Michigan in Color: Not #WhoWillBeNext, but rather #WeAreNow

Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 10:30pm

On a mild evening, January 2015 in Washington D.C., the sunset radiated on arguably the most powerful monument on the National Mall. I stood with my eyes closed, inhaled in the crisp air and slowly opened my eyes to the image of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. An irreplaceable human, civil rights activist, writer, preacher, rebel, father, husband, man of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity; a complex individual overloaded with responsibility and commitments, but authentically dedicated to the betterment of human lives. I gazed longingly at his face and could feel nothing but admiration for the courage he and countless other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had. They were all true public servants. The bravery, audacity, strength, endurance and sacrifice it took to confront and fight against the repulsive disregard and disrespect of human life is unimaginable. In this global society, where injustices prevail and suffering demoralizes and dehumanizes the most vulnerable populations, I feel anger, anxiety, sorrow and passion for such extremities to disappear from existence.

My heart was particularly heavy the day I visited the memorial because I had just heard that an aimless bullet had stolen my cousin’s life as he was visiting Detroit from Florida to see his family. This was in January 2015, just months after the Ferguson protests, but predating the riots that sought justice for Freddie Gray, Renisha McBride, Walter Scott, the Charleston Nine and countless other terroristic efforts by the police toward Black bodies. As I sat in the National Mall of the nation’s capital, I felt defeated by the culture of violence — physical, social, economic, political and legal — that has plagued and deteriorated Black communities since they have been brought to the shores of the United States.

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, visited the University of Michigan to kick off this year’s MLK Symposium. She rightfully noted that, “for the last 10 years, an uprising has been brewing.” Hurricane Katrina was a glaring alarm that the fight for humanity and dignity for Black Americans was not over, as the repetition of police shootings have also proven. We are in an era of challenge and controversy. In this moment, we must stand united to commit ourselves to the struggle for equal rights.

People of color, and largely Black bodies, have always been bullied with violence. In the millennial era, police terrorism, education inequality, mass incarceration, economic oppression and public health discrimination are only a few of the abusive techniques used to degrade and strip humanity and dignity from Black people. The most recent act of social, environmental and racial civil injustice is Flint’s water crisis. The clear breakdown in authority, which led to this manmade humanitarian catastrophe, should have been halted from the onset. Despite community input and votes against the imposition of an emergency financial manager, 12 cities in Michigan were assigned to an emergency financial manager, nine of which have majority Black populations. The emergency manager, with the approval of Governor Snyder, legally administered an oversight of the quality of water in Flint, vacuously rationalized by saving the government money. Public services, especially in relation to public health, should never be jeopardized for money. Efficiency should never come at the expense of the quality of life for individuals. Flint’s water crisis is an example of a civil infraction conducted by public servants that was only allowed to fester as long as it has because the population of people who suffered were minorities. The denial of access to clean water is an additional tick mark in the tally of offenses that prove Black lives are undervalued.

This is the mantra Black Lives Matter has had to manifest itself in for a multitude of social issues: gun violence, access to basic services, economic equality and education. The U.S. education system was never built to accommodate students of color. For more than five decades, Blacks have had to prove they deserve the equal opportunity to obtain access to higher education, be included in campus environments and required texts for courses and have resources necessary to support retention and graduation. Nationwide, Black university students have triggered a ripple of protests that challenge their respective universities’ administrations to shift the dynamics of diversity on their campuses. Incidents at the University of Missouri, Yale University, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan and many other colleges and universities have demonstrated the ongoing, century-old battle of viewing and treating Black and minority students like full human beings. Still, in 2016, Black Americans have to remind the majority that Black people deserve to have equal access to a quality education. Many educational experts and economists have argued that quality educational attainment promotes economic wellbeing, which is why the president has advocated for reforms, such as two years of tuition-free community college, that would increase the opportunity for academic and economic mobility across races and socioeconomic statuses during his tenure in office.

President Barack Obama has been a public servant who champions education and economic opportunity. Wednesday, the president visited Detroit to spotlight the recovery of the city and the auto industry. After visiting the North American International Auto Show and touring a few neighborhoods of Detroit, the president made remarks at the United Auto Workers General Motors Center for Human Resources. He spent the majority of the speech recounting his initiative in the $85 million auto bailout that rooted the city for an economic redevelopment, pointing out the resistance he faced that would have allowed the automotive industry to crumble. The auto industry’s renaissance resulted in 900,000 new jobs in six yearslower gas prices and an expansion of the economy. Even with the revival of jobs, technological advances and threats against unionization display the challenges the industry still faces. President Obama affirmed that not all of the industry's problems are solved: “I'm not suggesting we should be satisfied with where we are.” We cannot be satisfied with meager amends to full restitution. Both citizens and the public servants they elect must work collaboratively to eliminate the barriers that hinder progression and inclusion in American society.

We are in an age of resurgence of protests modeling those from the 1960s, whose methods and approaches to activism have been revived and reconfigured to thrive in the digital age. Yet roots of injustice continue to spread their branches, roadblocking societal progress at every intersection. MLK’s nonviolent approach to justice is imperative now more than ever in a global society where pistols and bombs are mistaken as the deliverers of peace. We, as a global society, can no longer tolerate exclusion of citizenship. The global chain of movements driven organically by the people — against a corrupt Mexican government overrun by drug kingpins, for economic inclusion in Tunisia, for political voice in Haiti and for dignity and respect for quality education in Detroit — give me hope. As many systematic, institutional and legal structures thwart any attempts of equality, we shall overcome.

The theme of this year’s MLK Symposium was #WhoWillBeNext, though we all must recognize that #WeAreNow. We are the change that we seek. We are public servants, and have to rise to the call of being the stewards of humanity. Similar to Martin Luther King Jr., I, too, “have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education, and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” Until that mission is fulfilled, we must remain loyal to the mission to eliminate the threats to justice as the current caretakers of mankind for the betterment of #WhoWillBeNext.  

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu