Will You Let Your Child Die? MLK Day Tribute

portland-mlk-church

First Baptist Church of Portland, only location in city where Dr. King spoke

“Are any parents of the youth here?” our panelist asked, motioning towards Portland’s Pacific Youth Choir seated behind her. “Please stand.” A handful of adults stood.

“How many of you are ready to let your child die?” she asked.

A wiry woman in front of us shook her head “no” as she looked around and sat down, along with most of the other adults who had just stood.

The speaker was Kim Dixon, an African American woman who was one of twelve panelist at the Empowering the Dream event I attended yesterday.

“Many of us parents didn’t have that choice. My own son was a victim of homicide in 2013.”

Pouring from her personal experience, Kim founded a community-lead campaign called Enough is Enough to counter gun violence, gang violence and trafficking in the Portland area.

“Last year alone 285 were victims of homicide in Portland,” Kim said and then read several of their names, lives cut short.

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Gregory McKelvey speaking at “Empowering the Dream”

Kim’s challenge to parents of mostly white high school students in the choir highlighted the severity of racial disparity in our nation. Her challenge was a poignant reminder to me of the cost of dedication to the Civil Rights’ movement of our time, otherwise known as #BlackLivesMatter. Moments ago the youth in the choir had been among the first to rise in giving Oregon’s activist and leader in Portland’s Resistance movement, Gregory McKelvey, a standing ovation following his riveting six-minute speech. McKelvey himself understands what his participation in this movement could result in when he told The Portland Observer:

I will die for this. I think that Martin Luther King was willing to die for what he did, and he knew that he probably would. I think that it would be a miracle for me to live my entire life fighting the way that I’m fighting now, and not have something happen.

james-reebListening to the panelists, I asked myself what I’m willing to give for others to live and experience rights and freedoms like I do. My mind flashed back to photos I had seen at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, displaying images of freedom riders such as the white ally Reverend James Reeb who was beaten and then died.

Another panelist had already challenged apathy that sometimes allures me. She said too many people when confronted by injustice either turn to hate or apathy. As a white person, my privilege allows me the opportunity to plug in as much or as little as I want. I can “go off the grid” and live comfortably or I can get involved with others’ plight for freedom. But for many, unplugging isn’t an option. Every day my neighbors of color experience injustice in ways I never have and probably never will. So when I set off my relatives’ house alarm and the police show up, they don’t so much as ask to see my ID or key to the house. The incident becomes a joke (yes, this really happened last week). For a friend of color, the situation would have likely played out far differently.

Yes, out-spoken leaders get targeted for death, like Dr. King did. Yet systems of oppression are simultaneously targeting our youth of color in the United States today. How much longer will we allow this?  To white readers of my blog, I repeat Kim’s question: “Will you let your child die?” Remember, many parents don’t get to have the option of being asked.

To everyone, leave a comment if you know of organizations like Enough is Enough that are making positive changes to end violence and bring justice in your community.

Prisons = Modern Day Plantations

National Civil Rights Museum

National Civil Rights Museum

Isaac Franklin was one of richest men in the southern United States a century and a half ago. When he died in 1846, he owned over 700 slaves who worked his six plantations in Louisiana.

I learned about Isaac Franklin while visiting the National Civil Rights Museum a couple weeks ago via their special exhibit on slavery. In addition to reading about this wealthy slave owner, what struck me the most in this exhibit was a plaque in the back corner; had I been in a hurry, I could have easily overlooked it.

The plaque noted the widespread economic impact slavery had on society at the time. Not only did rich plantation owners like Isaac Franklin who benefit from owning other humans. Numerous industries prospered financially from the slave trade and included:

  • Banks that offered loans to slave traders
  • Insurers who underwrote policies to cover slave shipments by land, rail, river and sea
  • Food suppliers who sold supplies to coffee drivers and slave-pen owners
  • Lawyers and bureaucrats who collected fees for each piece of paper involved in slave transfer and sale
  • Brooks Brothers and other clothing companies that supplied plantation clothing
  • Steamboat companies and ship captains who got paid to transport slaves as cargo
  • Medical providers, such as doctors, hospitals and private clinics, who got paid to revitalize slaves to get them ready to sell because they frequently became sick during transportation
  • Tax collectors who received revenue from slave sales and annual personal property tax

These weren’t petty transactions either. For example, William Kenner took out $14,000 in an insurance policy to ship 22 slaves on November 29, 1821, via the New Orleans Insurance Company. This was at a time when an average income ranged from $300 to $1,000 annually. Imagine the cost of clothing 700 slaves for Isaac Franklin, and in an era when goods weren’t mass-produced for cheap by “developing nations.”

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Reading that plaque caused me to realize that abolitionist of the time weren’t just up against wealthy slave owners. They met widespread resistance because slavery had widespread economic impact. I marveled that the system had ever collapsed…then I realized it took a war before change occurred.

Then I asked myself, “Did the system ever really collapse?”

I thought of Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow book and The House I Live In documentary followed by Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary that expose mass incarceration as modern day slavery in the United States, particularly for many men of color. Those with a felony charge experience lack of access to education, jobs, housing and even voting. And as these documentaries and book trace, the impact disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s. ~New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Prisons were one of the few growing industries in 1980’s and 90’s when Clinton passed a $30 billion bill to expand. Michelle Alexander brings us specific numbers:

The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

Prisons have been required to keep those facilities filled. And much like slavery 150 years ago, all sorts of industries benefit from our mass incarceration:

  • Taser gun manufacturers
  • Health care providers
  • Phone companies
  • Construction companies
  • ALEC-an organization that writes bills for politicians that usually benefit a corporation.

To take on such comprehensive structures, we must address the economic systems of our day, as Shaun King is doing through the Injustice Boycott launched yesterday. Lasting structural change cannot otherwise occur; it will only take on a new name.

Isaac Franklin’s property is a tangible example of how slavery switched names. Ever wonder what happened to his six plantations where those 700 people were enslaved? Well, four of of the six became what is today Louisiana’s State Penitentiary.