The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same: The Working Poor And ‘Troubling’ Protests

Over the last few years, whenever there has been a protest that has involved property damage or violence at the margins, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, along with pleas for protesting ‘like they did in the old days.’ It’s worth remembering what the old days were really like. Consider the Memphis sanitation workers strike (during which Martin Luther King was murdered), which led to one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movement (boldface mine):

The names of Echol Cole and Robert Walker are not well-known today. They were two black sanitation workers, ages 30 and 36, in Memphis, Tenn., who were crushed on February 1, in the back of a raggedy garbage truck. Their gruesome deaths were reminders of the devaluation of black life at the time and triggered a citywide strike that brought King and other supporters to Memphis that spring….

Garbage workers were disproportionately Black and so poorly paid that many had to rely on welfare and food stamps to make ends meet. Workers were treated abysmally and labored under unsafe and inhumane conditions. Their labor mattered but their lives did not. Cole’s and Walker’s death’s were the last straw. Even though Henry Loeb, the city’s racist mayor, had refused to recognize the sanitation workers’ right to organize, 12 days later the workers went on strike. Strikers carried signs reading, “I Am a Man.” This was the Black Lives Matter declaration of 1968. Cole and Walker were fathers, workers, neighbors, sons and brothers. They were men, not garbage.

Black workers of Memphis took to the streets. They were joined by civil rights activists, white supporters, and high school and college students, who walked out of classes to join the protests. The marches were loud and angry; in some cases, windows were broken and stores were looted. The violation of property was met with violence by the local cops. In the course of the uprising, a 16-year-old black youth, Larry Payne, was shot and killed by a Memphis police officer.

Sound familiar?

Demands that people protest ‘the right way’ have always been with us. Keep that in mind the next time commentators get on their high horses about inappropriate protest conduct.

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