Nonviolent resistance is an important principle of the 20th and 21st centuries, central to most successful protest movements. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. drew upon this tactic as the basis for much of his work in the 1960s, gleaning ideas regarding civil disobedience from Indian anti-colonial nationalist Mahatma Gandhi and American Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. King described the idea in his first book Stride Toward Freedom as “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” and wrote that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
In the 1960s, college campuses were rampant with protests, primarily to fight racism and poverty, increase student rights, and to end the Vietnam War. Most were nonviolent, but, of course, who can forget that haunting photographic image of the 1970 Kent State massacre in Ohio when the National Guard fired on students protesting the Vietnam War? While we may criticize, seemingly in isolation, a large Communist country such as China for a violent incident such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that occurred during peaceful protest, we possess our own incendiary history in the U.S., despite our First Amendment rights intended to protect such protests. Let’s also not forget the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, when, during the first of three supposedly peaceful marches for civil rights, state troopers and the county “posse comitatus” attacked unarmed marchers.
I remember reading about those protests in history books in school and feeling left out, as if almost all of the important pieces of American history had unfolded prior to my birth. In my naïve throes of youth, I allowed those history books to romanticize my perspective, and thus I longed to be one of those banner-waving college students marching in large crowds to evince some greater cause for the people of our nation. As an adult no longer blinded by an innocent perspective, I still admire their hope and tenacity in advancing positive changes in which they believed.
However, as the cyclical nature of history almost seems to repeat itself these days, I understand what I missed: those protests are rooted in so many negative emotions and potential outcomes: pain, strife, anxiety, and fear – with real sources, as it’s not always the protesters who cause trouble, as some might want to believe these days. Sometimes it’s the “other” side that steps in as antagonist, and sometimes it’s even those who should be the ones providing law and order who create the most dissension.
I’m a little more fearful now, though, decades after my days of reading about protests in our country’s history because I now know the real potential for violence among people. Sometimes, as one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, always liked sardonically to remind readers in his work, we as humans can be an ornery, hateful lot.
I support the peaceful protests of today. As I write, I haven’t yet participated in one, but I might. While I was visiting Nashville this week to obtain materials from the Tennessee Department of Education to complete a summer project, I was caught that afternoon in a swathe of young people marching toward the Capitol as part of a peaceful protest. My brother, who was with me, and I noticed that most of them looked, similar to the 1960s, like college students.
However, I do observe a distinction between now and most of the civil rights protests of the 1960s: the previous protests often had particular aims that were the intended outcome. Some of these aims specifically included the allowance for African Americans to share mass transit in the South without being relegated under Jim Crow laws to sit in the back of the bus, enfranchisement privileges to vote freely in public elections without being saddled with unnecessary obstacles, and equality in public school resources and facilities – to name a few.
I believe that a protest without specific aims may be moot, as I wonder what it is intended to accomplish without an intended outcome. I also think back to last July, when I spent the second of two summer months working for Johns Hopkins University in Hong Kong, living among world history in the making. There Hong Kongers assembled in the streets to protest the authoritarian nature of Beijing and mainland China, which was attempting to pass laws encroaching on Hong Kong’s limited autonomy. The FIVE specific aims of Hong Kong protesters were plastered everywhere on flyers throughout the city and shared widely on social media. There was absolutely no mistaking what those protesters wanted to see happen as a result of their mass gatherings, as it was well articulated.
I am only one person, with a small-town weekly readership, but I would encourage consistency, continuity, and specificity in today’s protests. What are the desirable goals of social change represented in the symbolic protests we witness of late throughout the country? The protest is the means, but what is the end? Do we want to see specific, more narrow reforms when it comes to how police handle suspects? Or do we want to branch out and address the broader issue of social and political inequities? I think it’s past time for us to decide, and perhaps that decision should begin in local communities and then move forward into a larger scope in order to approach consistency in our country as a whole.