This post has been reviewed by the Vancouver Media Co-op editorial committee.
An open letter to peaceful protesters
posted on January 6, 2013
Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
There is an important distinction between ‘peaceful’ and ‘legal.’
That’s not to say that one is better than the other, or that legal is bad and peaceful is good, it is simply emphasizing that the two are not the same, but are often mixed up in protest movements of today. And this causes problems in event organization and long term movement strategy and development.
What passes for peaceful today: crowds of ‘peaceful protesters’ chanting “peaceful protest” and holding up two fingers in a ‘V.’ The participants feel akin to Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, the Quakers, Nelson Mandala, the Peace and Disarmament Movement, etc. These are seen all over the world, from the anti-Gulf War marches of 2003, to anti-Olympics marches, to the anti-globalization movement, to Occupy, and just about any protest that occurs. Rallies and marches have become the main stay of current day resistance movements, and this is a problem, because rallies and marches serve one small function in what should be a diverse and organized road to liberation. Getting people into the streets to show numbers is not, and should not, be the main goal, and end result, of effective social movements. Not that rallies and marches are useless, but the naming of these events as “peaceful” gives them a façade of much greater power and significance then they merit. Today’s rallies and marches are not extensions of the peace and non-violent resistance movements of the past. They are distortions of the principles and organization of those movements. To be effective agents of social change, hard working, well intentioned organizers must recognize this distinction, otherwise their organizing efforts will fall short of their goals. It has been my experience that organizers of these so called ‘peaceful protests’ are very uneducated about the history of peace movements. And with the stakes as high as they are now, ignorance is no excuse for perpetuating flawed practices based on a basic lack of knowledge of the history of their own heroes and predecessors.
Peace movements of the past did not stand idly by while the foot soldiers and machines of oppression and exploitation carried on business as usual. People who participated in those protests and non-violent actions worked, trained, organized and sacrificed their time, their freedom and sometimes their lives to forward the goals of their movement and actively prevent injustice from occurring . They got in the way. They caused trouble. Those peaceful protesters of the past actively engaged in illegal activity to gain rights or prevent injustice from occurring. Under the logic of these peace movements, to do nothing in the face of injustice is violent in and of itself. And there lies the critical distinction between legal and peaceful.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s is often named as a model by current day protestors. But this is a highly inaccurate association. The Civil Rights Movement can serve as an example to illuminate the distinction between peaceful and legal protests. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was villainized by black moderates who objected to his radical ideas and actions. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience were condemned by members of their own movement for being extremists. The moderate leadership of the Civil Rights Movement wanted to keep working within the legal sphere to lobby the U.S. government to change white supremacist laws. MLK had to fight against his own people to break away into a distinct movement built on action; they were no longer interested in making polite pleas to a hostile government for change. They committed acts of social and economic sabotage to further the goals of their movement and they very often faced intensive and brutal police and civilian repression and retaliation. They did not consider themselves violent when their actions provoked police attack and arrests. And they did not turn away from their goals when faced with arrest, attack, or imprisonment. But their moderate critics condemned them for being trouble makers and provocateurs of violence. MLK addresses this issue in his 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail:”
“You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
This statement illuminates a dire problem in today's protest movements. Today's protest movements rely heavily on mass rallies and marches. These rallies and marches do not seek to create this tension from which negotiation arises. Today’s protesters believe that their presence alone should rouse enough concern from the state to warrant political changes. MLK’s Civil Right’s movement was not a revolutionary movement: it was reformist, yet Civil Rights Movement organizers were keenly aware that the mere registration of discontent would not bring about the legal, social and economic reforms that would lead to the ending of segregation. By using the cry, "peaceful protest" every time a social disruption occurs, today's peaceful protesters derail the capacity of social movements to create leverage to force governments and corporations to change.
