Some of our neighbors are going to spend some time incarcerated as a result of their direct action in protest of the inland port. Their friends should arrange to provide them with copies of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
It’s not so much that those few protesters need to read that essay which was, as was said of the Declaration of Independence, an expression of the American mind. Though they do need to read it.
It’s that, in the process of passing the books through security, having them checked for knives and weed and other forms of contraband, there is some small hope that the jailers, and their employers, will read it, too. Because they really need to.
It is an epistle from the greatest leader of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, explaining why he and his followers engaged in marches, sit-ins and other forms of what he called “direct action” in the city in Alabama.
Later released as part of a book entitled “Why We Can’t Wait,” King explained at some length how African Americans and their supporters had been waiting for equality for some 350 years and the time had come to do something about it.
The most powerful part of the letter is how King links the more obvious forms of violence suffered by black people — lynching, drowning, burning — with the more common, daily oppression suffered by so many.
Men living in communities where they were never addressed by their right name, being called “boy,” and worse, no matter their age or accomplishments. Men who had to explain to their children why they were excluded from the local amusement park they had just seen advertised on TV. Men who never heard their mothers or wives addressed, at least by white folk, as, “Mrs.”
It was a matter of type and degree. But it was all of a piece. It was all violence. Violence against the mind, the heart and the soul — if not the body — of the powerless.
It was King’s and his fellows’ difficult but deliberate choice to face all that violence with non-violent direct action. Action that, they hoped, would create “tension” enough to make the power structure uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that they would have to face up to the problems they at once had created and tried so hard to ignore.
Those who followed King’s philosophy would precede their direct action with what he called “self purification.” A promise to one another to be willing to take physical blows without retaliating. To suffer imprisonment as a way of drawing attention to the fact that the laws they willingly violate were unjust and should not stand.
Those who engaged in the most recent protest against the creation of the inland port might benefit from a little self purification. As would we all.
And those who command the police officers who confronted them on the street and in the office of the local Chamber of Commerce would also benefit from some serious self reflection on who was truly the aggressor that afternoon.
But here is the lesson for the creators and supporters of the inland port, the still squishy idea of turning about a quarter of the corporate boundaries of Salt Lake City into a hyper-busy hub of truck, rail and air shipping operations. We’ve figured out that the port was created for one reason, and one reason only, to minimize the influence of the left-leaning city government, which would clearly put things like air quality, water quality, wetlands preservation and ecological balance ahead of real estate commissions and tax base.
The creation of the inland port was an act of violence.
Against our air, our water, our natural world, against even the constitutionally limited but still real sovereignty of the mayor and City Council. And the eager dismissal of the protests raised against the port is another act of violence. Not that kind that spills blood, but the kind that steals souls.
The creation of the inland port was an act of violence. And violence begets violence. And that begets more violence.
Gov. Gary Herbert and Port Authority Board Chairman Derek Miller (who also runs the Chamber of Commerce) wasted no time in condemning the violence they say was perpetrated by the objectors. And they certainly know the game well enough to know that if they are able to portray the opponents as angry thugs, it weakens the opposition in the eyes of the community.
But Civil Riot and Utah Against Police Brutality and ICE Free SLC don’t work for us. Herbert and the port board and the police do. It is their responsibility to not just oppose violence, but to refuse to participate in it.
The creation of the inland port was an act of violence. Unless our state leaders can see that, and correct their actions accordingly, their pleas for peace will be meaningless.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks that a riot is an ugly thing. But understands why some may think that it is just about time that we had one.