No plea for our society to “wait” for justice should ever go unchallenged. Invoking Martin Luther King Jr., the Statesman’s Robert Ehlert last Friday fretted that “some of us” just don’t have the patience to wait for justice. I am one of them.
King was too, of course. How ironic that the letter he wrote a half-century ago from Birmingham Jail was actually written for Mr. Ehlert — and for all those who, generation after generation, beg activists for patience and caution. “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait!’ ” King wrote. Segregation visits America today like no time ever before, though it now takes a more insidious and sophisticated form than during King’s lifetime. There are more black Americans imprisoned and under correctional control today than were enslaved in this country a decade before the Civil War. Our police officers, once meant to be street-level mediators and community builders, now literally train and equip themselves to go to war with us. In these United States today, you are far more likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer than by a terrorist. And it is people of color who those officers are overwhelmingly the most likely to kill.
Patience breeds contentment with these grim circumstances. Patience tricks us. Soon we believe that mottos and committees and roundtables, and politicians promising to seek justice on our behalf and Black History Months and internal reviews all mean that we are accomplishing something. What is going on instead is that justice is being put off, all to the pleasure and luxury of those who continue to benefit from injustices that — through years of our patience — have become cemented into structures of oppression that bend us away from justice in our complacency. Justice-making does not look or feel like a meeting you’re not invited to, and it does not come with coffee and tea and a catered continental breakfast.
Justice comes only with struggle, with stubborn challenges to unjust institutions, with people reclaiming their streets, and with conflict. This unnerves Mr. Ehlert, who laments that “too many Americans are taking justice into their own hands.” But King called out this fallacy as well. The “great stumbling block” in our nation’s progress, King said, may be “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” and “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” Or, as a young black activist told Geraldo Rivera on the streets of Baltimore last week: “A black man can raise his voice without you feeling intimidated.”
I am with those who will never be patient for justice. Those who, like King, “see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” Mr. Ehlert, unfortunately, is also not alone, here in this state where our leaders so often choose to do nothing about injustice and instead just to talk about it. If Mr. Ehlert wanted to argue about tactics, he would have argued about tactics. His, though, was a call for nonaction, and no one should ever cease to act against injustice. While our police remain a paramilitary force prepared for war with our own communities, while our laws look the other way from hurtful discrimination, and while our neighbors are separated from their families and the workforce in costly and counterproductive prisons, we must always invigorate ourselves to be more courageous than cautious.
“I hope,” Mr. Ehlert, “you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Richard Eppink is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho