Suggesting a protest be peaceful does not require it to be quiet, tame or even polite. Nonviolent Resistance is not meant to be passive—for a protest is meant to be disruptive—it is just that it should never be violent or destructive.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, January 27, 2020
The term ‘civil disobedience’ was coined by Henry David Thoreau in his 1848 essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” to describe his refusal to pay the state poll tax implemented by the American government to wage war and enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” asked Thoreau. “Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.”
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest.– Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Nearly 80 years later, Mohandas K. Gandhi turned to Thoreau’s writings as he fought to reconcile resistance to evil without resorting to violence, and only only a few decades after that, Dr. Martin Luther King was influenced by both men as he dealt with the same issues. Dr. King was first introduced to nonviolent resistance when he read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience as a freshman at Morehouse College. King was “fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.”1
Both “morally and practically” committed to nonviolence, King believed 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.”2
How does one fight overwhelming opposition without resorting to violence? They all came to the same conclusions, that nonviolence was the most practical solution, both from a moral or spiritual philosophy, but also in terms of sheer effectiveness.
Demonstrations and protests are woven into the fabric of the progress of democracy in America. From our violent, revolutionary beginnings, to our progressive movements searching for justice and equality, Americans have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure with the plight on one group or another, of one policy or another. Not all have been nonviolent, but protests have marked the changes in our society since activists dumped tea in Boston Harbor. In addition to securing the right to vote for elected representatives, we trusted that our leaders would not only represent their electorate, but also hear grievances and respond accordingly.
More often than not, however, it is this minority opinion that Thoreau mentioned, that gets ignored by the party in power, and it has historically been through public protests, that change has occurred, even if it is often not immediate.
Mary Frances Berry, author of “History Teaches Us to Resist” wrote, “It’s crucial to recognize that resistance works even if it does not achieve all the movement’s goals, and that movements are always necessary, because major change will engender resistance, which must be addressed.”3
She maintains that protests are not only meaningful, but a critical part of the political process; that voting itself isn’t enough if you want to change policy and influence elected leaders. Berry was, in fact, at the center of many of the biggest movements in America in the last century, from King’s civil rights movement, to the struggle to end Apartheid, to the Pro-choice movement and AIDS. In each of these movements, they had to contend with an administration that was not easily influenced by mere persuasion.
In 1978, Pat Watters writing for the New York Times said, “Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C. ) colleagues had by the time of Selma worked out a cold‐blooded strategy that they never made public. The strategy called for deliberate, albeit nonviolent, provocation of severe, even lethal, violence from white Southern racists to attract the press and thereby influence public opinion to bring pressure on the Government for passage of the Voting Rights Act….and that Dr. King and his staff learned during demonstrations in 1961‐62 that nonviolent ‘persuasion’ of white Southerners to renounce racism did not work. So, they turned to nonviolent ‘coercion.’”4
Gandhi himself distinguished between two or more types of “nonviolence.” After first calling his South African protest movements “passive resistance”, he discarded the term and adopted a new term, satyagraha. Satyagraha, roughly translated from Sanskrit “truth force,” is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. It is not the same as passive resistance, and advocates resisting non-violently over using violence. Resisting non-violently was considered by Gandhi, to be the summit of bravery.
“When in a meeting of Europeans I found that the term ‘passive resistance’ was too narrowly construed that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence, I had to demur to all these statements and explain the real nature of the Indian movement. It was clear that a new word must be coined by the Indians to designate their struggle.”5
Both Gandhi and King organized protests designed to evoke a response from the authorities and show the brutality of the administrations and policies they were fighting. They provoked those in charge of enforcing unjust laws, in order to get the larger public to recognize the injustice of it all. They understood, that pain and suffering were both instructive and influential.
In today’s political climate, there are many parallels in the fight for justice and equality, even against an administration that is even more obvious and ruthless in its distain for opposition. But that puts us in an even greater need for people of conscience to step forward and voice their displeasure.
“The despair, mourning, and fear that arise after the election of a president who promises devastation to causes supported by large numbers of people are painful and real,” writes Berry. “But it is also part of the push-pull of American politics. This is true whether the cause is gun rights on the one hand and gun control on the other. Trump’s election has generated elation from his supporters and fear and loathing from those who believe that progressive change, whether on immigration, health care, or abortion rights, is at risk. But they should remember that resistance to presidential administrations has led to positive change and defeat of outrageous proposals even in perilous times.”6
Many on the Left abhor violence and yet reject the idea of laying down in the face of racist rhetoric and Neo-Nazi fascism exhibited by so many of President Trump’s most ardent followers. They choose to fight back, and they have no intention of being nice about it. This has given rise to groups organized to oppose white supremacists, and this has often led to violence.
I would argue that there is a path of righteous opposition that is neither peaceful, nor violent in that I do not believe those are mutual exclusive strategies. One not need be peaceful to be nonviolent. More often than not, both Gandhi and Dr. King were accused of disturbing the peace, and inciting riots, even though it was rarely their followers that struck blows, but received them with grace and honor.
Dr. King wrote that “We do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice.” He recognized that there were those who wanted to support him if only he was polite and peaceful and didn’t disrupt the public square. King recognized the futility of that.
But both King and Gandhi were consistent in their belief that it was not enough to confront evil with nonviolence in your actions, you also needed to be nonviolent in your heart. This is the part that is hardest for me to take, but also rings the most true. If you hold hatred in your heart, it will come out and it doesn’t matter whether or not you strike a blow.
I believe we need to fight to change things. We need to be disruptive because that is how you get attention. We need to be provocative, because we want a response. We need to be confrontational because because you want those in power to react in ways that show the world their injustice.
But we have to fight the evil, not the people. I realize it’s hard to distinguish the two, but if we are left with only winners and losers, someone will always be left resentful and this is how generational violence and racism perpetuates itself. We need to fight the evil without fighting the people. We need to provoke them until they see the error of their hatred, and change their own minds, not because we forced them to, but because they could no longer reconcile their own hatred.
Gandhi said, “Where there is injustice, I always believed in fighting. The question is: do you fight to change things or do you fight to punish? I’ve found we’re all such sinners we should leave punishment to God.”
And Dr. King famously wrote that, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I reject the idea of a “peaceful demonstration” that prays quietly for justice but is unwilling to take risks. That is not courage and it is not faith. But I also reject violence in action, words, or thought. We can’t hate the opposition and yet ask them to show empathy and love. You can’t call them names and expect love in return. Hate begets hate.
We need to provoke. We need to resist. We need to persist. But somehow, we need to find compassion for those who exhibit none themselves, and find a way to show them love. It will be hard, but that is a fight I think worth fighting.
- King, Stride, 73; Papers 5:422 https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/pilgrimage-nonviolence
- King, Stride, 79
- Berry, Mary Frances. History Teaches Us to Resist (p. 2). Beacon Press.
- M.K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Ahmedabad, Navjian Publishing House, 1956) p. 318.
- Berry, Mary Frances. History Teaches Us to Resist (p. 2). Beacon Press.