Marching in the Spirit of the Real Dr. King: Report From the Street on MLK Day

Invoking the legacy of “the *real* Dr. King,” an MLK who did not only dream but who fought against the structurally inextricable triplets of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation, organizers of the group Mass Action Against Police Brutality led a spirited march though the frozen streets of Boston last Monday, taking up King’s historic vision to face injustices of today.

Starting out from Columbus park directly across from an outpost of the Massachusetts State Police, a crowd of 500 strong wove through the historically Black cities of Dorchester and Roxbury to historic Grove Hall, united in slogan and song. Rather than repeat the usual Boston protest routes downtown, this march went right through the ‘hood. Passerby took leaflets, drivers honked horns, children in windows gave thumbs up, shift workers pumped their fists, old ladies smiled and waved while waiting for the bus. Marching as mass outreach. Demonstrating as base-building.

Punctuated by speeches from the family members of local youth gunned down by Boston Police—much of MAAPB’s day-to-day work revolves around providing material support to those who have been caught in the cross-hairs of police violence—the march also made detours to the parking lots of fast-food restaurants, burnishing banners and proclaiming solidarity with the low-wage workers inside. Meanwhile police blocked the Burger King doorways, whether to keep the marchers outside or the workers inside wasn’t entirely clear.

Indeed, this mid-day Martin Luther King Day march was striking no only for the way it addressed both the ongoing epidemic of killings by police—studies have put the number killed by cops in the US at around 1100 for the year 2015—but also the way it linked this deadly state assault to underlying structural conditions, including the poverty wages that help to reproduce Black and Latino vulnerability to police abuse in the first place.

Chanting the names and carrying the photos of many of the slain—Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and many others—a recurring refrain of the march called for justice and accountability, putting on trial a system that fails to meet the needs of the people:

“Indict. Convict. Send these Killer Cops to Jail.

The Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell!”

The mantra took on added poignancy in light of recent grand jury decisions not to indict the police killers of either Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland.

At the same time, alongside chants taking aim at the police were slogans that foregrounded economic demands.

“We work. We sweat. Put $15 on our Check!”

One sign stated simply and vividly that:

“The Police Have Blood on their Hands.”

Another brought out the class-nature of the police as an institution:

“Police—Serve the Rich and Hunt the Poor.”

In this sense, in speech and signage and in its very march route, this Boston MLK Day demonstration brought out the deep inter-connectedness of police repression and underlying economic injustice—between what are often thought of separately as race and class issues—between those forces designed to keep people in poverty, and those designed to keep them ‘in their place.’ Organizers powerfully conjured the radical spirit of King’s final years, when he denounced the war in Vietnam (and US imperialism more generally) and, his final days, when he turned to supporting striking municipal garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

Contrary to those who would pose class-based economic or workplace demands as if they are a derailment of the demand of racial justice, the representatives of the Fight for Fifteen movement spoke out from the mobile speaker-platform powerfully as working-class people of color who are struggling to survive within an American capitalism steeped in white supremacy. Indeed, according to some recent measures, more than 50% of Black and Hispanic workers in the USA today labor for a wage of less than $15/hour, making this demand one that has particular resonance for non-white people, even as it speaks to the interests of many white low-wage workers as well.

Recent studies have found ‘liberal’ Boston to be experiencing both the fastest rate of gentrification and the highest level of income inequality in the entire USA. You can feel it as you walk the city: booming biotech engineers and financial managers step past—and sometimes over—homeless on the streets, on their way to buy fancy coffee from baristas working double shifts and making poverty wages.

Officially, Monday’s protesters united behind four slogans:

“Jail Killer Cops”

“End Institutional Racism”

“End Islamophobia”

“Raise the Minimum Wage to $15/Hour”

Each of the demands found lively expression in the crowd, from signs to chants: “Money for Schools and Education, Not for Mass Incarceration!” and “Muslims are Welcome Here!” Again, there was a clear sense, among both the crowd and the speakers, that issues of police brutality and militarization are linked up to background issues, such as the fear-mongering Islamophobia that pervades discussions of “foreign policy” in the USA. A recognition that fighting against police violence also necessitates fighting against massive cuts to public school budgets, and against the expansion of Massachusetts prisons—again “liberal” Massachusetts ranks at near the top of the nation in prisoners per capita. There was a clear an understanding here that struggles are linked, that winning the war requires battling on many fronts.

The demonstration was clearly and dynamically led by Black men and women, with younger folks playing a prominent role. And yet as voiced from the microphone, during speeches and chant-leading, the political line that came through had a distinctly universal character, while absolutely giving priority to injustices affecting Black and Hispanic people. “Nobody is Free Until Everybody’s Free” proclaimed one sign. Young people from the sound truck led the crowd in call in response, singing:

“What side are you on?

I’m on the Freedom side.”

Another sign quoted King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Among my favorite new chants of the day went like this:

“We Got Unity!

We Got Unity!

No More Immunity

For Killing Our Community!”

The chant crystallized something palpable throughout the march, that this was not only a rally to express indignation and outrage at the long-standing oppressive actions of the police—or other corrupt powers—but equally an affirmation of a collective will to create a counterforce, a mass mobilization that is not based on appealing to established institutions, but on building genuine popular power that can compel the police, the government, the corporations to take the people’s needs seriously.

Or else.

“What do we want? Justice!

When do we want it? Now!

If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN!”

The march was a public performance of solidarity and militant community. As one popular call and response expressed it:

“I’m under attack, Just cuz I’m black.

You got my back?

We got your back!”

In such cynical and individualistic times, there was something very inspiring going here. People vowing to take care of each other, in the face of deadly assaults. And not just in words.

Most immediately marchers were helped to brave the cold in part by the local group Food Not Bombs, who set up tables at several points to offer people free (and tasty and vegan) food, along with thumb-thawing cups of hot cocoa—free food right in the parking lot of a KFC chain restaurant.

The crowd on Monday was striking in its diversity, both in age, class, and ethnicity. Christian ministers and Muslim women as well as union organizers and fast-food workers addressed the crowd. Hip-hop artists led chants as rhythmic and blistering as rap lyrics, while young children sang righteous ballads in pitch-perfect harmony. While this was a mobilization led by representatives of the most affected by US racism and super-exploitation, half of the marchers were white as well, ranging from students to service workers, poor folks and professionals. Families, couples, even people walking dogs were all out, despite the cold, representing a broad base of support for the grassroots anti-racist and working-class agenda Mass Action Against Police Brutality represents. Wherever people are coming from, insofar as they can unite *against* the reign of state-sanctioned injustice, they had a place in this march, a place in this movement.

Though the wind chill was in the single digits, organizers proclaimed the season “Freedom Winter.”

An even larger MLK march is to be planned for Spring.

May it be a march of thousands.

In the meantime, back to the trenches and to work…