Revisiting Civil (Un)arrest and (Dis)obedience


In his Feb. 6, Z Net Commentary entitled "True Resistance/What Nonviolence Is," Gordon Clark, Iraq Pledge of Resistance Coordinator, presents a definition of nonviolent civil disobedience that is very heavy on ideology and weak on utility. In doing so he exposes many tendencies preached and practiced by some activists that clash with effective strategies of resistance.

Clark’s commentary was a formulaic and patronizing response to an earlier piece that I wrote called, "Arresting Disobedience," in which I expressed criticisms of some forms of so-called civil disobedience that I have witnessed over the past couple of years. Specifically, I wrote to address the focus that I see many activists placing on getting arrested as a tactic in and of itself. The main point of my argument was that as we move to raise the social costs of war to elites, we need to keep in mind that intentionally getting arrested and cooperating with authorities to accept consequences are not necessarily strong forms of resistance. Furthermore, these activities often enhance the State’s power over participants and alienate sectors of society crucial for a successful antiwar movement.

Though Clark and I agree on some specific points, I believe that our disagreements come from fundamentally different understandings of nonviolence both as an ideology and as a strategy for social change.

Ideology over utility

Clark argues that I, and others like me, "lack [an] understanding of the basic premise of nonviolence." This claim implies there is only one theory of nonviolence, and that those who believe as Clark does have a monopoly on that theory. This is extremely problematic, not least because it is authoritarian and offensive. There is no one theory or definition of nonviolent resistance, nor can one person, one movement, or one section of movement claim to practice THE only valid form of nonviolence.

While Clark’s particular version of nonviolent resistance is based very heavily on ideology and dogma, my own understanding of nonviolent tactics comes from a strategic and ethical standpoint. It is my opinion that in the struggle for social change, it is important to seek and use tactics that will work: while minimizing undesirable acts of violence: as opposed to tactics that are based solely on ideology or symbolic acts of dissent. It is my understanding that the movements lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and others had great impacts on society because they were grounded in the reality of their particular context and were not built on ideology alone but incorporated real elements of practicality and utility.

For Clark to suggest that his own version of nonviolent tactics is the only one legitimately based on the teachings of King, Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, and Jesus is absurd. It is impossible to know what these historical figures would advocate in the current circumstances, just as it is impractical to base an entire strategy on others’ teachings instead of relying on one’s own analysis, creativity, strength, and convictions. It is also important to note that King and Gandhi, two of the most idealized and revered figures, were part of completely different types of movements than today’s antiwar movement, both in terms of the demographics and the goals of their movements.

For this reason I find Clark’s numerous quotations from such historical figures a very weak method of argument. We should not blindly base our actions on the words of yesterday’s leaders. Though it is important to learn from past movements that achieved results and set incredible examples of the power of resistance, it is also important to study our own present and find tools that will work now. There is a wide spectrum of tactics available to us. As we consider each tactic, we should weigh its potential effectiveness, its possible ramifications, and how well it fits with our own personal and movement values.

This was precisely my intent when I wrote "Arresting Disobedience." Civil disobedience is one tactic in our toolbox, and there are times when it is appropriate and times when other tactics would be better suited for accomplishing our goals. I am concerned that for many, civil disobedience (and intentional and symbolic arrest) has become a default activity for activists when they seek to raise the level of their protest and demonstrate their commitment to a cause. I argue that civil disobedience actions should be well thought out so that they are explicitly effective, in addition to empowering participants and demonstrating their commitment. When civil disobedience becomes a knee-jerk response, an end in and of itself or an action based solely on ideology, we see the types of disempowering and ridiculous scenarios in which the ultimate goal is arrest and submission to the justice system.

In addition, the dogma behind much of today’s discourse on civil disobedience both undermines its effectiveness as a tool for defiance and contributes to a hierarchy within activist organizations and communities based on criminal records, where numbers of arrests has become a veritable ranking system.

Love over defiance

According to Clark, there are two basic maxims of nonviolence. The first is love: "a love so great that it asks us to love even our enemies."

There are many activists, including myself, who feel that basing a strategy for social change on loving our enemies will not get us very far. I realize that for some, this is a matter of religion or ideology and I can acknowledge that and respect it. However, for Clark to demand that all of us act out of love for Bush, Cheney, oil executives, cops, etc is over the top. I might be able to privately feel sorry for their missing humanity, but I will not let that distract me from the important task of opposing, defying, and thwarting their efforts to kill, brutalize, and repress.

