As many as 30,000 Argentineans may have vanished between 1976 and 1983 during a period of violence, sanctioned by that country’s ruling military regime that has come to be called the Dirty War. Among those who disappeared were 172 children. In 1977, mothers of these missing children and their sympathizers began holding mourning vigils at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’s insistence upon confronting those in power with the memories of the dead gave rise to a powerful social organization that garnered international attention and respect, and remained active inside Argentina until 2006.
Political mourning is an act in which an unnecessary death or commission of violence against an individual or individuals is used as an argument for political or social change. The Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo may be one of the best-known examples of the use of political mourning as a means of political protest, but they are hardly the only example. In the U.S., the American Civil Rights movement may be the most effective group of political activists to organize around mourning, effectively using the deaths of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King, and police brutality against Rodney King, as a strategy to advance the agenda of social transformation.
It might be argued that any organized display of grief that marks the death of a person or people is essentially political in nature. Quite frequently the outpouring is emotional, the political impact unintended. Grief and outrage can also become the basis for deliberate political action.
What guidelines should a political activist use when mourning a death?
Be Positive: Every life contains contradictions, and those individuals, who spearhead political and social justice campaigns, whether in life or death, are no exception. A political activist’s role is not to write biography but to inspire others to action. A martyr’s negative qualities may humanize that person in the eyes of history, but do little to advance the causes that his or her name is associated with. Political activists using mourning as nonviolent protest should concern themselves with the positive attributes and acts of the deceased they are commemorating.
Be Nonviolent: Unnecessary death promotes outrage, and outrage can incite violence. It’s vitally important not to give in to these kinds of emotional reactions. Nonviolence is not just a useful strategy for bringing about social change, it is a moral imperative for those who are committed to it that leaves open the possibility of conversion rather than continued entrenchment on opposite sides of an issue.
Continue reading the 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.