Saturday, November 17, 2007

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. a terrorist?

In the aftermath of 9/11, many states passed anti-terrorism laws modeled on the federal Patriot Act. These state laws copied language from the Patriot Act, making it a crime to "intimidate or coerce a civlian population" or to "intimidate or coerce a government unit to change its policies". At the time, civil libertarians worried that this language would be applied in an overly broad manner. It seems like the slippery slope ride might be beginning.

Edgar Morales, 25, was convicted this month under the New York state anti-terrorism law. He was a member of a Mexican street gang in the Bronx that apparently preyed on Mexican immigrants, extorting money, and engaging in street crime and muggings. In 2006, Morales was involved in a shooting in which a 10 year old girl was accidentally murdered. Instead of being charged with mere first degree murder, he was convicted under the terrorism law for trying to "intimidate a civilian population". The minimum for such a crime is 25 years to life. Under the full charges, Morales faces up to 50 years minimum. You can read more about the conviction here.

Civil libertarians are concerned with the application of the statute in this way. They point out there should be a difference between Morales and Osama bin Ladin. Others are concerned that there are already laws on the books that could convict Morales and that adding these kinds of charges penalize thought, not actions (these are the same people that complain about hate crime legislation, too).

I mentioned this case in one of my classes last week and a student pointed out that such laws could be used to convict even nonviolent protestors. I don't see why not.

In his famous, "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail", Martin Luther King Jr. argues that the purpose of nonviolent direct action (such as marches, sit-ins, lunch counter take overs, etc) is not simply to raise awareness, or get media attention for a social issue, but to create "tension" in a community. He also calls it "crisis". The point is to make a community so unable to function normally that it must deal with a social problem that it has been willing to sweep under the rug all things considered.

Why couldn't it be possible to see the lunch counter sit ins of the Civil Rights Movmements as attempts to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population"? Indeed, that's what they were trying to do--change the minds of people through forceful action--but without violence. Wasn't Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign--the idea to send thousands of people to sit in on the lawn of the Washington Monument for weeks, until Congress would pass anti-poverty legislation--an attempt to coerce a government unit to change policy? Its not clear that these anti-terrorism laws make such a fine distinction between violent methods and nonviolent direct action.

Edgar Morales probably deserves jail time for his actions. And its probably true that some gangs are sophisticated enough to be able to inflict widespread intimidation throughout the communities in which they exist. But there are two severe implications of this conviction:

It serves to increase the stereotypical perception that Latino immigrants are criminals, indeed, terrorists (just add Jose "Dirty Bomber" Padilla to this list along with Morales) who deserve increased surveillance and severe penalties, lest they degrade American public life even more. An excellent discussion of these kinds of stereotypes is found in Steven Bender's book, Greasers and Gringos.

It also implies that people engaged in the struggle for social justice need to be aware of the state tools now available that might severely limit their ability to enact social change in a nonviolent way. MLK was called a terrorist by those who wanted to maintain white supremacy--now there are laws in some 36 states that could have made that kind of talk more than just a metaphor.

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At 6:46 PM , Blogger Dap said...

Excellent post - and excellent insight on the part of your student.

Call me a cynic, but if a large, organized non-violent protest were to occur today, I bet this law would be applied.

After all, look at the rhetoric surrounding the anti-globalization movement from earlier this decade.

At 6:43 AM , Blogger daveawayfromhome said...

No, I dont think that this law would be applied to a large, organized, non-violent protest today. Unless, of course, that protest were to "turn" violent. Then "concerned" leaders would be "forced" to "do something" to ensure that the public's "security" isnt further eroded.
The public need not wait for the investigations on how (or by whom) the violence was started, unless you like being blue in the face, because it wont matter to the policy-makers anyway.

At 3:43 AM , Anonymous Quella said...

Great work.


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