of the name, we've become obsessed with defense, spending far more than any other advanced country and getting even less. We pay for these priorities in lost jobs and diminished prospects. After the Second World War, we were the world's leader in physics. Now, thanks to our neglect, coupled with Europe's interest, they appear to be regaining the lead they had in the early part of the Twentieth Century. From going to the Moon in a decade, our space program can't even service the space station it built. The next generation of boosters has been canceled. Our infrastructure inadequate and crumbling thanks to decades of neglect. We sacrificed all this, not to mention our health care and retirement, to be better at destroying someone else's country than anyone else is.

Dr. King's Nightmare
That's why there are demonstrations, because when we talk, we're not listened to. As another African American activist, Frederick Douglass, once wrote:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Until demands are made, until there's a clear implication that the next step will be even more unpleasant for those in power if things don't change, nothing will change. That's as clear now as when Douglass was trying to free his people from the slave owners, or when Dr. King was battling white racists and their enablers a century later.

As Jackson Browne would say, no one rides for free.

We're headed for a dark time. With income inequality getting worse, there is no way that the power shift can be halted without a lot of, to use Dr. King's word, "tension". How dark it will be, and how it ends, will be largely dependent on how insistently we demand what we need, and what we do when we don't get it.

That's what Dr. King taught us.

UPDATE: Slight edit to remove a sentence that I didn't complete...

UPDATE 2 (Jan. 16): The University of Stanford's Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute has an annotated version of MLK's Letter from a Birmingham Jail online. If you're not too aware of the history of the civil rights movement (and who below the age of 60 is these days?), it's a good way to read the letter.

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