Martin Luther King and nonviolent social change

Martin Luther King y el cambio social no violento

The other night during a parent empowerment group at a local Charter School I was asked what my views were on teachers possessing guns in the classroom. The question caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting it as the group discussed violence in the community. Parents in this group understand street violence; many times, their children are caught up in violent quandaries that have dire consequences.

I responded that we should have a dialogue with teachers in the school regarding this matter. It told them that at heart, I am a teacher and view the world as my classroom; on a practical level, I teach adults in college classrooms. I responded that I would not carry a weapon into my classrooms, even if students were allowed to.

The question came at an interesting time as we approach Reverend Martin Luther King’s birthday. Reverend King and another renowned grass roots leader César Chávez preached social change through nonviolence. To reflect on the question of violent and nonviolent social change in communities that suffer from injustice can be an eye opener. The dialogue was enlightening as we approach the dark hours of a legislative session that is mandated to find common ground between competing interests regarding gun control in American society. I believe these laws will have a direct impact on children in schools.

I discussed the 2nd Amendment with the group which reads, “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to national security, the right of the people to keep and bear arms may not be infringed.” The questions I will be posing to them at our next meeting is where does a society draw the line in the sand when it comes to access to guns used in catastrophic massacres that continue to torment American society with no end in sight and gun control? How do we protect the Constitution without violating a Constitutional Amendment?

The upcoming battle between President Obama and the National Rifle Association (NRA) is also local, ironically taking place in front of the state capitol. We are not quite at an apex as supporters and detractors pull out their verbal weapons to defend their respective views. Perhaps, when someone challenges another to a gentleman’s duel, we will have reached the high point.

King and his followers abhorred police brutality, violence of the tongue and racial hatred, which is just another form of violence. To belittle another human being, through the violent use of power and authority, is a sign of cowardice itself. He believed that the antidote to violence was love, kindness and generosity; yet he and others sermonized that human groups should collectively stand up to those who use violence to control others. The use of nonviolent pressure, militant pacifism, moral resistance and principled nonviolent action as significant forms of resistance to achieve human liberation were successful.

King did not espouse cowardice as a remedy to violence. What I call a benevolent violence of the spirit, can begin as an inner unsettling agitation that awakens your spirit, an energy that activates your moral conscience from long hibernation and forces you to turn that negative energy into nonviolent action. What we fail to do as society is drill down and understand the roots of violence. We are surrounded by it, masked in a variety of socially accepted behaviors.

At the base of nonviolent social change lays the question of obedience. Blind obedience can be destructive; especially when it is presented as legitimate authority. There are consequences. It leads to civil disobedience. The power structure does not know how to respond to this. Generally, legitimate violence couched under the rhetoric of social control is rationalized. The policy beatings in Denver are testimony to this.

Youth have an uncanny ability to spot injustice immediately. The other night, my experience drew me back to a previous group process I had facilitated with middle school rascals in the same school filled with homeboys whose experiences include the old adage that “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” This school serves youth living in neighborhoods that suffer from institutional injustice.

The question was posed by a young man following the massacre at Columbine. I was dumbstruck with his innocent inquiry. That evening, before the session terminated, I asked the 15 or so young men what they would have done if someone would have attacked them with guns in their respective schools. The response was equally astounding. “We would have shot back.” There was no doubt that those innocent children had access to guns, both legal and illegal ones.

The young hooligans in the room were no strangers to violence. Many had felt the ire of their parents and role models who used violence as a method of resolving conflict. They see it every day in media imagery and television. They experience it in their communities through gang violence and fisticuffs over petty differences. They watch the evening news and are exposed to some of the realities of war as the architects of modern warfare become braggadocios, boasting about illustrious weapons; yet, slither down the totem pole as our “enemies” produce elements of chemical warfare, calling it unfair.

Perhaps as a society we are regressing into the Wild West syndrome where gun-toting citizens can take literal potshots at their adversaries, rationalizing violence under the flimsy veil of self-defense or the McNaughton Rule where I can plead insanity as a defense.

What are some of the roots of violence? Unresolved anger, mistreatment at the hands of someone in authority and social acceptance of violence as a method to resolve conflict certainly need to be included in our understanding of this human phenomenon; but until, we find legitimate alternatives, gun control is not a bad idea. Until we learn how to curb our ghastly anger impulses, violence will continue to gnarl at our collective social conscience. On the other hand, there have been leaders who used nonviolence as a way to achieve social justice. Perhaps, we should introduce this to the upcoming debate.

Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist.

©2013 Ramón Del Castillo

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