I know thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, were put out by Monday afternoon’s Martin Luther King Day blockade on the Bay Bridge. Or at least upset that the one day they might have expected light traffic, their trip across the span was disrupted.
But I’m also remembering one veteran of past human rights struggles who would have loved the protest — put on by a black gay liberation group called Black.Seed — and probably would have wanted to be in the middle of it.
That person was my uncle, Bill Hogan, an activist Catholic priest in the Chicago archdiocese through a succession of movements, starting with black civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s and continuing through the fight to end the Vietnam War, the nuclear disarmament campaigns of the 1970s and ’80s and others.
Bill paid a price for his unswerving commitment. He was suspended without pay for defying orders to quit the streets (and stop getting arrested) and tend to his pastoral duties. Of course, he thought his flock was everywhere on the streets. While he was on the outs with the archdiocese, he drove a cab, for years, to make ends meet.
But let’s get back to the Bay Bridge shutdown on Monday, called as part of an ongoing effort by Black Lives Matter groups and allies to, as they put it, reclaim the activist legacy of Martin Luther King. How can I be so sure Bill would have embraced the protest?
Back on the evening of May 8, 1972, President Richard Nixon announced he had just ordered the mining of several North Vietnamese ports and the bombing of the country’s rail links with China, moves intended to pressure the government in Hanoi to return to peace talks.
Anti-war activists in the United States took to the streets the next day. One group in Chicago went a little further than that. They decided they’d blockade the morning commute, or at least part of it.
Bill Hogan, my uncle, along with maybe 30 compatriots from an anti-war group, climbed into a small fleet of cars and steered them into the eastbound lanes of Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway, the main commute route into downtown from the western suburbs. Once the cars were abreast of each other, they slowed to a stop. Then Bill and the other drivers got out, disabled the ignitions, and waited for the police to arrive. Well, in Bill’s case, he’d tipped off a radio reporter, who arrived on the scene for a live interview.
In other words, it was a protest virtually identical to the one that stopped Monday afternoon traffic on the westbound Bay Bridge.
And the results? Well, that war ended, though it would be foolish to think that one protest moved the needle much. But in Bill Hogan’s world, there was no such thing as taking a pass when it was time to take a stand. And he would have pointed out the expressway action didn’t happen in a vacuum — it was part of a continuum of protests that went on for years and involved millions of people.
On another occasion, he disrupted a planned public discussion on the war in which he was supposed to face off with two ROTC colonels.
“Look,” he said afterward, “this war is not really a debatable question. … We succeeded in getting everyone in the audience arguing over what we did. That’s what will finally end this war, everyone arguing.”
You need look no further than our Facebook posts on Monday’s protest — here and here — to see that the Bay Bridge shutdown got people arguing. And angry. Most comments express some degree of outrage at the blockade, often alloyed with sentiments along the lines of, “I support the cause, but not when idiotic people do something like this.”
I’m in no position to say how far the Bay Bridge blockade bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice. But I can say that the Martin Luther King Day protesters are right: King’s career was about confronting injustice directly — and discomfort and inconvenience to the world at large was not a consideration.
In 1956, troubled by violence that forced the first black student enrolled at the University of Alabama to leave campus, King preached a sermon reflecting on the kind of “peace” achieved by knuckling under to the demands of white supremacy. He said:
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.”
… What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”
Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” — not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force -–war, tension, confusion — but it is the presence of some positive force -–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.
And King concluded:
… Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.
If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.
So in a passive, nonviolent manner, we must revolt against this peace.