Eyes on the Prize: MLK’s Lessons for Occupy

Source: Yes Magazine

At the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was planning a campaign around economic injustice—including a mass encampment of poor people in Washington, D.C.

When he was assassinated in April, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. had just begun “The Poor People’s Campaign.” This focus on economic injustice, which included plans for a mass encampment of poor people in Washington, D.C., was remarkably similar to that of today’s Occupy movement. The connection is clear to present-day activists Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis, who are promoting King’s philosophy of nonviolence to Occupy groups, both for moral guidance and practical strategy.

Both studied “Kingian” nonviolence with Dr. Barnard Lafayette, a civil rights organizer and an associate of King’s in the 1960s. “Kingian nonviolence,” or nonviolence as it was defined by King, is the focus of a training program Lafayette developed with David Jehnsen to institutionalize King’s philosophy at all levels of society. The training’s pay-it-forward ethos encourages participants to spread the word by becoming Kingian nonviolence trainers themselves.

Lewis and Haga have been carrying their own training forward by teaching nonviolence strategies in jails, community groups, and to groups of at-risk youth. They were also involved with Occupy Oakland, where they organized Kingian nonviolence workshops in response to concerns over confrontations between police and protesters. Haga and Lewis spoke to YES! Magazine about the relevance of King’s nonviolence to embattled communities, and the Occupy movement.

Valerie Schloredt: Your work is based on the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement. I can’t imagine any better legacy for movements in the United States. Sometimes it seems that King is praised, without a meaningful understanding of his beliefs.

Kazu Haga: We do him, and ourselves, a disservice by not looking into that. Everything he said is so applicable today.

Jonathan Lewis: In his last speech, down in Memphis, he talks about taking your money out of the corporate banks, and into smaller banks.

Haga: We forget about how much of a radical he was. He called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and he was calling for an encampment in Washington, D.C., to shut down the city. We forget all that.

Schloredt: It seems very appropriate to be talking about King’s nonviolence right now, when there is great concern over the police response to the case of Trayvon Martin. You work with young people in communities that don’t always get fair treatment by law enforcement. How do you relate King’s nonviolence to that sort of injustice?

Lewis: One thing that Dr. Lafayette tells us about the [civil rights] movement is that it was always about the future. The struggles, the sacrifices, the actions—they aren’t to benefit the present population as much as to prevent future populations from having to deal with the same type of suffering that we’re going through.

Society right now takes out aggression on people. Blaming the folks for their behavior, and whatever it is that’s happening in the world. In contrast, we try to put our compassion towards the people, and we put our aggression towards the conditions. It sounds corny. When I first got started, “keep your eyes on the prize” didn’t mean much to me. But it really is all about that.

Haga: Within the framework of Kingian nonviolence there are six principles, and the second principle, the Beloved Community, is about being able to envision what an almost utopian society would look like. Having that long-term vision gives us a sense of where we’re moving toward, so that we can actually build strategies.

I think it’s important for movements to be driven by that vision of the society we want to create. Movements that are driven by what we’re opposed to, driven by anger and vengeance, burn out so quickly. Whether on an interpersonal, communal or movement level, to be driven by anger can only get you so far. Motivating people to be driven by the love of the community that we want to create shifts the framework of the way we go about our work.

We have this tendency to always focus on our differences—whether it is class, race, gender, whatever, but when it really gets down to the core of who we are as people and what we want to see in the world—we all want the same thing. A lot of our work is about getting communities to focus on what can we do together, based on our common interests, which we all share.

Lewis: There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m hoping the next generation will be more intentional about their integration. Are we making an intentional effort for our relationships to reflect the Beloved Community in our own homes, in our spare time? Because if we’re not, then we can’t really be wondering, “Where are all the black people in the Occupation?” I think it’s something we have to ask ourselves.

Schloredt: How did you get involved in giving nonviolence training to Occupy groups?

Haga: I’ve been living in Oakland for about six years, and I was heavily involved in the Oscar Grant movement. [The movement seeking justice after Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American, was shot by a police officer in 2009.] There’s a quote that I’ve been repeating a lot, by Marcus Raskin: “The opportunity for revolutionary change happens in the blink of an eye, and if you miss that moment, it’s gone.” For me the Oscar Grant movement was one of those moments, but the community wasn’t really ready to jump on that moment and carry that momentum for radical change. And so since then, I’ve really been thinking a lot about how to prepare the community for that next moment. And this Occupy movement is the biggest one of those moments we’ve seen in a generation.

Oakland has a long history of violence, both in the community and politically. And also a long history of progressive political action. About the time that a lot of discussions were happening in Occupy Oakland around violence, we started getting requests for training. It started with one presentation, and then one two-day training, and then three two-day trainings back-to-back. Every time we put the word out, the registration just filled up instantly.

Schloredt: What can Kingian nonviolence contribute to the Occupy movement?

Haga: The core of Kingian nonviolence philosophy is around how to respond to conflict. Conflict, whether it is interpersonal or between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, plays by the same rules. If you can understand how to transform conflict, whether it is interpersonal or movement work, it’s the same rules. That’s why our workshop is successful in violence prevention in jails and school, as well as in learning how to build movements.

One of the criticisms I have of a lot of movements these days is that direct action becomes the goal, as opposed to using direct action to put pressure on a system to get you closer to a larger goal. So talking about the role direct action plays in having a longer-term strategy is really fitting for what this movement needs right now.

Lewis: A lot of the direct action stuff is tactically based. Spirit isn’t part of it. So when we bring the principles [of Kingian nonviolence] into this, it resonates with people. We’re calling for a space where people can expect to be treated with respect. The principles are not only about guiding actions, but about guiding interactions with those whom we’re working with. That’s more than an afterthought, it’s a foundation. It’s not just about the tactics, it’s about building relationships.

Haga: A lot of the tactics and conversations around strategy are about how to change or overthrow systems, whereas one of the things that our philosophy addresses is how to change values and cultures and people. Laws and systems and policies are things that we as people put into place and enforce. We can have the greatest democratic system in the world and if the people are corrupt they’re going to corrupt the system. Because really that’s the core of the problem. We talk about how to make systemic change within our framework, but the goal is really to shift the value system of our society.

Learn more about the training: Positive Peace Warrior Network

Valerie Schloredt wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Valerie is associate editor at YES!

Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration