“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
The most revolutionary thing Black folks and other marginalized people can do to honor the work and spirit of Dr. King on his holiday is to rest and engage in self-care activities. Capitalism and its associated manifestations of state violence make living — for everybody who is not rich, cisgender, heterosexual, “well-educated” or white — nearly impossible. It is this common reality that unites us othered, deviant, non-normative folks across struggles and pushes us to engage in resistance work that forces us into the very face of trauma and collective oppression; work we engage with that builds on the legacy of the generations before us, and may in fact spark widespread social change.
This undying hope that so many people have creates space for social justice work across various forms of activism, advocacy and organizing to be romanticized absent of the reality of the pain, exhaustion, financial strain, character defamation and burn-out we actually experience in doing the work.
This same romanticism is applied time and time again, year after year to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The legacy of Dr. King is one that is indeed unmatched in terms of his impact, organizing tactics, religious spirituality and preaching, non-violent teachings and as most recently acknowledged, his anti-capitalist, socialist thought.
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
While he, like other activists and changemakers, is tied to a legacy that is steeped in revolutionary thought and practice, we miss the opportunity to use Dr. King’s teachings to unpack the importance of rest and self-care as vital parts of maintaining healthy, sustainable movements.
“There is nothing more tragic than to find an individual bogged down in the length of life, devoid of breadth.”
Self-Care: A Revolutionary Act of Non-Violent Direct Action Protest
Since 2014, an overwhelming chunk of my life has been devoted to community organizing and activism work in Atlanta, Georgia — the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. My time in the work has been marked by a few good wins, a LOT of ugly losses, invaluable knowledge about the history of injustice and the inner-workings of this here city, and an undying desire to learn and develop more ways to end harmful urban regimes in favor of a beloved community for all humans.
Organizing, especially direct action protest and community education + advocacy, has also given me a truly magical Black, Queer movement family made up of some of the most extraordinary individuals who all live lives devoted to liberation work and Black joy anchored by a strong repertoire of daily active resistance.
As I reflect back on my time in the work and think about the ways in which we’ve grown together despite the storms we’ve weathered, the significance of our past MLK Day actions vividly stand out to me.
I have attended the Atlanta MLK Day parade faithfully since January 2015. Ironically, my first year participating in the parade was with my college roommates, who, at the time, were graduate students at Clark Atlanta University. They dragged me, an undergraduate student at Georgia State University, along with them because it was too important for me to miss. I protested, given that at the time, taking a nap sounded like a much better idea than what to me at the time felt like a performative “day of action” to celebrate an Atlanta native son that to me if he were still alive would frown upon the city’s current landscape of social justice and inequality; nonetheless, I went anyway and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Looking back on that day, it stands out in two ways: first, it was the first (and last) time I would attend the MLK Day Parade as another young Black Atlanta student. For us, it meant enjoying a day free of classes, celebrating with everybody Black — no agenda, no cause to stand for, and no organization represented. In the years that followed, my MLK Day Parades and following “days of action” involved making statements against racialized human rights issues in Atlanta such as the lack of affordable housing, rampant gentrification, the unjust actions of my own university and the lack of concern for the well-being of the city’s large homeless population. Second, this was indeed the first time I actively chose to skip out on a rejuvenating self-care day (even if all I had planned was a run and a nap) over participating in the work of an activist space.
The legacy of Dr. King is heavily represented by his unwavering commitment to the thought and practice of nonviolent direct action protest and the changemaking that resulted from the actions he lead. He once said, “Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.” I, like many other activists, outpour my whole being into the (well)being of my community, organizing spaces and comrades, yet fail to keep this same energy when it is time to pour into myself.
Though many argue that the current state of King’s legacy of nonviolent action paints him as a pacifist and that over-focusing on this lane of his work alone limits the scope of his dream, I argue otherwise. Dr. King’s message of nonviolence peace work and use of direct action protest
offers current activists the space to expand on the meaning of direct action resistance as a means of fighting for peace to justify the place of practicing self-care in the work.
One of the most beautiful takeaways from growing up in the movement with a tight-knit circle of organizing fam and a more extensive circle of allies has been watching us learn the beauty and necessity of self-care practices as, among many things, a direct form of resistance to capitalist oppression rooted in stress, hyperproductivity, heteronormativity, state violence and the unyielding social construct of “time.”
