In my last piece, I shared with you the first half of the research I conducted last semester on the Occupy protests, and whether or not the protests satisfied Martin Luther King Jr.’s six principles of nonviolent resistance. This week, I’m bringing to you my assessment of the last three principles and will tie everything together.
4) Nonviolence Accepts Suffering
A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. … The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it [quoting Gandhi] “as a bridegroom enters the bedchamber.” …unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
-Stride Toward Freedom, P. 91
Nonviolent resistance is a method designed to demonstrate just how unjust a situation actually is. The protesters, believing in the righteousness of their cause, engage in protest to draw attention to the injustice of their situation. When protesters are arrested, beaten, or jailed unjustly, the watching public is moved by their plight. This is what King means by saying that unearned suffering is redemptive and transformative: when someone else suffers needlessly, our humanity urges us to feel sympathy for their plight and to respond to them.
We have indeed seen a great deal of suffering coming from the Occupy protests, as graphic images of clashes with police and mass arrests seem to regularly dance across our television screens. The protesters certainly did fulfill their promise to use civil disobedience to achieve their goals, as Doug Schoen’s poll reported. Especially in the first few months of the protests, it was very easy to perceive that the protesters were indeed willing to suffer in defense of their claims of systemic injustice.
However, there were a couple of problems that I encountered when probing this claim. The first was fairly significant: were the reported injustices honest? After all, the basic claim underlying this whole protest movement was that the situations we saw on TV were true. As I investigated, I found a few situations that suggested such dishonesty. The first was the case of Robert Stephens, the impassioned Georgetown Law student who bravely blocked traffic while detailing to the cameras how his parents’ home was being taken cruelly by the banks. In fact, his story was found to be entirely fabricated.
Another was the case of a protester who was famously run over by an NYPD scooter. However, video footage of the incident taken from a different angle by reporters from The Local East Village, a division of the New York Times, shows that the protester’s foot was actually completely free from the scooter (around 0:19). It appears that he tries to put his foot back under the scooter, producing the now-infamous image.
These instances alone weren’t enough to meet the rules I set for my research standards to fail the protesters on this measure. But these issues were compounded by the second problem I encountered: were the protesters truly arrested innocently?
This needs a bit of clarification. Civil disobedience does entail doing something that is legally a crime to demonstrate the moral problem with that unjust law. This is what makes the suffering King refers to as transformative and redemptive: the protester is arrested for doing the morally correct thing, and outside observers who see the injustice of the situation are moved to respond. It is to this end that King stated above that the nonviolent protesters “does not seek to dodge jail.” However, King never said that the protester should seek jail, either. There’s a big difference between going into a situation knowing that an outcome is possible and intentionally trying to bring about that outcome for some other purpose.
And as I was researching, I found that there were several situations at Occupy protests where protesters were actually planning to be arrested. In the same Local East Village video I linked to above, at around 2:40 one protester can clearly be heard organizing others into being mass-arrested. “We have to regroup. If you don’t have a camera, let’s get arrested later. Regroup.” In another video released by Michigan’s Education Action Group, they describe the practice of selecting “arrestables” – people chosen for specific reasons to be arrested and garner media attention – from teacher’s union representatives protesting at Occupy Chicago. This practice of choosing arrestables was caught on tape at Occupy St. Louis.
These patterns of dishonesty led me to believe that the Occupy protesters were not fulfilling King’s principle. They were not accepting unwarranted suffering as redemptive and transformative, but were rather manipulating the situation at many of the protests in order portray the appearance of suffering. This undermines King’s vision entirely.
5) Nonviolence is Loving
A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit. … At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
This principle expresses the idea that nonviolent resistance movements must project love as their primary motivation. Specifically, the love that King refers to is agape love, which in ancient Greek philosophy is commonly accepted to be the highest form of love because it is self-sacrificing and puts others before the self. Christians tend to refer to agape love as the love that God has for His people. If the Occupy movement embodies this love, then it is able to care for all other people both inside and outside the movement in a meaningful and selfless way.
As I demonstrated in the second and third principles, however (refer to Part 1), there are some serious problems with Occupy’s relationship and care for outsiders and opponents, particularly the police. But what became glaringly apparent in my research on this principle was the problematic way in which Occupy treated its own members. It was famously reported by the UK Daily Mail that the main Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park had become “increasingly debauched” with drug use, sex, and drinking as commonplace occurrences. Other Occupy sites around the country were reported as having similar problems: NPR reported on problems with drugs and the homeless at Occupy LA, a local Fox affiliate in Boston reported on drug problems at their Occupy encampment, and KSL in Salt Lake City reported that drug problems at their Occupy camp resulted in at least one death. Other camps reported comparable problems at an increasing rate.
