The Other Columbus: Would MLK protest his own breakfast?

Scott Woods
Mia Santiago of the Columbus Freedom Coalition is dragged out of the MLK Day breakfast by police on Monday.

There is an irony so rich that it graduates to something palpable when you learn that two nonviolent protesters of police brutality were literally dragged out of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast by police to the applause of attendees.

Let me begin with the smallest of bites, a morsel that cannot be debated. I offer a definition so that we may get to other, harder truths. Merriam-Webster defines “protest” in the following ways:

1: a solemn declaration of opinion and usually of dissent;

2: the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval. Especially: a usually organized public demonstration of disapproval;

3: a complaint, objection, or display of unwillingness usually to an idea or a course of action;

4: an objection made to an official or a governing body of a sport.

Dissent. Objection. Disapproval. Display. Unwillingness. Outside of a sport, protest is disruptive by definition, an act designed to generate discomfort, and not generally meant to be convenient. So if you want a specific act of protest to mean something else – if you wish it to behave itself or be polite or to present itself in a way that allows you to continue doing what you were doing unabated – then you have an intent that’s different from an actual protest. You want something else to happen other than true protesting.

In the event that you do not desire protest, then you desire the status quo. There is no compromise in that equation. You may not want the status quo forever, but you want it then, in that moment. The problem here is that if you desire a status quo that would invoke the kind of anguish, despair and literal death of people based on their skin color or station, then you are in some way, shape or form part of a very serious problem. You may be part of the problem to a lesser degree than, say, a police officer with a smoking gun or a politician who sells the future of your children away for the baubles of development, but by definition you are part of the problem.

Because of the stunning amount of obtuse or patently offensive conversations about this incident making the rounds, let’s take a moment to clear the table of some of the dishes we don’t really need anymore, like whose fault this is.

First, any suggestion about Mayor Ginther that implies he could have done anything different than what he did – stopping the police in action, letting the protesters speak, handing over his microphone, not showing up at all – ignores a long history of his indifference and a lack of substantive change on issues that relate to how black citizens are treated in his city. Anyone making a case that he should have done something different than stepping back and letting the police and resident black clergy do their respective jobs in defending the status quo is wasted energy. Over and over Ginther has shown us who he is and what he is not willing to do. At this point, any expectation of change exposes a problem with the expectation. Interrogation of him should always occur, always be noted, but any insinuation that he might do something remotely different than what we’ve witnessed so far is a pointless conversation. He is on political remote control and can only be trusted to do as little as possible when it comes to change in policing. So quit treating him like he’s the reason why things went down the way they did. He’s generally villainous, but he’s not the Boss Villain of this level of debate.

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The same goes for the police. There is nothing in the infrastructure of Columbus that suggests they are interested in change besides token scraps that make no substantial difference in the perception, lives or relationships they have with black communities. Ginther’s released statement afterwards got that much right: The police were just doing their jobs. Anyone who thinks it isn’t their job to drag protesters out of events is gravely mistaken. So yes, what 2,000 people witnessed was horrible. Yes, the police should have done something else. But to expect them to do anything else ignores what they are, what they have been and what we can expect will be their modus operandi for the foreseeable future. Columbus police don’t negotiate. They shoot. They stomp. They drag. They abuse. They get off. That’s the deal.

You need to know when you’re wasting your time. And I don’t mean the protesters; they know who they’re dealing with, and my read is that they don’t actually expect change from city officials or police at this point. They’re not seeking to have a conversation with them, which is why criticisms of the appropriateness of how they protested are largely off base. Parallels between how Bernie Sanders navigated Black Lives Matter protesters (once) back in 2016 don’t apply here. This wasn’t a platform-based protest. No one was angling for a microphone or trying to take the stage to drop a manifesto. It was a disruption protest. It’s No. 5 on the protest menu. They generally have a very tight and singular goal as a rule: disruption. Any criticism of its merits beyond that goal ignores what it is. You don’t have to like it. You just have to be clear on what it is so you can stop talking about it like it’s something else.

And while we’re on the subject of protest correlations, you can stop comparing this protest to what Dr. King did. King was a professional protester, but the majority of his protests weren’t disruption based. And in the instances in which King used disruption as a tool, it was concisely rude: He sat down at a segregated lunch counter and waited to be yanked away by police. If you’re comparing marching to what happened at the breakfast bearing his name, you’re missing the mark. It’s a completely different thing. Any talk about how they “failed” or “did it wrong” doesn’t understand what they were doing.

Which brings us to the people who, in my mind, are the players we should be focused on: the 2,000 people that were in that room and witnessed two black people dragged out of an assemblage of city leaders and citizens and did nothing.

I cannot, of course, know their hearts. Maybe some were mortified at the sack race of black bodies before them. Perhaps the applause that erupted on the heels of the statement by Bishop Timothy Clarke – whose insidious and incorrect hot take that “people have the right to protest, but not the right to be rude” generated the best example of cognitive dissonance I can recount in a Columbus moment so far this year – was as appalling to them as it was to me. What I do know is that, so far, no one has come forward to say that they even got up out of their chair to sequence the trauma of that moment. 

