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!”