by Nick Gier
I don’t want to harm anyone. I just want to be heard.
—young black protester
Let me say, as I’ve always said, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.
—Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (1967)
When they go low, we go high.
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” What, we might ask, is freedom to those still denied it as their country celebrates its own?
On Saturday we celebrated the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reference to “men” was exclusive: these rights were reserved for white males who held property, which, for many, included enslaved human persons.
Viewed as a philosophical statement with cultural bias removed and reformulated as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is significant to note that that these are universal rights, which means that immigrants, refugees, and those trafficked as slaves would have these rights wherever they found themselves in the world.
King’s Promissory Note of Freedom
In his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King declared that he had come to Washington to redeem at “the Bank of Justice” the “promissory note” embedded in the Declaration of Independence. King said that cashing such “a check will give [blacks] the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
The American colonies took up arms to gain their freedom and then the Southern States went to war to protect their alleged right to enslave 3.2 million human beings. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern Whites still resisted, responding with every form of oppression ranging from disenfranchisement to 3,446 lynchings, according to the Tuskegee Institute. Even after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964, the Promissory Note of Freedom is still being “returned for insufficient funds.”
There were at least 313 slave rebellions in the U.S., and the largest happened in Louisiana in 1811. After 500 black cane cutters had been defeated, their bodies were mutilated and 100 heads were placed on poles along New Orleans’ River Road. (Read more at http://nfgier.com/?s=slave+rebellion.) Violent resistance was obviously not the answer.
Gandhi-Inspired Non-Violent Revolutions
In the late 20th Century, primarily because of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s success in driving the British from India without firing a shot, something truly remarkable happened: citizens in over 20 countries led successful non-violent rebellions. Gandhi’s “active non-violence” is anything but passive and soft, but, in any case, he has proved Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he insisted that “we are not expected to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.”
There were the “color” revolutions in the Philippines (yellow), Ukraine (orange), Burma (saffron), Kuwait (blue), and the “Colorful Revolution” in Macedonia. There were also non-violent revolutions in Lebanon (“cedar”), Armenia (“velvet”), Georgia (“rose”), Kyrgyzstan (“tulip”), Portugal (“carnation”), the singing revolutions in the Baltic States, and Lech Walensa’s Solidarity in Poland.
Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan did a detailed analysis of 323 political campaigns since 1900. They found that the non-violent ones had a 53 percent success rate and 20 percent were failures. (The data in the remaining cases were unclear.) Just about the opposite happened with the violent revolutions: 23 percent were successful and 60 percent were failures.
Gandhi’s Influence on King
Martin Luther King was profoundly influenced by Gandhi, and it was Bayard Rustin who was mainly responsible for King’s holding to non-violent methods. Some conservatives are bringing out the “Red Scare” in revealing that some Black Lives Matter leaders are Marxists. Rustin, however, was a Communist (gay as well), and King was a democratic socialist. (See http://nfgier.com/?s=martin+luther+king and /?s=Bayard+Rustin. ) King’s conservative admirers ought to know this.
The influence of Gandhi on King is most clearly seen in in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Responding to critics who said that protests were unwise, King reminded them that negotiations had failed and that direct action was required. Before that could happen, those involved had to undergo self-purification. They would have to answer Gandhian questions such as: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
On March 7, 1965, civil rights activists, led by the late John Lewis, were stopped at the approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. One of the marchers asked state troopers if they could “kneel and pray.” The request was denied and the police ran roughshod over them, just as federal troopers did in Portland in July, 2020. In the melee John Lewis suffered a skull fracture. Lewis and others, Just as Gandhi’s spiritually prepared followers did, accepted blows without retaliating.
Tulsa Teacher Follows Gandhi (almost)
Sheila Buck, a 62-year-old art teacher, strenuously objected after a Trump security guard disinvited her from the rally there on June 20. Wearing a “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt and sitting down on the street, Buck insisted that she had a ticket to attend. Two police officers were quite gentle with her when they tried to charge her for trespassing and resisting arrest. Reluctantly, they dragged her down the street to a patrol car.
Gandhi would have praised this brave woman, but he would have handled this situation differently. He always told his followers not to resist arrest and not to seek bail. Furthermore, showing ultimate respect for existing laws, one should plead guilty and offer to serve a full sentence. Gandhi’s tactics were a form of moral and political ju jitzu. Some of Gandhi’s judges felt as if they were the ones charged and convicted for their unjust laws.
Unprecedented Move to Address Racial Injustice
The protests now are majority white and the approval of Black Lives Matter has risen to 60 percent in a recent CBS poll. More and more businesses have embraced the movement and even the Black Lives Matter logo. (British soccer players will now wear BLM on their jerseys.) White understanding of systemic racism is still not deep enough, but it is not as “shallow” as the “white moderates” and their “polite racism” in King’s jail letter.
I believe that most Americans are now committed to real justice rather than the cautious “order” that King found in his America. Back then whites “prefered a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Gandhi would have been proud of King’s faithful appropriation of his non-violent principles.
Confederate Monuments Coming Down
The reaction to George Floyd’s murder has been unprecedented, and the desire to confront racism and demand fundamental change are increasing around the nation and the world. In a recent Monmoth Poll 76 percent of respondents said that racism was a “big problem,” up from 51 percent five years ago.
The mayor of Richmond, Virginia has begun the removal of Confederate statues from Monument Avenue, known by many Southerners as the “Row of Heroes.” Finally, the Mississippi Legislature has voted to remove the Confederate flag from its state flag, long after, in 2015, then Gov. Nikki Haley signed legislation to bring down the same flag that once flew over the South Carolina Capitol.
In order to preserve this international coalition, it is imperative that we insist on the non-violent methods of Gandhi and King, who declared: “I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. . . . So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way.”
Violence Mars Peaceful Protests
A review of arrests during the George Floyd protests shows that most of those involved in personal attacks or property destruction were random actors not associated with any particular militant groups. The few exceptions are three men, affiliated with the the right-wing “boogaloo” movement, who were arrested in Las Vegas on June 6, and counter protestors who disrupted a George Floyd rally in Boise on June. Some were heavily armed, some wore neo-Nazi insignia and tatoos, and many wore MAGA hats.
On May 28, over 300 protestors were arrested in Brooklyn after a march turned violent. Two Brooklyn attorneys were finally released on bail after being arraigned for throwing a Molotov Cocktail into an empty police cruiser.
On June 23, anti-racism protestors threw Molotov cocktails and tried to breach the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. A group of 8-10 also attacked State Democratic Senator Tim Carpenter, who was taking phone video of the event. Carpenter, who said that he was an “ally,” tweeted that he was “punched/kicked in the head, neck, ribs.” The protesters appear to have forgotten Michelle Obama’s motto: “When they go low, we go high.”
Gandhi/King Campaigns Well Disciplined
Gandhi’s campaigns were well organized and tightly disciplined, and if there was even a hint of violence, he would suspend them. He would do the perpetrators’ penance and fast until he got them to recommit to non-violence. The 1963 March on Washington, organized by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, drew a crowd of about 250,000 and not a single arrest was made.
On that day King famously declared: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Violent attacks, such as those committed in Madison and Brooklyn, will only delay the redemption of the Promissory Note of Freedom.
Nick Gier taught philosophy and religion at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read about his Gandhi book at www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/vnv.htm, and his columns on civil rights at /CivilRights.htm. Read all his columns at http://nfgier.com. Email him at ngier006∂gmail.com.