What a difference a day makes.
Just hours after ministers and protesters boycotted Rahm Emanuel’s annual breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., black activists set out to impart a different lesson rooted in the annual observance—one they say remains missing from school lessons and everyday conversations about the slain civil rights leader’s work.
“We need to reclaim MLK—radical MLK,” said Janaé Bonsu, national public policy chair for Black Youth Project 100. “We don’t talk a lot about how he believed there should be no poor people in this country. . . . 2016 marks the 50-year anniversary of when he was here in this city organizing for affordable housing, quality education, quality schools, universal health care.”
Bonsu addressed a crowd of roughly 200 attendees gathered on a frosty Saturday morning outside of Chicago Bulls Prep on the city’s west side. BYP 100, along with a collection of other organizing groups and supporters, marched to the front steps of the Chicago Patrolmen’s Federal Credit Union, just outside of a Fraternal Order of Police lodge. The police union is the same body that fund-raised for the release of officer Jason Van Dyke, who has been charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald.
Inspired to build upon King’s legacy, the organizers carried out Saturday’s action while railing against what they describe as the whitewashing of his legacy. King’s work, they told attendees, has been sanitized and coopted to emphasize his status as an orator and messianic leader at the expense of highlighting the politics at the forefront of his advocacy work.
Protesters Saturday held vigil for more than a dozen activists already inside the building—locked arm in arm in a blockade of the credit union’s main desk—in effect shutting down normal business operations while reading a slate of demands for accountability.
“No one’s coming in here to cash their check today, and that is because black people made the connection between the fact that the police are not only out there murdering us but that they get 40 percent of our budget and huge pensions,” said Page May, a member of BYP 100 and Assata’s Daughters. “At the same time, black communities are getting disinvested from. So we need to stop the cops, take that money, and fund black futures.”
King and other black activists used civil disobedience to break unjust laws, disrupt business, and agitate for social change. That legacy includes lunch-counter protests, the Montgomery bus boycotts, and business boycotts targeting companies that didn’t hire black people.
“[King] believed, beyond his radical ideas, that changes would not happen if black people . . . did not engage in civil disobedience,” May said. “We are working in that legacy. . . . We’ve been shutting things down before Laquan McDonald was murdered, and we’re going to continue to shut down the facilities that the status quo uses to maintain a sense of normalcy during all of this—until we get what we want.”
The outside crowd sent messages of support to their cohort inside the building. “We love you,” they chanted repeatedly.
At one point an officer entered the building from a side entrance, carrying a weighty brown box labeled “mass arrests.” He placed the box in a chair near the main entrance, where more than a dozen policemen were on standby. Shortly after, another officer issued what appeared to be a final warning to activists inside the building. The group then ended its hours-long action, just an hour before closing time.
Activists also emphasized the need to forge new ground in areas where King may have faltered. Many of the speakers and organizers Saturday were black women, some of whom identify as gay or queer. Gay activists among King’s own cohort, such as March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, were pushed to the background decades ago.
“King wasn’t perfect, and we don’t idealize or romanticize King,” Bonsu said. “We’re going to fight to continue to close the gender pay gap and secure employment protections for trans people,” among other policy initiatives.
BYP 100 plans to release in February an economic justice platform titled “The Agenda to Build Black Futures,” Bonsu said.
The platform calls for elected officials to revisit the question of reparations, a workers’ bill of rights across all sectors, a divestment of public funds from policing, and an elimination of fines in the penal system.
The understanding of antiblack politics must be expanded beyond issues of police accountability, Bonsu argued. “We can’t just focus on the Chicago Police Department,” she said “but also on who and what enables them.”
The failure to dig deeper into King’s vision and further build upon it, May said, ignores the radical ideas he fought for.
“[King] said that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. He was trying to end poverty—not fix poverty, but end it, abolish it,” she said. “And what we need to do to be more powerful, and to honor King and his dream, is to center the most marginalized of the marginalized.”