The Radical King by Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Cornel West.
Mother, mother / There’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying —Marvin Gaye
then they stomped
as he lay on the sidewalk
hands cuffed behind his back
who was on his way this fall to college
After a week here in FMC Lexington Satellite camp, a federal prison in Kentucky, I started catching up on national and international news via back issues of USA Today available in the prison library. An "In Brief" item, on p. 2A of the Jan. 30 weekend edition, caught my eye. It briefly described a protest in Washington, D.C., in which members of the antiwar group "Code Pink" interrupted a U.S. Senate Armed Services budget hearing chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The protesters approached a witness table where Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and George Schulz were seated. One of their signs called Henry Kissinger a war criminal. "McCain," the article continued, "blurted out, 'Get out of here, you low-life scum.'"
At mail call, a week ago, I received Richard Clarke's novel, The Sting of the Drone, about characters involved in developing and launching drone attacks. I'm in prison for protesting drone warfare, so a kind friend ordered it for me. The author, a former "National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism," worked for 30 years inside the U.S. government but seems to have greater respect than some within government for concerned people outside of it. He seems also to feel some respect for people outside our borders.
He develops, I think, a fair-minded approach toward evaluating drone warfare given his acceptance that wars and assassinations are sometimes necessary. (I don't share that premise). Several characters in the novel, including members of a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, criticize drone warfare, noting that in spite of high level, expensive reconnaissance, drone attacks still kill civilians, alienating people the U.S. ostensibly wants to turn away from terrorism.
What good would it do for three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber dinghy to paddle into the path of a Pakistani steamship? For a tiny fishing boat with unarmed, praying Americans aboard to sail toward an American battleship threatening Nicaragua? For an 80-year-old lady in a wheelchair to stop in front of advancing Filipino tanks? Or for nonviolent protesters to defy the communist rulers of the Soviet Empire?
Soviet communism collapsed. The tanks stopped and a nonviolent revolution succeeded. The American battleship left and the threat of invasion faded. And the U.S. shipment of arms to Pakistan stopped.
Those are just a few of the many dramatic successes of nonviolent confrontation in the last several decades. Everyone, of course, knows how Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution eventually defeated the British Empire and – as the powerful film Selma now reminds us – Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful civil rights crusade changed American history. There have been scores upon scores of instances of nonviolent victories over dictatorship and oppression in the last 50-plus years. In fact, Dr. Gene Sharp, the foremost scholar of nonviolence today, has said that the later 20th century saw a remarkable expansion of the substitution of nonviolent struggle for violence. More recent scholarship has not only confirmed Sharp’s comment; it has also shown that nonviolent revolutions against injustice and dictatorship are actually more successful than violent campaigns.
The Bureau of Prisons contacted me today, assigning me a prison number and a new address: for the next 90 days, beginning tomorrow, I’ll live at FMC Lexington, in the satellite prison camp for women, adjacent to Lexington’s federal medical center for men. Very early tomorrow morning, Buddy Bell, Cassandra Dixon, and Paco and Silver, two house guests whom we first met in protests on South Korea’s Jeju Island, will travel with me to Kentucky and deliver me to the satellite women’s prison outside the Federal Medical Center for men.
In December 2014, Judge Matt Whitworth sentenced me to three months in federal prison after Georgia Walker and I had attempted to deliver a loaf of bread and a letter to the commander of Whiteman Air Force base, asking him to stop his troops from piloting lethal drone flights over Afghanistan from within the base. Judge Whitworth allowed me more than a month to surrender myself to prison; but whether you are a soldier or a civilian, a target or an unlucky bystander, you can’t surrender to a drone.
When I was imprisoned at Lexington prison in 1988, after a federal magistrate in Missouri sentenced me to one year for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites, other women prisoners playfully nicknamed me “Missiles.” One of my sisters reliably made me laugh today, texting me to ask if I thought the women this time would call me “Drones.”
It’s good to laugh and feel camaraderie before heading into prison. For someone like me, very nearly saturated in “white privilege” through much of this arrest, trial, and sentencing process, 90 percent (or more) of my experience will likely depend on attitude.
In cities and towns across our nation, this weekend’s coordinated actions for the #BlackLivesMatter movement center on reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical legacy. As you may recall, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and President Barack Obama — among others — invoked the nonviolence of King in their calls for peace following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached, organizers had to field countless criticisms by white people telling them, “King wouldn’t approve of what you’re doing” and “I’ve studied his work, I know he wouldn’t react like you have.”
Based on comments like these, it stands to reason that white people in the United States may need a jolt of reality about King’s anti-capitalist agitation.
King was outspoken against capitalism’s oppressive clutch on both the national and global levels. King made it clear that racism and economics were intimately intertwined. I’m reminded of his classic quote, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
King acknowledged that the discussion of class couldn’t be divorced from the discussion of race. While both conversations make us uncomfortable, somehow we would rather remember King as a civil rights leader only, and not also as a vocal critic of capitalism who instead favored a form of Democratic Socialism.
I often hear criticisms that protesters are disturbing the peace, employing overly aggressive tactics, and generally making people too uncomfortable. The hypocrisy in these claims is that King disturbed the peace, used aggressive tactics, and made people extremely uncomfortable. Why do we call for peace when what we mean is order?
Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, and family. But Christmas is much more than a sentimental holiday.
Christmas is subversive.
The Bible doesn’t tell us the specific date Jesus was born. Later Christians tradition gave us the date of December 25. It was chosen by Pope Julius around the year 350 and Christians have been celebrating Christ’s birth on that day ever since.
But Pope Julius didn’t just randomly pick December 25. He was deliberate. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim in their book The First Christmas, when Pope Julius declared December 25 as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, he integrated “it with a Roman solstice festival celebrating the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”
That last sentence isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. It symbolizes the subversive quality of Christmas.