|Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Six Principles of Nonviolence|
We need to be chastened in our appreciation of this particular method of righteous protest. One suspects there may have been as many failures of such movements as there were vaunted successes: Poland's Jews in the 1930s, displaced Palestinians in the Levant, and the Tiananmen Square protests come immediately to mind. And it bears noting that non-violent resistance movements have always been controversial—even and especially among allied groups. In many cases there were groups espousing violent means of protest operating alongside of and often in conflict with them.
Notwithstanding, it's important to look to these movements and leaders for precedent in the current situation. There are peaceful protests happening in cities all around the country—and even in other countries in solidarity with their cause—decrying the murder of unarmed African Americans by armed police. Systemic racism and inequality of justice and law enforcement and economic opportunity are the watchwords.
Alongside of these protestors, there are also rioters and looters, many if not most of whom are unaffiliated with the peaceful protestors but are using the legitimate protests as cover for their own—often nefarious—goals and ends. It's difficult to sort them out.
Aligned against these protestors—who are legitimately airing their grievances by exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and to peaceably assemble and petition their government—we find everything from underground white supremacist and fascist movements and anarchists to the current President of the United States who is on tape berating state governors and city mayors for not using tough enough measures against protestors. The situation is tense, fraught, confusing, and frightening.
In this context it bears noting that the successful protest movements of the 20th Century were not random or chaotic. They did not succeed instantly. They were organized. They had specific goals and a clear message in support of practical, achievable objectives. They specifically targeted problem areas—policies and conditions—for change. The leaders educated protestors in the methodology of nonviolence. They trained protestors extensively in how to deal with undue and even unlawful provocations by law enforcement—from tear gassing and rubber bullets and kettling to beating and arresting and even killing. They were willing to suffer for their legitimate, practical objectives because they knew their cause was just and their methods were sound.
And this is the source of my concern here. What is the message today? What do the legitimate 2020 protestors hope to achieve? It's not clear what specific, practical, achievable goals these disparate protest groups are seeking. What would a victory look like, for instance? I do not see the same infrastructure or organization, education, and training. I do not see leaders working behind the scenes to devolve leadership down to the local city and neighborhood level. It all feels like disorganized chaos. It feels less like a movement than an impassioned outcry of agony and outrage.
If this moment of unrest is to turn into a true social movement and succeed in transforming society—and not peter out once the passion of the moment subsides—it's going to take the hard work of organization, education, training, and, importantly, forming a consistent, coherent message with clearly defined, discrete, and practical goals (policy changes, legislation, representation, community policing, etc.).
There are organizations and other resources out there promoting nonviolent resistance. There are allies in the political, intellectual, economic, social, media, and especially faith communities. Seek each other out. Make coalitions. Unite around your common goals. Do what you can where you can. Do not get distracted by petty squabbles and internecine political disputes. Do not let those allied against you divide you into factions. Be strong. Be steadfast. Keep your eyes on the prize!
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