By Watani Stiner
“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I reflect on my past, which was once my present, I find that it is this soul force for justice that proves to be the most effective and sustainable in the fight against racism.
I was an active participant in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Similar to today, it was a period when America was confronted with the issue of police brutality and the devaluing of Black lives. It was a time when young people across this country were breaking through racist barriers, opening up closed doors of opportunity and raising critical questions about war and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It was a time when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. raised the banner of non-violence. King is remembered for his nonviolence (sometimes scornfully by those who take the view that violence is necessary for social change) and for his “dream.” But is he remembered enough for his uncompromising moral struggle for social justice?
For me and many of my peers at the time, the struggle against injustice was much more a physical struggle than it was a moral one. To us, soul force was elusive, intangible, and therefore no match for the violent impact of physical force. Our generational struggle against injustice was by “any means necessary!”
Over the past few months, there has been a national outcry over deadly instances of police misconduct in this country, and a social momentum seems to be building around this very real and relevant issue of racism and police brutality. Our African- American president publicly acknowledged the deep-seated racism in this country, and the widespread police killings of young Black and Brown men across this country. Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many others serve to illustrate his claim. (There are also daily episodes of senseless intercommunity violence of epidemic proportions, young Black men senselessly killing other young Black men. We must not make comparative excuses for the loss of Black lives. Black lives matter, regardless of who pulls the trigger.)
In years past, there were essentially two tendencies in the protest movement against racial injustice and for social change: (1) Civil Rights; and (2) Black Power. The civil rights movement spoke to the conscience of this nation, compelling America to do a thorough self-examination over the mistreatment of its Black citizens. The Black Power tendency was to demand that America not only forsake its evil ways but do so immediately, or there would be consequences.
Examining my own life experience, I’ve come to realize that those consequences inevitably lead to more violence and only promote a perpetual cycle of unintended consequences. Being involved in the Black Power movement was crucial for me. It allowed me to reclaim and reconnect with my history, instilled in me a sense of racial pride, self-respect and a commitment to self-defense. It made me feel that I could and must make a worthy contribution to humanity because I was more than the lies that had been taught to me by White society. I was Black, I was proud, and I was human!
But I have come to see that the fatal flaw of our vision was that the means were not as pure as the ends. This is where MLK had a wisdom I have now come to treasure, a wisdom drawn from his desire to imitate Jesus. “Means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.” Throughout my journey — here and in exile — I’ve seen the consequences of violence perpetrated by men of good intentions, for good causes!
King’s way provided an example of soul force. He gave inspiration for hope in a vision of human society in which peace, equality and human dignity prevail. His soul force comes from a deep conviction, the same passionate conviction that says all lives matter, and that a free, egalitarian and just society is possible. The hope of that vision reverberates today, and continues to have the capacity to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
—Watani Stiner was recently released from prison after serving 26 years at San Quentin State Prison. He’s completing his memoir and is enjoying his freedom immensely — particularly the freedom he has to communicate with, spend time with and enjoy his children.