Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Volunteering at soup kitchens and painting schools is great, but that’s not how Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world.

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The United States declared Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday in 1983. Since then, it has come to be celebrated as a “Day of Service,” which usually translates to volunteering in one’s community doing nice things like painting murals, picking up trash, or donating blood.

These are in themselves good things to do, but to associate MLK with volunteering is to misrepresent his life and his legacy.

Dr. King was not a volunteer. He was a revolutionary.

He did not just “work to make things better in his own community.” He wasn’t a kindly Santa Claus figure who wearily sighed, “Can’t we all just get along?”

He did not just “have a dream.” He acted on his convictions, risking––and ultimately, losing––his life to challenge the status quo of injustice. He led marches and strikes and went to jail for breaking unfair laws.

And we have every reason to believe that, had he been allowed to live, he would have continued protesting racism, war, and economic exploitation.

It’s obviously impossible to expect a country to have a nationally-designated “Day of Revolution,” but what if instead of volunteering, we had a national “Day of Reckoning” on Dr. King’s birthday? What if we read, listened, and reflected on his words and whether we have achieved the future he imagined? (What does it mean, for instance, that some states celebrate segregationist leaders on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.?) What if we expected the country to live up to what this leader demanded? And we were expected to take action to fix the ways in which it doesn’t?

Some people are doing just that. Three years ago, Black activists called for Americans to #ReclaimMLK––sparking articles, conversations, and protests that connect Dr. King’s vision to the present day.

This year #ReclaimMLK is a week-long call to action, with each day focusing on a different theme.

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These efforts are led by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 racial justice and civil and human rights organizations. However we can, wherever we are, I hope we can heed their call to “embrace all parts of King’s legacy.”

Learn more and find planned actions here.

*About the title of this post: recently, I have been reflecting on how challenging injustice is not “nice” or “polite” behavior. Activism requires confronting injustice and making “good trouble” and challenging “the way things are.” Dr. King was willing to stand up for his beliefs. He angered and inconvenienced both people in power and people who agreed with him but believed we should “wait for things to get better in due time.” That is what I mean when I say he was not a nice guy. In the face of injustice, I don’t believe any of us should be “nice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Letter to my White friends

Yesterday the latest failure of the U.S. justice system erupted: the policeman who murdered Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold will not be indicted by New York State. That means he might never go to trial. Police shouldn’t be killing anyone, regardless of whether or not you committed a crime. That is not their job, but it is especially disturbing when the victim is an unarmed civilian who isn’t hurting anyone. This is the second time in just a couple of weeks that a White cop has literally gotten away with murder after killing an innocent Black person in the United States. And just two days ago, another police officer killed an unarmed Black man in Arizona. These are not isolated incidents. If you haven’t already, I implore you to read this short article, listing 25 ways innocent Black Americans have been killed linked to the incidents they mention. It was written by Ijeoma Oluo, a mother who wonders how she can explain this to her sons.

Eric Garner was killed pleading for his life in the street in broad daylight on video, and the cop who murdered him with his bare hands is not innocent until proven guilty. He’s just exempt from the whole thing.

These were Eric Garner’s dying words.

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The news broke a few hours before the Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting, a famous national tradition taking place just miles from where Eric Garner died. Activists called for the tree lighting to be canceled with the hashtag #NoJusticeNoTree on social media. We also asked celebrities to refuse to perform or use their time on stage to stand up for Black lives and against police brutality.

A friend and I went to protest the tree lighting. We got as close to the tree as we possibly could and tried to start some chants, but we seemed to be the only protesters there. When we yelled “Black lives matter/More than a tree,” we were told, “Now is not the time and place.”

“This is a Christmas celebration.”

“There are children here.”

But when is the right time and place? I love Christmas, but so did Eric Garner. He used to dress up as Santa Claus for his grandchildren. What about the families who won’t get to have a merry Christmas just because one of their family members dared to stand on the sidewalk? What about the Black American children who are themselves murdered by police? When will we stand up for them?

People of color around us looked at the ground sadly and said, “We understand, but protesting here won’t bring him back.”

And they’re right. No protest will ever bring back Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Aiyana Stanley-Jones or any of the other countless victims. Human lives are precious because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

I don’t know what the right time to protest is—but I know the wrong time to stay silent. We can’t let more innocent Black people die. We can’t live in a country that lets White cops go free after killing someone, without facing so much as a day in court. That is the system that we are living under today, and if we don’t do something, it is the system that will continue. The tally of deaths will rise and rise while we wait for the “right time” to demand justice.

In the end, the Rockefeller tree was lit.

We left before it happened. It was isolating to be the only ones in distress while everyone around us sang Christmas carols. Then, we found all the protesters who didn’t make it past the barricades into Rockefeller Plaza.

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We marched with hundreds of people taking over streets and chanting, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”

“No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

Repeating Eric Garner’s last words. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

And Michael Brown’s. “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

We can’t let these words fade from our memories.

My friend and I found Tasha and walked across Broadway while all the cars stopped at a green light because there were too many of us. We were no longer alone. Traffic came to a complete halt as we took over the Westside Highway. And aside from the great mass of people who enveloped us, there were drivers honking in support, bus drivers raising their arms in solidarity, restaurant delivery people yelling as they zoomed past, even taxi drivers rolling down their windows to give us high fives.

It was a powerful reminder.

Every time you protest, you are representing all those who can’t.

White people are extremely safe on U.S. streets. We benefit the most from this unjust system that forces people with dark skin to fear for their lives while we have the “luxury” of being free. If we understand that everyone should have the right to exist, it is our responsibility to speak out.

The friend with whom I protested last night is biracial but often perceived as African American. After the protest she pointed out several times during the night when she was treated differently from me despite the fact that we were standing side-by-side saying and doing the exact same things. That is White privilege.

To my White, able-bodied friends: get out there and march. Stand in solidarity with the people of color who don’t have your privilege. Follow Black leaders and be a number in the streets. Even if you are completely jaded and believe that the protests won’t do anything to change the system, get to the streets. Do it to show support for the people who lost their loved ones simply because their skin was darker than ours. Do it because you love listening to rap songs about inequality. But how can you sing along in good conscience if you don’t speak out against it? Do it because you have the luxury of staying home and never being bothered by the police. Show the world the most basic fundamental truth: Black lives matter. The system is not doing it, so it is up to us.

Letter to my White friends