How do you measure commitment? Is it the willingness to take a day out of life and sacrifice it to history, to plunge for one morning or afternoon into the unknown, to engage in one solitary act of defiance against all the arrayed power of established society? Then tens of thousands, mostly black, some white have committed themselves…by the simple act of joining a demonstration.
—Howard Zinn, commenting on the Civil Rights Movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Zinn, a historian who taught in the College of Arts & Sciences for nearly 25 years before his death in 2010, was moved to lionize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s as “the New Abolitionists.” His eloquent description of this cadre of young heroes reads as if he wrote it today. The whipping-post and auction block, the lynching tree and “colored only” signs have given way to racially biased police violence, mass incarceration, and trigger-happy citizens “standing their ground.”
Like Zinn, we are privileged to witness a generational awakening in the aftermath of the failure to secure a conviction for the killing of Trayvon Martin and the non-indictments for the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Ferguson Action, Dream Defenders, and Black Youth Project 100 are the New Abolitionists of today. Like their forebears, these groups and others are taking systemic, white supremacy head-on through puncturing indifference, interrupting the regularly scheduled programming, and disrupting business as usual. They are fulfilling their duty as citizens to hold the exercise of state power over life and death through law enforcement to the highest standards of accountability. They are bearing witness to the reality that there is no public safety without social justice, that none of us is safe until all of us are. These dissenters remind us of the promise and warning voiced by our esteemed alumnus Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the essay “A Testament of Hope”:
Today’s dissenters tell the complacent majority that the time has come when further evasion of social responsibility in a turbulent world will court disaster and death. America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned. America must change because…black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past. They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle; and whether they live or die, they will never crawl or retreat again. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall.
Having participated in several of the local demonstrations, I have experienced this emerging movement as having a power and purpose that transcends conventional politics. These demonstrations are not simply acts of political theater. They are not mere agitation. They are mass mourning in motion with purpose. They are a funeral on foot. They are honoring the dead and fighting for the living. “Black Lives Matter” is not just a slogan but a prayer. I have never felt as alive as when “dying-in” among thousands in the streets of Boston, resurrecting and dying-in again. That I have been honored to do so, side by side with students and faculty from BU School of Social Work, has been the most powerful learning experience of my career.
Not everyone has experienced these protests positively, however. Criticism has ranged from tone-deaf dismissals of the demonstrators as “disruptive” to deeply troubling accusations that they are complicit in the murders of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu last month. King was once asked during an interview whether demonstrations were possibly making things worse. His response should be required reading for contemporary critics:
I contend that we are not doing more harm than good in demonstrations, because I think demonstrations serve the purpose of bringing the issues out in the open. I have never felt that demonstrations could actually solve the problem. They dramatize the existence of certain social ills that could very easily be ignored if you did not have demonstrations. I think the initial reaction to demonstrations is always negative….Ultimately society must condemn the robber and not the robbed. It must protect the robbed, and this is where we are in these demonstrations, and I am still convinced that there is nothing more powerful to dramatize a social evil than the tramp, tramp of marching feet.
After years of reliance on politics as usual, people continue to be robbed of their liberty and their lives in the name of “law and order” while the system protects the robber. This generation, like those before them, has learned through bitter experience that nothing really gets done in the halls of power without the “tramp, tramp of marching feet” holding that power accountable. Ava DuVernay’s perfectly timed Selma reminds us of this lesson. Just like the courageous men, women, and children portrayed in her film, I predict that descendants of critics today will be building monuments to Black Lives Matter activists tomorrow.
Of course no human endeavor is perfect. Mistakes will be made and lines will be crossed. But when this happens, constructive criticism must not distract from the social evils that make these demonstrations necessary. We must “keep our eyes on the prize,” which is a world where the public is truly safe, the criminal justice system is worthy of the name and, yes, black lives matter. Our New Abolitionists are showing the measure of their commitment to achieving such a world. How do you measure up?
Phillipe Copeland is a School of Social Work clinical assistant professor and director of the dual degree program in Social Work and Theology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.