The day before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in Memphis where he said, “let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”
Now almost 50 years later, those words were at the heart of this year’s MLK celebration at Bellingham City Hall.
And people gathered both in and outside City Hall in separate events Monday called for changes, and called to make America what it ought to be.
Inside, people crowded into the standing-room-only foyer where emcee Clyde Ford, who helped start the local celebration 26 years ago, called on people to take action each of the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Cards with safety pins attached were handed out, directing people to daysofchallenge.org for steps they could take to work for peace; environmental, social and racial justice; and against hate.
Before the event, Ford said he was fully aware that the safety pins worn by many as a symbol of solidarity and safety since the election had become “maligned as token, or as symbols of white guilt.”
“But what hasn’t been appreciated is symbols are only as powerful as what people invest in them,” Ford said. “We’re asking people to invest in that symbol, not only to act as sanctuary to others, but to remind themselves there’s something they can do, so do it.”
For his part, Ford said he planned to open the safety pin each night before bed, so each morning he would be reminded to take another step to change things for the better. After taking his action for that day, he will fasten it on his shirt.
Those inside heard from Victoria Matey, a first-generation college student who has lived as an undocumented immigrant for 20 years.
“We must take action as a city to show that we will not stand for the sort of divisive rhetoric that is happening on a national scale,” Matey said. “We must stop claiming that we are an accepting and inclusive city without doing anything to show we are.”
They also heard from Nina Damina Khaira Ahmed, a Muslim woman who, among many other accomplishments, studied at Harvard and Oxford, and is “passionate about education, literature, and intercultural work.”
“I think about how hard we have to now try in particularly trying times,” Khaira Ahmed said. “As Dr. King said, we must learn to live together as brothers, or perish as fools. Today is a reminder that it is not about the icon, but about the person who makes a difference through everyday acts of excellence.”
Call to action outside
While the event carried on inside City Hall, others gathered outside for the second year in a row to call for an end to racial profiling by police and other actions.
Speakers called for Bellingham elected officials to pass an ordinance declaring the city a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, to divest from banks that fund the Dakota Access Pipeline, to give community control through a civilian oversight commission of police activity, to demilitarize police, and for other actions tied to environmental and social justice.
Speakers included Maru Mora-Villalpando, an undocumented immigrant and longtime justice advocate, who works with Community to Community Development (C2C) and Latino Advocacy; Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of C2C and vocal advocate for farmworker and immigrant rights; and emcee Michelle Vendiola with the Racial Justice Coalition.
“Stop denying the lived experiences of communities of color,” Mora-Villalpando said of denials that racial profiling exists in Bellingham. “It’s not enough to say that we’re a sanctuary, it’s not enough to say that we welcome immigrants, it’s not enough to say that we like diversity. Prove it!”
One of the reasons those outside wanted to hold a separate event again was because of the denial that there are cases of racial profiling involving the city, Guillen and Mora-Villalpando said.
“They won’t even consider there is racial profiling,” Guillen said. “We won’t go into that celebration until they address and acknowledge that with concrete steps.”
Mora-Villalpando also said she felt there was a need for a visual event outside because attempts to talk through issues had not made progress.
“This event is to recognize that it’s easy to talk, but from there to actually act there’s a big gap,” she said.
One theme mentioned by speakers both inside and outside was the recognition that sometimes to get things done, it’s necessary to be uncomfortable.
“So yeah it makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable when people are protesting or agitating, but we have to be uncomfortable to make change,” Bellingham City Councilwoman April Barker said inside.
“Let’s spend this year trying to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because I think we’re all feeling a little uncomfortable ... There can be no change without conflict.”