Group or Mass Petitions
Group or mass petitions are written requests or supplications seeking the redress of a specific grievance, signed by a large number of individuals or by a smaller number of individuals acting on behalf of organizations, institutions or constituencies. (Petitions from individuals normally do not fall within “nonviolent protest and persuasion,” since they are usually simply personal efforts to persuade. Exceptions may occur, however.) Of the multitudes of examples, we offer here a few of the less known in order to illustrate some of the diversity in the use of this method. Examples of petitions go back at least as far as the Roman Empire. In one instance, in the years A.D. 183-185, during the reign of Emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, the peasant tenants of one of the imperial estates of Africa sought relief from the amount of compulsory work required of them by petitioning to the Emperor directly; they sent their petition to Rome by a plenipotentiary who was a Roman citizen. They expressed confidence in the Emperor and hatred for their oppressors (the farmer-general and the procurators) and appealed to the Emperor for relief. The tenants asked protection of the Lex Hadriana and insisted on their rights. This petition was successful, though others were not.
Another example from ancient history is the petition to the Roman Emperor Septimius from the village of Aga Bey in Lydia (Asia Minor). In their position the peasant tenants of an imperial estate sought two objectives, one of which was relief from municipal duties which had been imposed on them even though they did not reside in cities, as well as other forms of relief. The peasants threatened the Emperor with a work stoppage by means of a mass “flight” from the estate. (That method is described in Chapter Four.) Relief from the municipal duties was granted.
M. Rostovtzeff describes another petition of the same period, this one in A.D. 201. The petition was from the navicularii of Arelate, who probably transported men and supplies by sea from Gaul to the East during the second Parthian expedition. The petition from the navicularii complained bitterly of “the vexations and exactions to which they were subjected in performing their service to the state,” Rostoztzeff reports. It is likely, he adds, that repeated complaints, coupled with threats of a strike, induced Septimius to revise, complete, and even extend some of the privileges granted to this important group.
A millennium and a half later the American colonists repeatedly petitioned the British officials for relief from their grievances, sometimes in the form of addresses from colonial assemblies, sometimes as petitions from merchants. In November 1766, for example, 240 merchants of the city of New York petitioned the House of Commons for major changes in the trade and navigation system. As part of a struggle among the poor back-country people in North Carolina against the group which was in power in that province, two hundred sixty inhabitants of Anson County signed a petition to the colony’s Assembly, listing the grievances from which they sought relief and saying that “we … have too long yielded ourselves slaves to remorseless oppression.”
African slaves in the Province of Massachusetts Bay also petitioned, addressing the Governor (General Gage), the Council, and the House of Representatives on May 25, 1774. They asserted that in common with all other men they had a right to their freedom. Therefore they asked for legislation to grant that freedom, “our Natural right,” and particularly that their children should be set at liberty when they reached the age of twenty-one years.
In more modern times, petitions have been used both by nationalists objecting to foreign rule, as in Finland and Egypt, and in grievances against Communist governments. For example, in 1898, five hundred thousand Finns (out of a total population of three million) signed a petition protesting a new Russian law drafting Finnish youths into Russian army units and subjecting them to five years of military duty. Despite British prohibition, two million signatures were gathered for a petition in Egypt aimed at achieving a popular mandate for a national delegation which sought the right to participate in the Versailles peace conference after World War I.
In the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) on July 7, 1953, 1,500 workers at the Zeiss factory at Jena signed a petition demanding the release of Eckhardt Norkus (who had been sentenced to three years in prison after an arbitrary arrest following the June rising) and the release within three days of every striker against whom a criminal charge could not be proved.
A “Memorandum” signed by several dozen of the elite of Hungary’s Communist writers and artists in early November 1956 requested the Central Committee of the Communist Party to stop officials from applying “anti-democratic methods which cripple our cultural life,” and expressed the view that “… the only basis for eliminating difficulties and wrong opinions … is a free and sincere and healthy and democratic atmosphere imbued with the spirit of popular rule.” As with the other methods in this chapter, illustrations could go on indefinitely.
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