MLK Day in the Era of Donald Trump
Humbling. Diverse. Loud. Breathtaking and undoubtedly memorable. This year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. march in downtown San Francisco, in addition to these aforementioned words, was nothing short of astonishing. People of all colors, orientations, shapes and sizes marching throughout what is often regarded as one of the most liberal, open-minded and progressive cities in the world. This being said, for one to be surprised during these events, or to in general ever be surprised by anything deemed out of the ordinary when living in this city, usually means that you simply haven’t been here long enough. To live in San Francisco means to understand that anything, truly anything is possible to see on any given day: self-driving cars one day, unfortunately large groups publicly using dangerous drugs another, some of the world’s most artistic, creative, radical, opinionated and miserable people, all cohabiting on a little peninsula.
Exploring the diversity of people, thoughts, experiences and perspectives in San Francisco is a separate conversation within itself, but to tell a story on this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. March would not be complete without it. The social and economic effects of the current political climate, the hyper-oppression, dehumanization and alienation of communities of color, and the ever-growing, pertinent effects of gentrification are all strong here in California, and the Bay Area is no exception.
It was with this understanding that this MLK Day 2018, I could not refrain from getting involved, to recruit colleagues from my company and participate heavily and proudly. This was the first time I’ve ever participated in an MLK march, let alone one where I’d sought out an opportunity to get a large gathering of my friends and peers to attend with me. Reflecting on this unseen-before urge left me with various questions thereafter: why was I so passionate about the march this year? Is it that I’ve been paying more attention to the news now more than ever, and therefore this is the first time I have been exposed to the reality of the cruel, cold world that gobbles up human beings? Did my first time living in a major metropolitan city, working, paying taxes and finally “contributing” to society result, finally, in some empathy for people who, while I sip $5 coffee and blog, are struggling just to survive the night without getting hypothermia? Did all this, finally, make me want to be a part of something greater than myself?
My answer to myself was evidently a “yes” as well as the acknowledgement that this is unfortunately not necessarily the worst the world has ever seen, and that it continually needs people to step up and fight for change. It was the “yes” to this question that I realized motivated me to wake up early on this Monday morning instead of taking the day off in bed. It was a reminder of what influence each and every one of us has, but also of the power that we can and will have collectively as a people. In a city that breeds innovation and technology but also suffers from widespread homelessness and an unavoidably visible wealth gap, this year’s MLK March felt more important than ever.
There is no doubt that police have a very interesting relationship with the citizens here in the Bay Area. Indeed, it is a culmination of events throughout history that represent the mood that is in the air when police and protestors are present, in which the life of Oscar Grant and the formation and eventual destruction of the Black Panther Party are testament, to name of few. This year, it was no different. At the beginning of the march, it was impossible not to become both physically and emotionally wrapped up in the commotion of people from all over Northern California and beyond, with roots and ethnicities ranging from all over the world, yet all fighting and marching with a shared goal in mind. A true feeling of euphoria, of hope, of solidarity.
Across the street, I spot three white men, uniformed up with heavy artillery dressed as if ready to enter combat. Across their belts I spot semi-automatic firearms, clubs, tear gas, and a whole range of things that I do not know the technical names of but whose existence I associate with the brutal and often times unjustified punishment of black and brown bodies. They were strapped up police officers, and they were ready for whatever they were about to encounter.
Seeing this sight, especially amidst the otherwise positive and progressive climate of the march, immediately brought back images. Images and memories in my head of the videos I have seen online constantly throughout recent years, the articles I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard from my own father. The stories of punishment. The stories of abuse, destruction, of full out dehumanization and corruption. The stories that have reminded me that not everyone views black folks as humans, a reminder that I am not and will not be regarded as human given certain circumstances.
“Incredible,” I turn and say to one of my co-workers with whom I’m marching with. “An event of love and positivity and they come in here with all that.”
“I have faith that they are here to protect us, not to harm us,” she responds.
I listen, I hear what she is saying, and I am reflecting. The faith she is referring to is the same exact faith that that I have, day in and day out, as I pass officers on the subway or on the street with a hood on and a backpack. It is the same faith my father had in the police to protect him until they came over his head with a club for driving in the wrong neighborhood late at night. It is the same faith that white people have the privilege of having, but black and brown people have been taught to dismiss, for nothing is worse than having faith in something, and then it not only betraying you but punishing you for even having faith in the first place. We will never know their true intent, so for now I choose to focus on myself and my community, but tread lightly.
