Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
One of the foundational texts of my teaching and thinking over the last decade has been Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I’ve always read it, I think, as a piece about those other white people, those white people who get in the way of the work we are trying to do.
Only today, driving in silence as I do often when things are too much, did I realize that that piece resonated with me not because I would be sitting with King in the cell, but because I am becoming the white moderate that he is warning about.
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
I am aware of who in our country is calling for order right now, and who is calling for justice. I believe in the cause of justice, I do, and I hear when they are calling for order they are calling for control, for punishment, for the silence of dissention.
I have found myself lately pulled towards that negative peace King talks about, the peace that happens when anger is dismissed rather than resolved, when the fighting stops but nothing has changed.
When I see the protests today I am uncomfortable when I see people throwing things at police. I’m uncomfortable when I hear people talk about the abolition of police, or hold signs that proclaim ‘All Cops are Bastards.’ I have family members who are cops and prosecutors. I don’t want things thrown at them. I want them to be safe. I have a promise I made to myself when I was 16, held at gunpoint while working at a pharmacy, a promise I made after the cops showed up that I would not forget how that felt. I have a lifetime of positive interactions with police officers, who have nearly always shown me respect, even kindness, and otherwise ignored me.
When I march, I chant “Black Lives Matter.” I chant the names of those killed by police. I do not yell “Fuck 12” when everyone else does, and I hope that my pandemic mask covers my silence.
I hate seeing things burn, windows smashed. I don’t like when looting happens, don’t understand the connection taking things from stores has to police violence.
There are times, increasingly more and more times, when I just wish everyone could go home and be nicer to each other. I wish for peace, even knowing it will be that negative peace, that it would be the lack of justice. I just want stuff to stop burning. I just want to stop feeling awful about it.
I’m not happy I feel this way. I know the things I should think, the things I should say. I’m wrestling with these because I’m trying to understand my own pull to moderation, to challenge it because I don’t want to be someone who says all the right things, who believes that they believe all the right things, but fails when my area of influence interacts with the movement towards justice.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides and try to understand why he must do so.
The last part of that paragraph is, to me, one of the most powerful and challenging pieces of the whole letter. In my classroom, I issue it as a broad challenge to be taken any time we see people engaging in direct action and public protests. We should try to understand why.
I am uncomfortable when I see people throw things at police. I can’t imagine myself ever doing so, but I try to understand that my experience with police is much different than lots of people, than lots of whole communities of people. I try to understand the anger and trauma. I also look for who has the guns and the armor and the shields, who is often starting and amplifying the violence. It has not been the protestors.
I don’t like the burning, the breaking, the taking, but I try to understand communities that have been generationally divested, who have been hit hard by a crashing economy and unemployment and sickness during the pandemic, and who, more than that, are beyond fed up at how long their screaming, full-throated, for justice and equality and opportunity has gone unheard. I try to understand that the enemy to their prosperity may not just be that one police officer, not just a criminal justice system, but a whole system of economics and education, that so much of our cities reflect a world that has been consistently and forcibly denied them.
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
It costs us nothing to listen, except perhaps our comfort. If we aren’t willing to sacrifice that comfort, then we are unwilling to seek justice.
But, then, listening is not enough. What will we do with what we hear? Justice may cost us order, for a time, may cost us peace, for this moment, but surely it is worth it. We can’t escape the images and words of those King would have called extremists for the preservation of injustice. They are fighting hard for the way things are, for the way things were. They are calling for law and order, but really they are promising comfort to those of us who desire it more than anything.
We can’t give in to our comfort. Any peace we gain will be a lie until that peace includes the presence of justice.