Where were the people who got up and left? Where were the people who followed the police out, cellphones in hand, tracking how a cadre of officers handled two protesters? We know how things go when we don’t keep the records of how we’re treated, so where was that easy bit of pick-up activism? Where was the outcry next to the selfies posted on social media? These are the absolute least efforts anyone could have done in the name of preserving justice on a day marked to honor a man who gave his life preserving justice. No one’s asking you to get arrested, but could you have not sat in the room and listened to more speeches about how far we’ve come while two protesters waited just outside the door? Did you think they wouldn’t let you reenter? Did you think Mia Santiago and Dkéama Alexis would be fine so long as they didn’t resist? Did you think the police wouldn’t dare do too much damage to them since the city’s elite witnessed their actions? Did that make staying put seem like a good idea at the time?

All of this raises the question of who the breakfast is for. That list is at least as long as the multimillion dollar sponsors of the affair, and extending well into certain communities, but not nearly as many as it claims to represent. I rest comfortable in the assumption that Dr. King would have been outraged at an event billing itself as a community affair selling tickets that most people in the community it purports to represent couldn’t afford.

Perhaps the better questions are: What is the breakfast for? What does it represent? Which aspects of King’s legacy does it genuinely seek to bring to the fore and extend into the future? Prior to the event’s response to this year’s protest, one could at least argue that it opened the door for reflection on the work that has been done, but also the work that must still be done. However, when faced with just one issue still roiling the world outside of the event’s pancake and sing-a-long bubble, its reaction was swift, clear, applauded and unquestioned by those present. Bottom line: The King Breakfast is the activist equivalent of the person who posts MLK quotes on social media on MLK Day but would never go on record to say Black Lives Matter.

How about the question of where is an appropriate place for protest, for which the answer is nowhere. Anywhere that is appropriate for protest becomes immediately suspicious as an avenue for change. You could make the case that King didn’t exactly steal the National Mall to make his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, that even he saw the merit in a good city-issued permit on behalf of revolution — you know, that polite activism we keep hearing we should all be doing, where I am told real change has a shot. Except to present that as the only screwdriver in King’s protest toolbox discounts instances in which he very rudely broke the law and sat down at a lunch counter, disrupting people’s meals, his case clear but unwanted in the moment. No one wanted to engage him over their pancakes, and so they called the police, who bent him over a counter and dragged him out of the diner.

Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested 29 times. You don’t get arrested 29 times by being polite. Nonviolent has never meant polite.

And you know what happened one of the 29 times King went to jail? In 1958, King was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama. He was arrested, convicted and fined $14 (about $123 in adjusted dollars). King’s people had access to $14, but he was willing to keep sitting in jail as an extension of the protest that had put him there. His fine was ultimately paid by Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers. Sellers was thoroughly anti-black, but even he didn’t want those protest problems, opting to pay the fine rather than have King anywhere near his jail.

Which brings me to the only way that all affected parties (aside from protesters) get out of this moment with any semblance of decency: Drop the charges against Mia Santiago and Dkéama Alexis.

Let’s be clear: arrests aren’t deterrents to protest. Change is a deterrent to protest. Agency is a deterrent to protest. The King Breakfast wasn’t a target for protest until it was, and part of the reason why that changed is because the city is changing in ways that make protest necessary.

None of this intends to paint everyone who is uncomfortable with this protest as a monster. In that one moment, you may have been part of the problem, but I do not believe that everyone in the room was an evil person (unless you were clapping; that’s just wrong). There are variances in experience and thought that should be allowed for a person to be both supportive of the point of a protest action and uncomfortable with it at the same time. What’s important is what you do with that feeling afterward.

Let’s be honest: There isn’t a version of protest that would have been deemed appropriate by the powers that be at the King Breakfast. In the second volume of Gene Sharp’s 1973 three-volume treatise, Politics of Nonviolent Action, he describes 198 types of non-violent protest. The acts range from sit-ins to refusal to pay debts. The dais of the King Breakfast would not have abided by any of the 198 methods of protest in that moment, no matter the cause or the protester. So let’s not pretend that there was a way that they could have made their case in that room that would have been deemed acceptable.

Somewhere in all of this should be mentioned the nucleus of this discussion, which is not Dr. King or his speeches, but his legacy, and that legacy is Julius Tate Jr. and Masonique Saunders.

The protesters were there for a reason, and Tate and Saunders were it. Perhaps King’s legacy is better served by extending the same level of resources as one spends on breakfast food and entertainment for 2,000 people. Maybe the program should have carved out five minutes focusing on how to dismantle the circumstances and conditions that create the kind of situations that killed Julius Tate Jr. and put his girlfriend Masonique Saunders in jail. 

I know, that event is less fun. The music is way less happening and the poems would get real depressing real quick. I get that a breakfast cum nondenominational church service is easier to do. But then you shouldn’t be surprised when people who don’t see pancakes as an answer to increasing brutality and systemic racism show up to protest.