Public safety was another problem. The situation at the camps increasingly became unsafe for women and men due to increasing rates of molestation and rape. Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York, and several other camps reported rapes. A woman reportedly attempted to pimp a teenager at the Occupy New Hampshire rally, and a 14-year-old girl was reportedly raped at an Occupy camp in Dallas. It became so bad that the Zuccotti Park camp actually erected a rape shelter in order to protect female protesters.
And that doesn’t include any of the hundreds of other crimes that were committed either directly or indirectly as a result of Occupy protests.
Even if you accept the premise that in a protest this large there will be mistakes, a possibility that I took into account when I set the rules for my research, the scale here is still astounding. The protesters attempted to create an open and inclusive community where all of the 99% could take refuge. That’s a noble goal, and if they had succeeded it would have gone a long way toward meeting King’s principle. But they did not succeed, and in actuality their community actually did more harm than good. By failing to set up adequate internal policing and security measures – apart from interventions, denial of communal resources, and other measures that could only really take effect after harm had already been done – the camps became a haven for negative elements who saw the protests as a means for self-gain rather than solidarity. The protesters created an unsafe and unloving environment for everyone, and in doing so allowed themselves to be taken advantage of. I can’t imagine a scenario where King would approve of that.
6) Nonviolence is Faithful
A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. … For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship.
Whether you actually believe in God or not, everyone has some basic beliefs about reality – an idea or conception of how the universe works, and how life should progress in reflection of those principles or concepts in which we believe. For King, these universal truths were the binding point that held a nonviolent resistance movement together. A protester should truly believe that his cause is just and that the universe is on his side in the struggle for justice. Otherwise, the whole operation would be an exercise in futility and have no meaning or permanence.
The last thing you could argue about the Occupiers is that they have no conviction of the rightness of their cause. While there have been instances of paid protesters, the core of the movement has appeared to remain consistent and are ideologically loyal. If the speedy growth of the original camps wasn’t enough to convince people of their loyalty to the movement, the protesters’ sheer stubbornness and permanence should do more to convince skeptics. Even half a year later, the May Day protests have attempted to breathe life back into an otherwise faltering movement, and renewed protests have sprung up at sites around the country. Though the movement may have died down for some time, the true Occupy believers have demonstrated their continued faith in the cause.
So in the final tally, I gave Occupy only two out of King’s six principles. It is clear that the Occupiers are in fact resisting what they believe to be injustice, and they truly have faith in the rightness of their cause.
The two passing principles, however, largely represent the external descriptors of the movement or those things that can be most easily judged by an uncritical media or by the average bystander. The internal descriptors that speak more to the protesters’ attitudes, beliefs, and mindset were all failed. The protesters aren’t making an effort to reconcile with their opponents. They aren’t differentiating the “evils” they seek to oppose from the people who happen to be representing them. They aren’t accepting suffering honestly, and they most certainly aren’t embodying love in their protests.
While the wrappings may seem shiny at first glance, what the Occupy package contains is far from the gift one might initially suspect.
So why would I bring this forward now? Because Occupy is not done. The May Day protests are a reminder that the Occupiers will continue to raise their banner for months – throughout the summer, into the fall and up until the election in November. They will be marching through the streets of dozens of American towns and cities. They will be claiming to represent the next wave of peaceful revolution or the next manifestation of King, and a lot of unwitting bystanders will be sucked in by that message.
To be sure, some Occupy protests have been better than others. Occupy Atlanta is one that has largely been better, simply because of its direct proximity to King’s legacy. They even set up camp one night at the King Historic Site in Atlanta. But proximity alone isn’t enough to establish that firm connection either.
It is important to think through what it was King actually wanted to accomplish. He wasn’t a pure conservative or a pure liberal, but was a visionary who wanted to try and impact the world in the way that he believed God led him: to make the world a place where people were judged based on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. His methods weren’t a simple set of rules to implement or exploit, but were instead a set of spiritual guidelines that were meant to revolutionize both the protester and the opponent, all for the goal of making the world more like the Kingdom of God.
If you have friends or neighbors that want to flock to Occupy when it comes to a town near you, ask them to think critically before they make a decision. Occupy may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
And ultimately, remind them that King was a dreamer, not an Occupier.