The Atlanta Black Movement community engages in work across the lanes of food and environmental justice, housing rights, anti-gentrification, prison abolition, fair wages and economic opportunity, anti-recidivism, youth empowerment, LGBTQ rights, safe biking and transit access and the elimination of those equity barriers that keep the city’s most vulnerable Black folks at an extreme disadvantage when compared to the lives of their more affluent and white counterparts. And this work is exhausting. As time has gone on, however, the work of healing, of practicing veganism, feeling free on a bike and finding slices of nature in the concrete jungle, planting gardens, having parties, communal napping and time banking has allowed us to engage in a revolutionary form of direct action protest via self-care that affords us the opportunity to engage in meaningful work without burning out.
Dr. King spoke on the power of direct action work in numerous speeches, lectures and sermons. However, his exploration of the method in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” piece is one particular iteration of the practice that can be applied to reframing engaging in self-care activities and healing work as forms direct action protest in direct resistance to the demands and strain of capitalism.
In “Letter,” Dr. King pens an open letter after being arrested at a 1963 action in Birmingham, Alabama for disobeying what he vehemently deems in the letter as an “unjust” anti-protest law passed to impede the growing desegregation movement in the city. He breaks down the importance of nonviolent direct action protest early in his letter by saying:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
The idea of self-care in any form, as it is tied to notions of joy and pleasure, has been denied to Black people since slavery; a denial that has been continuously reinforced by capitalism and thus minimized in our forced culture of struggle and survival. It is most often articulated as something that is simply out of reach or not meant for us. Because of the nature of its denial, Black people choosing to find ways to care for ourselves, our families, communities and environments is indeed an act of powerful direct action resistance to the violence of capitalism and racial oppression. King continues writing in his letter the fundamental tenets of direct action protest and why it is the chosen course of action for desegregation work in the South:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action….. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
Given the fundamentals of engaging in nonviolent resistance campaigns articulated by King, self-care as resistance can be justified based on Black people’s deep understanding of the nature of our oppression, as we have collected the facts of our disenfranchisement since the earliest slave narratives and abolitionist thought papers were published. It is because of this overwhelming evidence that Black organizers have fought for generations for seats at the negotiating table of our oppressors to demand our liberation and have subsequently engaged in acts of performative respectability and decorum to prove our worthiness of such treatment. We have attached ourselves to this seemingly never-ending hamster wheel of changemaking work only to have yet to see actual change happen at a large enough scale to consider ourselves “free” and thus we are exhausted. We have the right to be exhausted. We must therefore be mindful that, unfortunately, change does not come from a persistent exhaustion and subsequent collective burnout.
So what are we left to do? Step four: we engage in direct action protest through taking a step back and taking care of ourselves. MLK Day is one of contradiction as it gives many of us the day off to celebrate the life of Dr. King, yet because his legacy is so heavily steeped in a narrow view of “action” many people, organizers and non-organizers alike, choose to spend the day volunteering for and learning about various causes, marching in the streets and “giving back” in some way, while not acknowledging that taking the day off for what it is — a day removed from the work and engaging in rest and leisure — is actually an acceptable form of action.
I do not mean to drag anybody for their tradition of service on King Day; do you. But I would, however, like to offer those folks who understand exhaustion and burnout from this work an alternative way of thinking through service and action that restores, not depletes us. We as Black activists must understand that we cannot afford the ambulances we chase if we burnout and actually are in need of the ride. We therefore must take any opportunity we can to figuratively sit our asses down, re-center, give our brains and bodies a break and rest. I have a very real, attainable dream that self-care, healing and sustainable well-being can and will be a reality for us. After all, according to Dr. King, we engage in nonviolent protest to resist war and to struggle for peace.
As he notes in “Letter,” collective rest and self-care indeed creates a crisis of disruption unimaginable to the dominant power structure. Rest and self-care regiments in a world that seeks to work us weary enough to not protest is active protest. So for those of us who choose to nap, read, share the company of other carefree Black folks, to binge watch trash tv, indulge in good food or take a yoga class on MLK Day and not volunteer, march or fill our calendars with movement meetings, we should be affirmed in knowing that we too are revolutionary and resisting.
#MyWhitePrivilege Spotlights Further Racial Disparities
Employing the hashtag #MyWhitePrivilege, Twitter users have shed light on the various ways they’ve survived interactions that frequently claim the lives of Black or brown people.
Everyone knows that the justice system unfairly prosecutes Black and brown people at a rate far harsher than their white counterparts. But the extent to which white people avoid experiencing the treatment people of color face in America is vast. One user described their experience growing up in a small town with no Black population:
“Growing up in a small town with no Black folks meant that the poor were often scapegoated. Anytime something happened or went missing, the cops were at our house looking for my brother. We survived all of those interactions though.”
