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To Peace and Justice Plaza and beyond

Dan Coleman
In the past two weeks, I’ve twice visited Chapel Hill’s Peace and Justice Plaza: once for an Occupy Chapel Hill-Carrboro event and once for the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally. Each time, I found myself reflecting on the struggles and commitments of those whose names are enshrined there.

Creating a monument like Peace and Justice Plaza can carry with it a sense of finality, of a work completed. We must consciously remind ourselves that their work was only a step along the way and that taking the next step is the work of our time. That next step can be rooted in the lives of those commemorated at the plaza or of a revered figure like King, but only if we understand the nature of their work for social and economic justice and for the expansion of civil and human rights.

A key factor that informed King’s work as well as that of those honored at the plaza was the understanding that the law is on the side of the powerful and therefore often in the service of injustice. To achieve his aims, King broke the law and was arrested many times. But perhaps we forget that my late friend and NAACP leader James Brittain, memorialized at the plaza, was also arrested many times in the struggle for civil rights. So too were a number of others whose names are engraved in that stone marker.

To honor their memory, we must be cautious not to disempower today’s social-justice activists by offering them Peace and Justice Plaza as an accommodating place for their freedom of speech but crying foul when they take their cause to the site of injustice.

We must take care when we express pride at the level of cooperation between town government and Occupy Chapel Hill-Carrboro while characterizing the occupiers of the Yates Building disparagingly as trespassers. We must not forget that the crime for which Brittain was arrested was also that of trespass. Such trespass was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.

In that context, it is important to recall that King was not particularly bullish on the sanctity of private property. “Life is sacred,” he wrote. “Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.”

We must also bear in mind that King’s last campaign was the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice, one in which he called for massive civil disobedience to shut down Washington, D.C., and for the illegal occupation of the Mall through the creation of a shanty town. The campaign was a precursor to today’s Occupy Wall Street, and King feared similar violent reprisals.

One of the obstacles to progress discussed repeatedly by King is liberal complacency – people who are concerned, who are of good will, but who retreat when a campaign for justice moves beyond their comfort zone. King wrote of “a liberalism so bent on seeing both sides that it fails to become committed to either side. It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.” In this community, many of us pride ourselves on our liberalism, but we must strive to make sure it is the strong, committed liberalism that King admired, the liberalism that is honored at Peace and Justice Plaza.

Elected officials face a particular challenge. When citizens demand justice, I am sworn to uphold the laws of the state that are often designed, in the interest of wealth and power, to sustain those very injustices. But as a moral being, I have an obligation to find a way to support the cause of justice despite such limitations.

While listening to the King holiday speeches, I felt that it is more important than ever that Peace and Justice Plaza call us not only to remember heroes of the past but to honor those among us who take similar risks today, to take that memory and that inspiration to the setting of injustice, and to bring forth that struggle to which power must eventually yield.

Dan Coleman is a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

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