The Black Lives Matter Legacy of Dr. King
Dr. Melina Abdullah, Professor and Chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University and part of the Black Lives Matter leadership team, discussed the legacy of Dr. King, #BlackLivesMatter and philosophies of activism
JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Today marks the 48th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And while he is often referenced as being a man of peace and a believer in nonviolence, his insistence on direct action, organization, and that we move from reform to revolution is routinely left out of the conversation about the man. Today, as some reflect on the life and work of King, many more are actively engaging, at least in portions of his legacy, via the broadly defined Black Lives Matter movement.
To discuss some of this is Dr. Melina Abdullah, professor and chair of pan-African studies at California State University and part of the Black Lives Matter leadership team. Welcome to the Real News, Dr. Abdullah.
MELINA ABDULLAH: Thank you for having me.
BALL: So I’ve long wanted to have you on, and after seeing your recent appearance on “Democracy Now” I thought it would be a great way of commemorating this day to ask you to talk some about at least one portion of your comments then, that is the tendency among some to associate or even overemphasize the role of the vote in social movements or activism, and considering that, especially towards the end of his life, the vote was not a primary focus of King’s work, I thought we could start there and have you respond to anything I’ve just said and/or elaborate on those comments about our focus on the vote as a mechanism for real change.
ABDULLAH: Sure. I mean, I think that we need to think about how real change happens in this country and happens in this world, right? So we’re often encouraged to utilize the mechanism that the system affords us, so voting, lobbying, writing your elected officials, engaging in that way. And I believe that we should do those things as an exercise, if nothing more.
That said, transformative change, substantive change, doesn’t happen when we solely rely on the mechanisms that the system gives us. And so, if we think about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we can think about someone who encouraged engagement in both traditional mechanisms, right, so the vote was encouraged, right, and never let up on nonviolent direct action, and you’re absolutely right. What history takes out of the equation when we talk about Dr. King is the direct action piece. So often times they lift up the nonviolence piece and his, you know, reliance on what some would call pure nonviolence.
But what they don’t talk about is the direct action that has to accompany it if you’re talking about making change that matters. And so I think that what we’ve done with Black Lives Matter is to really try to lift up that nonviolent direct action piece, recognizing that systemic change, change that happens through those mechanisms that we talked about, are reformist changes. But when we talk about really the kind of transformation that’s necessary for Black people and all people to be free, we need transformative change, and that’s reliant on the masses of people rising up and disrupting the current system, not simply voting.
BALL: So what do you, you know, you were asked in that other interview that I mentioned, are you endorsing a candidate or is Black Lives Matter endorsing a candidate? We’ve seen challenges put to various candidates by various Black Lives Matter activists. Could you restate or say again where you are with that, and what you and those with whom you are organizing are looking to do in terms of the vote? I mean, I was even interested in hearing Angela Davis say recently that she’d like to see an alternative political party be developed, which I thought, to my memory, was a bit new, even for her to advocate. I’m wondering where you all, or maybe some, again, with whom you’re organizing are with that question, or the question of the vote in the 2016 election.
ABDULLAH: So, just very clearly, we are not endorsing any candidates. So we’re not endorsing any presidential candidate. We’re not endorsing any Democratic candidate and absolutely not any Republican candidate. That said, we’re not telling people not to vote. So that’s, you know, everyone’s own decision, whether or not they vote.
We do have criticisms of this two party system. so the idea of voting for a Democratic candidate or a Republican candidate is hugely problematic when we think about both parties being controlled and monopolized by corporate interests, and so those are things for voters to think about. there are third party candidates and, you know, we want to encourage people to remember that there are third party candidates, and so a friend that we share is Rosa Clemente, ran for vice president under the Green Party ticket along with Cynthia McKinney. We need to think about those kinds of options, but we’re not endorsing any candidate. We’re not even endorsing the Green Party candidate.
So I think it’s important what Angela Davis is now saying about the development of third parties. That’s hugely important. And I think we need to kind of step back and think strategically about what electoral politics, or how electoral politics play into larger questions of power. So there’s also questions of local elections, ways in which we can influence things by participating in local elections and ballot measures and those sorts of things, and then remember electoral politics is not enough, that we have to maintain our position in the streets.
BALL: Are there, just very quickly, and I realize it’s probably unfair for me to throw this at you at the end of our relatively short conversation but I’m wondering, you know, there was, you mentioned Rosa Clemente, she was part of the Black Lives Matter LA Seven trial that just recently wrapped up, and I know that there’ve been other trials involving Black Lives Matter activists, particularly in California where you are, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything you could share with us about other things happening within Black Lives Matter that may not be getting the kind of, you know, attention associated with political campaigns, elections or interrupting those various events?
ABDULLAH: Yes. So we maintain our position in the streets. Right here in Los Angeles a sister named Wakiesha Wilson was just killed in custody, very reminiscent of what happened to Sandra Bland. So we are in the the streets for her. We’re in the streets for Marquintan Sandlin and Kisha Michael. We maintain those positions. We will respond every time, every time one of our people is killed by police we’re going to maintain our position in the streets.
At the same time, what you’re referencing with regards to the trials, the state is coming at us, really kind of viciously. So what we saw with the BLM LA case, where they were accused of shutting down the 101 Freeway back in November of 2014, is kind of an indicator of the way in which the system views us as a threat. So, increasingly, we’re having to focus on pushing back against political prosecutions, so this shutting down of freeways, California and Los Angeles in particular is one of the only locales that is going after folks with this kind of energy, right? They’re putting tremendous [resources]. We know that they’ve spent over $100 thousand trying to convict people for what amounts to a traffic violation.
And so they’re really trying to shut down the movement, so at the same time as we have to continue to work on behalf of our people and end state-sanctioned violence towards our people in the most extreme form, we can think of police violence, right? We’re also advocating for good jobs. We’re also advocating for an end to kind of this police state and surveillance, and advocating for accessibility. We need to do this kind of work. In Los Angeles homelessness is a huge deal, so we’re working to end the criminalization of homelessness.
At the same time as we’re doing that work we’re also recognizing that a piece of our work has to be protecting and advocating for our right to protest. So what the state is really trying to build is a new generation of political prisoners, and we have to learn the lessons of the 1960s and ’70s and say we will not, you know, allow our folks to become a new class, a new generation of political prisoners.
BALL: Well, unfortunately, a good way to tie this up and wrap this up as we commemorate this anniversary of King’s assassination would be to look at the case you just mentioned and the cases you just mentioned would also be to remind folks that the first person to King’s body was Marrell McCullough, an undercover Memphis police officer who would eventually join the CIA, so police violence involved with our activists is a long and ongoing problem. Dr. Melina Abdullah, thank you again for joining us here at the Real News. We appreciate your time and your work.
ABDULLAH: Thank you for having me.
BALL: And thank you all for joining us, wherever you are. Again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it, so peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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