Protest good for the soul

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Martin Luther King Jr.

My first experience of nonviolent direct action was driving the "mile roads" that bound the farmlands in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, looking for migrant workers in the sugar beet fields. We were telling them about food pantries, medical services and day care for their children.

This was June of 1967; I was 25 and still wearing the habit. One woman knelt on the ground and kissed the hem of my skirt.

I couldn't speak Spanish, but I had a flier and I learned some basic words pretty quickly. We did not name our work as direct action, but we drove those mile roads with an eye out for the growers. We knew they wouldn't like us interrupting their workers with offers of assistance.

The next couple of years I marched against the Vietnam War with thousands of people in Washington, D.C., and in San Francisco. I had two brothers in Vietnam, in the war. I went to graduate school, and my research partner's brother was killed in Vietnam. We shut down the university after Kent State and Jackson State. It was direct action and it was nonviolent, but the movement was huge and I just showed up and did what I was told.

It was when I moved to St. Louis in 1972 and began to work with the farm worker ministry that I really learned both nonviolence and direct action. Every Saturday I gave out leaflets in grocery store parking lots. I got arrested in liquor stores praying in front of the Gallo wine. I went with small delegations to produce dealers asking them to stop selling grapes and lettuce.

When I went to the national conference of English teachers, I asked the hotel not to serve iceberg lettuce. Going by myself to a hotel food service manager to ask him not to serve iceberg lettuce was far more frightening than getting arrested with several of my friends.

One time a group of us stood on the grounds of the home of a supermarket chain owner. The gardener loosed the dogs on us. We were in a circle singing "We shall overcome," and the dogs sniffed around us but no one got bitten.

I learned the nonviolence piece handing out leaflets. Some people smile and take a leaflet. Others get angry and argue or shout or crumple up the paper and toss it on the ground. The toughest ones look right through you; they don't even acknowledge your presence.

Whatever I met, I had to let go. There was another person coming right up. For me it was a practice of letting go, of being in the present moment — a practice that changed my prayer life and still serves me well when another driver cuts me off in traffic or a politician says something outrageous on television.

This was all nonviolent direct action on a small, immediate scale. We were out to change people's minds and hearts. Even when we got arrested at the General Dynamics headquarters in St. Louis, our purpose was to persuade the board of directors to behave differently.

So we strove to be graceful. Even when we resisted arrest and were carried out, we said please and thank you.

The direct action here in Fergurson (north St. Louis) that has followed the killing of Michael Brown is not graceful. It is loud. It stops traffic. The purpose is to change public policy by convincing the policy makers that we won't go away.

Flash mobs appear in an upscale shopping center or outside the baseball stadium, or walk through the city hall gallery while the board of aldermen is in session. These protesters are not trying to make friends.

Yet the rule of nonviolence holds. We keep our distance from the police. We watch out for one another. We de-escalate by walking with talkers who have ugly mouths.

In those first months after Mike Brown was killed, two thousand people attended nonviolence training, practicing sitting tight with arms linked, standing silent while being hassled, going limp at the threat of arrest, getting clear in our own minds whether we were willing to risk arrest.

The first weeks after Mike Brown was killed there was looting and fire. The police came in with militarized equipment. We set up sanctuary centers and raised bail. But three years later, when a judge in a bench trial found former police officer Jason Stockley not guilty, there were no fires or overturned police cars, just people out in the street day after day, night after night. And slowly, public opinion toward the protesters is growing more favorable.

Direct action is just one part of any campaign. Legislative lobbying, op-ed columns and careful essays like Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" all work together to gain the prize.

Coalitions of faith communities, students, soccer moms and organized labor stand together. But they won't all risk arrest or speak directly to a hotel manager or drive the mile roads to offer services to farm labor.

If you haven't been out to a protest, go. It's good for the soul.

[Mary Ann McGivern, a Sister of Loretto, works with people who have felony convictions and advocates for criminal justice. She lived at a Catholic Worker house for 28 years. She has been a public radio commentator and written plays and a cookbook. She lives in St. Louis.]