Despite this hiccup of uncertainty, I simply could not get over the range of people with whom I had the pleasure of marching with. Whites, Hispanics, people of all shapes, sizes, religions, genders, colors, orientations or otherwise joined in marching, blocking traffic for miles in the otherwise bustling streets of downtown San Francisco. White families, with kids too, marching with Black Lives Matter shirts and flags (I truthfully don’t even know where to get one). I quickly identified other reasons to have faith, even if those there meant to protect us would not be able to provide it. As my co-worker had reminded me, I began to focus on how amazing of an event this was, how iconic and transformative of an experience we were having. Ahead of me I could spot a little girl on her dad’s shoulders, cheerful as ever. Her father was tall, too, so she was just high enough for everyone to see, smiling wider than the street itself and holding up a sign bigger than she, with none other than Dr. King’s face, a quote of his and a “Happy Birthday” message honoring him on this beautiful day.
It was truthfully a reflection of what one person could do, in inspiring others and in demanding change. Even more so, it was a reminder of what a collective people can do, what communities and movements can achieve, and how movements can transcend through time and space to motivate and inspire today. Yes, Dr. King was an icon and a visionary, but I quickly remembered that it is the people behind him, those that supported, marched and fought with him that we are able to engage in this celebratory demand for love, hope and equality 50 years later.
Marching a little bit further, I spotted again four officers, uniformed up and militarized, yet this time singing in praise and, to my surprise, all of color. Up until this point, almost all officers I had seen, particularly at these types of events in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, were white. Looking more closely I notice that they are holding up a banner, “Officers for Justice: Peace Officers Association,” creating a clear statement of the distinction between themselves and their often times corrupted counterparts. Together, they were singing hymns and smiling as the crowd around them walked past, many snapping photos similar to the way I was.
The only way I can describe the scene was like when I was a little kid (bear with me here), waking up in the middle of the night and having to go to the bathroom, only route being through the long, lightless and quiet hallway. I had to pee bad, so bad that I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep if I tried. Those officers, singing and holding their banner, shaking hands and greeting people as they walked by, reminded me of the light plugged into the outlet in the hallway, exactly halfway in between my bedroom and the bathroom.
The officers I met that day I readily describe as and relate to the night light my mother installed when I told her I was scared; light amidst what seems to be total darkness and, at least for now, making me a little less scared.
As the march came to a close I started to compare what I had just experienced to what I had originally expected, understanding what was transformative and progressive versus the aspects that may have been unproductive and strayed away from the group’s objective. The first example of this was the resounding amount of attention on the President, an environment partially focused on hate instead of love, in combat with many of Dr. King’s philosophies. Martin was a believer in people, a lover and not a hater. Unfortunately, via anti-Trump chants and calls for impeachment, there was an appreciable amount of hate on this day.
Immediately after the march, a couple of us sat down for some Thai food at the mall nearby, evidently situating ourselves next to a seemingly welcoming family that had just finished marching as well. “What a day, huh?” they asked in hopes of sparking conversation, before the mother begins to rant to us. “I just can’t believe it. I mean, did you guys even vote? It’s your generation, I think, who really didn’t vote. I just can’t believe how all this happened.”
It took me a second to gather myself and not at least take it a little bit personally that she was presuming that me and those who I was with are the ‘types’ of people who most likely didn’t vote. A micro-aggression to say the least, again taken out on a group of unassuming colored kids by an older white lady… can you say scapegoat?
My head was riddling with comebacks, thinking of all the ways we could blame her and her wealthy, privileged, ignorantly conservative and selfish white friends (yes, I was assuming she had some Trump-supporting friends) for what she referred to as the current apocalyptic state of the world. Again, the negativity, unfortunately, is what brought her and her family here today, not the positivity.
An interesting idea to explore, amidst the vast range of emotions and events at this year’s march, is understanding what aspects of society today we can directly attribute to the current political climate — in this instance, whether or not it was positivity or negativity that was motivating people to go out and participate in the march. Soliciting both love, hate, and pretty much everything in between, the President has engaged more people in politics than ever, and it would be naïve of me to not attribute, at least partially, a growing number of people involved in movements of change to his rhetoric, polarizing opinions and method [or lack thereof] to his madness. While the country is more divided than ever, events like these are ultimately attracting larger audiences, greater participation and stronger opinions than we’ve seen in recent years. Whether or not there will be productive reconciliation of ideas and perspectives to create even greater unity is a challenge within itself, but for now, one cannot complain about thousands of humans, regardless of race, color, creed or orientation, marching through the streets in unity and passion, standing up for something they collectively believe, no matter how powerful their oppressor. All in all, whether it was hope, faith, and love or hate, despair and spite that brought people out this year, there were nearly 5,000 people marching throughout San Francisco, and it was incredible to be a part of it.