Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

US ELECTIONS

'We need a unifier': protest vote in the name of George Floyd will end Trump's presidency, says Martin Luther King III

Son of civil rights advocate issues rallying call to give justice to people of colour

One of Martin Luther King III’s earliest memories was travelling around the city of St Augustine, Florida, in 1964, as a child on a campaign trip with his father.

Although the city's police officers and sheriffs worked in law enforcement by day, by night some would become Ku Klux Klansmen intent on instilling terror in Martin Luther King Jr, his family and followers of the towering American human rights advocate.

“I remembered those incidents in 1964; I was only five years old," Mr King, 62, told The National. "During the day, they worked as police officers and then at night, when we were marching, demonstrating and having mass meetings, they would come and terrorise us as Klansmen.”

Although Ku Klux Klan membership has fallen sharply since then, racial hate and injustice remains pervasive throughout society.

In 2020, protests swept across the world after the deaths of unarmed black Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as other police shootings in the US this year, and Mr King has been campaigning for justice for their families. Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Taylor, 26, an emergency medical technician, was fatally shot in her Louisville apartment in March by officers carrying out a drug warrant.

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

Although the current outlook for racial justice in the US appears bleak, Mr King says he feels optimistic that necessary changes to legislation will come.

“My father used to say that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Right after George Floyd's tragic death, you had millions of people around the nation and the world protesting, and that was the pinnacle of consciousness,” he says.

“I don't think that consciousness has subsided. I just think that sometimes progress takes longer than you would hope it does – it does not always come immediately.”

But as with millions of people around the world, he remains deeply upset that there has still been no justice for Taylor and Floyd. “It shows that the system of justice in the United States still does not work appropriately for black and brown communities and communities of colour," he says.

To help address the systemic injustices of the US legal system and the effects they have on people of colour, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act a month after his death.

The legislation aims to combat police misconduct, excessive force and racial bias in policing.

There was also a bill planned by the House that was inspired by a US politician and friend of Mr King's father, John Lewis, the statesman and civil rights leader who died at the age of 80 in July.

In honour of Lewis's unwavering dedication to the movement, Democrats have called for the 1965 Voter Rights Act, which has been diluted through the years, to be fully restored and updated to provide more opportunities on the ballot to ethnic minorities.

Senate obstacles

This was the intention of the Voting Rights Advancement Act passed by the House in 2019, to enshrine protections won in the civil rights era but that were undermined by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, but the bill was subsequently blocked in the upper chamber of Congress.

Mr King says the Republican-controlled Senate is the main obstacle to these crucial bills becoming law.

“If Democrats take over the United States Senate, then the George Floyd Bill around policing can be passed, as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act," he said.

"I'm sure that this can happen, but I do not think it would happen if Democrats do not take over the Senate. I won't say a strong one – but there's a decent possibility that that will happen. Then, we will begin to see some change.”

Martin Luther King III has been campaigning to get more people to vote in November's US presidential election. MLKIII
Martin Luther King III has been campaigning to get more people to vote in November's US presidential election. MLKIII

Mr King accuses US President Donald Trump of “dividing people and flaming the fire” and condemns his hardline response to the Black Lives Matter protesters.

Mr King says the US president’s new Supreme Court nomination, Amy Coney Barrett, would set the country back 30 years on civil rights, women's reproductive rights and health care, after the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the US, with more than 210,000 lives lost to Covid-19 – the highest toll in any country in the world.

The economic effect the outbreak had led to unemployment rising in the US, with the outbreak leading to the loss of more than 20 million jobs by April. Last Friday, Mr Trump, 74, announced he contracted the virus, throwing the lead-up to the November 3 election into turmoil.

If the election takes place as planned – and any change to the election schedule would require an act of Congress passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate – Mr King says the US needs a candidate to win who can bring people together.

“We need a unifier, and that's what I hope happens in this election and if the many people who came out to protest after the George Floyd tragedy come out to vote, I think that this president's term will come to an end," he says.

Millions of ballots have already been submitted, but the civil rights activist has been campaigning tirelessly to encourage people to come out and vote.

In the 2016 presidential election, one in four eligible voters were unregistered, meaning that 65 million people were unable to vote. Mr King hopes that number is significantly smaller this time around.

“One of the issues in this country is that the President and the Justice Department is led by an attorney general [William Barr], who really acts as the president's personal lawyer and not as an independent attorney general that upholds the law for all people,” Mr King said.

“That's so important and it’s why elections matter, and it’s why I believe and hope that many, many people will come out, particularly young people but also older people.”

Mr King says it was wrong to allow Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron to conduct an independent investigation into the Breonna Taylor case.

Instead, Mr King wants an independent prosecutor to oversee the case and provide a verdict.

Martin Luther King III speaks at the 2020 Commitment March, which he convened with Reverend Al Sharpton on August 28. 
Martin Luther King III speaks at the 2020 Commitment March, which he convened with Reverend Al Sharpton on August 28. 

There are other interests at play in the Taylor case, Mr King says. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is also from Kentucky and mentored Mr Cameron when he was first trying to enter politics.

Mr McConnell was also a guest at Mr Cameron’s wedding. Mr Trump also called Mr Cameron, 34, “a star” for his handling of the Taylor case. Others criticised him.

“This is a person who went to Donald Trump's convention and spoke on behalf of Donald Trump about what a great job he is doing,” Mr King says.

It is not only about who is in power, he says. The US justice system has to be restructured.

“In this context, yes, this particular attorney general happens to be a Republican who is a black man. But it's the system that has to be changed if we expect to get justice for communities of colour," he says.

‘A riot is the language of the unheard’

Most of the recent anti-racism protests in the US began peacefully, but some have descended into violence, with antagonists on both the right and the left wings. Although Mr King says his father would understand the angry response to the lack of justice for people of colour, he famously preached non-violence as a means of achieving justice before he was assassinated in 1968.

But Mr King gives a warning that in communities where minorities live, officers often “shoot first and ask questions later”.

He cites the case of Jacob Blake, a black man shot in the back seven times by officer Rusten Sheskey after police were called to an address in Kenosha, Winsconsin, on August 23.

Martin Luther King III, third from right, at the 2020 Commitment March. 
Martin Luther King III, third from right, at the 2020 Commitment March. 

“There's a fear that there’s going to be to be some kind of [national] racial confrontation. At one time, I would have said that was not a legitimate fear, but because of what has happened at the national level, the prospects are possible now," he says.

“My father used to say that violence or riots are the language of the unheard, and he never condoned violence. He always used non-violence but he understood why some people are pushed to a point.”

Mr King aspires to continue his father’s legacy in this promotion of non-violence to spur critical change.

“I'm not going to judge what most people will and will not do. I will only say that my hope is that we always resolve conflicts through peaceful means," he says.

"Because I believe in non-violence and I believe it's a very powerful tool. And, ultimately, violence begets violence.”

Updated: October 4, 2020 04:27 PM

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