MLK on How to Protest

Here are some useful and to me refreshing tactical procedures from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” What’s weird is that some of them may sound, to today’s geared-up young protestor, wimpily moderate or even weak, compared to chanting stuff like “Whose park? Our park!” and making fantastical claims of utter revolution, etc. But King thoroughly and invigoratingly blasts moderation in other parts of the letter. And his stuff worked. Not much else ever has.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.

…We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

These and other parts of the letter bring home to me what I think is a problem for the Occupy movement (along with not having or probably even believing in having leadership like King’s): what it’s trying to change doesn’t come down to an evil law that can be lovingly broken. The goal is vast, the necessary change systemic. That doesn’t make it impossible, but even Occupy’s indirect civil disobedience — sleeping in parks, etc. — they insist is not lawbreaking at all, loving or otherwise, as they believe the first amendment gives them an absolute right to be there; they say the city is breaking the law. (That, and/or some protesters simply glory in temporarily breaking the law, unlovingly. I remember having that feeling, in the same streets of New York, too well to comment cogently on it right now. It’s seriously stupid, probably unavoidable.)

Mutual defiance ensues. Debate ends up devolving on whether the city is acting illegally in trying to disperse them (of course many other people — equally members of “the people” — are enraged at the city for not having moved them out earlier); and then naturally on whether the police are acting illegally in using violent tactics. Connections to the original goal of the protest can only be made via the familiar, non-usable accusation that all of society, at every level, is evilly combined in a well-oiled machine to oppress, and so must be constantly opposed at every turn. . . . And we’re back to business as usual.

Anyway: I like “I don’t see no riot here!/Take off your riot gear!” I hate “Whose park? Our park!”

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6 thoughts on “MLK on How to Protest

  1. I think you’re using this letter rather selectively (this post is really weird for me because i just read this very same letter yesterday on a whim).

    “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest”.

    This illustrates for me why i think King would support the park occupation. When these ordinances are applied to muzzle protest I find it difficult to believe he would condemn these occupations because of the breaking of those laws. Just because outsiders (and some participants) have arguments about who’s breaking the law or not, doesn’t mean occupation is an illegitimate strategy. I also think that you are misrepresenting the history of the Civil Rights movement by pretending that having public leaders was an integral part of the movement or even that everyone agreed with it. There were many parts of SNCC that were not enthusiastic about leaders and the organization itself was very, very decentralized. To pretend like the difference between successful and unsuccessful non-violent direct action i think is wrong and does a disservice both to the history of social movements and to current attempts to make “liberty ring”.

    • I’m in no way suggesting King wouldn’t support — or would even condemn! — the Occupy movement. I’m exploring problems that it has which he, in a sense, didn’t, given a difference in goals, which leads to a difference in tactics. And while offering selections from a letter necessarily involves selectivity, I linked to the whole letter in the hope that some would want to read or re-read it. I didn’t say much if anything about the Civil Rights movement, either in part or as a whole: I know it was multifaceted; I know some objected to King’s public leadership; and I didn’t say Occupy is wrong or somehow doomed to the degree that it doesn’t want leaders. So I’m not sure what the problem is here. I do find that just thinking aloud about Occupy in terms of its problems — the only way I know how to think about anything — seems to some to be tantamount to condemnation. As a student of protest, insurrection, and economic radicalism in America, I’m just interested.

      • Meant to respond earlier, the before break college crunch has stolen all my time. in retrospect i think i was probably a little tougher on this post then i should have been. Don’t get me wrong, i have my own criticisms (along the lines of not having strategies to keep out elements corrosive or anti the general message of OWS) I just think the general line of argument about breaking the law (by outsiders) should be separated from the issues at hand. Following MLK, participants should declare that any law that stifles the ability of people to peacefully assemble and protest is an unjust law that deserves to be broken.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful and timely post.

    The “unjust application of an otherwise just law” argument does not work here. Indeed the facts arguably show the opposite. As far as I know, NO ONE is being allowed to set up permanent residence in Zuccotti park or any other city park. If some other random group had set up a similar encampment, without claiming that it was exercising a form of political expression, they would have been evicted much sooner.

    The quotations from MLK support the definition of civil disobedience articulated by one of my law professors, which is that consists of disobeying an unjust law. The purpose of doing so is to awaken the conscience of the human beings involved in enforcement, and/or to render enforcement so burdensome that it becomes impractical to continue. Civil disobedience is to be distinguished from actions where a group seeks to gain attention and pressure the government by causing unrelated disruption, i.e. by breaking laws that are not in themselves unjust. The word for such actions is rather charged these days, but here it is: terrorism. By this definition the activities lower Manhattan today are not civil disobedience but terrorism. Certainly the protesters do not appear to be acting with love, after self purification; not nonviolent but rather violent; and certainly polarizing. I am in an office in downtown Manhattan right now, where most occupants are members of the 99%, and who are nothing but irritated with the whole thing. If anyone cared to organize it, a counter-demonstration could gather a much larger group than OWS right now.

    I think you are letting OWS off the hook by suggesting that traditional civil disobedience may not be possible because of the breadth of their goals. MLK and Gandhi didn’t achieve “systemic” changes? One of the hallmarks of OWS has been a complete lack of clarity about what the goals are, which has allowed it to attract support from diverse and otherwise incompatible interest groups who are pissed of at the system for one reason or another. (Can the teamsters union, for example, really support the abolition of corporations?) At the moment, in order to say that you support or don’t support OWS, you have to first formulate (project) your own personal view of what it actually stands for. If this “movement” is going to have any success at all it is going to have to articulate specific reforms at some point, and then direct action will be possible, and many supporters may fall away.

    Your comments about the sheer pleasure of breaking the law are apt, and remind me of one of the commandments of a very different type of political activist, Saul Alinsky, who said “a good tactic is one your people enjoy.”

    • Thanks for the comment. As I said somewhere else, “Living in a park is civil disobedience only if you’re protesting laws prohibiting living in parks.” Terrorism, though? Not to me. Being noisy and defiant isn’t violence; being irritated and polarized isn’t being terrorized.

  3. I think these people are just beginning and I am certain that much of the American public understands their purpose quite clearly. They are standing in full view at the financial center of the world to simply say that the distribution of wealth is askew: The world conscience is focused and therefore moving in the wrong direction expanding the gap between wealth and poverty. Everybody’s working hard at their job or to find a job yet, a tiny group of people are gathering the fruit: The rest are reaping stalks and seed from the ground. If the gross world product is finite at any given point, then the goal is to get governments to stop legislating all the profit to the wealthy. There is no wealth without labor. I’m not clear as to why arguing whether this group has yet fully formed to a level equal to the historical iconography of the civil rights movement is valuable. I do know that their existance is evidence of the dire need and public determination for change.

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