The importance of dissent

Posted by Kay

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Rainbow m-up in honour. What was once radical, today a celebrated ‘norm’ on the streets of L.A. Ashley Bell in Santa Monica photographed by Jackie Dixon on the day that equal marriage became legal nationwide in the U.S.

What rights would any of us have without dissent?

There will always be periods of relative calm in a democracy but at some point, however much it may upset the status quo, there will be occasional, regular, or frequent unrest.

To me, this is a reminder that society is holisitic (working as a whole) and that difficulty for some will have an eventual ripple effect on others. Whether we like it or not, a viewpoint has to be heard in order for a family, group, or society to gel and take care of the individual rights and needs within it.

“Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” Albert Einstein

So how interesting it has been to be in the US the other week visiting Thandie. On the one hand we have the positive effects of a decades-old debate- equal marriage- blossoming into a legalised norm, so much so that when I ordered my Uber car in LA, I noticed that they’d decorated the cars on their GPS system with a rainbow in honour of this trailblazing law, cementing the legal union of two gay people.

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Harvey Milk  the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California*

On the other hand, there is the more recent dissent that echoes a darker side of America’s past, amplifying the (thank you smartphones) visual proof of unjust, often fatal police practises.

Here is an exert from one of the greatest dissenters of the 20th century Angela Davis from an interview with Stuart Jeffries in December last year from The Guardian.  Richard Nixon called her a terrorist, Ronald Reagan tried to fire her as a professor and she became one of the FBI’s top 10 most wanted and a fugitive. She finally got arrested and faced with charges of conspiracy to kidnap and murder-charges which she could have been executed for. At her trial in 1972, she was acquitted, while other co-defendants, former Black Panthers whom she insists are political prisoners.

” I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
James Baldwin

In this interview she discusses, amongst other aspects why what she calls the ‘prison industrial complex’ profits from black people, and that Barack Obama can’t be blamed for the lack of progress on race.

“Why have we not created the kind of movement that would put more pressure on Obama and force the Obama administration to deal with these issues? We might have arrived at a much better healthcare plan if those of us who believe healthcare is a human right were out on the streets, as opposed to the Tea Party.”

This is classic Davis – offering bracing analysis that, instead of blaming someone else, puts responsibility for changing the world in our hands. For all that Davis was the late 60s/early 70s radical who stuck it to the man, for all that her indomitable spirit and iconic hairdo made her a poster girl for African-Americans, feminists and anyone with a radical conAngela Davissciousness, this is perhaps Davis’s key significance now – a woman who comes at the hottest political issues from unexpected and inspiring angles. For instance, the day before we meet, at a keynote lecture titled Policing the Crisis Today at a conference honouring Hall at Goldsmith’s, she spoke about racist violence, but focused on the case of Marissa Alexander, jailed for 20 years for firing a warning shot over the head of her estranged, unharmed husband, who attacked and threatened to kill her. “Let us ask ourselves what is so threatening about a black woman in the southern United States who attempts to defend herself against so-called domestic violence,” said Davis, as she finished her speech to rapturous applause. “We rarely hear about the women. Just because the majority of the prison population is male doesn’t mean we need to start with their experience.”

Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins

Tansy Hoskins first book Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion won the ICA Bookshop’s Book of the Year 2014 and was also short-listed for the 2015 Bread & Roses Award for Radical Publishing.

She wrote about the importance of dissent exclusively for us.

“We break windows and we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to,” so says a young woman played by Carey Mulligan in the new trailer for Suffragette which shows shop windows being smashed, post-boxes being blown up, and women rioting in the streets of London.

Emmeline Pankhurst getting arrested

Votes for women! Emmeline Pankhurst getting arrested

The police and state repression against the Suffragettes was severe: beatings, imprisonment and force feeding of hunger strikers. From the look of the trailer, the film will not shy away from the violence inflicted on people trying to bring about seismic social change.

Another recent film about social change that looks violence squarely in the eye is Selma. A gut wrenchingly powerful film from director Ava Duvernay which explores the work of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

The message from both these films is that the process of social change requires dissent against established norms. For the Suffragettes the norm they had to fight was that only men were worthy of voting rights, for the Civil Rights Movement the norm they fought was that only white people were worthy of civil rights like education and equality under the law.

At the end of Selma there is a reminder that these struggles are not just films, not just history. “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up” says Common in Glory, the Oscar winning soundtrack song by John Legend.

There is a thread that runs through history to the present day – the thread of dissent against established norms and the willingness to fight injustice. That is what we are seeing in the Black Lives Matter protest marches against police brutality in the US, in the protests outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in the UK and in the countless demonstrations across Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa as people stand up for their economic, political, and social rights.

At the time that they protest, dissenters are dismissed as ignorant, violent, or simply troublemakers who should get a job. In the 1900’s newspapers were largely hostile to women having the vote and attacked the Suffragettes and their campaigns. Nor could Martin Luther King rely on support from a media that treated him and his aims with derision – not only were his politics anti-racist but he was also anti-war and in favour of social housing.

Commentators who attack the dissenters of today try to separate them from history, they write about today’s protestors in a way they would never dare to do with Martin Luther King or the Suffragettes. But the thread of dissent remains the same, those who rebel today have a proud heritage behind them.

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies…but the silence of our friends. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

It is a sad truth that when you seek to take something that is rightfully yours from people who do not want to give it to you, you have a fight on your hands. A fight against a system that needs things to stay the way they are and against people who don’t want to give up that which does not belong to them.

It takes time for the majority of society to understand that human rights should apply to sections of society that they have been taught are beneath them. Because freedom is never given but has to be fought for, there is always tension and upheaval alongside dissent. Which side wins depends on who can mobilise the most power.

The late British politician and campaigner Tony Benn was fond of making the following point about dissent:

“It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Watch this powerful clip taken from the documentary ‘The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975’

Ashley Bell photographed by Jackie Dixon


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