‘You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.’
Letter from Birmingham Jail written by Martin Luther King Jr, in 1963 on the margins of a newspaper in an Alabama Jail was an answer to some ‘white’ clergymen who argued that streets are no place to fight racial segregation and that things like these should happen in courts.
The ‘murder’ of George Floyd, is unfortunately not an isolated case of racism, hatred and white superiority taking an ugly turn, costing the, ever so ‘trade-able’ life of the Black man.
The killing of George Floyd, that led to such massive, large scale and long due demonstrations and protests come in the unprecedented disturbed times when the entire world is burning under the fire of a pandemic. The very fact that a substantial number of people are willing to go out, ‘together’, in the days of social isolation, putting themselves at the risk of the threatening virus, is an evidence of the pent up anger, fear and frustration that has accumulated over years of prejudice and grossly unfair treatment of a particular section of society that has always been designated with a hyphen in their address( ‘In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.’ – Toni Morrison)
Floyd’s death and the callous response/answer by the people in power is not just a testimony of the long existing and thriving white supremacy but points towards what is wrong with us as a society. Even after years of apparent independence and ‘equality’ we flourish in a world full of bigots who feed on the Lilliputian thinking and beliefs of ages bygone.
Luther’s letter, written from a jail, when he was imprisoned for his ‘demonstrations’ and protests, is unsurprisingly and unfortunately an attestation to circumstances and situations even decades down the line.
For people who sit comfortable in their velvet armchairs and pass the judgments on people screaming and shouting ‘to breathe’ on the streets, ‘It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.’ (Luther)
The call to justice is not just a call to justice for Floyd’s death, but a far reaching call to justice for the millions of lives lost around the world over centuries under the guise of the difference of colour of their skin.
The painful engravings of marked difference that was initiated centuries ago has continued to wreck havoc in the lives, mind and existence of so many of our brothers and sisters across borders and countries.
The present demonstrations and riots, the presence of the masses on the streets(irrespective of colour) is not only due to one death in a particular state of a given country, but a culmination, sad and true, of the unjust and foul actions and rules of the people in power.
The presence of the police of any state or country is meant to ensure the peaceful functioning and safety of its citizens, a fact of assurance for the people sleeping undisturbed in their homes , who trust the men in uniform to protect and safeguard their rights, lives and justice itself. Here, however, numbers are proof of how the very system of the state has gone mayhem since decades. The uniformed men no longer serve as a sight of security and protection but become the very source of the distress caused to the people. (And by saying this, I do not, at all, generalise opinions and facts, for exceptions existed even in the Nazi Germany)
The laws of segregation and plantations, long erased from the written constitution of the country, still exist, like silent bombs in the minds, words and actions of the latter half of the community who have failed, miserably, to locate the source of their prejudice and uproot it from their systems.
The fight for freedom continues, years after the American Civil War; the freedom to live and breathe in a world that does not thrive in a system of differences.
‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntary given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’(Luther)
The social media that is flooded with the snippets and videos of the riots, unrest, protestations from across the Unites States has thousands of people, screaming in a chorus that rings nothing in the ears of the deaf supremacists, who have even now, failed to voice their support for the cause. The young Black girl in one of the videos, screams, till she is quivering and voiceless, about the pain on losing her brothers and sisters, about the wait for justice, justice that never arrives, justice for which she is ready to be mowed down. ‘For years now I have heard the word ‘wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.’ (Luther)
In Letter from Birmingham Jail from Martin Luther King Jr writes, please note in 1963, “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’ But when… you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters… when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.’
From 1963 to 2020, we are battling amidst and against the almost same, even worse than humiliating, insulting situations and incidents, having opened our minds and selves, freeing them from the ‘bunkers’ of silence, pushing them on the streets in the midst of merciless attacks of rubber bullets and tear gas, because this is our call, not just to breathe, but to live, unchained and free, powerful in our colours, uncaged, with our wings, wild and black, open and flying.
Mahima Kaur is a writer and researcher.