Anti-War Protest in San Francisco Huge, Unimpressive

I wrote the entry during the days before the invasion, sampling some style and content from Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Voltairine de Cleyre. I sent it out to my friends and family on . I sent the news out to my coworkers. I’d already spoken to my boss (& my boss’s boss) about my decision earlier in the week, before the invasion.

I’ve gotten a lot of support all around. One of my coworkers said that although he disagreed with my politics, he admired my principles. Many of my friends have sent messages of support, ideas for places to live, contact information for other people engaged in similar actions, worried questions, and general bemusement.

My flatmate and another friend of mine were arrested at ’s protests in San Francisco. I went, but didn’t take part particularly actively. I went to the Federal Building in mid afternoon, where officers in armor and with automatic weapons had the building surrounded and completely blocked off. Protesters therefore seemed superfluous, but there were a bunch blocking a nearby intersection. Splats on the ground in front of the building, I later learned, were from an earlier “vomit in.” A group of about 20 Quakers held a silent vigil there also, with their signs.

“May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.” — John Woolman, Quaker

The Quakers have had 300 years of experience with war tax resistance in America — something I only know about in a superficial way, but would like to learn more about.

In the Quaker Assembly refused a request of £4000 for an expedition into Canada, replying “it was contrary to their religious principles to hire men to kill one another.”

A friend of mine who is a Quaker, or at least who grew up a Quaker, has little patience for these demonstrations. First he has an aversion to what he calls “hippies” by which term I think he means to cover the sort of scraggly lefty dopes who always show up at these things spouting simplistic chants and waving signs equating Bush with Hitler and adding that hemp could solve our energy crisis. I’m with him. It’s embarrassing to be sharing the anti-war argument with a bunch of idiots. I’m heartened only slightly by knowing that if I were on the other side of the issue I’d have at least as many morons to deal with.

My friend is also unpersuaded that the recent protests were to good effect. The protesters tied up the streets, shut down the federal building, stopped much of downtown’s business, kept over 2,500 police officers busy all day, were arrested in numbers of over a thousand, brought traffic downtown and on nearby freeways to a standstill — they more or less accomplished their short-term objectives. But to what end?

“This is the largest number of arrests we’ve made in one day and the largest demonstration in terms of disruption that I’ve seen,” said the [recently unindicted] assistant police chief, Alex Fagan. “We saw a ratcheting-up from legal protest to absolute anarchy.”

I can see arguments for both sides. On the one hand, shutting down the federal building (for instance) seems to me a perfectly legitimate tactic. On the other hand, shutting down streets and businesses is confrontational and hostile towards people who would otherwise be reachable through persuasion and now may be less so. Some of the protesters were verbally abusive towards the drivers of vehicles they’d stuck in traffic jams, which didn’t make sense to me except as a gloating display of power.

The whole exercise had a flavor of coercion to it — for instance the chant: “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” The gloating way in which traffic was stopped seemed to say “we’ve got the power now, and we’re going to use it to decide how you’re going to have to spend your time.” On the one hand, asserting power in an aggressive way seems a natural response to a government that has told you that you’re powerless and it can do what it likes. On the other hand, I wonder if what we really need is more of an alternative to power politics.

Some of this is probably the influence of the Gandhi I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been reading what he wrote about civil disobedience to see if maybe I’m a Gandhian pacifist. I’m not. Gandhi would have had the Jews willingly give up their lives en masse in hope of shaming the Nazis into reform (I’m not exaggerating, he’s actually got a brief essay to that end):

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France, and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

Now it’s possible that if the Jews in Nazi Germany had engaged in a sustained and disciplined satyagraha campaign, this might have offered some useful defense. But I can’t go along with this romance with suffering and martyrdom. I read with interest Gandhi’s descriptions of the salt tax revolt in India, but didn’t come away with much that I thought I could use.