I want to share my own experiences with civil disobedience briefly and then make the case that white people should do a whole lot more phone calling and a whole lot less getting arrested to show how much they care.
Nineteen years ago, the first Persian Gulf War was just starting to heat up. I was in college and I started participating in meetings on campus about how to stop the war. One of the first suggestions that came up was, 'let's commit civil disobedience.' Out of an anti-war group of roughly 200 people, about 30 of us split off to form an Affinity Group dedicated to pursuing civil disobedience. As I learned, ya gotta have an Affinity Group to do this kinda thing. Everyone in the Affinity Group plans an action and then some members volunteer to get arrested while the rest of the members witness (talk with press and police) and then post bail to get the arrested members our of jail.
Members of our Affinity Group tried to get arrested in a "Die In" at the White House prior to the start of the war. But the D.C. police have seen everything and they hate the additional paperwork from having to arrest people every weekend. So they just let us die in and lay on the cold hard pavement while they stood around chatting with each other. Their supply of donuts and coffee was greater than our supply of warm clothes and patience, so we returned home unarrested.
Undaunted we did a civil disobedience vigil at the Federal Building in Philadelphia a few days later. But again, we couldn't get arrested to save our lives. Black people get arrested for driving a car in the wrong neighborhood, brown people get arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts but white people can't get arrested even when they BEG the cops to arrest them.
And then, the 100-hour (1st) Persian Gulf War was over. The short duration of the war was actually a problem because many of our non-hierarchical Affinity Group meetings took 5 or 6 hours. By the end of the war our Affinity Group had probably spent more hours in planning meetings than the war itself took.
But we were determined to get arrested doing civil disobedience. The next event on the progressive protest calendar was Earth Day. So a subset of our Affinity Group -- the more environmentally minded members, split off to form a separate Affinity Group to do civil disobedience in connection with Earth Day.
So on April 22, we dutifully headed up to Manhattan for an Earth Day protest on Wall Street. While the D.C. police seem intent on ignoring you, the NYPD seemed more focused on humiliating protesters. They herded us into a little square "official protest zone" purposefully designed to make our numbers look small and pitiful against the backdrop of the NY Stock Exchange. Too cramped to march around, we were supposed to yell while standing in place behind a series of metal barricades across the street and down about a block from our intended target.
Our group quickly surmised that being crammed into the official protest zone was worse than useless. So we wandered around looking for ways to get our message across. And sure enough, a couple blocks away we discovered a local news crew doing a live broadcast about the protests. Sensing correctly that this was about the only chance we were going to have to get our message out -- one of the members of our group walked out into the middle of the street and just stood there. He was promptly joined by four or five other members of our group and they stood together holding hands in a line blocking traffic on a major Manhattan street (now that I think about it, I believe the street they were blocking was Broadway). The timing was impeccable. The news cameras had something to focus on, the reporter had something to talk about, and the riot police had someone to arrest.
I videotaped the whole encounter. The Rodney King beatings had just happened in LA, showing both the ruthlessness of the LAPD and the importance of videotape. We figured that if police could see that we had a camera recording our actions -- that our protesters would be less likely to be harmed.
Within about two minutes our group was rustled into the back of a waiting NYPD paddy wagon. Our members sang a little song as the doors closed and the paddy wagon drove off. And our Earth Day Protest had made the morning news in the largest media market in the U.S.
But here's the thing -- the protest made absolutely no difference. There was no policy that we were advocating, no specific law that we were trying to pass. It was pure white guilt kabuki theater. It made us feel better for a day -- that we were doing something -- when in fact, we weren't actually accomplishing anything.
So I just want to make 2 related points about civil disobedience:
1. We are doing it wrong. Almost all modern uses of civil disobedience bear NO resemblance to the civil disobedience committed by Martin Luther King, Jr. The situation facing the civil rights movement was completely different than the situation facing privileged white Americans today. In the deep south in the 1950s blacks couldn't vote so they had to resort to means outside of the electoral system. Moreover, MLK and the SCLC were breaking unjust laws. MLK wasn't blocking traffic just to get arrested. The laws that were broken -- sitting in at lunch counters, crossing a bridge to the other side of town (where blacks weren't allowed), sitting at the front of a public bus -- all of those were unjust laws. Through their actions the civil rights movement was saying, 'we are challenging your authority to rule because you are violating widely held moral principles of fairness and justice.' The thing I disliked about our Wall Street protest was that we had no problem with the traffic laws in Manhattan -- but that was the law that we were breaking. In most modern uses of civil disobedience, the law that is being broken is completely unrelated to the issue that is being protested. It's just protest as theater -- which is not the purpose of civil disobedience.
2. Civil disobedience should only be a last resort, not a first resort. Civil disobedience should only be used after ALL other avenues to reach a resolution have been exhausted. Look, if you care enough to get arrested, you should care enough to at least make a few phone calls first to ask for a redress of your grievances. But how many phone calls do most protesters make before getting arrested? Real phone calls -- to people who don't agree with you but who are in a position to do something to improve the situation? Prior to our protest on Wall Street NONE of our group had made ANY phone calls to any of these Wall Street firms to ask them to change their behavior.
Look, creating lasting change is about gaining power. And the way you build power is through building relationships. And the way you build relationships is through talking with lots and lots of people.
So I propose a new rule:
Thou Shalt Not Commit Civil Disobedience Until You've Made At Least 1,000 Phone Calls.
Calling the President, your two Senators, and your Representative in the House -- that takes 4 calls. So what are you going to do with your other 996 calls? Ah, that's where it gets interesting. Who has a vote or say in making the decision that you want to see enacted? Who are they connected with? What do they care about? How do they see the world? If you are unhappy with a company -- who are their largest shareholders? Largest customers? Points of vulnerability to public opinion? If you are upset with a politician -- how many calls can you make to voters in his/her district?
The fact is, if progressives (as a movement) required that no one could participate in a civil disobedience protest until he/she had made 1,000 targeted calls -- then we would never need to get arrested. If we each made 1,000 phone calls we would win on almost every issue that we care about because our members would be building the sorts of networks of relationships that lead to power.
The 1,000 phone call rule could be seen as a rite of passage -- like the100,000 prostrations, known as "chak-boom" in Tibetan, required of anyone who aspires to become a Buddhist monk.
If you are not making phone calls, knocking on doors, and talking with people who can impact the outcome of a decision -- then you are not actually serious about your issue. You are just engaging in kabuki -- narcissistic performance art to assuage your white guilt to make yourself feel better.