January 15, 2018

Anatomy of a peaceful protest… Thinking of MLK today.

If you follow me on social media at all, you know that my Facebook banner image is, as often as not, this:

As such, it should come as no surprise that I’m reflecting on the life and times of the great civil rights leader today. Specifically, though, I’m thinking about the term “leader” within that description.  Narrowing the lens a bit more, what I’m pondering is the where and when of civil disobedience/peaceful protest/ direct action.  Dr. King, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, clearly outlines the steps that can culminate (in the event that the earlier steps fail) in direct non-violent action, that 4 step process goes as follows:

In the above he also discusses how, in Birmingham, they attempted and were rebuffed on steps 1 and 2, leading to step 3 below:

Later in the text he goes on to respond to the queries put before him about “why direct action?” by stating that it was only after having exhausted the previous steps in the process that non-violent protest was considered.  Further – and this is critical – even when it came to direct action, the singular goal of getting to negotiation was still the ultimate target outcome.  No one was there for the purpose of protesting, they were there to forcefully – but without violence – bring the other party to the negotiating table.  As outlined below, the purpose of protest is to create a sense of urgency or tension that motivates all sides toward negotiation and, by extension, a reasonable result.

I think it is vitally important to keep all of these components in mind when planning (or assessing) any act of protest.

  1. Have you gathered all of the facts; are you literate in that which you are about to protest?
  2. Have you tried everything you can to negotiate with the powers that be?
  3. Have you self-purified; are you fully prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions, without compromising the quality of your character?
  4. If you are beginning direct action, do you have a clear set of goals; are they centered around bringing everyone back to the table to talk?

If you cannot answer “yes” to all of these questions, then you are not ready to lead a protest.  You may be ready, willing, and able to join one and shout for whatever your cause is; but leadership is not currently in your tool chest.

I’m not sure how often people follow this blueprint anymore.  I certainly don’t hear people talking about it when discussing possible protests; and this leaves me wondering how many of our efforts toward improving the world we live in are actually structured toward having a decent chance of success.

Sidenote: On the other side of the coin, if you find yourself in the position of assessing a protest, you should evaluate it on the same basis.  And, if the protesters can answer yes to all of those questions and you feel ill at ease with their protest, this does not mean they are being inappropriate or disrespectful, it means that someone on the other side of the issue is being unreasonable or unwilling to talk, and it also means that their (along with your) discomfort is by design.

Martin Luther King left this world a better place in so many ways.  His words have inspired generations and will no doubt motivate their progeny as well.  However, I think  what is often lost in his greatness, and what actually might be one of the more valuable takeaways from his (all too short) time on this Earth, was his dedication to process and keeping the focus on meaningful, tangible objectives.  Sometimes, when learning from those we admire, there can as much to learn from how they went about their work as there is in the work itself.  MLK’s letter from that Birmingham jail checks both boxes and is a great blueprint; not for how to lead a protest, but for how to lead a movement.

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