On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2019, I got up early and went into my office at St. Paul City Hall before anyone else had arrived.
I was there to resign.
This was not a decision I made lightly. I had been hired to lead the way on “community-first public safety,” a supposedly visionary transformation away from traditional policing — over-policing, really — and toward real safety in the city. I was honored to serve under Melvin Carter, the city’s first Black mayor, and optimistic about the progress he and others had campaigned on.
Unfortunately, it only took 10 months for me to realize that transformation wasn’t actually on the agenda. Carter and the supposedly progressive city council continued to dump money into policing as usual while disregarding and refusing to fund genuinely transformative initiatives from the community or my office. I felt tokenized, used as a prop, as though my role in improving the city started and ended the moment they could announce they’d hired me, a reformed ex-drug dealer and gang member.
The timing of my resignation was no accident. That day, the mayor was attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event hosted by Gov. Tim Walz. It was a façade that was going on in many cities around the country, every year: parades, prayer breakfasts, marches. Eventually, someone sings “We Shall Overcome,” someone else quotes from “I Have a Dream,” and everyone pats each other on the back for showing up. Then they go back to business as usual.
It’s as sad as it is obvious that we as a nation pride ourselves on celebrating King once a year for a couple of hours and then during the following 364 days we proceed to ignore everything he fought for. It’s less about passing laws and more about photo ops.
This country embraces a watered-down, whitewashed version of King because too many of us have a need to remember a man who begged for peace and hoped for a future free of racism. That’s more comfortable to think about, but it erases the man who fought for justice.
Everyone remembers the rousing, optimistic, uplifting end to “I Have a Dream.” Fewer will know that just minutes earlier, King called out the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” and economic racism that limited Black choices to living in “a small ghetto” or a “larger one.”
This was someone who was arrested dozens of times for his role in protests. He sacrificed money, time with his family and the comfortable life his status could have afforded him. The causes he fought for could sometimes seem obscure, even minor; he spent the last days of his life fighting for economic justice for garbagemen in Memphis.
After that, his next stated mission was demanding the federal government take steps to end poverty, outright. How many political figures today, even on the progressive left, are comfortable — or willing — to engage ideas that ambitious?
King was willing to sacrifice his popularity for that in which he believed. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he called out the white moderates who told Black people to be patient, to be less demanding and disruptive, in the struggle for desegregation and civil rights. We see these same “liberals” still today, the type to talk sympathy out of one side of their mouth while using the other side to summon cops to brutalize peaceful protesters. This happened in Minneapolis, St. Paul and just about everywhere else after the murder of George Floyd.
No topic was off-limits for King. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He told followers to stop drinking Coca-Cola and eating Wonder Bread until they addressed racist practices. He told people to take their money out of big banks and insurance companies and switch it to Black-owned institutions. He called out sheriffs, mayors, presidents and other civil rights activists.
That was the King I had in mind when I gave up my job, and the six-figure salary that came with it, to resume the struggle working from outside the walls of St. Paul City Hall. At the time, I wrote to Carter that I had a “knot in my chest that needs to be loosened.”
For some old and some new reasons, that knot is still there.
Last year, as he campaigned for reelection, Carter was vocal about the fact he had increased police department funding by $10 million over his predecessor. How’s that working out? In 2021, St. Paul saw an all-time homicide record. My analysis, more police equates to less Black people. This analysis continues to fall on deaf ears.
In the budget that passed last month, the St. Paul Police Department got more than $120 million. Meanwhile, the Office of Neighborhood Safety, the city’s first real attempt at investing in community-led crime response and prevention, will be funded with … $1.1 million.
And the same trend is happening in major cities all over America. Politicians pay lip service to communities of color crying out for protection, not only from people who inflict harm, but from cops. Then they keep right on paying those same cops and hiring new ones in the hopes they’ll do their job and not continue to lose multimillion-dollar lawsuits for wounding or killing innocent people when they go beyond the call of duty.
We don’t honor King’s legacy by holding hands and singing along with people who would order that righteous protesters be beaten, gassed, and dragged off the streets to jail. Those are tactics King would’ve recognized, and I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel to know they’re still here with us five decades later. But I know what he’d do, and that’s organize, strategize, gather his people and fight.
A new generation of organizers is asking for the right to live free of state-sanctioned brutality, including state-sanctioned murders, and is instead met with violence in the streets and hollow speeches from behind podiums. Anyone who thinks those setbacks will curb the movement’s energy don’t know the strength of our spirit. And they don’t know the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as they think.
“Our lives begin to end,” King said, “when we become silent about the things that matter the most.”
Jason Sole is the former president of the Minneapolis NAACP and an associate professor of criminal justice at Hamline University.