Tomorrow in my class, we’ll spend part of the time discussing the irony of people who complain that protesters stopping traffic today are “in the way” and should “protest somewhere I don’t have to be bothered with it”. Especially on a day which honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of our country’s most itinerant irritants.
But what if you were bothered by “it”? What if “it” was such an important part of American life that you needed to stop traffic so people would pay attention? Would Dr. King have stopped traffic to call attention to “it”?
If “it” is the same cause as Dr. King’s, then the answer is yes, whether you agree or not.
What may be a welcomed day away from work for some has a completely different meaning for others. Dr. King and his message have regularly been appropriated and distorted. It is also important to understand, that just as protesters today are a “bothersome nuisance” to many Americans, so was Dr. King and his message shortly before he was murdered. The apathy and disdain shown – or not shown – for protesters who stop traffic today is similar to that which punctuated Dr. King’s time. For most protesters, the fundamental respect for Black lives is an issue important enough to stop traffic for a few hours to draw attention. The pessimist in me assumes that most Americans don’t agree with either premise: 1) the fundamental respect for Black lives nor 2) that it is more important than traffic. As I have (rhetorically) questioned of my students, “If most Americans were morally and ethically opposed to the chattel enslavement of Black people, then how could it have continued unabated for a total of almost 300 years on this soil?” I ask the same about general American support for the idea that Black lives do matter.
The media coverage I’ve seen today, I think, sums up the general American spirit: “Sure ‘Black lives matter’, but I need to drive my car on this road. Right now. That’s definitely more important.” I’m betting that 200 years ago in 1815, most Americans would have responded in a similar fashion about enslaving Black lives.
Maybe the message tomorrow shouldn’t be “irony” after all. Maybe it’s “continuity”.