by Joshua Inwood and Derek Alderman
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, a passionate exposition on the need to find common cause amongst the economically disenfranchised of this country. Writing in reaction to the burgeoning black-power movement and the explosions occurring in American cities, King called for a plan to alleviate structural conditions of poverty.
Critically, King recognized that nonviolent direct action, as a mobilization strategy, is not simply about turning the other cheek while the economic and political system continues to exploit you and your community. Instead, he argued that if people are to react nonviolently, then they have to be given some kind of political project that lifts people out of poverty and addresses internal and external violence that are the root cause of urban insurrections and calls for violent change. Simply asking people to be nonviolent in an effort to protect property does nothing and, in fact, exacerbates feelings of powerlessness and rage.
King’s insights on the alienation of poor people of color are just as instructive now, amid the fiery unrest in Baltimore, as they were during the Movement. His views about (non)violence offer us a more complex and sympathetic understanding of Baltimore’s protesters beyond simply referring to them as “thugs,” in the words of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent with The Atlantic, recently discussed the hypocrisy of Baltimore officials calling for nonviolence in the wake of burning cars and buildings when no appeals seem to be made stop police brutality against poor people of color.
This is not to suggest that nonviolence should not be our goal, and King was unwavering on this point, but let’s apply that standard across all of U.S. society and not just the police. Violence is not restricted to individual acts of aggression; entire social and economic systems can be violent and harmful in how they serve the interests of one group, such as the wealthy, over another group, such as the poor. As academic geographers, we know that life-chances and economic survivability follow an uneven geography of racial and class segregation and discrimination. Calls for nonviolence in Baltimore should begin by assessing and stopping this larger landscape of violent urban inequality.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the Inner Harbor and Camden Yard redevelopment projects, turning these once blighted areas into playgrounds for the wealthy and well-to-do. But a mere 4 miles away, the residents of some of Baltimore’s poorest and most disenfranchised neighborhoods live in conditions largely unchanged from the 1960s, when King was writing. Far from “reviving” Baltimore—a long-stated promise of the Inner Harbor redevelopment plan—efforts at redevelopment have widened historic economic cleavages in the city and left thousands without access to the basics of their own material reproduction, namely access to a good job, healthy neighborhoods, and safe streets. Where are the calls to end this violence and implement a more humane and nonviolent form of urban redevelopment?
Instead of offering solutions to address peoples’ real concerns, government officials at the local, state, and federal levels continue to pursue economic opportunities designed to inflict social and economic violence against the marginalized while enhancing the prospects of the wealthy. One cannot, for example, ignore the irony of events taking place in Baltimore at the very moment state legislators in Tennessee have killed off expansion of low-income access to health care in the state and foreclosed discussion on raising the minimum wage in the state, consigning myriad workers to lives of low-wage poverty and exposure to premature death. These are violences, too, and our failure to recognize the way economic policies are eroding the social fabric is the true root cause of urban unrest.
King realized this and pushed for a broad program of job creation and poverty-reduction programs that he hoped would transform the nation. While such a program would invariably cost money, the true savings that would be wrought are incalculable. As King pointed out in 1967, until we come to terms with the fact that our priorities are wrongheaded and destructive, and until we can come up with a program that gives people a sense of their own power for change, we will continue to by mired down in destructive conditions that forestall and destroy our collective sense of worth and our collective human condition. υ
Joshua Inwood is an associate professor of geography at the University of Tennessee. He also holds a joint appointment with the Africana Studies Program.
Derek Alderman is professor and head of the department of geography at the University of Tennessee.
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