By. Dr. Jim Perkinson, Keynote at the Islamic House of Wisdom (Detroit, MI, 1-18-15)a
One of those shot in the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris on Jan. 7 was a Muslim policeman named Ahmed Marabet killed while trying to defend that newspaper’s staff. The next day, Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian news columnist and Muslim, responded to all the “I am Charlie” signs appearing in the Paris streets with a tweet saying: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.
There is much in the air today. And so little time. IN 15 minutes, what do I focus on? The recent debacle in Paris? The beheadings by ISIS? The slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands in Nigeria by Boko Haram? The repeated dis-memberment of civilian bodies by US drone bombings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen? The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as result of our regime-change swagger and the million and one-half who died before that because of our sanctions? The increasing evidence of torture carried out at Guantanamo? Repeated Israeli invasion of Gaza? Its occupation of parts of Palestine in contravention of UN recognition? There is plenty of pain to go around and plenty of blame. It is important for me to say that I think the heaviest weight of it falls on those who have most benefited in terms of wealth and power and resource extraction: the Christian European colonial interests who divided up the mid-east after WWI to control its oil and the Big Energy and Big Defense Contractors interests and various government acolytes who have manipulated the situation since, re-making the entire globe into a free-fire zone for the US to attack anyone anywhere without Congressional oversight or the consent of the US populace, which is where we have been since 2009.
Or I could focus on the courage of recent resistance. The alternative press around the globe, trying to tell the truth in spite of grave risk. The on-going mobilization in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit, etc., in assertion that “Black Lives Matter.” Idle No More in Canada. Occupy before that. Arab Spring. Greek refusal of austerity. Spanish illuminado protest. The outpouring of students in Toronto; bus riders in Brazil; square-defenders in Turkey. Or closer to home and more personal for me, bodies in front of water shutoff trucks this summer, demanding a halt to ethnic cleansing by tap closure, with some of us, including me, now on trial as a result.
All of it worthy of attention and comment. But I want to start elsewhere and more encompassing.
What we are witnessing in Syria today is in part a water war, driven by dried-up aquifers as a result of climate change and over-use, driving increasing numbers of people into desperate circumstances and desperate conflict.
We live in a time of emergency. Not just in Detroit, with its imposed manager, making sure the banks get to gobble up the assets, extract the jewels, one more time shunt aside the poor and vulnerable, effectively spitting in the face of working class labor and struggle, while seeking to re-invent the city as a middle class enclave controlled by the white and wealthy and whatever collaborators of color they can manage to buy and front, at the expense of everyone else.
Not just an emergency in the status of our entire populace, whose rates of drug addiction, murder, incarceration, divorce, debt, weapons ownership, child abuse, depression, obesity, total crimes, defense spending and carbon-footprint lead the world and are matched only by the ubiquity of the chemical toxicity our bodies now carry—virtually every woman bearing dioxin in her breast milk and every man offering up his prostate as an altar to industrial effluent.
But also an emergency in our day that is brand new, planet-wide, threatening the health of the entire globe, now encompassing not just our species, but the web of life itself,
• an emergency whose outline grows ever more stark in the prognostications of our best science, tracking the unrelenting rise of CO2 and now methane emissions, and 38 feedback loops, 35 of which are irreversible, melting glaciers, collapsing fish stocks, bleaching reefs, depleting aquifers, growing desertification, rampant species extinction, while we put our hands over our eyes and ears and mouths, thinking if we just deny it all fiercely enough, it will go away, or we will fly away at the critical moment raptured by Jesus, embraced by Moses, or greeted by Jibreel—
• an emergency whose report shows up in acidifying oceans, now birthing phytoplankton, at the base of the food chain, who produce half of the oxygen we breathe whose bodies weaken yearly under the onslaught of chemicals, bleeding out body parts through their own skin, and who have disappeared by 40 % since 1970 by some counts,
• in floating islands of particulate plastic as large as Texas, oil rendered solid, as a billion-billion-fold proliferation of beer-can-holders, water bottles, bubble-wrap, styrofoam scrap and packaging, growing hourly as we pillage our deepest mollusk ancestry, buried for eons under rock and earth, whose dead bodies we covet to burn in a moment through our SUV tailpipes, ensuring the reality of James Baldwin’s late prophecy that it will not be a flood, but the fire, next time,
• in the ever-more desperate PR gambits of Big Energy, facing the planetary peaking of oil, trying to hide the down-sloping curve of its production as the cost is manipulated, blowing off mountain tops in the search for coal, fracking the mantle for gas, polluting the well, squeezing tar sands shale for bitumen, using up quantities of water and emitting quantities of carbon in the process, that virtually guarantee something like an apocalypse for our species.
