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Monday, January 16, 2017

Under protest

So, when I was teaching English, I would often use Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail as an example of  masterful rhetoric. It still holds its power, both in content and craft, today. Go read it. It's an important piece of American history.

One thing students can forget as we immerse ourselves in Dr. King's powerful prose, even though it is in the title given to the text today,  is that the letter was written from jail. Here's how Wikipedia summarizes it (emphasis added):
The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on
King and many others were arrested for demonstrating. Of course, this wasn't the only time; Dr. King was arrested dozens of times during his activities.

Now, there have been a lot of demonstrations over the past few years, with Black Lives Matter and the the take-a-knee anthem movement started by Colin Kaepernick among the more prominent, and it's pretty clear that there are going to be plenty more in the future, with 370 women's marches planned in response to the upcoming inauguration.

But we keep hearing voices speaking out against demonstrators, saying that they have no right to voice their opinion, or that they shouldn't inconvenience anyone when they demonstrate. Protestors are apparently going to be banned from the National Mall for the inauguration, and there is even a local politician in my area who wants to criminalize disruptive protests as "economic terrorism", whatever that is.

I'm not a political scientist, but protest and demonstration seems to be part of the warp and woof of the fabric of America. We all learned about the Boston Tea Party in grade school - what was that but a disruptive demonstration? Women's Suffrage and the Labor Movement, and in my lifetime, the Anti-War Movement, Gay Rights, Women's Liberation, and, of course, the Civil Rights Movement were all made manifest in public protest and demonstration - sometimes hugely disruptive. It's how we shake things up; it's how we bring about change.

Think about that as we move forward into a polarized political system and a regressive, repressive administration. We all may be called upon to do our duty as Americans, and protest.

And we may be arrested for it.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

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