Social movements are—and have always been—disruptive, but there remain efforts to suppress and sanitize them.
I was caught off guard in a recent conversation with Mr. Juwan Z. Bennett, a soft-spoken, brilliant, 22 year-old thought-leader who, in addition to lending his talents to Techbook Online, is a criminal justice teaching assistant and second year PhD student at Temple University in North Philadelphia.
The always articulate young man, who, since giving his first keynote speech nearly two years ago on the campus of Drexel University has gone on to present in front many audiences, was irate and spoke in a harsh tone last Friday morning.
The cause of his anger was attributed to what he called the “Santa Clausification” of the Civil Rights movement. In particular, the South Philadelphia resident lamented the dignified, de-radicalized image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr that’s plastered anywhere historical black memorabilia is found.
Mr. Bennett’s rant wasn’t the first time I had heard this sentiment. Ms. Ava Duvernay, the award-winning director of Selma, a historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches, told me in an interview at the Ritz Carlton in Center City Philadelphia that Dr. King was a radical, but has been reduced to the catchphrase “I have a dream.”
“It wasn’t even his best speech,” she remarked.
Ms. Duvernay, who studied Dr. King in school and to got learn all the “good stuff,” said we, Americans, should be ashamed that Dr. King—man she said had an ego, was sometime unfaithful and jealous—has been deified and encased in marble. The narrative and image of Dr. King that’s taught in schools, museums, churches and other institutions is, to quote Ms. Duvernay, “a fantasy.”
The real Civil Rights movement was less about holding hands and praying for the strength to climb over the rough side of the mountain. The movement, which birthed the right to vote for African-Americans and ended desegregation, was a result of agitation, protest which greatly inconvenienced the public and drama, which sometimes was the catalyst for injury or arrest.
Jeanne Theoharris, a professor at Brooklyn College, told MSNBC’s Joy Ann-Reid recently that the public has a sanitized view of the Civil Rights Movement.
She went was far as to call the public’s understanding of the movement “white-washed” and compared it to a Macy’s Parade with harmless, friendly-looking balloons. But, as the professor noted, the Civil Rights movement was about making people uncomfortable and moving the conversation forward.
The lack of understanding of how much of an inconvenience the movement was to the mainstream has manifested itself into hostility from the public towards protesters in the present-day, particularly those under the banner of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
At least three protests I’ve covered in the central squares of Philadelphia have been loudly denounced or, at best, frowned upon by African-Americans.
The first was during the massive #PhillyisBaltimore rally that began in front of City Hall and traveled throughout the downtown area.
When protesters got to Rittenhouse Square, they stopped in front of a high-end restaurant where diners were eating al fresco and, in arms length, chanted loudly at them. Frightened, many of the patrons either retreated into the restaurant or evacuated the premises altogether.
One African-American worker told the protesters: “This isn’t how you do it… This is wrong, guys. There’s a better way.”
Another time was just a few weeks ago when a two protesters stormed the lobby of the District Attorney’s Office and demanded a meeting. An African-American worker, a young man, was adamant about getting activists to leave the building.
Mr. Asa Khalif, one of the protesters, told the young man that he needs to remember he’s black, and that if a Philadelphia cop blows his f*cking brains out, then “your family will more than likely be calling me and my comrades, so shut the f*ck up.”
The third and most recent incident was Last Thursday when activists associated with the Philly REAL Justice Coalition protested the death of Mr. Brandon Tate-Brown at the hands of police in front of a television studio.
Mr. Khalif, who was a cousin to Mr. Tate-Brown, stood up on the plant bed, which prompted a security guard, a black man, to attempt to get him down. The worker’s pleas fell on deaf ears and the police were quickly called.
Eventually, the coalition members took the streets for a sit-in, which resulted in rush hour traffic coming to halt.
One black man annoyed at the inconvenience forcefully approached one protester and told her to move, which attracted immediate backup from the coalition members, who cursed the man out until he retreated.
The inconvenience of the public was of no more concern to the protesters in Philadelphia than it was to the protesters in Selma fifty-years ago. Social movements cause disruption, that’s the nature of the beast; it’s the basic rule of civic engagement.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™