Although it’s no longer at the top of corporate media headlines, Black Lives Matter is by no means finished. The movement seems to have more staying power than the protests that erupted in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and the resulting acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. This year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 19th looks to be an interesting one, with actions planned around the country that will stand in sharp contrast to the official (and thoroughly empty, hypocritical) praise heaped on the late Reverend by the political establishment. Ferguson Action sums up their participation in #ReclaimMLK as follows:
“Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.”
Lenin once remarked that, while partisans of the oppressed are condemned and demonized in their own lives, they become sanctified – and sanitized – icons in death. This way the ruling class can flash some progressive credentials while at the same time emptying the new icon’s ideas of all their radical content. Nowhere is this more clear in the United States than with Martin Luther King, Jr. His opposition to Southern segregation earned him the total hatred of the Dixieland elite. Throughout his political life he evolved into stances that challenged structural racism built into our political system, not just de jure racism in the South.
While socialists, communists and civil rights organizers to his left (including the Black Nationalists) rightly criticized him for his conciliatory attitude, to his credit the final years of his life saw him condemn the imperialist war in Vietnam and the economic exploitation that serves Black oppression. King even noted the need for a “radical redistribution of wealth and power” in our society, and, when asked about acts of looting and violence during Civil Rights protests, retorted that the “greatest purveyor of violence on Earth” was the United States government.
It’s that side of Doctor King that sections of #BlackLivesMatter are coming into alignment with, rather than establishment Civil Rights gurus like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Anti-racist organizers have a chance now to confront and replace formations like Sharpton’s National Action Network, which has consistently minimized the plain reality of institutional police violence in favor of the “just a few bad apples” approach and in general acts as a brake, not a driver, on consciousness and organization. There are already flash points of tension, such as the national march in Washington on December 13th where Sharpton clamped down on a group of protesters who came from Ferguson. For the awful crime of attempting to get up on the podium to speak, to address their own movement, Sharpton had them expelled.
The break between middle-class official liberalism and new black freedom organizations will be a long process, with fits and starts and some steps backward. But it’s a necessary one.