Guest Editorials

When your friends get arrested

by James Dabakis

My friends were arrested this week at the Utah Capitol for blocking entrance to a Senate Committee room. A few of my colleagues asked, “Don’t you think that getting arrested is terrible for your cause? Aren’t you embarrassed?” My answer is simple: no, no, no. I am immensely proud of my friends. 
It is a fundamental principle of this country that we not only have the right, but I would submit, the obligation to “redress the government for our grievances.” With the shameful lack of discussion on SB 100, the distortion, the decision to kill the bill without public discussion (although supported by 72 percent of Utahns — Deseret News poll), these brave ‘arrested’ friends believed this was the only way to get their government to listen to them. They were willing to pay the price for that level of protest. The embarrassment, from my prospective, is that Utah people are forced to be arrested to make their government listen to them.

Many of the same colleagues who asked if I was embarrassed are also quietly telling me, “Don’t worry, everything you want for equality is going to happen. Now is just not the right time.” That is what they have been saying to the LGBT community in Utah for SIX years. My question back to them is “When is the right time? Will you tell me when you are ready for my equality? When will the Utah House be ready to treat all Utah citizens the same? When will the Utah Senate be ready to extend ‘liberty and justice to all’? When will the governor be ready? When exactly, will Utah church leaders be ready to understand that diversity is not a curse but a blessing? Will you tell me, my friends, when will you be ready to grant Utah LGBT citizens their full rights?”

The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. again inspire me. Dr King was in Birmingham Jail when a group of white allies came to him and said, “Dr King, we are with you but you have to wait, the south is just not ready.” Dr King replied:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative. 

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 

 There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.

Every civil rights march is different. But, the movements have one thing in common—that is, they succeed because Americans and Utahns are basically fair, honorable, and decent people.  To my brave friends who spent time in jail, I salute you for your special brand of patriotism and for putting our freedoms to the test.

Related Articles

Back to top button