Yesterday I attended the annual interfaith breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. that has been hosted by the mayor of Chicago for thirty years. Unlike previous years, this breakfast was held in an atmosphere of controversy. Instead of explaining it all, here’s a link to one of the early stories http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160114/downtown/activists-call-for-religious-leaders-boycott-rahms-mlk-breakfast
In a banquet room of maybe a thousand people, I estimate that 80% were African American Christians, 15% were white (Jewish, Catholic, evangelical) and no more than 5% were all other ethnic groups of non-Judeo-Christian faiths. Although the north side of Chicago and including downtown is racially diverse and has most of the wealth, it is the south and west sides of the city with most of the population and geographical area. So I felt I was seeing the true religious landscape of the city where Buddhism is just a tiny blip.
When I arrived around 7am for the pre-event reception at the conference center across the street from the hotel, there were no protesters to be seen. I had worried I wouldn’t get in because on the news, the activists calling for a boycott of the event said they would be blocking all the entrances. When the reception winded down and we were told to make our way to the banquet room, it was a quick walk through the second story skybridge to the hotel. I stopped to look down on the scene – protesters were on the street level, picketing and blocking the front entrance. I wondered if any of my north side (white) pastor friends were in the group, but I only saw only black men of all ages and a few young black women. I saw on the news later that they shouted “Shame!” to anyone trying to get inside from the street-level front doors – but there was nothing to prevent people from entering the second floor through the skybridge as I did.
I won’t go into all the goings on of the event (I submitted an article for our temple’s February bulletin about it), but I want to comment on how those at the breakfast spoke about the protestors. Early in the program, a long-serving alderman (in Chicago all city council members regardless of gender are called “alderman”) was supposed to say a few words of remembrance about working with Dr. King. As she went to the podium, a young woman burst into the room holding a sign and repeatedly shouting, “Sixteen shots and a cover-up!” (referring to the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by a police officer which was hid from the public for over a year by the police and city government). The crowd expressed disapproval of the protester, but the alderman at first sounded sympathetic, “Oh let her go on. I was like that when I was young.” But after the protester was removed from the room, the alderman ripped into the whole movement of recent protesters, led mostly by black youth. She said they were not in the spirit of honoring Dr. King, because they didn’t have training and learn strict principles like the alderman said she had as a member of Dr. King’s following. She made it sound like the current protesters were undisciplined kids making a lot of noise and obstruction, reflecting badly on the black community. The audience seemed to eat it up, chiming in agreement with the alderman’s criticism.
[above: the silent protest that I wore, written in Chinese characters]
At a later point in the program (after the interfaith unity prayers that I participated in), a young black man in a clerical collar got up with his sign and shouted the same protest chant, “Sixteen shots and a cover-up!” He made his way throughout most of the room before he was escorted out and the criticism started up again by the speakers.
I’m not naming names here because some of these people in the religious community are doing admirable work in interfaith relations. I feel disappointed by the animosity they voiced towards the young protesters, but I admit I don’t really understand what’s going on the Chicago black community, spread across wide areas of various neighborhoods, several generations and in many socio-economic layers from upper-middle class down to the lowest level of poverty.
To me it sounded like a bunch of gramps and grannies complaining about the young whippersnappers who don’t know any better. I’m sure Dr. King had his head-scratching moments of wondering what the younger generation of activists were doing, but I think he would not have scolded them for betraying and sabotaging the civil rights movement. With all the rioting going on in major cities during his last few years, he never dismissed the rioters as thugs bent only on theft and destruction. Dr. King felt the same rage they were feeling and kept trying to convey the reasons for that rage to white society.
As much as Buddhism and Asian culture tells us to listen to the wisdom of the elderly, I think we have to have respect for the young and the outsiders and give them space to express views and take actions that we may judge as imprudent. There can be no development if we all stick to our same-old same-old ways of doing things, refusing to listen to different perspectives. “Tried” doesn’t necessarily equal “true.” In the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, what is untried might be a truer response to the current flow of events.