Nature will survive our blindness—but it is not clear that we will. And I am only touching the tip of the iceberg of evidence of the kind of calamitous change that is rolling in upon us from the relentless delusion of the lifeway we have unleashed upon the planet, enshrining, as the reigning idol of the age, as the only value that matters, the imperative of growth at all costs, putting everything imaginable up for sale in a global market, committed to converting every single phenomenon we can quantify—whether mineral or tree trunk or bat scat or now water and air itself—into a commodity, whose sole purpose is maximizing shareholder return and sending that brief packaging of natural “being” into a landfill as an entropic discard, as rapidly as possible, so that consumers will have to buy a new one.
So welcome to MLK Day and Beloved Community and interfaith embrace! How indeed speak of where we are that does even a milligram of justice to the seriousness of what we really face today?
So, thank you to Imam Elahi and the Islamic House of Wisdom and the Dearborn area Interfaith Network for the invitation to come and speak with you today. It is a deep honor to be asked to offer a few words in memory of so august a patron of hope and dignity as Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an honor doubly difficult to measure up to in that my skin is white and my life circumstance therefore privileged with respect to King’s color and circumstance and the people whose struggle for justice he mobilized in our public square with such flair and potency that it changed the entire country. My standing here today is not innocent.
I continue to be the beneficiary of the way race has continually reorganized resources at the expense of darker skin and for the benefit of lighter skin, whatever the personal intentions of those of us involved, for more than 500 years. And what I have to say here could be better said, with more integrity and savvy, by someone who has faced the racial divide on its raw side.
Most of what I know of this on-going battle in our common life on this globe I have learned from people of color—most especially poor black folks in my neighborhood on the east side of Detroit where I have lived for 30 years. But also Native American folk whose refusal to disappear in spite of genocidal onslaught continues to mark this very land we stand on as a question addressed to all of us. And not least, my Filipina wife of the last decade who taught me about the brutality of life in the only colony the US has ever officially taken.
So that by way of background.
In these halls of healing, we seek to pause for a moment to open up consideration of a remarkable ancestor of this entire nation. I speak today as a child of MLK—as indeed is every one of us in this room and in this land. We inherit a country and indeed a globe profoundly shaped by the legacy of his dream and the heroism of his activism. Not only life here in this supposed bastion of democracy but in many other theaters of struggle around the planet, his words and his courage have burned on the horizons of imagination like a beacon, summoning ordinary people to extraordinary efforts. South African youth as well as Mississippi grandmothers, Facebook conveners of an “Arab spring” on the square of Tahrir as well as outback organizers of the right to vote in the dark nights of Jim Crow Georgia have taken aim from his moral compass. And indeed over time we have bequeathed his legacy the gravity of an honorific holiday in a nation that today remains mired in a history of compromised ideals and untold trauma.
Martin Luther King is an American hero. He fought for the civil rights of black people. He fought for dignity for all of us. He fought for hope, when America was giving itself over to cynicism. Behold Martin Luther King.
But Martin Luther King is not a magic formula to be mumbled in the midnight hour of fear, when the wolves of predation show up at the door, as if a mere name could dispel a dire condition. We must beware how we look at him, look back on him. We must beware how we look back on history. It was a Jewish man, Walter Benjamin, during WWII, who once said, “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if [it] wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Even the dead will not be safe if the wrong powers control the day. Martin Luther King is not safe in the grip of our national holiday.
Today is not a time to go warm and fuzzy in the chest or misty in the eye remembering a moment gathered before the Washington Monument in ’63 when a voice intoned a dream of lowered mountains and exalted valleys and hand-holding black and white children hailing each other as brother and sister. There is another King we dare not disappear into the sanitized vision of an eloquent drum major, championing the content of character over the color of skin.
This other King rose to the full measure of his moment by 1967, in mounting a full scale attack on the driving logic of war and mendacity, naming the country at large as taking up the wrong side of history, throwing in with “the wealthy and secure” and creating “a hell for the poor.” He waxed uncompromisingly specific in identifying an unholy triplet presiding over the widening pockets and coffers of the country at large. “Militarism,” “materialism” and “racism” combined, he thundered in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church—exactly one year before his assassination—are taking the entire nation into a “death of spirit” whose bleakness is exactly signified by the desolation of napalmed rice paddies and burning young bodies running naked down Asian dirt roads. “Injustice anywhere,” he said, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” “The judgment of God is on America now.”
These kinds of words, this chain of association of ideas, are the legacy in full, whose power of self-naming of this land of the free and home of the brave, we refuse to enshrine in memory.
