Category Archives: Civil Disobediance

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.
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