However, my main problem with Clark’s argument here is not even with his idea that we must love our enemies, but rather where that argument leads him in terms of action. He writes:

"Ultimately, resistance is not the same thing as defiance, and the two terms should not be used interchangeably. Defiance is based on anger, while resistance is based on love. Defiance tries to evade the consequences of its actions, while resistance accepts those consequences. Defiance tries to increase social costs, (which, by the way, often serves to increase the suffering of the already oppressed), while resistance works instead to transform the society. Big differences."

Notwithstanding the strange dichotomy he creates between resistance and defiance, based seemingly only on his own personal preferences and not on any objective definitions, Clark is advocating for accepting consequences of our opposition instead of trying to avoid them. He also seems to be explicitly against raising the social costs of war and thinks that transforming society is somehow incompatible with strategies aimed at forcing policy makers to heed us.

I could not disagree more with both of these arguments.

Clark seems to be arguing that loving our enemies means that we must bend to authorities’ will when they chose to punish us for our acts of disobedience. Clark states that "as people acting from the basis of love and compassion, we are compelled to take responsibility. We take responsibility for the actions of our government, and so try to stop it when necessary. And we take responsibility for our personal actions as we attempt to stop it."

This is precisely the attitude that I wrote to argue against, and Clark’s writing on the subject exemplifies the very mind-set and behavior that I find so detrimental to the goals and spirit of a successful antiwar movement. While I do believe we, as members of a democratic society, have a responsibility to oppose and attempt to change our government’s violent and repressive policies, I do not believe that this same responsibility compels us to accept the consequences of our opposition when they are partially or completely avoidable.

I argue that social change can only come about if we as a society stop being complacent and complicit and start defying, resisting and circumventing the laws and social norms that repress us and others. Clark believes that the basic maxims of nonviolent resistance compel us to break those laws which we cannot in good-conscience abide by, but then gladly accept the state-ordered consequences of our opposition. I say the idea that the law is invalid but the punishment is valid is nonsensical and does nothing to empower more people to resist.

If we want to fight the system, we must fight it completely. We cannot legitimize the State’s repressive policies in any way. This means that we must declare in no uncertain terms that the laws making a war on Iraq legal are unjust, that the laws prohibiting our opposition are also unjust, and so too are the ensuing consequences of resistance.

Clark was especially riled that I criticized the following phrase in the Iraq Pledge of Resistance: "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 war."

I wrote that asking people to sign onto this clause was the equivalent of legitimizing the State’s authority and agreeing to accept whatever punishment the authorities might decide to dish out. (Clark agrees that this is the intention of the clause.) Though I do not argue explicitly against ever getting arrested or ever going peacefully with the police when it is obviously practical, I do argue that it is not in our interest to validate those consequences ahead of time. I also pointed out a practical way that many activists sometimes seek to avoid punishment through jail solidarity.

He responded that "to intentionally put someone into an arrestable situation – which is what civil disobedience is, after all – and then encourage them to run away or to resist arrest is to significantly increase their physical risk, and the potential for violence." My response to Clark is that common sense will tell people when it is or is not in their best interest to resist the police. Asking people to sign something ahead of time promising that they will not resist the police or avoid arrest not only limits their options but explicitly expresses intent to cooperate and submit to laws that are not just. This is exactly what I mean when I write about ideology and dogma coming before practicality. It is not practical to ask people to sign away their rights ahead of time, but it does fit nicely into Clark’s own version of accepting punishment and seeking arrest.

Jail over freedom

Throughout Clark’s commentary there is a focus on jail time as the pinnacle of righteous suffering. Through quotes and arguments he shows that he believes activists should embrace going to prison and that those who seek to avoid prison are somehow objectively less committed, less willing to make sacrifices.

This kind of thinking contributes to the hierarchies centered around jail cell activists. This tendency to see the rap sheet as a status symbol pops up everywhere. A movement that gives status and power to activists who are able to spend time in jail over activists who spend time working outside of prison will not reflect diversity of members or tactics. It will also distract activists from other forms of protest that are at least, if not more, effective.

Symbolism over results Witness over action

I am unsure why Clark advocates against raising the social costs of war, since perceived political and economic repercussions of war policy is the only way to convince those in power to change their policies. It may be that Clark is advocating for a subtler, but longer lasting approach to organizing: such as building alternative institutions and communities of resistance: but I doubt it.

