To what extent can protest be justified?

By Mia Liu. Mia lives in Regina, Canada. She is a student at the Luther College High School. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

A protest, by definition, is a form of public expression aimed at influencing public opinion or government policy. It uses the power of public voice as a weapon to demonstrate free will and freedom of speech, protecting the fundamental human rights in a democratic society. However, in the development of human society, the nature of protest has been contaminated by extreme individualism and egocentrism, which turn righteous crusades into ruthless slaughters. A protest can only be justified if it is peaceful and nonviolent, as Martin Luther King Jr. addresses that “we must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.”

The world has been in turmoil for the past ten years since violent civil wars are no longer the main way for people to seek justice, despite the fires of armed insurrection across the Middle East, the deserts of West Africa and South Asia. Instead, from Ferguson in Missouri to Zuccotti Park in New York, from Burkina Faso in West Africa to Hong Kong, social movements around the world have learned from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and activists around the world to promote change.

People acknowledge that Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s emphasis on nonviolent resistance — requiring unarmed participants to use strikes, protests, boycotts, or a combination of these tools against their opponents — was not without criticism. Some critics misunderstand what civil resistance means, while others question the ability of oppressed, unarmed civilians to organize themselves and challenge powerful adversaries. Every new movement faces the same challenges, including the effectiveness of nonviolent action in the face of systematic repression and entrenched regimes. In the 21st century, we will be surprised to find that nonviolent actions were twice as successful as violent ones in overthrowing bad regimes or fighting for national independence.

The nature of protest is groupthink, which can be changed from a public awakening to a violent massacre, and from a violent massacre to a public awakening. Groupthink is a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group when members’ desire for consistency overtakes their motivation to realistically evaluate alternative action plans. Psychologically, the violence of a protest has already germinated in the groupthink due to a lack of critical thinking and a blind following. This, however, contributes to the non-violent movements. According to the statistics, nonviolent movements were successful not because they influenced their opponents, but because they were more likely to engage the people — in general, nonviolent movements had 11 times the rate of engagement of violent movements. When people take part in groupthink, they are no longer concerned about whether they should protest, instead, they care more about whether they can win. Non-violent public participation encourages more and more citizens to join, especially under the name of “eliminating corrupted police, politicians, wealthy businessmen, and civilian officials”. Therefore, nonviolent resistance is not necessarily effective because of its potential to persuade, but rather because of its potential to innovate, assimilate, and coerce — a theory that was proposed a few decades ago by Dr. Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institute. Of course, not all nonviolent actions succeed. But even in those cases of failure, there is no systematic evidence that violent movements are likely to perform better.

A crackdown would provoke moral outrage, draw more people and other groups into the movement and encourage the army and police to abandon their loyalty to the regime. In fact, repression often leads to nonviolent action rather than solving nonviolent action. Just as Martin Luther King once says in his “A letter from Birmingham” that “we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“After my visit to India, I became increasingly convinced that nonviolent resistance is the most powerful weapon for oppressed people to gain freedom” — the autobiography of Martin Luther King, jr. In the last 10 years — when nonviolent resistance has been used more than ever before — scholars and activists have increasingly drawn on the wisdom of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral and practical use of nonviolence as they explore their way forward.

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