Tough Love Criticism of Civil Disobedience Action Riles Activists

I posted my review of the civil disobedience action at Bechtel to San Francisco’s Indymedia site. The response to my admittedly gruff but sincere criticism has been to accuse me of being a “racist” who sounds “like some kind of pig, infiltraitor, disrupter”, who is “part of the problem” and whose criticism “hurts our movement.”

In addition, I have been informed that the people who took part in the action consider it to have been a grand success (where success is presumably being defined as something other than meeting the stated objectives).

Apparently, my contribution to Indymedia was at the top of the results of Google News searches for things like “Bechtel Protest”. It’s not too surprising that there weren’t any other news accounts of the protest to compete with it, but my article wasn’t really meant as a news report on the protest as a whole so much as an attempt to evaluate the effectiveness and technique of the civil disobedience action in particular, so that we can learn from our experiences.

In any case, the fact that my report became by default the report about the protest, at least at first, combined with the fact that it was sharply critical of aspects of the civil disobedience action (and assessed it a failure), brought down a bit of a firestorm. That, and the fact that I completely missed the arrests of six other blockaders in front of the 45 Fremont building, which called the accuracy of my account into question.

And, I shouldn’t kid myself: I was being curmudgeonly and impatient with the many flaws I’ve seen in protests like this one, and I expressed this in the way I wrote about it. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: you try to stop a war with the peace movement you have, not the peace movement you wish you had. My criticism was meant constructively.

The anti-militarist movement is getting its ass kicked over and over again by swaggering hawks and war profiteers, and part of the reason is that it keeps making the same mistakes and doing the same ineffective actions over and over again. We desperately need to honestly and critically evaluate our actions to improve their effectiveness — giving up on actions that have become habitual but that do no good, and putting more energy into improving actions that actually disrupt the war machine.

There’s a place for congratulatory press-releases and rah-rah encouragement, but there’s also a real need to go beyond that and be honest with ourselves about our actual impact. This is not the special olympics. We’ve got no time to hand out medals for participating or to announce that today everyone’s a winner.

If we turn against people who won’t just applaud and congratulate every action, calling them infiltrators or accusing them of working for the opposition, we will fail to learn from our mistakes, we will continue to hit our heads against the wall while the militarists continue to make their wars with impunity, and we will drive away from the movement the very people who could help make it more effective. The real infiltrators will be the ones cheering the loudest when the movement does ineffective or self-destructive things.