Clark writes that "the acceptance of the suffering that comes with risk and sacrifice – as always, in nonviolence – is the magic that makes personal and social transformation possible."

Transforming society is indeed a vital long-term goal of the antiwar movement, and it is important to keep in mind that we probably have no chance of preventing an invasion of Iraq if we do not build a more sustainable movement. However, Clark seems to prefer symbolic acts of resistance: ones designed to make activists suffer: over achieving results. This attitude is detrimental to the short-term antiwar movement and to the long-term anti-system movement.

Which brings me to the second of Clark’s basic maxims: "to endure personal suffering before we would allow suffering to come to our fellow beings."

This time, I have no argument against the premise, though I would not list it as a fundamental aspect of my own idea of nonviolence. Yet I do, once again, disagree with the types of actions that Clark advocates in the spirit of enduring personal suffering, which fit right in with his general symbolism over effectiveness bias.

Clark says that "true nonviolent resistance involves accepting personal suffering. You cannot escape it, nor should you try, because it is at the center of what makes nonviolent resistance work. Not arbitrary suffering, mind you, but suffering which comes in the attempt to prevent the suffering of others. And if the state chooses to impose that suffering on us for our acts of civil disobedience, so be it."

First, for Clark to suggest that only acts of disobedience that result in suffering qualify as "true nonviolent resistance" is unacceptable. By doing so he invalidates a plethora of other forms of resistance that are most definitely nonviolent. While it may be true that most forms of defiance carry with them some sort of cost or sacrifice, it is not the case that all of them result in suffering.

In addition, to state that personal suffering is inevitable and in fact desirable, is the equivalent of making suffering per se the goal of resistance when in fact the goal should be social change and the alleviation of suffering: with personal sacrifice the sometimes necessary ingredient or by-product. Suffering is not what makes nonviolence work. It is the practical and moral strength of nonviolence, the show of commitment, and a willingness to raise the social costs that changes policy. The more effective we are at raising costs while minimizing the negative effect on ourselves (not at all easy), the longer we will be able to resist. This is a difficult and not fully attainable goal, but we should be explicitly stating and practicing it. If we don’t, we cannot hope to garner real respect from most people, nor can we succeed in building a sustainable movement focused on results.

Further, Clark states "It is precisely that suffering which allows us to stand in the shoes of the oppressed and the people our government calls ‘enemy,’ those on whose behalf we claim to be acting," and that "one of the geniuses of nonviolent civil disobedience is that it is among the greatest levelers of persons – it allows each one of us, no matter how privileged, to experience the police and ‘justice’ system which are central to state oppression of the poor, minorities and others."

This is truly offensive, self-righteous banter. Clark needs some perspective if he really thinks most privileged activists who end up in jail as result of civil disobedience experience anything close to the oppression of the "poor, minorities, and others." My intention here is not to minimize the experience of activists who get arrested (some of whom certainly do experience State repression and jail time), but to point out that for privileged white activists like Clark who choose to put themselves at the mercy of the "justice" system, arrest is simply not a leveler.

Clark goes on to quote Che Guevara, "Solidarity with the oppressed means sharing their burdens," as if going to jail is sharing the burdens of the oppressed. Sharing burdens and expressing solidarity with others might instead mean being unswervingly committed to fighting the powers that oppress them. How about choosing tactics based on potential effectiveness and focusing on achieving results rather than pursuing symbolic suffering which only serves to make some individual activists feel better about themselves?

We need a movement that is both defiant and empowering for participants. So let’s cut the rhetoric and the dogma and think practically and creatively. Tactics that are designed to land us in jail or make us suffer will not be enticing to most people, while actions that get results will. If the part of our movement committed to defiance explicitly focused on achieving results through a variety of civil disobedience tactics such as worker strikes, student walkouts, unpermitted marches, civil and workplace sabotage, etc, people will be much more willing and able to take the personal risks and make the sacrifices that will eventually be necessary for making change.

Clark argues that a movement based on defiance will not be sustainable and advocates instead for a movement based on love and compassion. I say that our defiance IS based on love and compassion and these feelings lead us to opposition and working for change. The main factor behind whether or not our movement will be sustainable will not be the ideology behind it, but how successful we are at making life better for ourselves and others.


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