Monday, January 17, 2011

On Law & Order

The emphasis on and call for "law and order" has often been synonymous with the suppression of social justice struggles in our society. Martin Luther King, Jr., realized that and spoke eloquently of it. Today, as some of us commemorate his birthday, I just want to quote relevant passages from his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and the "Statement from Alabama Clergymen" that prompted the letter.

The Alabama clergymen had already written a statement called "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense." They imagined themselves moderates, negotiating between southern segregationists and civil rights workers, each equally "extremist." See, there's a problem with proclaiming oneself a "racial moderate" or "neutral." Because the perspectives of dominant groups are normalized and regarded as the default, those perspectives are often viewed as “neutral.” In the case of social justice struggles in the United States, the so called “moderate” perspective, in reality, centers the feelings, thoughts, and ideologies of non-marginalized people. King wrote, for example, that white moderates took the same paternalistic view of African Americans as white southerners who were more overtly racist. As a result, he had been
...gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.
King also pointed out how the moderates’ claim that the Birmingham protests were "unwise and untimely" revealed their privileged status as “white” in the racial hierarchy and their inability to fully understand African Americans’ perspective:
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."
Unaffected by the "disease of segregation," clergymen composed a statement that insisted on the importance of obeying the law. They implied that the legal system and the institution of law were logical and just and that justice would be the result if people use them. The clergymen acknowledged no distinction, King claimed, between just and unjust laws. Segregation laws were unjust, examples of "dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

So, why did the Alabama clergymen, who imagined themselves moderate and even sympathetic to African Americans insist on "law and order" and define civil rights demonstrations as representative of disorder that "incite[d] hatred and violence?" Why did they suggest that African Americans pursue their cause via the courts--a suggestion not rooted in any historical or social context, as African Americans had received little redress in southern courts--instead of "in the streets?"

Obviously, the people who will or do benefit from the system in place have a vested interest in maintaining and/or prolonging the status quo through the use of "law and order." Order was more important to them than any semblance of justice, despite their claims:
[The moderate] ...constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; ...paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; ...lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
And, in the case of the "moderate" Alabama clergymen, King theorized they had a problematic definition of peace, that prioritized "a negative peace which is the absence of tension" over "a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

King called for moderates to shift their perspectives and to realize that the "calm" appearance of order often obscured the violence necessary to maintain it:
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake.
Do me a favor? Keep thinking of justice and positive peace, not "order," as the foundation upon which we should build.

Happy MLK Day!
Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...