MALVEAUX: Today’s Activists Can Learn from MLK’s ‘Creative Disruption’

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk is held on Jan. 16, the federal holiday honoring the civil rights icon, on MLK Avenue in southeast D.C. (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)

When Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, he envisioned all kinds of people descending on our nation’s capital, bringing demands to federal agencies. He envisioned people pushing for affordable housing, for quality education, for better health care, for minority business development programs and more. He envisioned them demanding these things, and occupying government offices until these things were produced.

Unfortunately, Dr. King’s death and the curse of disorganization prevented the Poor People’s Campaign from being exactly what Dr. King imagined. But it still made a difference, and people still refer to its conception as brilliant.

The Poor People’s Campaign was a paradigm shift in our manner of protest. It wasn’t just marching, and it wasn’t just protest. It also involved the creative disruption that would come if thousands of people sat in federal offices and demanded change. Can this kind of creative disruption be useful in the age of Trump? After all, Mr. Trump has already told us what he thinks of most of the American people. His nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general is a flash of the middle finger to men of color, especially the black men who have been tossed around as cavalierly as the term “law and order.” It is a slap in the face to the immigrants and women who have already seen what Sessions stands for. And it is not as if other Trump appointments are better.

Indeed, not a single Trump appointment passes the centrist smell test or suggests a willingness to reach across the aisle. Indeed, Trump seems to do little more than create a cabinet of billionaires who are as far removed from the way ordinary people live that the public policy they attempt to create will be little more than self-serving.

None of them seems to understand the concept of public service. They don’t think they should have to release their financial information, and they shrug off the notion of conflict of interest. Contrast them with Dr. King, who only got a big paycheck when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he gave “every penny” of the $54,000 that he won in 1964 to the civil rights movement.

Dr. King was extremely clear about those he identified with. He once said:

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged,
I choose to give my life for the hungry,
I choose to give my life for those
who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity…
this is the way I’m going.
If it means suffering, I’m going that way.
If it means dying for them, I’m going that way,
because I heard a voice saying
DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS.”

Our president-elect has also heard a voice, but the voice he heard said: “Do Something for Me, Myself, and I.” Absent a sense of service or of social/public consciousness, Mr. Trump seems to believe that his own personal richness makes America great again (hate again, sick again). His swaggering dismissal of anyone who dares ask a question that challenges suggests that he thinks he is ascending a monarchy, not leading a democracy. And the tone-deaf lemmings that surround him, some (like Kellyanne Conway) called “Trump whisperers” must be whispering sweet nothings, because the behavior modification so many expected has not yet happened.

Still, we who are progressive play ourselves cheap when we respond to his smug tweets. We play ourselves cheap when we moan and whine. The time for whining is over now. This is the time for a paradigm shift in the way we respond to institutional stupidity. This is the time for us to consider creative disruption whenever, wherever and however. What does that mean? Let’s channel the energy of the Poor People’s Campaign. Let’s show up in those federal offices. Let’s carry demands; let’s ball up our fists. Let’s get it on!

The last two times Dr. King’s birthday was celebrated, it was days before Barack Obama, our first publicly identified black President (there were other folks, but it wasn’t so public), took office. I loved the way that the 44th president took his oath holding Dr. King’s Bible. I’m not sure which Bible Mr. Trump is going to hold, but it is probably a Bible that is missing the book of Matthew, and the exhortation (Matthew 25:40) about the least of these. This is why the president-elect will need creative disruption to remind him that his job is to share the American dream, not the American nightmare.

Julianne Malveaux’s latest book, “Are We Better Off?: Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available to order at www.juliannemalveaux.com and Amazon.com.

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