Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Civil Disobediance at the Pentagon for Our Spring Break

By: Harry Waisbren

I learned an awful lot about non-violent direct action this morning during the first action I was able to attend for Our Spring Break. The action was taken by the Council for Nonviolent Resistance and it included about 10 middle aged activists who walked willingly into an arrest amidst their attempt to deliver a letter to our secretary of defense. We met up with them early this morning where I was able to film a few short interviews. Here is one participant describing her involvement:

Here is another great discussion I had with an older woman who describes this event and grassroots activism at large in the context of her past activism during Vietnam:

After we had finished we took the metro and got off at the Pentagon stop. Despite my foreknowledge that I was not going to remotely risk arrest it was still a nerve wracking experience watching this commence amidst heavily armed officers. My nervousness quickly dissipated though shortly after the soon to be arrestees engaged the police who had asked to see an entrance badge if they were to move forward. It was clear that we were with them, and the police asked us to walk behind a short fence into the “free speech zone”. Ironically, this grassy area also happened to double as their “Sept. 11th Memorial Garden”. Such a set up could only be created in a post-Patriot act America, that’s for certain!

Anyways, as the police’s requests for the activists to move continued to be denied they began issuing warnings that they would soon be arrested if they did not comply. This acted as a signal of sorts as they all simultaneously sat down, refusing to stand up and then going limp when the police attempted to lift them. This action also seemed to act as a signal for the reinforcements to come in, as at least 10 Pentagon police officers zoomed to the scene on foot and motorcycle. As they were being carried off, an African American officer walked up to us and began quite an intriguing conversation that I do not believe I will be forgetting any time soon.

He began his engagement by telling us that he was severely against the escalation in Afghanistan. I was surprised by his honestly, as I was not expecting a policeman on the scene to be able to have such an honest discourse in this kind of scenario. He came up to us with purpose though, as he very apparently and very honestly was trying to find out what it was that we thought we were accomplishing. He was presupposing that such an action was useless if not counterproductive, and he did, indeed, have a point. His question of whether we think “[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates really knows” about what was occurring had an obvious answer (absolutely not), but he made an even better point about the perceptions of such an action.

The officer kept on repeating the point that those watching considered the activists who had just been arrested to be “Freakos”, and that their direct action merely would reinforce the negative stereotypes in the minds of onlookers. He repeated the term Freakos so many times that I quickly came to the conclusion that it must be accepted jargon for activists taking part in such displays at the pentagon, regardless of its negative implications. However, the officer also made the specific and surprising point that he often saw employees of the pentagon stop and read banners and signs of protesters in the free speech zone. He even described seeing people shake their head and walk up and shake the hands of those in the memorial garden. I did not expect to hear an honest—especially a positive—assessment of such activities, yet I do not entirely agree with his premise that such actions are entirely counterproductive.

Below is another video interview we had with Gordon Clark and my fellow Our Spring Breakers Yael and Adam. Within it we went over some more of the specifics of what we had just gone through, as well as began to delve into the question of the effectiveness of such actions:

I often harp on the problematic nature of activism that reinforces stereotypes of activists as “dirty hippies”, and this event was a vivid display of all the inherent problems with such activism. However, as I described to the officer, there is a difference between civil disobedience predicated on gaining people power versus that aimed at personal empowerment. Perhaps these activists wanted to be arrested—regardless of whether it convinced even one person—as it made them feel better about themselves. Such a thought process would be part and parcel of their doing something they believed in despite paying a personal price to do so (as a matter of fact, they wanted to pay such a price).

Although...considering the degree to which such an action can reinforce all of the worst negative stereotypes of dissent, I left asking myself how and whether or not we should judge these activists and this kind of activism? In the end, all of us need to look ourselves in the mirror at night, and if that is what they were doing, then they were clearly doing what they had to do. Furthermore, those inclinations would deserve the respect earned by anyone standing up for their beliefs against the odds. However, if their motivations were less personal in nature, and included such things as bragging rights, popularity, or even a sense of superiority, then this certainly would not apply. They would be harming the movement through a selfish desire at self-aggrandizement. Selfish actions are still selfish even if they exact a personal price. However, likewise, if it was a largely unselfish action that was merely poorly planned, that certainly would not deserve any sort of scorn either.

In the end, I do not consider myself remotely capable in this instance to cast blame or decide this one way or the other. I commend their actions today at least, as even if the only thing they did was cause me to consider nonviolent direction action even more deeply it was a valuable experience for me at least. However, I would be the one acting selfishly if I do not act on what I have learned in this situation and work to ensure that such actions do not run such a risk of counter-productivity. Fortunately for my personal capacity of looking at myself in the mirror, this is precisely my plan, and if I am successful at all I hope that I can help as many others as possible on the way as well!

UPDATE: I have recently started corresponding with one of these activists--Pete Perry--about this action in particular in the context of the larger issues I referenced in this post. Pete rightfully pointed out that I was perhaps overly harsh, especially in light of this event achieving media attention through the AP wire. Pete posted his perspective about the action on his blog, but stay tuned as we have been discussing cross-posting and other ideas about how we can further expand on the utility of this action in particular. This project will be designed to be part of a larger discussion about how we can make non-violent direction action more effective, and we could definitely use more voices in this integral discussion if you are interested in taking part!

1 comment:

PeteinDC said...

Hi! This is a worthwhile discussion and I hope plenty of folks will participate.

Although our action was not a perfect one, I don't think there has ever been a "perfect" civil resistance action, it was a powerful witness for the guards and police who interacted with us. I cannot speak for the passersby who saw this action happen, but I doubt they all dismissed us as "freakos," as the guy who encountered Harry.

Us participating in the action maintained a nonviolent and a rather polite demeanor during the action. So I am quite puzzled as to what could have been deemed "freakish." We take our actions very seriously, and we always assume responsibility for our actions.

One of Harry's points is that civil resistance and civil disobedience (there is a difference which we can discuss later) need to begin to use 21st century media tools to enhance their effectiveness. Ideally, I absolutely agree! One problem with media on Pentagon grounds is that they are not allowed, in fact as you come to the top of the escalators there's a large NO CAMERAS sign. However, I don't think means that we should cease nonviolent direct actions there.

At the end of the day on the 17th, no war was ended but I think we made conveyed our message to all the Pentagon police and guards we encountered. We were also told that our letter would be conveyed to Secretary Gates's office. However, it will not simply stop there, we will appear in court on May 8th in Alexandria to continue speaking about our resistance to war and occupation.

Blogging and YouTube are two excellent 21st century tools that we have used in the past during our actions. We hope to continue utilizing both of them when we can. If there are other tools folks can think of, we would be glad to consider utilizing them in the future, as well.