Another distinction that is important to make between peace movements of the past and protest movements of today is the level of organization. When people think of the Civil Rights Movement, the first thing to come to mind should not be “peaceful.” It should be “organized.” The Civil Rights Movement was highly organized through pre-existing networks of church and school groups. Civil Rights organizers led frequent non-violent civil disobedience trainings all over the country. They organized intensively in communities for years to get to the point of wide scale protests and actions. An example is the Rosa Parks and the bus incident: it is often thought that Rosa Parks sparked a movement by her refusal to move to the back of the bus. In reality, Rosa Parks was trained and groomed to take on that role, as was the larger movement prepared to step into action behind her. This was not a spontaneous event gone ‘viral.’ It was well planned and coordinated. As was the Civil Rights Movement overall: it was not based on public call outs to who ever could show up. To go to a civil rights demonstration participants were instructed and trained at workshops, and they literally signed a contract to abide by specific rules of conduct. They had a very high degree of social homogeneity –because they worked hard to build and maintain it. They did not just issue dictums from behind a blogger account about appropriate values and actions. Civil Rights Movement organizers were constantly organizing, face to face, training and educating participants on a long term and rigorous basis.
The veneration for the peaceful nature of the Civil Rights Movement to the total exclusion of regard for its organizational structure has led to a gross misunderstanding that has led modern day protest organizers and participants to view non-violent social movements as somewhat magical. As in, all they have to do is put up a facebook posting and it will all fall into place, like it did for Martin Luther King Jr. But spend any time at all studying the structure behind the Civil Rights Movement, and it becomes quickly clear that this was not a spontaneous movement built on positive vibes and good intentions. The Civil Rights Movement was not successful because it was peaceful. It was successful because of the incredible strength of its organizational structures.
Peace is not a magic word that manifests social change. To call a social gathering that focuses on ‘voicing your opinion’ or ‘standing up and being counted’ peaceful is a personal deceit that belittles the strength and determination of peace movements of the past and undermines and hinders true non-violent civil disobedience/direct action of today. Correctly identifying these types of protest as legal gatherings, instead of peaceful protests, is to acknowledge both the usefulness and limitations of public gathering as one aspect of complex social movements.
Legal actions are effective in many settings and have gained valuable rights and stopped much destruction and injustice in the world. But it seems like protest movement organizers today feel a misguided need to call their legal actions peaceful actions –because they want to be associated with these large successful peace movements of the past. The problem with this is twofold. First, it is a cargo cult mentality: organizers want the power of past movements by simply associating with them -as opposed to actually understanding and working to build meaningful extensions and evolutions of those movements. And two, rallies and marches are not actually acts of peace making. Peace means the absence of violence and coercion. There is no peace at a border, at an arms factory, at a factory farm, at a clear-cut, at the Tar Sands, at the stock exchange, at the house of parliament . . . When people tell me that “this is a peaceful protest” I think, “Peaceful? Where? Where is the peace? Is it in this road? Is it in that cop car? Is it in that helicopter? Is it in that corporate news camera? Is it in that back hoe or chain saw or oil rig? Is it in this lawn that is poisoned with cancer causing chemicals and displaces the natural forest that used to live here with all the birds and animals and people that used to call this place home? Is that what ‘peace’ means to you?” That version of peace is pretty cheap to me. In fact, it’s not peace at all, so maybe, for clarity's sake, we could all start calling it what it is: it’s legal. It’s a strategically legal tactic to gain a specific objective. But it’s certainly not peace. Peace doesn’t allow violence to roll by unhindered. And calling yourself peaceful while you allow injustice and exploitation to occur all around you is a disingenuous ploy to absolve yourself from taking the real, necessary action that liberation movements are made of. Peace does not come from a lack of activity. Peace is an active agent of change in the face of violence, coercion and injustice.
So the next time you are organizing a rally and you don’t want trouble with the police, please rethink your use of the word ‘peaceful’ and consider using the more accurate and truthful term ‘legal’ instead.
(The reason I wrote this letter is because I honestly think people will be extremely averse to doing that. Somehow chanting, “peaceful protest” is so much more romantic and sexy than chanting “legal protest.” And what that naming does is illuminate the true nature of the activity: rallies and marches are not a progression of the great non-violent direct action movements of the past. They are exactly what they sound like: a very limited and rather banal aspect of a much more interesting and dynamic manifestation of global historic and modern day social change. This letter is a challenge to ethical and effective organizers to own up to the reality of today’s situation and make appropriate changes.)
** A note on the Civil Rights Movement marches: these were fundamentally different from modern day protest marches. At the time, black people in the U.S. were legally and socially restricted from accessing the public space of whites. Some of the marches that occurred were similar to today’s marches –in that their goal was to get people together to show strength in numbers. But primarily, Civil Rights Marches were direct action, in that they directly transgressed segregation laws and extreme social conventions at the time.