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Nationwide protests reflect Martin Luther King’s true legacy

Protesters in cities around the country took to the streets yesterday in an effort to, as they said, #ReclaimMLK. Many followed a call issued by Ferguson Action, a group which has been coordinating national #BlackLivesMatter actions after getting started in the aftermath of the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown this summer in Ferguson, Mo. In a statement, the group said that “Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize and commercialize it.” Rather than a day of service, as the day has traditionally been known, Ferguson Action and other groups both nationally and locally announced their intent to “walk in the legacy of Dr. King and the movement that raised him” by celebrating MLK weekend “as a time of national resistance to injustice.”

In Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and elsewhere, demonstrators held four-mile marches, symbolic of the four hours Brown’s body lay on the ground after he was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Marches and “die-ins” also took place in New York, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Philadelphia, where the MLK DARE Coalition rallied around three demands: Fully funded, democratically controlled schools, a $15/hour minimum wage and the right to form unions, and an independent police review board along with an end to “Stop and Frisk” policing. As in other cities, marchers in Philadelphia drew on King’s legacy, in particular his denunciation of the “triple evils” — racism, poverty and militarism — as faith, labor, student, environmental and community groups all coalesced in the city’s downtown. An estimated 7,000 people turned out for one of the city’s largest marches in recent memory.

Aside from marches, protesters in the Bay Area took up a range of tactics throughout the day. Early in the morning, protesters gathered at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s home pre-dawn, where they etched chalked outlines of bodies on the streets and projected the words to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on her garage door. Others shut down two of the city’s BART transit centers, and marched to Fruitvale Station, where Oscar Grant, another unarmed black man, was killed by police in 2009. Sixty-Eight Stanford University students were arrested in a rush hour “Silicone Shutdown” of the San Mateo Bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay, which remained closed for nearly two hours as commuters abandoned their cars.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” As protesters have ably shown over the last several months, it will take even more disruptive, creative action — in the spirit of King — to continue building today’s civil rights movement to take on new, but all-too historically rooted, tensions. In the words of one organizer in Cleveland, Courtney Drain, “MLK marched in the streets. He blocked traffic. He wasn’t convenient.”