Selma, Ferguson, Philadelphia – A People’s Movement

I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. at some point during my Icelandic school years. I learned he was a civil rights activist who had a dream and was killed because some white folks in America didn’t like what he had to say. That was about it.

Years later, I came to find out Dr. King did a whole lot more than say he had a dream. And there was a lot more people working alongside him than ever made it into my Icelandic history books. It took me a while to get it though. Formal educators on both sides of the Atlantic have not seemed too eager to speak up about the massive ongoing struggle for racial equality that continues in every corner of this big country.

Selma BridgeAt the movie theatre where I sat and watched Selma this afternoon, at least two extra showtimes had been added in the same hour just to accommodate the hundreds of viewers who were already on their way. For those unaware of it, Selma is a movie based on the struggle for voting rights for Black people in the U.S. and the march between the towns of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, leading up to a change in law that prohibited (white) officials from restricting Black voters from registering.

But Selma is not just about events that happened in the South in the 1960’s. It is about Ferguson, Missouri, and every other place in the U.S. where Black Americans face oppressive structures of power that would rather maintain status quo than facilitate a just society for all. Pictures of sit-ins in Selma in 1965 are strikingly similar to those of die-ins in cities around the U.S. this past year, in response to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many other Black men and women. People in Selma fought for the basic right for Black Americans to vote and people around the U.S. today continue to fight for justice and liberty.

Selma is also not a movie about an individual hero. It is a movie about a powerful movement of regular people who decided that enough was more than enough – people who stood up and risked their lives to change a racist system that had kept their political voice on mute for a long time. Dr. King did not do that alone. And this is, I believe, the most important message of Selma. We, the people, have the collective power to make change happen, with or without a hero.

Emilye Crosby quoted the SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson, who said:

“If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”

I think that sums it up.

As a psychologist I care about wellbeing. I know that people survive the most horrific circumstances, but we do not thrive under oppression. Wellbeing cannot exist without justice, safety, and liberty. A person cannot truly be well without economic means to provide for their family and a child cannot reach their potential without quality education in a healthy environment. This should be obvious to all of us by now. But somehow, demonstration and protest is needed in 2015, just like it was needed in 1965, to bring about basic rights in the “Land of the Free”.

The thousands of people who marched from Selma to Montgomery arrived a long time ago. But we, as inhabitants of the United States, have not yet arrived to where we need to be. We are moving forward, but there is a long way to go. On Monday, January 19, the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment will turn Philadelphia’s attention to three critical calls for change:

  1. An end to the use of “Stop and Frisk” and an Independent Police Review Board that is fully empowered and funded
  2. A $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to form unions
  3. A fully funded, democratically controlled local school system.

Safety and protection from abuse of authority, means to provide for oneself and a family, and quality education for all children is not too much to ask. Those things represent parts of a basic foundation for a decent society and we need to construct it together.

In other words: See the movie & join the movement.

Peace out.

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Anger & Injustice

What is anger? A dangerous, explosive feeling that should be avoided? A sign of insanity? Unacceptable?

Despite all the diversity in this world, we all – for the most part – have the ability to get angry. It’s a natural part of how our human system is wired. And here we are, nonetheless, with a range of ideas on what this emotion means and how it should be dealt with.

News on any given day shows human anger. Today is no exception. Millions of people are outraged over a clear example of institutional oppression and injustice, with a white man of privilege walking free after cutting a young Black man’s life short. Interestingly though, some folks’ anger gets portrayed as irrational. Oppressed people showing loud resistance are labeled as barbaric while those with more power get to express their contempt in more socially acceptable ways – by removing funds, influencing media, and using politics, law enforcement, militaries, and criminal justice systems to target those who are in their way. Resisting oppression gets portrayed as pathological, while oppression itself is explained away and justified – sometimes by referring to the “out-of-control” reactions of those who refuse to submit.

Anger is a normal reaction to injustice or threat. Anger in response to oppression is a sign of strength and healthy resistance. But to those who don’t want the boat rocked, moderate anger becomes threatening.

While aggression and violence sit at one extreme, suppression of anger is at the other. And these two extremes tend to fuel each other. In a family where anger is not allowed, children learn to push their reactions down and ignore them. In abusive homes, anger is misplaced onto “safe” human targets that can’t retaliate or protect themselves. Their anger is not heard. Once pushed down, anger breeds symptoms of distress. Learning to give voice to unexpressed anger can be one of the most relieving and validating experiences of counseling for those who have been told their experiences don’t matter. Similarly, a society where healthy anger and resistance gets ignored or pathologized cannot be well. Expressing anger is essential and angry voices must be heard.

HerStory

How many prime time TV series in the US in the past decade or so have starred a woman of color in the leading role? As far as I can tell, very few… But ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder does. The pilot episode kept me hooked and in addition to the twisted plot it was refreshing to not watch yet another white, straight, male character take care of all the action.

A New York Times writer was also intrigued. In fact, she was so intrigued that she wrote a column praising the selection of Viola Davis for the main role, considering that, in her eyes, Davis is “older, darker-skinned, and less classically beautiful” than other leading actresses. Not so subtle, really. As Davis said in response to that, “classically not beautiful is a fancy term of saying ‘ugly’ and denouncing you, erasing you”. Calling Davis less classically beautiful was an ice-cold way of suggesting she is less-than. Not really belonging on prime time TV. But Davis isn’t stepping to the side for anyone.

The fact that this whole dialogue is happening in the media, made me think of the series of emails I have received from my aunt in Iceland with links to biographies from the Brown Girl Collective. The biographies have centered on African American women who made history and all have had another thing in common – that I had no idea they existed. They were educators, activists, writers, doctors, and pioneers in a society that would not make room for their ideas and fully acknowledge their contributions. A society that would rather keep them on mute.

Our version of history will never be accurate unless we include herstory. And women’s history cannot revolve only around white women in the U.S. and Europe. Although the countless white women who faught for much needed rights deserve all the attention white male leaders, inventors, and pioneers have got, women of color have a claim to no less space in our minds.

In the same way, our representation of the world will be massively skewed and oppressive if the media spotlight only shines on white men and women.

Growing up with the misconception that “people like me” have never accomplished much on their own, resisted successfully, turned brilliant ideas into practice, and stood out from the crowd, is a recipe for discouragement. Discouraged people can be kept down. History and media have an equal potential to be dangerous tools of oppression and powerful catalysts for social justice.