Dr. Cornel West honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by going to jail

“We will not allow this day of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to go without somebody going to jail.” … Continued

“We will not allow this day of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to go without somebody going to jail.” After speaking those words on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, Princeton University professor
Dr. Cornel West was arrested.



Philosopher Cornel West (C) stops to talk to demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street campaign in Zucotti Park near the financial district of New York September 29, 2011.

The Supreme Court was a fitting venue for this demonstration both to honor Dr. King and demonstrate solidarity with the #OWS (Occupy Wall Street) movement. As Dr. West, author of Race Matters, Democracy Matters and a new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, said prior to being arrested, there is “a relation between corporate greed and what goes on too often in Supreme Court decisions.”

In Democracy Matters, West makes this point in far greater detail “(The) illicit marriage of corporate and political elites-so blatant and flagrant in our time-not only undermines the trust of informed citizens in those who rule over them. It also promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace, who see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded with money, status, and access to more power.” (p. 4)

Here’s the point: If you are content to think that corporations are people and money is speech, as the Supreme Court decided in the by a vote of 5-4, in their Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision, then indeed you are sleepwalking through your citizenship and giving over your faith to false prophets.

I believe, when future accounts of this era are written, historians will judge that the wake up call for many people in America was in early 2010 with that Supreme Court decision. The winter of 2010 is what led to the #OWS demonstrations in the fall of 2011.

Can we as citizens accept this definition of person, and of speech? This is what Dr. West, by his action on the steps of the Supreme Court, is asking us to stop and ponder. Corporation as person? A soulless legal entity as human being? No. We can’t and we must not. As I have written before, God didn’t create corporations.

In his by now-famous dissent to the “Citizens United v Federal Election Commission,” ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens made this very clear:

“It might also be added that corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their “personhood” often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

This is the issue that unites the #occupy rallies; corporations are not those for whom the Constitution was written and they cannot be those whom it protects with the rights owed to citizens who actually are “We the people.” There is a deep anger among people who are protesting at these rallies as illustrated by a picture circulating on my Facebook page of a sign at #OWS. It reads, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” This theme resonates over and over again in other signs at #occupy rallies: ‘Corporations aren’t people.’”

But Dr. West did not call for anger, he actually called for “deep love” in his remarks before his arrest, and he spoke his solidarity even with the police, those who were about to arrest him.

This is worthy of another jail, at another time. In 1963, Dr. King wrote, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,

Part of that letter is one of the fourteen inscriptions on the wall surrounding the new King Memorial: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Perhaps Dr. West would say he was on the steps of the Supreme Court for the same reason. According to his Web site, he spent Sunday night, October 16, “behind bars. He has been ordered to appear in court Monday at 1pm est to answer charges of trespassing on the steps of the Supreme Court.”

Another jail, another time, but the same issue: justice.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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