I sat in a cell at the County Jail, fatigued and thirsty. That morning several other clergy and I had been arrested as we knelt in prayer in the chamber of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to protest the lack of commitment and adequate funds for care of people with AIDS.
Hours later, as I pondered the implications of our act of civil disobedience, a deputy abruptly came up to the bars of my cell and asked, "Are you in for animal rights or abortion?" His question reminded me that a smorgasbord of significant issues confronts Americans in the 1990s: from saving rain forests to maintaining sanctions against South Africa, from offshore oil drilling to U.S. involvement in El Salvador, from the plight of the homeless to censorship of the arts.
Such issues tend to arouse passions. But do they stir consciences? Are we demonstrators clear about what we're trying to say, and to whom? Is the public getting our message?
Waiting for release, my hand shackled to a bench, I thought about the civil rights movement 25 years before, and how its issues stood out in stark, less complicated patterns. Everyone understood, for example, why Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus; she was tired of being dehumanized, and said so. When dogs and hoses were turned on subsequent demonstrators, ambiguities vanished; the entire world saw photos of what happened and got the point. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience," virtually everybody knew what he meant, whether or not they agreed with him.
Like Gandhi, King knew what the message was, as well as how to get it across unequivocally. And, like Gandhi, he not only preached nonviolence; he was the personification of it. In September, 1961, King arranged to instruct 27 clergy in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence before we began a Freedom Ride in the Deep South. To my surprise, I learned that nonviolence is not a tactic to be employed for political reasons; it is a way of life. One needs to practice it in diverse ways, I was told, including how one answers the phone.
My concept of an effective demonstration changed dramatically. Soon I came to see it in a new light as a rare testament, an expression of faith, even the reality of a spirit-filled community of people coming together voluntarily and vulnerably for a cause. I found out that a message meant to be conveyed by a demonstration needs to be complemented, or fulfilled, by the very manner in which it is conducted.
The bottom line is: What is a demonstration's ultimate purpose? To achieve a prominent place on the 11 o'clock news? Or to reach hearts and change minds? Let me explain. In the late '60s I participated in a peace Mass inside the Pentagon. My short sermon was rendered antiphonally to an arresting officer's words magnified by a bullhorn, "You are under arrest." My companions and I got out of jail in time to see ourselves on the news. Beers and Scotches in hand, we watched our performances and soon applause greeted close-ups. The surface phoniness of the occasion turned me off.
The other side of the coin was revealed after a second Pentagon peace Mass, when a guard who had arrested us came the next evening to a meeting of our peace organization, asking to join. What we were trying to say apparently had been communicated effectively to someone we were trying to reach.
Let's face the truth. The public is overexposed to many voices, salespeople of every persuasion and stripe, zealots by the dozen and messiahs on demand. People often feel burned out by the sheer scope of complexities in the global village. The public is also sophisticated beyond words when it comes to spotting stage-practiced earnestness, morality-in-makeup, packaged platitudes. Yet the same public remains open to the surprise of what is fresh, genuine, idealistic and lacking artifice.
So we need to ask, concerning a demonstration: How much is it in the spirit of, say, the Apostles or other seekers of truth and justice? What depth of commitment does it reveal? I recall how touched I was by a demonstration of concerned high school and college students outside the South African Consulate. I found persuasive the demonstration's innate sense of fresh idealism in the service of racial freedom.
Through the example of King and other mentors of conscience in a brace of demonstrations over the years for peace and justice, I've learned the best way to reach the public is to stress honesty and openness. Have a clear message to convey. Make sure the manner of the demonstration does not contradict its announced purpose. Strive for correlation between form and content. Above all, closely examine one's own motivations as a participant. If a demonstration is merely a setup for the 11 o'clock news or an ego trip instead of an act of conscience, shelve it.
My source is Gandhi, who explained how, in order to bring about social change, it is essential "to submit without protest to the penalty of disobedience . . . not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience." A demonstration for a sincere cause without the voice of conscience is a contradiction. It is also a big mistake politically. It can't succeed.