March on. March forward. March together. Or at least get out of the way.
The March on Washington on August 28th of 1963 is remembered primarily for Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a call for social equity in attitude and policy throughout the country.
Though the dream centered on social justice in the form of civil rights, specifically, it was also for peace in general. Yes, the march was for justice, but it was not confined to addressing the wrongs of racism. Rather, the people who gathered that day came to confront serious economic, social and political obstacles to liberty. As Dr. King stated, they were there to “cash a check” for “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those marching didn’t just want the United States to see everyone equally; they wanted to live as equals. True equality means that hard work, tenacity, intelligence and grit should (in theory) yield the same life and career opportunities for one person as for another who is of comparable talent and experience. Peaceful protests, like marches and sit-ins and rallies, were—and still are—a method of pursuing this.
But what constitutes an effective nonviolent protest? How does one essentially demand change from those in power? “Power to the people” is a pleasant turn of phrase, but its meaning has been diluted as of late, partly due to the lack of unity and focus amongst today’s demonstrators.
There has been no shortage of demonstrating, just as there has been no shortage of violence. Chicago has been through it, Seattle has been through it, Boston has been through it. At time, this country appears to be eating itself alive, cannibalized by brutality and even by responses to that abuse. And attempts to address the problem have been varied. Hillary Clinton was criticized by some, praised by others, for addressing Black Lives Matter supporters recently with the sentiment that their actions could not change hearts as fast as policy could change police violence. The debate is an old one: Does changing hearts change policy or does public sentiment eventually catch up to the law? The answer is yes—as in, both. There is no easy answer, other than remembering that changing hearts can sometimes prove to be too slow and arduous of a process.
Metaphorically speaking, hardened hearts have a very high heat setting, and sometimes you have to turn up the heat with policy before they begin to melt enough for logic, positive regard for humanity, and new ideas to begin sinking in. But protests and movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, PeaceNow, and even lighthearted Pride Parades for the LGBT community aim to bring attention to problems that can only be solved by both political and social change.
Elements of peaceful protest in the past included sit-ins, singing, marches and speeches, and the consequences ranged from bodily harm and humiliation to imprisonment or even death. Now, despite using similar methods of dissent, people are more likely to be fined and temporarily locked away for their activism. And though clear parallels can be drawn between past and current movements, the changes in society have inevitably affected the manner in which people demonstrate.
Take the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. Former USA Today columnist and current minister, Barbara Reynolds, expressed her concern for the direction of its participants, saying, “[At] protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot. The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. Even if the BLM activists aren’t the ones participating in the boorish language and dress, neither are they condemning it.” (She provided a link to large groups of demonstrators chanting for dead cops.) Where the point of 1960s protestors was to provide a moral grounding for justice, she argues, today’s movements seem torn between justice and plain old retribution.
Well, with the consequences of protest becoming less severe, and the issues prompting such protests being well-documented news sensations, often of actual footage of harassment and death, it is possible that we have grown too restless and angry as a population to successfully demonstrate via simple peace rallies?
Jessica Leber from the Company Fast Co.Exist would give a resounding “No.” According to her article “Peaceful Protest—Slow And Steady—Is Winning the Race To Create Change,” there is still much historical evidence to support the effectiveness of a nonviolent approach. “Nonviolent campaigns were successful against government repression 46% of the time, more than twice the success rate (20%) of their violent counterparts. Not only that, they found the success rate of violent insurgencies has actually been declining in recent decades, and that nonviolent resistance campaigns have a stronger tendency to lead to democratic governments and lasting peace later on.”
But Leber also acknowledged that those under extreme oppression can’t just be told that nonviolence is their ticket to freedom and equality. In fact, sometimes just taking a stand means fighting back. Other times, the peaceful demonstration may be appropriate, but too broad to actually have a real impact.
Just look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yes, it drew crowds and national attention, but the goals were far from modest. Overthrow a whole economic system by overturning corrupt practices benefitting the country’s wealthiest and most connected citizens? Oh, I’ll put that on my “To Do” List, right under changing Seattle weather and getting religious fanatics to denounce their faith. (Actually, given the reality of climate change and the current stats on declining spirituality and belief in this country, those may be more attainable goals.)
Perhaps a key ingredient in a successful protest is to outline clearly what you will and will not do as a group prior to demonstrating. After all, certain chants, actions and slogans may promote the same violence you are standing up against. Secondly, there need not be a divide between changing hearts and changing policy. Some people will change their vote because you touched their heart, whereas others may not be able to see beyond the letter of the law.
For instance, I firmly believe that decades from now most people will feel the same way about same-sex marriage as we now feel about interracial marriage. It will likely seem embarrassing that we ever cared so much. At least in most moderate circles, if people are prejudice, they will probably have the good sense to keep their grumbling to themselves rather than tout their right to weigh in on someone else’s love.
Lastly, according to the 2012 Census, we have a larger percentage of citizens over the age of fifty-five than at any time in recorded history. These are the true historians. We have people who have seen the failures and successes of the past, who have lived through tremendous social changes, and who might know a thing or two about how it feels to be oppressed, as well as what it means to oppose or yield to mistreatment. Let’s not waste that knowledge. Have conversations with your relatives and friends.
On this 52nd anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s easy to forget how real the struggles of the past were, and how far we’ve come. It’s also easy to brush aside strategy in our attempts to change both hearts and minds in the battle for equality. Let’s not. The unified demonstrators of today have all the potential and power of those in our past.
In an email interview with Shahin Mafi, founder of Home Health Connection, she wrote that “The people who criticize the peace advocates are the people who always gain something from war! The greed of human beings is the most important obstacle to peace. We need to be happy with what we have and try to implement justice around the world wherever we are. We can start with ourselves and then spread this realization throughout the world.”
Forget about fighting words; those are marching words.
For those who haven’t read or heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech for a while, here is a link to the transcript and audio: