Drop the Charges! An Open Letter to Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther on the MLK Day Arrests of Activists

The open letter below was originally published on Medium by Prof. Pranav Jani, a member of the Department of English at OSU. You can find the original post here: https://medium.com/@pranavjani/drop-the-charges-open-letter-to-columbus-mayor-andrew-j-ginther-on-mlk-day-arrests-d8ee834cb667

All are invited to share the letter, sign the petition for the charges to be dropped against Dkéama Alexis and Mia Santiago, and contribute to the action fund to support the protestors legal challenges.

Petition: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/dropthecharges-mlkday2020

Columbus Freedom Coalition’s emergency fund for protesters: https://fundly.com/emergency-fund-for-peaceful-protestors

Photo credit: Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus Alive

January 21, 2020

Dear Mayor Ginther:

I’m writing this as an “open letter” so anyone can read and share it. I have no illusions that someone of your position will read this appeal, but if anyone can make use of it to support today’s struggles against injustice and to reclaim the real meaning of MLK Day, it will have served its purpose.

As you know, Monday, January 20, marked the 35th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast in the city of Columbus — a grand affair involving hundreds of people and, it is said, one the biggest such celebrations of MLK Day in the US.

I was there too, as a member of the choir performing at the event. Musical and dance numbers, including a song by the wonderful children’s choir and other artistic tributes to Dr. King, opened up the program nicely.

But then an ugly event occurred that marred the festivities: the shutting down and arrest of two peaceful, non-violent protestors who were attempting to bring awareness to the killing of Julius Tate, Jr. by undercover Columbus police on December 7, 2018.

These protestors, Dkéama Alexis and Mia Santiago of the Columbus Freedom Coalition, I am shocked to learn, are being charged with criminal trespassing — even though they had bought tickets to the event.

I am writing to assert that this arrest and persecution of the activists directly contradicts the message and spirit of MLK Day. In honor of Dr. King and what he stood for, and in acknowledgement of the continuing racism and violence experienced by Black youth in Columbus and in the US, I join the Columbus Freedom Coalition and many others in asking you to put the considerable weight of your office behind this case, and encourage the prosecutor to drop the charges.

I write as an eyewitness to the protest and the draconian response of the police and organizers. I write as a concerned resident of Columbus, livid at both repeated instances of racist police brutality and the tough treatment meted out to peaceful protestors. I write as a faculty member in the English department at Ohio State, a community that Santiago belongs to as a student and colleague.

Needless to say, the thoughts and opinions here are mine alone and do not officially represent OSU, the English department, or the choir, Capriccio Columbus.

Positioned in the corner of the venue and far from the center stage, I could not see you or your exchange with the protestors. But the chants of “Justice for Julius” rang loud and clear — and, frankly, were a refreshing reminder of what the day was about and who we were celebrating.

But the response they received was also dreadfully familiar to anyone who has stood up to the powerful in the interests of justice: no dialogue or alternative means of taking on a challenge, just the steady march of the cops across the room, the removal of the “disturbance,” and the silencing of protest.

Please consider: if MLK himself, whom we all claim to cherish, were witnessing that event would he be on the side of the protestors, or the police?

Would Dr. King stand with the family of Julius Tate, Jr. and call for us to take to the streets? Or with the muzzling and disciplining of two individuals who merely used their voices and expressed their opinions to address the serious matter of police brutality?

You and I may disagree on whether Columbus police were to blame on December 7, 2018 when Julius Tate, Jr. was killed — which I, frankly, regard as deliberate entrapment. And we may have a different take on what happened on June 6, 2016, when 23-year-old Henry Green was killed by police — leading to protests and fundamental changes to the “summer safety initiative” under your administration.

In September 14, 2016 when 13-year-old Tyre King was killed for the crime of wielding a BB gun, you noted the tragedy of losing a child so young but failed to condemn the grand jury that exonerated Officer Bryan Mason.

You see “strained relations” between the community and police; many of us see ages and ages of unremitting, systematic discrimination and racism.

But my appeal to you here is not about whether you agree with me and community activists on the questions of ongoing racism, persistent police brutality, and the racialized, structural violence and inequality of housing, education, and healthcare in our city, even as the wealthy make profits hand over fist. A divided and untenable crisis in US society that Dr. King famously named “the two Americas” in a 1967 speech.

I am saying something much more basic than this.

Anyone who values the words and life of MLK, especially if they have prominence and political power, needs to recognize what a fundamental contradiction it is to openly or tacitly support Monday’s arrest — and the antagonizing of non-violent protestors that happens in this city, in this country, and all over the world.

When it happens elsewhere (especially in a country we don’t like), we in the US call it “repression” and make speeches about democracy. When it happens here, and especially to Black people, we call it “law and order.”

Innumerable ironies and hypocrisies abounded on Monday for all of those of us who read and follow the path of Dr. King, and his incessant and righteous calls for a mass civil disobedience.

For example, when I went to get breakfast I could see an image of Dr. King’s “mug shot” from one of his many arrests on the massive screen behind the stage. I marveled how easily organizations today can praise MLK’s jail-going of the past but do not hesitate, for a second, to arrest protestors in the present. In his time, as we know, Dr. King was seen by the powers that be as nothing but a “disturber of the peace.”

Apparently, as I heard later, after the arrests someone from the platform said it was ok to protest but not to be “rude.” Has this individual ever read King — whose tactics had nothing to do with passivity and politeness, but had everything to do with standing up for the downtrodden and oppressed, for direct action, and for speaking truth to power?

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), responding to the charge that he ought to negotiate and not protest, King insists: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up…”

In fact, Dr. King goes on to say, in the same essay, that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’…”

What a wonderful idea — not a “negative peace” and “order” with injustice, but a “positive peace” that involves struggle and transformation.

We heard many speakers on Monday saying Dr. King taught us to “turn the other cheek.” But imagine if the city authorities and leaders would put that into practice, even a little bit, when confronted by unarmed protestors chanting slogans?

Why is the violence of armed police always the response? Would it have harmed the event to let them get to the microphone and have their say, seeing their passion and commitment? Would it have hurt to have them, say, put up a table in the hall so that others could receive and consider their information?

As a society, we haven’t come close to understanding the depths of Dr. Kings’ thinking on non-violent direct action, his critique of the “three evils” of “racism, excessive materialism, and militarism,” his opposition to the Vietnam War as a form of extreme, state violence, and his refusal to give an inch to white supremacy.

Dr. King has been whitewashed and his message has been tamed, as if all he wanted was some pleasant speeches and hand-holding across racial lines. But the real Dr. King was complex, nuanced, self-critical — and always evolving towards an understanding that the ills he battled were systemic, inter-connected, and deeply rooted in US society.

In truth, Dkéama Alexis and Mia Santiago were not disrupters of the event. They, in fact, embodied the rebellious spirit that Dr. King spoke about and practiced. They showed us what it looks like to treat MLK, and indeed the Black freedom struggle as a whole, not as historical artifacts to be worshipped from a distance but as a set of ideas and practices that are guides to fighting injustice today.

We — all of us — have to take up King’s challenge in his Nobel speech, “The Quest for Peace and Justice” (1964), to be witnesses to truth. To be witnesses to a righteous struggle. To put ourselves against the ongoing injustice and repression faced by Black and Brown masses today — and the Black and Brown activists who speak up to protest this state of affairs.

In the absence of this, talking about diversity and peace are empty words. And there’s no time for that anymore. If there ever was.

The charges against the MLK Day protestors must be dropped, immediately.


Dr. Pranav Jani | jani.4@osu.edu

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