On Sunday evening, Occupy Redwood City held a candlelight vigil for Martin Luther King, Jr. to honor his life’s work, and to remember what he was still hoping to accomplish before his life was cut short.
Most of us in this country know about Reverend King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,“ and most schoolchildren in the United States eventually see tapes or hear recordings of him intoning the famous words, “Free at last! Free at last!” Fewer people, however, have been taught the following words, spoken by King nearly fifty years ago during his Nobel Lecture:
“Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed – not only its symptoms but its basic causes….
“The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for the least of these.”
Few people, particularly in the younger generation, know that King stood firmly against the Vietnam War and spoke out about the way in which funding the killing of the poor and disenfranchised abroad takes funding away from help for the poor and disenfranchised at home, alienating many white Americans who had previously supported his work. Fewer still talk about how King, in his last years, began to argue ever more frequently against capitalism and in favor of redistribution of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome entrenched black poverty. Indeed, many who appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day were never told in school that King’s final efforts before he was assassinated was to organize a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure national lawmakers to address the issue of economic justice.
The Occupy movement encompasses many issues and many people from various viewpoints and backgrounds, but income inequality and the funneling of public taxpayer wealth away from the people and into the hands of corporations and the 1% are issues that are central to most of us who Occupy. They are issues that King worked passionately to combat, and while we would never presume to claim that we are picking up where he left off, we do feel it safe to say that many of us hope to eventually bring about the same sort of change King envisioned for the country he loved.
On this holiday we of Occupy Redwood City also felt it important to highlight the culture of incarceration in our country and how it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color while draining our local resources. Although Jim Crow laws have been eliminated, the racial caste system it set up remains intact. It’s been redesigned and now functions through the criminal justice system:
Our rules and laws are now officially color-blind, but they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion. Through the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement, millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, and have been branded criminals and felons primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes: the very sorts of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white neighborhoods and on college campuses but go largely ignored. They are then are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.
When people are released from prison and have a criminal record, they are discriminated against for the rest of their life in employment. For the rest of their life, they’ve got to check that box on employment applications, knowing that application is likely going straight to the trash. You can be barred from public housing just based on an arrest alone; no conviction is needed. Under federal law, you’re deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of your life if you’ve been convicted of a drug felony. And people in the United States are stripped of the right to vote in many states if they have a felony conviction, including minor drug convictions which can label you as a felon for life.
Human Rights Watch says African-American adults have been arrested at a rate of 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white adults in every year from 1980 to 2007, even though African Americans and whites have similar rates of illicit drug use and dealing. In large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are now part of an “under-caste” – a group of people, defined largely by race, that are relegated to a permanent second-class status by law.
At the same time, big banks like Wells Fargo who have brought about our nation’s economic crisis don’t just target homeowners of color with unethical home lending and payday loan practices: they also invest in corporations like GEOGroup and CCA that manage immigrant detention centers, profit from the incarceration of poor people and the separation of families, and lobby for stricter criminal sentences and cruel immigration policies. That big banks have a monetary stake in the incarceration of the poor and people of color is just one more reason Occupy Redwood City marched against the downtown branches of the big banks this Saturday, talking to their friends and neighbors at the banks about their foreclosures and financial worries, and urging them to move their money out of these banks and into local independent banks and credit unions that are invested in the community.
This culture of incarceration which hits the poor and people of color the hardest affects the rest of our community as well, regardless of your race or whether or not you’ve ever been arrested: Consider the fact that San Mateo County is looking to build a costly new jail here in Redwood City to deal with chronic prison overcrowding and an anticipated influx of hundreds of prisoners pending the state government’s realignment. As reported recently in the San Carlos Patch, this jail would cost the County up to $165 million to build, with an estimated annual operating expense of $44 million. At a time when local governments are struggling to find the money to keep schools open, vital services running, and public employees from being cut, the only major accomplishment some of our elected officials can point to is an expensive new monument to their inability to think differently about the criminal sentencing process. Imagine how different things would be for us all, not just those with a record, if we had a truly just system at work.
Nothing less than a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America or inspiring a recommitment to King’s dream. Author Michelle Alexander cites that if we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. A million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs.
What this means is that this system isn’t going to just fade away without a major social upheaval, a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness, and in Alexander’s words, this major social movement that we need has got to be a human rights movement. It’s got to be a movement for education, not incarceration; for jobs, not jails; a movement that acknowledges the basic humanity and dignity of all people.
In King’s final year of life, he worked on the Poor People’s Campaign and stated:
“We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.
“Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”
As Occupiers we stand committed to sustaining exactly that sort of social movement that King called for in announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, that radical shift in our public consciousness. We stand against the banks that profit off of the poor and off of people of color. We stand against the idea of “liberty and justice for some,” where the system administers a harsh form of justice to the 99% while the government and corporate elites and others in the 1% who have brought our country to near economic collapse remain almost completely unaccountable for their crimes.
We want to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream by working to further it, and we hope people understand the full story of Reverend King: that he was not just a man committed to racial equality, but that he was also a man who was committed to peace, to economic justice, and to the dismantling of a society that creates a 1%. Indeed, the great wisdom of King is that he saw that advocacy for each these issues by its very nature had to be intertwined.
At the beginning of the weekend Occupy Redwood City voted as a group to endorse and attend the Freedom Train ride from San Jose to San Francisco organized by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley. As Association President Reverend Bonita Carter-Cox told Occupy Redwood City, the train ride commemorates the distance walked from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. King and other Civil Rights advocates and is the last remaining freedom train event in the US.
Members of Occupy Redwood City, Occupy San Jose, and other groups attended the train ride this morning: not to hijack a venerable event and make it about Occupy, but to stand in solidarity with civil rights activists, to honor Dr. King and his tireless work on the very issues that Occupiers hold dear, and to listen and engage with others who work for the betterment of the 99%.
For our friends and neighbors in Redwood City who wish to honor Dr. King but cannot ride the train with us, we would ask them to spend some time in the day considering these words from the reverend:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”
“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman for the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America: ‘You are too arrogant. If you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.’”
As long-time children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman said: “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back, but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”
Occupy Redwood City continues to rally and conduct General Assemblies every Friday at 5 PM at Courthouse Square. For more quotes from Dr. King, go to:
“The Quest for Peace and Justice” (1964 Nobel Lecture)
“Where Do We Go From Here?” (1967)
“Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (1967)
“Beyond Vietnam” (1967) and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” (1968)
“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” (1968)
Ten OTHER Things Martin Luther King Said:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.” — from MLK, Jr.’s last sermon (“The Drum Major Instinct”)