The King we need to recover for our moment, was a man of movements. We too easily cast King as meteoric individual, hero of the hour in the segregated south, worthy of all laud and praise, pedestal-ed like statue high over our own nodding heads, as we meekly seek to survive while an entire planet begins to burn in a slow-bake roasting, and the neighborhood is foreclosed, and the youth of color incarcerated, and the city plundered by interests bent only on increasing their bottom lines through banking.
King was a man of movements. He worked at the intersection of four major struggles of his time, coordinating with their vision, organizing with their energies, learning from their ideals and failures. He got his non-violence from a little brown man in India, whose capacity to send the British colonial power packing through a largely peaceful form of active resistance was nothing short of remarkable. King channeled the anti-segregation aspirations of his own people through his preaching and marching, sitting-in and standing up, immersing himself in a ground-swell of adamantine resolve whose roots dated back to Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, found eloquence in Frederick Douglas, legal savvy in the NAACP, and street smarts and ferocity in the bombastic clarity of a Fanny Lou Hamer. He took up the gauntlet thrown down by an emerging anti-war movement, allowed his own vision to be broadened, linked bombs in Vietnam with blight in Harlem, and refused to shut up when the big boys in Washington got out their wire-taps and intentions to get him six-feet under. He died at the crossroads of civil rights and labor, acting against the counsels of his own inner circle not to return to Memphis after their late March demonstration in 1968 had been infiltrated and broken out in violence, insisting poor garbage workers risking their lives for a better tomorrow could not be allowed to bear the brunt of white wrath alone.
King was a creature of movements, adept at coordinating his efforts with those around him who were already in motion, giving voice to the deepest longings for justice of his time, putting the blues sensibility of an entire people at the service of ancient aspiration to stand up to whatever is grinding down the vulnerable. But not only that!
King was a movement man not least in his own movement, personally, his uncompromising resolve to keep walking ever-deeper into the truth of his time, no matter where it led him, no matter the price, his painful refusal of mere success, once a country finally acted legally to ban Jim Crow policy. King did not stop inside the fame his own struggle granted him, because he saw that a concern for Civil Rights led inexorably into a concern for Human Rights, that resisting batons in Birmingham required resisting bombs in Vietnam, that integrating lunch-counters in Greensboro required moving to Chicago to raise issue with who got to eat in the first place. And once King moved from a “mere” focus on changing policy in the South, to questioning the entire structure of the country economically and politically, at its core, he was a marked man, just like Malcolm, marching straight into a martyrdom that was all but inevitable.
If people dare unmask the starkest contradictions of their hour, if they put their finger on the most basic oppositions that determine why some folks get to feast sumptuously at every meal, while others die homeless and cold at their doorstep, or face drone-bombs falling from the sky without so much as a siren of warning, or are driven to insane acts of abominable violence like ISIS, then look out. Because the raging demons of the day will likely come pouring forth full of wrath, whispering fear on every side, and ready to repress. We have only to look at police response to public dissent and truth-telling around the planet, including here.
But that is where we are today. But no matter.
On every side, in each religious tradition praying on the planet today, we are in dire need of movement people. Change does not happen primarily through the ballet box. It does not happen primarily through great individuals. It happens through social movements.
Moses was a movement man.
Jesus was a movement lamb
Muhammad fought a movement ban in Mecca
Martin was a movement ram
Miriam flashed a movement hand when she danced
Mary was an entire movement’s élan
Khadija mothered a movement clan
Coretta conspired with a movement band
Dare we say, when the demand came in our day to take a movement stand, “I got up and ran?” (Or couldn’t be bothered because I wanted to catch the latest episode of Scandal?)
But the movement we need today is one whose scale and seriousness is far beyond what our species has ever faced. Call it the Climate Change Movement. Call it the Anti-Fossil Fuel Movement. Call it the Movement For A Habitable Planet For Our Children. It is a movement for the first time in history that calls us to limit, rather than extend ourselves, to live within the limits of the planet itself. In many ways to return to what our ancestors knew about living simply and responsibly in place.
Increasingly we inhabit a planet everywhere being bought up and controlled by corporate interests, driven by the sole imperative of market-share and profit. It is a world in which wars of race and religion actually benefit those who build and sell the weapons and repair the infrastructure. And it is a world in which children, especially those of color, and the biosphere itself, are increasingly considered so much collateral damage. It will not change, without concerted mass action on the part of ordinary people.
I don’t know if we are capable of it. But I do know this:
If Martin was alive,
If Moses was alive,
If Jesus was alive,
If Muhammad was alive,
They would be pointing to the sky and saying—read the signs! The storm coming this time around is global and will take no prisoners! If you care for the future at all . . . Rise up! Organize! Mobilize!