On hypocritical MLK Day observances

by | Jan 22, 2022 | Anti-racism, Featured, Indigenous Sovereignty, Labor

Last week, we celebrated a spectacle of historic proportions. Politicians and leading figures around the country in every state did their best to go a whole 24 hours without mentioning a racist policy they’ve endorsed or supported. And the most powerful liberal and conservative politicians alike felt compelled to issue laudatory statements about the life and death of a radical anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist historical figure. Even if they sounded ridiculous doing it.

Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy praised MLK while promoting new Jim Crow voting restrictions. Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone

That’s a bit of humor for my own sanity. In all honesty though, this isn’t far from the truth. Right-wing US Senators and local dog catchers joined in. The very same ones who are campaigning to cement an anti-democratic system of government and to impose a Republican regime that operates on interests that are antagonistic to the common person’s physical, mental, emotional, social, economic and spiritual welfare. And yet even they feel compelled by some force to speak about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as if we don’t know that’s what they are doing.

Here are a few highlights from this year’s Festival of Racist Hypocrisy. One politician who openly embraced Nixon’s racist Drug War political strategy linked to a seven-year-old article claiming that he liked MLK because he was one of the good ones. A media outlet won this year’s Laziest Co-opting of History Award by inserting a statement about “divisiveness” into the full transcript of the “I Have A Dream” speech. But the winner of the WTAF Award goes to the FBI for getting in on the act. Yes THAT FBI.

There are a lot of things you could do on such a day. Me, I stayed home. I enjoyed my day off and had a conversation with my 6 year old about the fact that MLK was assassinated for wanting a fair society. We talked about what a fair society might mean including people having enough and not being hungry or homeless. But for public figures it’s a day for choreographed self-flagellation.

The people who handled this best were likely Janet Mills and the Maine Democrats. Not because they did something extraordinary. Quite the opposite. This year they made their required statements discreetly and promptly sat down in the background as they were asked to do in support of Voting Rights legislation.

Now, about that Voting Rights legislation.

There are those on the left outside of the Democratic Party who oppose this bill for the very valid reason that it will weaken third parties ballot access thereby cutting the knees out from under potential political opposition now and in the future. 

But that is how power works in America. You want something? Who are you willing to sell out to get it? That’s the deal whether we want it or not and whether we actively participate or not, until it changes. Change for which there is often little hope. Voting rights legislations won’t fix a broken system, but at least it won’t push us backwards.

Rally for voting rights in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Nolan D. McCaskill on Twitter

We have been in a continuous negotiation for our rights since before the founding of this nation. Among those first debates was undoubtedly how to measure the political, economic, and social value of Black bodies.

That is why being a good arbiter for the State (be it as an elected official or an official in its bureaucracies and institutions) undoubtedly comes with some level of managing that original system. It means acting in the interests of the original State which sees those who are not white as Others at best and property at worst; BIPOC peoples have a measurable value in multiple contexts in the eyes of the powers that be. We are no different than a lump of aluminum and our communities are little more than open pit mines where they manage the extraction process. I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes and had people believe that I would work to create such a system and then state that belief to my face.

Think of it like this: here in Maine we are still debating the meaning of land ownership, and in some cases even existence, with Indigenous peoples who are not beholden to the State in the manner everyone else is and we are debating it BECAUSE their lack of obligation makes them an Other. The original State defines Indigenous sovereignty as unwelcome competition or a foriegn entity that must be eliminated.

Gov. Janet Mills has consistently sought to restrict Indigenous sovereignty in Maine. Photo credit Robert F. Bukay, AP.

This thinking also extends to the poor. The Founding Father elites had just overthrown a dynastic empire and justified it on economic grounds. They freed themselves from their superiors. But who was to say the poor might not eventually overthrow the new rulers under a truly democratic system? And so the thinking of the State remains to this day that the poor are the unruly Others who need to be kept in check by whatever means necessary. That’s why the military and police forces were used to take down early labor unions. 

That’s also why it’s so difficult to get help from the State. They have an entire apparatus that is designed to offer support but then they put in a labyrinth of documentation and busywork between you and actually receiving that help. Of course when it comes to issues like the poor organizing for better conditions, increasing compensation for workers, and strengthening the power structures available to workers and poor folk (like unions) they actively work against them. Meanwhile, the State’s own economic relations to big business (through its contracts, tax regime, etc.) pushes it to side with the bosses in conflicts with workers. Any exceptions only prove the rule. 

So, for people who truly intend to honor a radical figure who openly opposed and criticized such a State, I would suggest that next year leaders spend the day to come together and reimagine the State. We must remove the original State’s perspective and offer a new one in its place that involves a real reconciliation with its past, including compensation and a restructuring of fundamental systems.

Isreal Mosley is the first Black Chair of the Waterville Democratic Committee and serves as the Kennebec County Democratic Committee's Subcommittee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He is a member of Racial Equity and Justice and serves on the steering committee for Maine Equal Justice Partner's Shared Vision project.

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