In times of protest and resistance, let’s not forget lessons of the past.

Over the past few years – be it from recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri; the Hong Kong protests; or in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – we as a world community have witnessed case after case of social injustice or tension turn into collective action.

A study of world protests from 2006 till July of 2013 by the Initiative of Policy Dialogue and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, identified that during this period, the number of demonstrations taking place have grown by a year on year average of 24% starting with 59 in 2006 growing to 159 in 2012 and 112 for the first half of 2013.

Number of World Protests by Main Grievance/Demand, 2006-2013
Number of World Protests by Main Grievance/Demand, 2006-2013

Several of these protests within the last few years have reached staggering numbers and are reported to be some the biggest in world history. Protest numbers are understandably difficult to calculate let alone estimate however, a 2013 protest in India over low living standards, inadequate pay and poor working conditions and the 2013 Egyptian protests calling for the departure of Mohamed Morsi are notable instances of this were numbers are alleged to have amassed over 100 and 17 million people respectively.

Sadly, these public outcries for change have too often resulted in ugly and heart-breaking episodes of violence. Over half of the instances reported within the study “resulted in arrests, surveillance, injuries and deaths due to state-organized violence” with an average of 13% of protests in the period resulting in mass-rioting.

Protests with High Numbers of Reported Arrests, Injuries and Deaths, 2006-2013
Protests with High Numbers of Reported Arrests, Injuries and Deaths, 2006-2013

Despite this age of heightened participation in protests and a high level of violence, this is by no means new territory for humankind. History shows that 1848, 1917 and 1968 were other notable periods of mass discontent, which were met with equal bouts of viciousness, and as we fight our battles for a more just world today, we must not forget the lessons of our past.

Those being the lessons of non-violent resistance so masterfully eloquated by the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the less commonly known Walter Wink.

With today being the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, these words from the man who himself was assassinated in that tumultuous year of 1968 are as poignant now as when they were first spoken:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory shall be a double victory.”

King aptly realised that this is the only way that lasting change can be made.

Because when we aim to redress our suffering by means of violence and other acts of evil, the best that can be hoped for is revolution – but not in the positive connotations of the word.  When defined, revolution means to “come full circle” i.e. back where we started and where one group of people are responsible for the injustice suffered by another group of people.

As the need for protest continues into 2015, we must not forget this crucial lesson – that real change comes about via non-violence.


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