Pointless Civil Disobedience Theater Gets Anti-War Movement Nowhere

Jim Macdonald has posted an Open Letter to National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance concerning their civil disobedience action at the Pentagon.

In that action, 200 protest marchers carried a coffin covered with pictures of Iraq War victims to the Pentagon, ostensibly in order to deliver this coffin to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The police who guard the Pentagon set up fences to block the path of the protesters, but 51 of them climbed the fences and were arrested.

As eager as I am to see people committing to civil disobedience, I am very skeptical of the value of these arrests. I’ve called these sorts of things “cargo cult” protests because they seem to be the result of fetishizing a single element of successful civil disobedience campaigns (that is, that people got arrested during them) as though that element is sufficiently powerful all by itself even when it is ripped from its context.

Jim Macdonald’s “Open Letter” covers many other topics as well, but has some very good observations on this theme that caught my eye (excerpts):

At the site of the arrest, I understand that many people were moved and empowered by the experience. I am thankful for that, but as an individual witnessing it, I have to admit that I was not moved in any good way and was in fact horrified by what I was witnessing. Watching person after person climb and go under this arbitrary fence line into the waiting arms of the Pentagon Police left me wondering if everyone in the action had undertaken the action simply to be arrested. It seemed there was a great rush of enthusiasm toward climbing the fence.…

The aim of the protest was to reach Donald Rumsfeld. Of course, activists know where Rumsfeld lives, where he goes to church, and probably could easily determine on any given day where Rumsfeld is. If we wanted to reach Donald Rumsfeld, why did we feel it was necessary to have so much ceremony before going the long way to an office we could in all likelihood never be able to reach? Who were we speaking truth to? Did we go through all that trouble to put on a display for a small section of the Pentagon police force? If so, why didn’t we say that from the start? And, if we are speaking to them, why didn’t we aim from the beginning to deliver them the coffin? Didn’t we avoid such a tactic because what we are after is an end to the war in Iraq and that we believe that Donald Rumsfeld has some power in making that stop?

It seems to me that what happened on Monday was generally a display of vanity and not Satyagraha. We chose a route and a course of action that was least likely to reach Donald Rumsfeld and chose instead to put on a spectacle, one carefully negotiated with the same law enforcement people who you chose to defy at the end.…

Perhaps, it was a media event, but what did it expose? Was it new? For all the media that showed up, I was not surprised by the relatively small amount of coverage of the event. Was this a grand show of resistance rather than the real thing, a staged place for a staged confrontation with little consequences for anyone involved in the action? If Satyagraha is supposed to change the hearts and minds of the oppressor through the cheerful suffering of the oppressed, I wonder who had soul force on either side of the fence. It seemed that the police officer standing solitarily and doing his job quietly while standing in the face of verbal abuse seemed to have at least as much of the spirit of a satyagrahi, at least on this day. And, as someone who believes that the prisons should be emptied and that it should be criminal to be a police officer, that is saying something! Is that why some people were driven with all sincerity to thank the police for the job they were doing? And, if we had less soul force than the police, that is a sad state of affairs.

In short, this was not a symbolic action. Many actions are derided for being merely symbolic, but I challenge that view in many respects. All actions aim to speak at those we think are perpetuating injustice, and so any action that is worthwhile is in some sense symbolic. Actions that are called “merely symbolic” are often not symbolic at all because they do not speak to their intended targets. They are like letters that don’t spell up a word, or noises that are incoherent. You have heard the philosophical riddle about whether a tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound; one can say the same about actions like this. And, while some of us heard it; while some in the Pentagon heard it, it did not really make a sound that anyone could understand.