Guest Post – Reclaim MLK: Free Us All

(I’m proud to feature this inspiring guest post from Chicago organizer Page May in which she shares her thoughts on the significance of last week’s Reclaim MLK event in Chicago.)

“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality… We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity.”

— MLK, Aug. 28, 1963

“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

– MLK, 1967

On January 15th, Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birthday, myself and friends held a march called Reclaim MLK in Chicago. It was explicitly abolitionist, intentionally organized by people of color, and centered around the Black elementary students of the Village Leadership Academy (VLA).

Over 600 people came out to join our march from the VLA school to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where we held a rally and noise demonstration. As young people of color, we shared our visions for change, celebrated the unsanitized legacy of MLK and the wider Black Freedom movement, and called out the injustice of the “justice” system.

I won’t go in to too much detail since this story has been beautifully documented already by Kelly Hayes in earlier posts (see Part I and Part II). I do wish to speak on what I think is the broader significance of this action as a part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Why We March

“We do this for Marissa.

We do this for Tanesha.

We do this for Mike Brown.

We do this for Rekia.

We do this for Damo.

We do this til we free us!”

-A BYP 100 protest chant featured at the march

These names and the stories behind them represent the truth of the “justice” system: The police will see an unarmed, young, Black man and describe him as a “demon.” They will shoot him six times, twice in the head, in broad daylight. They will leave his body to bleed out in the street for 4.5 hours- traumatizing his neighbors and loved-ones. And when his community cries out their grief and righteous anger, they are invaded with increasingly militarized forces. The police will investigate but conclude no one acted wrongfully- that Black death is unavoidable.

So we march. We march for Mike Brown. We march for Rekia, and Stephon, and Damo and all those murdered by the police. And we lift up Mike’s story because what happened to him represents the truth of the system.

The truth, but not the totality.

In fact, most Black people are not killed by the police. However, I challenge you to find a Black person who doesn’t have at least one story of police abuse. And this too, is why we march. When we look beyond the spectacle of these state-sanctioned lynchings, there is an equally outrageous brutality in the mundane of policing:

“We’re sitting in a house playing video games and we hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there’s five special-ops officers with their huge M16s drawn, pointed at us: Three 15 year olds playing video games. And they tell us get on the ground. They say if we move they are gonna kill us. “Don’t look at me, we’ll fucking kill you in a second!” Pointing their guns at us. Then they don’t find anything. They let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us, apologize, then leave out. And we’re sitting there like, “What just happened?” They tear up the house. They stole money.”

-From the We Charge Genocide UN Shadow Report

The murder of Mike Brown has incited many Black people to protest and declare #BlackLivesMatter, but what unites us and, I think, fuels this movement is the day-to-day terror of the police: patrolling our communities, assuming our criminality, invading our bodies and homes, disappearing millions of our loved-ones into jails and prisons, the slurs, the hypocrisy, the stares, the threats, the guns in our faces, the batons on our backs, the cameras on our block, the constant reminder that we’re each one misstep away from being another name on a protestor’s cardboard sign… the overwhelming totality of it all.

We are so over-exposed to and saturated in police violence, that we almost become numb to it: We accept it as normal, natural, or inevitable. The murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner have shaken us awake. But as our eyes adjust, I insist we look at the totality of our surroundings.

(Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)
The Chicago Light Brigade brings a lighting element to the noise demonstration outside the Cook County Juvenile Detention facility. Photo: Minku / @MinkuMedia)

The system responsible for this violence will not bring our people any justice. It is not enough to call for the indictment of a few “rogue” cops, a few “bad apples”: We must completely dismantle the edifice that produces the Darren Wilson’s of the world: We must abolish the Prison Industrial Complex and White supremacy. We must re-build new models of accountability, re-imagine what safety means, and re-construct systems of justice where no is expendable, no one is condemned, and where Black lives matter.

“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” –

 — MLK (1964 at funeral service for three of the children killed in 1963 Birmingham church bombing)

This is why we reclaim Martin Luther King Jr.- an intellectual, Black, radical who inspires us to disobey and dream and declare our Black humanity.

Who Are Your People?

Seeing our protest below, the youth contained in the detention center banged on windows, jumped up and down, and wrote out messages with soap like “I Love You” and “Freedom.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Incarcerated youth bang against their windows and hold up messages during the Reclaim MLK noise and light demo at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Our Reclaim MLK march grew out of our belief, as young people of color, that our voices and visions must be at the center of this movement.

There is no path to freedom that the current power structure will not try to co-opt or corrupt. Our best defense is to make sure our movement is radically inclusive of and accountable to those most marginalized. We must lift up and center those who experience intersectional oppressions along race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc. These marginalized perspectives offer the most critical analysis of the nature of oppression and most liberatory vision of progress.

Listen to Kaleb, one of the youth organizers of our march, explain what justice actually looks like from his perspective as a 12-year-old Black youth:

“We want justice to actually be served: We want a school system that helps youth of color get jobs. We want jobs, not jails. We want books not bullets. We want education not incarceration. We want Black and Brown students, Black and Brown mothers, Black and Brown aunts to come together and be unified. We want more Black and Brown businesses…We want to end the school-to-prison pipeline. We want to end the criminalization of Black and Brown youth, especially Black and Brown young men. We want to tell the government, tell the State, that our lives actually matter. We should not be put in a position where we have to tell people that our lives matter. We matter!”

Ella Baker was known for asking, “Who are your people?” For me, this is a question about accountability and leadership: Who do you listen to? Who guides you? Who do you support? Who keeps you in the struggle? Those fighting against police violence must answer “young people of color,” and particularly those further marginalized by gender, sexuality, and ability.

Until we- young people of color- are free, nobody is.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Free Us All

“White Supremacy is the enemy!

Shut it down! Shut it down!”

– Protest chant

However, ours is not the only struggle. And this was something we tried to emphasize at our Reclaim MLK march. In addition to youth and anti-police violence organizations, we reached out to a wide coalition of networks that included labor, environmental, and LGBTQ groups. Our speakers included representatives from the Palestinian Youth Collective of Chicago, activists fighting against deportations and the missing Ayotzinapa students, as well as Jon Burge torture survivors who are currently demanding reparations.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

It is not that we are insisting on some kind of shared, homogenous victimhood: We understand that our struggles and experiences are distinct. We believe in solidarity, however, between our communities to dismantle the broader forces of capitalism, colonialism, and empire.

To do this, we must build relationships, form strategic alliances and campaigns, and self-reflect on how we are complicit in each other’s oppression.

Let Us Begin

I understand the magnitude of the situation. But believing in and demanding revolutionary change does not mean that I am naive or idealistic.

Howard Zinn said, “The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

At present and throughout history, I see monstrous violence and oppression. Yet, as much as I recognize this horror, I also see people surviving, their courage, their love for each other, their sacrifices, and incredible resistance. That is where I come from, out of that history. And that is what gives me the strength and conviction to hold hope and insist we act.

Step-by-step we continue to move forward. Brick-by-brick we tear this system down and stone-by-stone we build alternatives. And change will come. We don’t have to be on the brink of utopia to believe in and fight for a better world.

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late… We must move past indecision to action… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”  -MLK

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

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