Way back in April 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at Jindal Global University hosted a day-long workshop to revisit Dr. King’s legacy. The Centre kindly invited me to speak at the workshop, and the contributions of speakers were recently published in the December 2018 issue of Delhi-based monthly magazine Seminar.
My contribution examined how King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the contemporary American left all attempted to use innovative protest tactics to change the “repertoire of contention,” a term sociologists use to refer to the set of actions most individuals in a society recognize qua protest tactics. If you’re interested, you can find the whole long piece on my Academia.edu page, but I’m excerpting a portion of it here because I think IR scholars and students aren’t sufficiently familiar with the term.
Happy 2019, everyone!
In both the cases of the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement, the protesters ultimately proved successful by combining savvy media courtship with innovative, powerful, and non-violent protest techniques. In one of his last published pieces, Dr. King wrote at length about the importance for black protesters to become “creative dissenters” (“creative” appears 9 times in the essay). This notion of breaking down the apathy of the audience via the popularization of novel forms of political protest was central to the missions of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. Today, sociologists refer to the same idea with the term “the repertoire of contention.” This concept, first developed by Charles Tilly, asks the question: how do you recognize a given action as a form of political protest? How do you know if something you see is a political protest or not?
While this may seem like an easy question, it is not always. For instance, I recall an evening when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires during my university years. I was in my host family’s apartment when suddenly a terrible racket could be heard in the street below. I looked out the window and saw a long procession of people walking along banging on pots as loud as they could. “What in the world was this?”, I thought to myself. My host family could tell that I was very confused, and they told me that this was a cacerolazo, a form of grassroots political protest common in Latin America where people try to direct attention to a political issue by, at a set time, collectively making as much noise as they can using household objects.
A much more chilling example is given in the chart below from the work of sociologist Michael Biggs. It shows how suicide began catching on as a form of political protest in the early 1960s. In particular, self-immolation was pioneered as a protest tactic by Buddhist monks against the draconian South Vietnamese government, and has stayed in the worldwide repertoire of contention so forcefully that even in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi wished to make a statement about economic injustice in Tunisia, he chose the immediately recognizable form of setting himself on fire, thereby helping to ignite the Arab Spring.