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We Need Another Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted on July 14, 2016 at 4:00 PM

By Dennis Stone


The following words of Martin Luther King, Jr. could well have been said this week as a reaction to the racial bloodshed and animosity we’ve seen in the past few days.


“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.


“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”


Martin Luther King, Jr. has been one of my heroes since I discovered the larger world around me at the age of 14, and became a student of history and of the progressive and emancipatory mindset. There was something transcendent about him, something I’ve rarely seen in political figures. In that regard he joins only Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and (surprisingly to many, perhaps) Robert F. Kennedy in my pantheon of giants. It’s sad and a bit worrisome that all four were products of the 20th century, and that I mostly know them through newsreels and books.


It feels more and more like we’re entering a period like King described, where “violence is....a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.” And it feels like we have no heroes, no transcendent voices, to help steer us through this period. We have become a nation of binary thinkers, unable to see nuance, unwilling to even consider the thoughts or feelings of people who see the world differently than we do. We need someone to pick up the mantle of MLK, someone with the wisdom to keep his eyes unwaveringly on the dream of freedom and equality without going over the edge into the abyss of self-righteousness and empty sloganeering.


You might think our president could be the one to fill this void. However, simply by dint of being president in a divisive world, the official leader of the Democratic party in a contentious political structure, he has little standing with close to half the populace. Unfortunately, although the Black Lives Matter movement is based on a spiritually transcendent idea, I see no visionaries among them, no one with any interest in following the lead of King, Gandhi, Mandela or Kennedy.


On the right side of our sharply demarcated political and philosophical divide I see people who view the police as infallible defenders of the law-abiding citizenry. They refer to the “regressive left” that has a contempt for the American way of life, they see protesters as lawless “thugs,” and they feel the black population is largely causing its own problems while it ignores the devastation of black-on-black violence within their communities.


On the left I see people who view the police as incorrigibly racist, seeking out black men to murder. They see conservatives as hopelessly clinging to a vision of a lily white past, prejudiced against blacks, Muslims, queers, and anyone different from them. People on the left see themselves as crusaders for an enlightened world of equality, arrayed against the dark forces of ignorance and fear.


Neither side sees any validity in the perspectives of the other. I’m a lifelong progressive (it was the progressive ideal that woke me when I was 14), and so I have a bias, but I’ve also had a lifelong passion for looking at the world through the eyes of others as well as through my own. When I do that today I see validity in both sides, and blind spots in both outlooks.


White people don’t understand what it is to be black; many seem willfully blind to the injustices that occur. They can’t see the solid line stretching from slavery (with its destruction of the black family) to Jim Crow to forced segregation to racist hiring practices to redlining and ghettoization. “Slavery was 150 years ago,” they say, as if all the racism that followed had no importance.


On the other hand, black and progressive people don’t understand what it means to be a police officer; many seem willfully blind to the realities of policing in a violent world where guns are everywhere and split second decisions can mean the difference between life and death. They can’t acknowledge that the black community is deeply complicit in its own hardship, with huge numbers of fathers abandoning their families, with massive school dropout rates (forgoing the best path to escaping poverty), with gangs and guns and murder everywhere. All with shockingly little community outcry.


Regarding the current issue of police shootings, part of the answer is really rather simple. Conservatives, look at the videos of Walter Scott and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald. There is nothing ambiguous about them. Think about what they tell you about how policing sometimes occurs. Think about what it means to be black in this society. I mean, really think about it with an open mind.


Progressives, I have two videos for you to watch. They were eye-opening to me. The first shows what happens when a black activist volunteers to go through a three-part use of force simulation.  The second is a compilation of multiple videos (most from police car dash cams) of violent police encounters. Think about how difficult police decisions can be. Imagine yourself in those situations.


What’s sad is that as simple as this partial answer is, very few on either side will take my advice. It’s easier and - reflective of a modern human trait I totally don’t understand - somehow more reassuring to retreat into slogans and conditioned responses and hatred of people with perspectives different from one’s own.


That’s why we need a Martin Luther King, someone with the wisdom and strength to understand the complexity of our situation, and then to express it in ways that resonate widely. He was rejected in the 1960s by the fringes of both black and white, left and right, but ultimately he was accepted and respected by the masses on both sides. Today all we have are loud and angry voices, yelling past each other, self righteous and unwilling to open their minds and hearts to the possibility that there is anything but evil on the other side.


Or are we just seeing the loud and the hateful, while more thoughtful people are drowned out and ignored? I want to end on a note of hope, and so here is a video that provides just that. THIS is the movement that needs to sweep the nation.

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