By David DePriest, Columnist
Posted 5:30 PM EST, Sat., Feb. 11, 2017
It happens every Black History Month like clockwork. Like a horror film, they rise from the waters of the reservoir like the Swamp Thing, fingers waggling, conveniently contextless meme in hand. They have no definite political identity. Some are liberals, some are conservative. Many are well-meaning, and you know them. They wait in the wings, ready to pounce the moment that the Baltimore BLOC or the ANTIFA emerge. Even the deliberately and decidedly peaceful protesters like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s Marchers aren’t immune. They always say the same things: “Martin Luther King wouldn’t approve of this.” “This isn’t how you build a movement.” “This isn’t how to resist.” It’s absolute garbage.
There’s an obvious presumption here that’s always at play among these people. When someone like Tomi Lahren or Chris Matthews decries an act of resistance as unmoored or unworthy of the legacy of the great civil rights leaders of the past, there’s a positioning and a gatekeeping at play. These people, usually rich white members of the media, see themselves as better versed on the histories and legacies of the aggrieved. They view themselves as the keepers and guardians of a rich legacy of activism. It goes without saying, however, that neither of the aforementioned has meaningful access to that legacy. While it is a distinctly American legacy, one that every American regardless of race can meaningful understand or engage with, it’s not one that every American can claim an inherent access to.
The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida B. Wells, Barbara Jordan, and others is best witnessed and understood through the eyes of the people that their work uplifted, defended and canonized. It is the tireless work of modern day activists, in whatever form it takes, that truly demonstrates the spirit of these titans, not in the facile objections of the monied, privileged elites who so violently assert their claim to it.
What’s more, these prevailing critiques bear a deeper and more critical question: What exactly is the right method of activism? How do we best embody the spirit of our foreparents? How do we best carry the torch forward? To this question, the answer is often silence. Just look to Trevor Noah’s excellent interview with Ms. Lahren, in which she bulked and ultimately didn’t respond when asked this simple question. Just look to how even analogous actions get marred with this catch-all critique. The Million Man March, according to conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, spits in the face of Dr. King despite being directly inspired by his 1963 march. The Women’s March, also inspired by the 1963 march, has been decried as antithetical to the spirit of progressive activism. Anti-police violence organizations like Campaign Zero, who has modeled the organizational structure and political stylings of organizations like SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, have been lambasted as terrorist organizations that spoil the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.
In analyzing these objections, the deeper truth behind these critiques becomes clear. These so-called gatekeepers have no real interest in the preservation or upholding of King’s legacy, or even the legacy of progressive activism in general. In truth, their objections come from a fear of the dissolution of the status quo, a status quo that allows them unfettered access to whatever alternative facts or history they wish to create. In wholly controlling the history and legacy of this nation, in having full control of the context in which our politics operate, they can cast anything that threatens them or their power as unfounded or overly aggressive. They can color the oppressed and aggrieved, whether they’re fighting for racial justice, sexual justice or even just fighting against a chauvinistic political machine that takes whatever it wants, literally and figuratively, as nothing more than insipid and violent ne’er do wells. That’s before the fake news colors them as thugs, criminals and non-humans.
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