On Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon gave a press conference about preparations for potential protests in Ferguson in the aftermath of the grand jury's forthcoming decision on whether or not to indict police officer Daren Wilson. His words sounded almost exactly like lines of dialogue in an upcoming film about Martin Luther King.
Wait a minute. Almost 50 years later, are we really having the same conversations about the intentions and rights of civil rights protestors?
Sounds like it.
Take a look at the trailer for the movie Selma, director Ava Duvernay's chronicle of a three-month period in Martin Luther King's life, focusing on the 1965 civil rights marches he led from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery.
If you don't feel like watching the three-minute trailer, make note of these two quotes:
"We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in our state." — Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.
"It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless." — David Oyelowo as King.
Very dramatic. But also: eerily and depressingly similar to the public conversation resulting from Nixon's press conference.
"This is America. People have the right to express views and grievances, but they do not have the right to put fellow citizens and property at risk," Gov. Nixon said Tuesday. "Violence will not be tolerated."
That ominous statement about what the government would "tolerate," with its implicit threat of an aggressive police response, had some serious echoes of Wallace's 1965 warning to demonstrators, as depicted in Selma. And St. Louis alderman Antonio French, with the help of Twitter (at least there's been progress in terms of technology), delivered a response that captured the spirit of King's. The point of protests isn't violence at all, and a disproportionate focus on that by officials completely misses the point that the mostly peaceful demonstrators have legitimate grievances and the right to express them:
"Violence will not be tolerated." Ironically, this is the message of protestors as well. pic.twitter.com/zSoZ1IBYAr
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) November 11, 2014
One thing seems clear about the tone of the governor's approach to civil rights activism: it's nothing new.