by Deborah MathisJune 20, 2019
This summer will bring the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ first landing in the United States. Only 20 disembarked the Dutch warship at the ironically named Point Comfort near Jamestown, Virginia that long ago August. Within 100 years, the colony’s enslaved population topped 210,000.
As their numbers had grown, so too had the oppression they faced and, increasingly, its cruelty was codified as law, leaving no doubt about the white settlers’ determination to keep a close watch and stranglehold on their “real estate,” as one statute described the enslaved.
In 1723, the colonial legislature passed a bill outlawing get-togethers among the Africans enslaved. Along with a long-standing prohibition on reading and writing, the Anti-Assembly law was intended to thwart any planning, information-sharing, training, and camaraderie among people with more than enough reason to resist.
Yet, the enslaved still found a way—nevertheless, they persisted, one might say. Encoding field songs with information or using drums to cipher a warning are examples of what we would today call “a workaround.”
The foreclosure of information and knowledge-sharing is a staple of the oppressor’s handbook. It’s a timeless and universal transgression. North Korea is notorious for it, not as a tactic but as a way of life for ordinary citizens. China is known to shut down news and information portals when civil resistance bubbles up. New technology for getting the word out wide and fast caught authorities off guard in the June 2009 “Where’s-My-Vote” uprising in Tehran, and once the government connected the outpouring to Twitter, it shut that down. Earlier this month, Sudanese authorities silenced activists’ robust social media platforms for the second time, depriving them of a convenient, efficient digital meeting space and source of information. In answer, activists have been going door-to-door to spread the word.
Keep them ignorant and, just to be safe, keep them apart. Knowledge and fellowship are two sides of the same verboten coin.
For the last 17 years, ICNC has attempted to unbolt this forbidden zone with science and truth. We’ve flowered the place with research, case studies, and testimonials from ordinary people who know struggle; they are well acquainted with its risks and rewards, the sacrifices it demands, and the satisfactions it offers. They have studied the field and marked it, noting for posterity what worked and why.
Not everyone can get to one of our workshops, seminars, or regional institutes, but those who can reach our website will find online courses and webinars, a massive and ever-expanding resource library, classic civil resistance films, and other resources. Knowledge for the taking.
These free resources certainly cannot replace social media’s urgent and up-to-the-moment messaging. The information on our website won’t tell you what time tonight’s march begins or the location of the next sit-in. But it very well might help you know what to do when you get there, or how to think about what comes next.
Additionally, ICNC launched the Minds of the Movement blog exactly two years ago as a meeting ground for activists, educators, researchers, policy makers, and organizers to share their experiences, ideas, and insights about civil resistance. Our idea was that the blog would bring the civil resistance community together to speak its truth, ask its questions, connect, share, and learn from one another—passing on not just knowledge, but wisdom too. Minds of the Movement has also served as an outlet for dissidents whose voices have been muted in their homeland.
To date, we have posted nearly 100 blogs by contributors from close to 30 countries. Their topics have ranged from managing repression and encouraging defection, to digital security and combatting disinformation, to life in the diaspora and lessons learned from any number of revolutions, movements, and campaigns. The blog is a gathering place in which diverse voices may say their piece without censure or retribution. In those two years, Readers from around the world have accessed this “meeting place” more than 40,000 times.
So the tradition continues. Notwithstanding the persistent threat of torture, death, detention, destitution, or estrangement, the oppressed of yore could not resist the psychic commandment to defend their rights and liberties and neither can the people of Sudan, Hong Kong, Venezuela, or Egypt today.
Colonial oppressors had their laws and modern despots have theirs. They can ban the meetings, shut down Twitter, and burn the books.
But the indomitable, immutable human spirit always finds a workaround.