(Photo: Art and climate change activism, San Francisco 2018 (Fabrice Florin).)
By Ted Glick
“Time itself is neutral; it can be used destructively or constructively. I feel more and more that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than people of good will. We need to repent in this generation not only for the hateful words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people. Human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort of men and women willing to be God’s collaborators, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, knowing that the time is always ripe to do the right thing.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963)
Two days ago I publicly read these words during a public comment time from a state agency based in Newark, New Jersey, the Passaic Valley Sewer Commission. In the Ironbound environmental justice neighborhood of downtown Newark, an area already served by three gas-fired power plants, PVSC plans to build a four fractured gas power plant. There has been a strong resistance movement against this plan for years, led by local residents, and so far we have blocked it.
As one of the tactics used to fight this project, members of our movement have been attending, in person and virtually, the monthly meetings of this agency. This was probably the 10th such meeting that I have attended and spoken at. Before each meeting, I try to think of a different angle to communicate with PVSC board members. This time, because I read all five of Dr. King’s books several months ago, the idea came to me to read King’s Birmingham jail letter.
I don’t know enough about this group to know how “good” each one of them is, but I’m sure most of them see themselves as upstanding citizens. So when I read it, I emphasized Kng’s line about the “awful silence of good people.”
What King wrote in 1963 is always applicable to one degree or another. There are always people who live decent personal lives, love their family and work hard, but never speak out about systemic injustice and oppression. In fact, successful mass movements like the civil rights/Black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s win important victories in large part because they can dramatically expand the ranks of those willing to speak out and take action.
How can those of us who are already actively working for a just, peaceful and loving world do this today, right now, in this “worst of times” that can also become the “best of times” if we come together, unite do we stand strong and stand firm? organizing?
The most important way is to be a constant good example to others, day after day, hour after hour.
There is a long and deep history in the political left around the world of people who were once revolutionaries seeking justice who became corrupted after they individually, or the movements they led, rose to positions of social power. This historical fact is why we must reject individualistic, patriarchal, and racist models of “leadership” and strive every day to build an internal culture of progressive movement that is cooperative and supportive of everyone within it.
Building this positive way of working together is definitely another key way to help other good people, which is most people, find their voice. It is extremely difficult to have the emotional strength to speak up if there is not a supportive community to do so. That community may be very small, even one or two close friends, but it can make a difference.
But it is more than personal and cultural. It is also critical that good people who are not yet active see actions, events, or demonstrations, in person or electronically, that make it clear that there are a growing number of people coming together and throwing in. We need mass movements. Dr. King deeply believed that the key to fundamental social transformation, to revolutionary change, is the tactic of mass nonviolent direct action. He believed that based on his practical experience in the brutally segregated South. Ever the visionary, he wrote in the Birmingham letter:
“It is time to realize the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national politics from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
True then, still true now. Good people, speak up and stand up!
ted glick He has dedicated his life to the progressive movement for social change. After a year of student activism as a sophomore at Grinnell College in Iowa, he left college in 1969 to work full-time against the Vietnam War. As an opponent of the Selective Service, he spent 11 months in prison. In 1973, he co-founded the National Committee to Impeach Nixon and worked as a national coordinator for grassroots street actions across the country, holding down Nixon until his resignation in August 1974. Since late 2003, Ted has played a leadership role in the effort to stabilize our climate and for a renewable energy revolution. He was a co-founder in 2004 of the Climate Crisis Coalition and in 2005 he coordinated the USA Join the World effort that led to the December actions at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Montreal. In May 2006, he began working with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and was CCAN’s National Campaign Coordinator until his retirement in October 2015. He is a co-founder (2014) and one of the leaders of the Beyond group Extreme Energy. He is chair of the 350NJ/Rockland group, the steering committee of the DivestNJ Coalition, and the leadership group of the Climate Reality Check network.
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