Every time I have to think about the “Occupy” protests which, although initially aimed at Wall Street, has now spread to many cities in the world, I inevitably think of the streets of Nigeria and wonder how this kind of protest would play out were it to be tried. And I have no doubt that it would eventually be tried. Having witnessed a number of public insurrections while growing up, I know the tendency of such protests to turn violent before anyone pays any major attention to it. We were socialized under a very repressive, military government, and it has become an unwritten rule of public protests that for it to have any impact – if only to capture public attention and sympathy – it must have an element of tension.
Here is a guide however, culled from one of my favourite texts of all time: Martin Luther King Jnr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. For everyone considering a public reaction to systematic oppression:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
I’d recommend replacing the racial references in the text to economic/social or whatever the situation is wherever oppressed people live, and the message works just as perfectly. The full text of the letter is here. Protests like the present Occupy are usually a watershed/crossroads of a new era. I can not imagine a better place to stand than on the right side of history.
I write this in response to the high-handedness of NYPD cops arresting peaceful demonstrators who had occupied Citibank premises to close their bank accounts in protest. It would seem that the agents of state have learnt nothing at all from the lessons of history.