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Lessons From The American Civil Rights Movement: Some Reflections
On The Defense Of Public Sphere And Right To Protest In Kerala, India

By Dr. Ajay Panicker

28 August, 2013

The American Civil Rights movement and lessons for democracy:

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech that spurred an oppressed people to streets demanding civil rights, is a moment to reflect upon the importance that access to public sphere holds for egalitarianism and participatory democracy. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement aimed to end discriminatory practices in the public sphere – maintained through the “Jim Crow” laws that legitimized racial segregation. In this racialized society, there were separate schools, public facilities such as bathrooms, seating arrangements in public transportation, etc. for Blacks and Whites. Jim Crow laws justified these segregated facilities as “separate but equal” but as historians have pointed, they were anything but equal.

An important push for challenging this social order came when a woman named Rosa Parks refused to obey the laws that mandated separate seating arrangements in public buses. African Americans, having suffered centuries of exploitation and discrimination and social oppression, had to assert themselves in the public sphere in order to overturn this inhuman social order. Based on the strength of protests in the public sphere, the Civil Rights activists were able to force governments in the US to enact legislations that mandated racial equality. The legacy of these protests continues to inspire efforts to further break down the persistent invisible barriers to racial integration in America.

The Civil Rights movement sought to dismantle the social, political and legal structures that ensured the social exclusion and marginalization of racial minorities in the US, especially African Americans. While such de jure forms of segregation such as Jim Crow are rarely prevalent today, de facto social exclusion and marginalization persist all over the world. Scholars and activists bring in enormous evidence of increased social exclusion and heightened sense of insecurity among marginalized communities under conditions of globalization of neoliberal capitalism.

The Civil Rights movement secured important victories based on the politics of protest – in the public sphere. Social movements around the world have sought to combat the ill effects of neoliberalism on marginalized communities through public protests. As several cases post-Seattle, including the removal of the Occupy protestors by the police from public spaces in the US, have shown that states have sought to quell these protests by limiting access to public sphere. In these neoliberal times, therefore, the defense of public sphere and upholding the right to protest are key takeaways from the Civil Rights movement for contemporary social movements.

Social Movements and Public Sphere in Kerala:

Popular access to public sphere was achieved in Kerala over centuries of struggles against social oppression and prevailing hierarchies that effectively excluded the marginalized sections of the population based on caste, gender and class. Last summer, an activist protesting against a PPP (public private partnership) consortium for collecting tolls from vehicles using national highway near Paliakkara in Kerala spoke to me about “the right to mobility.” Given that this highway traditionally provided the sole means of connectivity for any length of distance, this toll collection was placing a heavy and unjust burden on local residents. Residents were faced with a Hobson’s choice: pay up or stay home! Clearly, the logic of commodities was heavy at work in a state that had managed to advance human development for much of its population despite low economic growth.

The injustice in the situation apparent, I was curious about the concept of right to mobility. It came across as a novel concept that I had not encountered in my numerous interviews and interactions with social movement activists as part of my ongoing field research on counterhegemonic civil society efforts in Kerala. Asked to elaborate, this activist drew my attention to Kerala’s shameful history of social oppression such as certain casteist practices that stipulated how close – in terms of measured physical distance – people could get to each other based on where they found themselves in the social hierarchy. This meant that people’s spatial mobility was restricted by social strictures and the public sphere was constituted as an exclusive terrain of the powerful. He pointed out that such heinous practices were done away with after decades of popular mobilization, struggles and protests. He was consciously situating the anti-toll movement in the lineage of Kerala’s struggles to increase right to mobility and make public sphere inclusive.

Kerala, driven by the energy generated by these earlier movements, became known for model that emphasized human development. Public prioritization of investment in roads in rural countryside, public transport and connectivity, that had helped implement this right to mobility, expanded popular participation in democracy and generated a relatively engaged public sphere.

This activist worries that such advancements are being scaled back as part of the ongoing neoliberal governance, such as the PPP, wherein policies ostensibly adopted based on macroeconomic orthodoxies are generating difficult life outcomes for the poor and marginalized communities. At the same time, as communities protest in public against injustices, the state – through its police force – as the defender of “developmentalism” has been too eager to clamp down on them. The “anti-toll” struggle in Paliakkara has experienced its own share of onslaught from the government on a number of occasions.

At the height of the renowned struggle in Plachimada, many activists, mainly women and tribal people, who had waged a heroic struggle against Coca Cola based out of a roadside make-shift tent complained of constant harassment by the police that seemed to be acting in the interests of the Multi-National Corporation. In their view, the state apparatus and the police seemed too eager to serve the interests of the Coca Cola factory that was accused of causing water depletion and pollution. Even after the Plachimada movement succeeded in enforcing closure of the factory, these activists and their civil society supporters were still having to spend their scarce and precious resources on court cases foisted on them by the state.

More recently, the people of Vilappilsaala, a village outside Thiruvananthapuram city, waged a hugely successful struggle against the designs of the city administration to convert it into Thiruvananthapuram’s garbage dump. Having lived with enormous stench and related health and social consequences for a number of years, the people of Vilappilsaala decided that they had enough. Armed with the will to fight in what they described as a “life and death struggle”, Vilappilsaala’s residents smartly organized and occupied the main streets of Thiruvananthapuram city at short notice. The intent was to let the city know that they cannot take its waste. These mobilization tactics and occupation of the public sphere helped the movement ward off, at least temporarily, the city’s designs to make Vilappilsaala a permanent garbage yard.

In the neoliberal context of “politics as usual”, social movements are increasingly being acknowledged as important vehicles for addressing social injustices and effecting progressive change. These above cases amply demonstrate the crucial link between social movement activity and access to public sphere. The state, realizing this, constantly finds new ways of constraining access to public sphere – often under the pretext of maintaining law and order.

Recently Kerala witnessed an enormous mobilization of paramilitary police personnel by the government against left party members protesting against corruption and seeking the resignation of the Chief Minister. The crass political calculus that animated the mobilization by the Left parties before the Secretariat and the rush to call it off even as it was taking off may be symptomatic of the cynicism that pervades Kerala’s political establishment now.

Yet, such large-scale mobilization of paramilitary police against unarmed protestors does not bode well for social movements that have to resort to public protests as the only way to redress social injustices. While political parties may have the resources to conduct court cases on behalf of their members pulled up for their participation in public protests, the resource starved social movement activists often find that these highhanded actions from the state cause a backbreaking burden. In the spirit of social justice and the practice of participatory democracy, the defense of the public sphere is a worthy cause by itself. This is an important lesson that the Civil Rights movement, one of the most significant movements of the last century, holds out for efforts to combat social oppression around the world.

Dr. Ajay Panicker is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St Cloud State University, Minnesota, USA. He teaches courses in social theory, social movements, political economy and environmental sociology. He identifies himself as a progressive activist-academic. He has been studying counter-hegemonic civil society and social movements in Kerala, India, since 2005. He received his PhD from University of Miami, Florida, in 2008, where he wrote a dissertation on counter-hegemonic struggles against the globalization of neoliberal capitalism. Prior to moving to the US, he graduated with a Master of Philosophy in Semiotics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. While in Delhi he taught English Literature in colleges affiliated to Delhi University, followed by a three-year stint as a journalist. He has presented lectures in a number of universities in the US and Canada.



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