Joel Briscoe: The young people are asking, ‘When will we be safe?'

(AP Photo/File) In this June 23, 1963, photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King joins Detroit's Freedom March.

In 1984 I was arrested for protesting against apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. It is against the law in D.C. to protest within 500 feet of an embassy.

For over 30 years South African apartheid laws had divided South Africans by race into four strictly segregated groups: whites, coloureds (mixed-race), Indians and blacks. Black people could not marry other races, start businesses or work in white areas without a permit. They were segregated and unequal at hospitals, beaches, schools and universities — even though they were the majority of South Africans.

I felt the urge to protest then, like the many young people today speaking out for police reform and ending institutional racism. Pushing for social change is messy, chaotic, emotional and necessary. But peaceful protesting has always been critical for creating real and lasting change.

When I and other protesters walked to the front door of the South African Embassy and knocked, the police were ready to arrest us and take us away in their police vans.

We didn’t expect an answer, and we didn’t get one. We read our anti-apartheid statement, moved to the sidewalk, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” until, one-by-one, the police zip-tied our hands behind our backs and led us to the waiting paddy wagons.

At the jail we were given Miranda rights cards, lined up and fingerprinted, and released. I didn’t spend the night in jail, because someone paid my fine.

My afternoon of protest and arrest was just a tiny part of the larger Free South Africa Movement. For over a year in 1984 protests and arrests at the South African Embassy occurred daily. Protests spread to over 26 other U.S. cities. Over 3,000 people were arrested protesting nonviolently in Washington, D.C.

Eventually the U.S. imposed sanctions on South Africa in 1986. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and he became South Africa’s first black African president in 1994, when all adult South Africans were allowed to vote.

Change happened. Peaceful protest played a role.

At our embassy protest I remember learning Martin Luther King’s six principles of nonviolence: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It seeks to win friendship and understanding. It holds that suffering can educate and transform. It seeks to defeat injustice, not people. It chooses love instead of hate. It believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Youth have long protested for social change. In 1963, civil rights organizers made the controversial decision to organize school children to participate in the Birmingham, Alabama, protests. Over 1,000 children, mostly high school students and one as young as 9 years old, were arrested and filled city jails.

Their parents and grandparents were justly apprehensive. They encouraged them to be patient. “But when will that happen?” the children asked their elders. "In whose lifetime?"

As one boy said to his father, “Daddy, I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. ... I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m also doing it because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.”

My heart has been full watching the peaceful protests and marches in Utah cities: Salt Lake, Provo, Logan, Ogden, St. George, Park City, Heber City. Whatever training they have received, they are carrying Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles with them. They are peacefully and forcefully asking: When will it be safe for black people to exist in this country?

Let us do everything we can to make them safe in our lifetime.

Rep. Joel Briscoe

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, represents District 25 in the Utah House of Representatives.