“Most people do not seek violent confrontation. Indeed, most people shy away from it. This being so does not mean that we should not oppose the forces that depend on violence to enforce their will.”
I’ve always had mixed feelings about the concept of civil disobedience. When I was a teenager, the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi and the Berrigan brothers stirred my conscience and even inspired me to take a (civil) risk now and then at protests against the war in Vietnam. However, as I grew older and angrier I gave up any hope (or desire) to be civil with those who represented the policies of war, greed and racism that I was opposed to. Although I did not think blowing things up was an effective method of fighting those forces – even when the targets made sense – neither did I think going limp in some cop’s grip was going to change a thing. So I picked up a few rocks now and then and threw them at appropriate buildings and authority figures. Sometimes I was with hundreds of others doing the same thing. Other times, it seemed like there were only a few of us in a crowd taking any kind of militant stance. At those times, it seemed like the rest of our fellow protesters were doing everything to avoid challenging the status quo and its symbols. Indeed, on occasion some of our fellow protesters were worse than the police when it came to attacking the more forceful among us.
Among many instances where it seemed to me that limiting oneself to civil disobedience was foolhardy and counterproductive was during the Fall 1981 protests against the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California. By this time in the history of protest, all protesters were expected to go through something called non-violence training. This could have been a worthwhile exercise except this training was essentially an attempt by the organizers of the protests to prevent any spontaneous actions by those of us protesting. In addition, their definition of violence included raising one’s voice at police and protest marshals. Instead of allowing an interpretation of the policemen’s roles as enforcing the desires of the corporate state, the only definition allowed was that of police as fellow humans. Now, I have no problem with acknowledging the humanity of the police, but I do have a problem with such a definition if it doesn’t acknowledge that those fellow humans dressed in police uniforms were not there to let us shut down the construction. In fact, they were there for the exact opposite reason. Their definition of humanity was much more genuine in that it accepted the fact that, as humans, we weren’t going to agree here.
To me, the most telling part of the whole Diablo Canyon action occurred on the morning our network of affinity groups was set to block the plant and prevent workers and police from gaining entrance. Although I had qualms about intervening in the construction workers’ livelihood, those concerns were dropped when one of their union representatives told us that the construction workers were paid whether they made it into the plant site or not. That concern resolved, our group of six, which included three of my buddies from the streets of Berkeley – Joe, Southwester, and Ross – decided that we should block the road a mile or so away from the plant, since this was not an area where demonstrators were officially allowed according to an agreement reached between the protest organizers and the police. Since it wasn’t an approved protest area, we figured our actions might actually prevent people from entering the plant since the police would be stationed elsewhere. So, about 5:00 in the morning we headed out, ready to lay nails, tacks and whatever other sharp objects across the road we could find. As we were placing two by fours spiked with large nails on the road, an Abalone organizer came over and started yelling at us for doing so. We were violating the agreement, she said. We told her we didn’t give a fuck about the agreement but truly wanted to slow down the process in the hope that the reactor would not go online. As our argument attracted more attention, we decided to drop it since we weren’t sure who was listening – police or protesters. The organizer removed our nail-laden boards from the road and gave them to one of the cops. Later in the morning, as we stood with our arms linked blocking the road and attempting to prevent buses and trucks carrying workers and materials for the plant from getting in, we were told not to fight back when the police attacked us. After getting hit on the head by a few police clubs, Southwester and I did anyhow and were scolded by other protesters for hurting our “brothers” – the police. In fact, after we were tossed onto the truck by the cops who finally succeeded in tying our wrists and grabbing us, a few other arrested protesters told the cops that we weren’t part of their more civil group.
For some folks, nonviolent civil disobedience is a moral principle. For most folks, it is a tactical approach. If it turns out to be effective, then it is naturally the preferred method of protest. If it does not prove to be any more effective than voting, then it should not be the only form of protest allowed at any demonstration or action. Unfortunately, there are still those committed to the moral principle of nonviolence who believe it is their right to impose their beliefs on every other protester in a particular demonstration. I recall an instance when I lived in Washington State in the US. We were organizing a protest against the US war in El Salvador and one of the plans discussed was an occupation of the local Federal Building. A fellow organizer who was pacifist to the point of being passive said he would withdraw his group’s support for the protest unless we could guarantee that no property would be destroyed in the occupation. I asked him if he meant destroyed by the protesters or the police and he answered either one. In his opinion, any property destroyed by the police would be the fault of the protesters since they “provoked” the police, who were just doing their job. My response to this line of thought was that it was the war that provoked the protest, and it was the police defending the property of the war makers. We didn’t resolve the issue then and it will probably never be resolved. The solution seems to be one where all forms of protest are allowed, since it takes more than one tactic to go up against the forces of war and repression – which brings the debate back into the tactical arena and away from questions of morality.
Most people do not seek violent confrontation. Indeed, most people shy away from it. This being so does not mean that we should not oppose the forces that depend on violence to enforce their will. The state is merely an agency that seeks to have a monopoly on power. This is why elements of it – progressive elements, but elements nonetheless – encourage the concept of civil disobedience. While it certainly worked for Mahatma Gandhi (and to some extent Martin Luther King, Jr), it certainly wasn’t because of any civility on the part of the state. Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher and New Left theorist wrote about a concept he called repressive tolerance. In essence, the concept is that the modern government allows for certain types of protest in the hopes of keeping its power intact. The idea is that this supposed tolerance for protest is in actuality a sophisticated form of repression. We think we are protesting and rebelling, when in actuality we are just letting off steam. Protest becomes a sound, like that of Hamlet’s: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In today’s world, where ten million people civilly protested the upcoming war on Iraq in February 2003 and were relegated to the status of a special interest group by the governments in London and Washington, being civil may no longer be an effective means of protest. Disobedience to the lords of war and occupation must become less civil and more disobedient. Just as the war makers ignore the will of the people, we should ignore them. And we shouldn’t be nice about it.
Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist and the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, was released in 2007 from Mainstay Press. His most recent novel is The Co-Conspirator's Tale (Fomite Press 2011). He currently lives in North Carolina, USA.