If we do not keep [our minds] busy with some particular subject which can serve as bridle to reign them in, they charge ungovernably about, ranging to and fro over the wastelands of our thoughts. . . . Then, there is no madness, no raving lunacy, which such agitations do not bring forth.
montaigne, “of idleness”
In Charles Moore’s iconic black-and-white photograph, Coretta looks on stoically, lips parted, hands clasped in front, as her husband Martin Luther King has his right arm bent behind his back by a police officer in a tall hat. Someone unseen, outside the frame, places a hand on Coretta’s left arm, as if to comfort or contain her. Martin pitches forward over a counter, leaning to his right, his left hand splayed out for support on the polished surface. He wears a light-colored suit and tie, a panama hat with a black band. The force of the officer’s grip has nearly yanked the jacket off his right shoulder. The officer’s left hand pushes against Martin’s left side, bunching up his jacket, shoving him forward, bending him over the counter. Another officer stands behind Martin’s right shoulder, but you can see only the top of his hat and his right arm resting casually on the counter. A hatless white officer stands behind the counter, and our perspective peers over his right shoulder into Martin’s face. He doesn’t look pained. Resigned perhaps, sadly familiar with this sort of treatment. The man behind the counter seems to be reaching out toward Martin with his left hand to take something or give something (a piece of paper perhaps) as his right arm blurs at the bottom edge of the frame. Martin, his eyes pulled all the way to the right, is either looking at the man behind the counter or at someone else we can’t see. The date is September 3, 1958, in the Montgomery, Alabama, county courthouse. Martin Luther King Jr. is there to support his longtime friend Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister testifying in the trial of a deranged man charged with chasing Abernathy down the street with a hatchet. In the photo King has just been arrested for loitering. He will spend fourteen days in jail as punishment for his crime. The strange thing is that in Moore’s photograph it is not Martin or Coretta who looks afraid. It’s the policemen who appear flustered and scared. The photo is superficially silent. But you can still see how blurry with fear they are of his power and presence, quivering before his radical subjectivity in that space.
Loitering is not particularly difficult or physically demanding. It doesn’t, at first blush, appear revolutionary or criminal. Consider that “loiter” is an intransitive verb. There is no object to it. It is all subject and subjectivity. To loiter requires simply that you stand around or sit aimlessly, without purpose, to choose a space because it happens to be in the shade, or just happens to be there. Anywhere. The key to pure loitering—the most honest embodiment of the word’s spirit—is of course to do nothing. Absolutely nothing.
But it has become bigger than that….