As unsurprising as their experience was, they continued with details that truly highlight disparity in racial treatment with regard to the prison industrial complex. Not only did their brother evade prison, they received rehabilitation, therapy to deal with their traumas, and suffered no loss of education or employment opportunities. Throughout the thread of tweets, other users shared similar experiences with the law where despite their behavior or knowledge of their criminal history, they avoided punishment.
My ex sold $700 worth of E to a cop and got ten days of weekend jail. It ended up like six days because of his “good behavior.”— Maggie The Awesome (@brainofmaggie) April 2, 2019
The cops came to my house for a wild party and we could not stop laughing to his face that his name was Stoner. We got a warning. #MyWhitePrivilege
My high school was mostly POC, probably less than 10% white. I ditched school by walking out the front gate where a school cop stood, I did this almost daily for a year. I watched the cops stop students of color doing the same thing. The cops were POC too. #MyWhitePrivilege— gracelinroses (@gracelinroses) April 4, 2019
Left my backpack in a train station and came back to 15 cops w/ the bomb squad en route. When I picked up my bag, a (white) cop asked if it was my back and what was in it. I said “Yeah and I dunno… I mean… books and stuff?” He let me go without a search… #MyWhitePrivilege— Matthew Gadbois (@gadbois_matthew) April 18, 2019
I forgot to get a visa or esta to go to the US. I apologised at Customs. Got to sit in a room full of people of colour for all of 20 minutes while some one made a decision. Stamp in passport and off I went. #MyWhitePrivilege— Kate Matheson (@KateMatheso) April 1, 2019
As Black Twitter users read the replies, some were struck with awe and others reflected on the struggles they faced. Many lamented over the difficult conversations they prepared to have with their children. The nearly 20K replies contain experiences with law enforcement through local authorities, TSA, Immigration officers, and even school police.
Not On Our Watch! Howard Uni President Bans Campus Colonizers
As a response to student reports of unauthorized use of The Yard, Howard University President, Wayne A.I. Frederick has released a statement demanding pet owners respect the campus.
An email sent to Howard University staff and students notified them of the President’s decision to mark the private institution’s grounds off limits. Calling the quad a “treasured site”, Frederick affirmed the community’s desire to keep the area “pristine and symbolic of all that Howard University represents.” Acknowledging the history of residents’ visitation to the campus, Frederick referenced the community relationship before making a formal decision.
“At the beginning of my presidency we held regular meetings that included students, faculty and members of the Advisory Neighborhood Committees to cultivate a town and gown relationship. I recently reached out to our local ANC and Councilwoman to engage in a dialogue. We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting out campus by not bringing pets onto the private areas.”
Last week, reports of residents from gentrified surrounding areas mistreating the northwest Washington D.C. school made waves on social media. Insensitive comments regarding who was privileged to access the campus sparked public outrage among those who wanted to protect Howard’s 152-year legacy.
Keep Walking, Colonizer! Howard University Students Say Neighbors are Disrespecting The Yard
White people’s sense of entitlement knows no bounds and has now extended to the campus of famed HBCU, Howard University. The 152-year-old private educational institution located in D.C. has been misused by residents who believe The Yard should be accessible to them as a dog park or outdoor gym.
Students of Howard University have taken offense to colonizers and gentrifiers in northwest Washington D.C in recent years. As wealthy, White residents continue to flood areas surrounding the university, they take liberties they have neither earned nor deserve on the school grounds. Students say they “find it very disrespectful” and have noted a marked increase of such behavior throughout their attendance.
Where students would have seen one or two out-of-place dog walkers on campus in a week, they see two each day. Graduating senior, Briana Littlejohn, spoke with The DCist, about the residents’ use of the campus, stating, “You know this is a university. You know this is a historically Black university. And you feel so entitled that you’re just going to walk your dog there?” Many other attendees feel the same, but their outrage has recently been met with unreasonable alternatives by residents.
Speaking with Fox 5 correspondent, Tisha Lewis, Sean Grubbs-Robishaw who lives in the Bloomingdale neighborhood said the following:
“So, they’re in part of D.C. so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here…It’s our community and that’s how it should be.”Sean Grubbs-Robishaw,
Grubbs-Robishaw admits to using the grounds as a shortcut to get to the McMillan Reservoir, a popular spot for walking/running. But his argument conveniently glosses over the fact that Howard University is a private institution while also disregarding its status as a historically Black university.
The campus has been mistreated by those new to the area as a location for picnics and other abuses. The university has yet to directly state that such activities are prohibited by residents, Alonda Thomas, a spokesperson, has said there is no policy prohibiting dogs and that the campus is “open”, meaning anyone has access to it.
Do you think the disrespect that Howard University campus is receiving is related in any way to the #DontMuteDC protest? Do you think the campus should be closed to the public?
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