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Arresting Disobedience


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Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington, DC and San Francisco last weekend, yet it looks like the U.S. is probably going to war anyway. The large, peaceful protests illustrated the size of our antiwar movement and certainly sent a powerful message to America that this war will not go unchallenged. But as coverage of the demonstrations dies down, it becomes increasingly obvious that hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, chanting, drumming, and propagandizing will not be enough to halt the war machine. And while outrage that Bush and company seem to be ignoring the will of the dissenting American majority is justified, we should not be surprised by elite’s decisions to ignore our protest. As we consider more confrontational forms of protest, we need to keep our main goal of raising social costs always in mind. If we are to send a strong message to those in power, we must make it clear to them that waging war will cause more and more people to engage in activities that challenge their authority. In a society built on the obedient participation of its members, nothing is scarier than the threat of massive insubordination and noncompliance. Elites do not listen to moral reasoning or argument, but defiance is a language they will respond to because it threatens the very basis of their power, something they hold dear. There are many ways that activists can escalate their antiwar commitment, such as direct action, strikes, boycotts, etc. So far, however, the most popular method seems to be civil disobedience. The term “civil disobedience” aptly describes a form of protest aimed at nonviolently defying the laws and status quo imposed on our society by the institutions that make war. It is activists’ willingness to disobey, even at great risks to their health and freedom, that challenges those laws and institutions. Since civil disobedience brings activists in direct confrontation with the law, it is often associated with mass arrests. It is important, however, that participants in civil disobedience tactics maintain a commitment to the defiance that scares elites so much. Though arrests and jail time will sometimes be the inevitable consequences of disobedience, it is critical that arrest never becomes the main objective. Surrendering yourself to the U.S. justice system can be an extremely disempowering and horrible experience. Many of us try to avoid it if possible and for good reason. Why should we enter into actions with the intention of giving up our rights? We needn’t assume or accept that the result of expressing our dissent will be arrest or incarceration. We must be prepared for it, but we should not willingly consent to or seek it. In the last several months, some groups have done a great job of defining their targets of civil disobedience and confronting those targets with incredible determination and rebelliousness. They have used language, propaganda, and symbols that are easy to understand. All of this is important because in order for defiance to spread it must be empowering and accessible. When activists use their bodies and voices to try to shut down or impede the function of institutions that facilitate war, they have the potential to draw negative public attention to those institutions. When protestors’ expression of disobedience and non-compliance help them achieve their antiwar goals and allow them to forcefully express their dissent, it can inspire and uplift them and other activists. On the other hand, I have witnessed several scenarios in which activists orchestrated and/or facilitated their own arrests. They walked into action with the intention of getting arrested, though most did not actually engage in activity confrontational enough to immediately provoke such an outcome. Some examples of this are: activists standing in front of buildings without actually blocking entrances, activists blockading entrances that were not actually being used, activists sitting down in intersections that were not open to traffic. In many of these situations, the determination to get arrested was so strong that it became the focus of the activity. In one case, for instance, when police asked what the activists’ demands were they said, “Arrest us.” In many situations, trying to negotiate against arrest was not considered. No one questioned whether or not there was actual legal basis for the arrests and no one demanded that the police respect the first amendment rights of the activists. As a witness, I came away feeling extremely disempowered, alienated, and even angry. In situations where the goal or intended message of an action is arrest, the idea of disobedience gets subverted. There is not much defiant or threatening about activists who freely submit themselves to the mercy of the system. For these demonstrations, it seemed as if a vital step had been left out—the part of the protest where the target is defined and action was taken against that target. Instead, it was as if protesters just decided to skip the disobedience part and precede directly to the consequences. Go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect your rights or a sense of accomplishment. The Iraq Pledge of Resistance is a nationwide effort that has the potential to mobilize a significant number of people for civil disobedience if the United States government decides to go to war with Iraq. Antiwar activists are asked to commit to participating in civil disobedience in the event of a war, and they are asked to sign a statement that affirms the values of nonviolence. The document is eloquent, yet it contains a clause that some antiwar activists find extremely problematic: “We will not run or resist arrest; we will remain accountable for our actions as a means of furthering our witness to the injustice of this war.” This might sound righteous on paper, but in many ways it contradicts the very idea of defiance. Is it true resistance to break the law and then freely accept whatever consequences the state deems appropriate? Do we not believe that we have the right to participate in activities that will impede war, especially when our representatives have chosen not to respond to us when we go through the channels provided by the government? And should we not in every way possible try to limit the state’s ability to punish us for what they consider disobedience but what we see as our right to oppose war? This is not necessarily an argument against getting arrested, since there are many ways in which arrest can actually work in activists’ favors. Many activists rightly understand that getting arrested attracts media attention, which is why it is often a favored tactic. There is no doubt that when activists are willing to risk arrest in order to take part in defiant activity it makes a powerful statement about their commitment to stop war. Raising the stakes of war often means readiness to make personal sacrifices and that kind of courage is impressive and speaks loudly to other activists and the public. But arrest is not a substitute for a well-planned action intended to make a strong antiwar statement, though many such actions will received increased coverage if its participants are arrested. To the extent possible activists should try to circumvent the justice system. One popular method for this is jail solidarity, a tactic in which activists refuse to cooperate with or identify themselves to authorities once they are arrested. If enough people clog the jail and the court system, sometimes they are eventually freed without criminal charges or fines. In order for this tactic to work, there must be strong solidarity among arrested activists and a shared desire and commitment to flouting the system. Jail solidarity is not always successful, but when it is, it can be extremely empowering and can work in limiting the huge expenses that often accrue when activists get arrested—money that gets used by the justice system and strengthens their ability to trample everyone’s rights. Participating in jail solidarity and other tactics that limit the justice system’s ability to make activists pay for their defiance will also embolden more to get involved because it decreases the actual risks and costs to activists. Also important is for privileged white activists to realize that arrest or risk of arrest means different things to different sectors of our society. In general the perceived consequences of participation in disobedient activities that could end in arrest are greater for groups traditionally targeted and abused by the justice system. There needs to be constant awareness of this reality and a commitment from more priveledged folks to participate in explicit solidarity with people who are particularly vulnerable. It is also essential that the glorification and romanticization of arrest be toned down. This type of expression is extremely alienating to people whose experience with the justice system is the exact opposite. Along with this comes preventing hierarchies within our own organizing groups from forming around people who get arrested. There needs to be constant recognition that the costs and risks of arrest are not the same for everyone and that gaining status and power based on the privilege of being able to afford arrest will severely restrict any democratic aspirations of our movement. This is a critical time for the antiwar movement. An attack on Iraq seems to be fast approaching, and we are in a race with war makers to organize effectively to prevent such an attack. We need to be able to show elites that the number of people willing to engage in more cost-exacting tactics is growing and will continue to grow exponentially if they continue on their present course towards war. This means we have to design tactics that not only make our dissent blatant, but that also appeal to other antiwar sympathizers to get involved in big demonstrations and civil disobedience so that our movement can expand. The best way to do this is to choose activities that are bold, creative, defiant and empowering. If we can manifest those characteristics in our activism without forsaking actual goals or alienating newcomers and onlookers, we have great potential to make change.

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