Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested thirty times during the course of his civil rights advocacy. It’s not a stretch to characterize MLK as a man vs the State. He was fighting against the status quo, he was fighting against the “majority” societal opinion, at least in the South if not elsewhere. It’s truly startling if you take a moment to contemplate that a man for whom we now have a national holiday was not just once, but some 30 times apprehended, if not incarcerated by the State.
MLK was, some thirty times, detained, hand-cuffed by police, and placed in a cell behind bars… The police, I’m sure, believed they were doing their duty. They were just doing their jobs. The police, arms of the State, carried out their orders to apprehend, hand-cuff, and incarcerate Martin Luther King Jr.
Fascinating to think about.
I’m reminded of Bryan Stevenson’s words:
It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
It wasn’t just MLK himself that was arrested, of course, but many of the droves of African-American people that followed King.
We reserve our jails for those we deem a danger to society. We place them behind iron bars in locked cages so as to keep them from harming society, and, ostensibly, to protect the prisoners themselves from each other. Though this second reason has some merit, the first seems absurd in MLK’s case. Did we really need to arrest and imprison Martin Luther King Jr. so as to protect society from such a dangerous man?
I suppose it’s fair to say that quite possibly some of the police officers on duty those days, the ones called upon by their superiors, and by their duty, to arrest MLK and his non-violent protesting friends did so grudgingly. Perhaps some policemen did so unhappily and did so out of a sheer sense of duty to the office, and not as a willing and eager law enforcement officer carrying out the law of the land. But what are we to think of the others?
Another example, I’m sure, of just how truly difficult it was, is, and will continually become to be a police officer in this country. The juxtaposition of police power and the rights of activist citizens exercising their Constitutional rights- or beyond(?). At what point does law enforcement clash with the Good? The history of the Civil Rights movement is a fascinating case-study in this question, and I think it’s fair to say that even on this MLK Day 2017, it’s a case-study that’s still ongoing.
Again, Stevenson says it so well:
The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We ban poor women and inevitably their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions. We’ve created a new caste system that forces thousands of people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in their communities and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote. As a result in several southern states disenfranchisement among African-American men has reached levels unseen since before the voting rights act of 1965.
I leave you with one more thought from Stevenson: “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”