Making Our Arrests Count: How We Can Keep Civil Disobedience Meaningful
“The Tombs” is the less-than-endearing nickname for New York City’s Central Booking, the jail you get sent to if you are arrested in Manhattan and set to be arraigned before a judge. This spiraling dungeon below the courthouse at 100 Centre Street is about as ominous as it sounds. Above, the court itself is pristine and immaculate, adorned in mahogany and full of quiet, proper, well-dressed people. But all you have to do is open a door to the back of the courtroom to reveal an underground complex made up of filthy jail cells, violent correctional officers and hundreds of (mainly) poor people (mainly) of color, awaiting their arraignment for anywhere between 10 and 72 hours.
Everything about the Tombs is awful. It’s cold even when the weather is warm and summery outside. The lights maintain their piercing, head-splitting fluorescence even at night, and the bars jut out just so you can’t lean on them comfortably. You eat stale cheese sandwiches and drink milk, though dairy is probably the last thing you want during a 40-hour stay in a mass cell with one toilet. You are stripped of most things about you that make you human — your ability to manage your own affairs, to move around, to communicate with the outside world, to be productive, to identify yourself. And of course, as you sit there, you realize this is only the tip of the iceberg of the kind of repression the state is capable of, or the kind of violence it heaps on working class communities of color every day. All the while, you are still supposedly presumed innocent.
From occupying Liberty Square and marching in the streets without permits, to carrying out targeted acts of direct action against the banks that crashed the economy or the courts that auction off people’s homes, winding up in places like this has been an integral part of the Occupy Wall Street’s life since its birth. Yet we’re only at the very beginning of understanding our civil disobedience — the ways in which it grows but also shrinks the movement, the positive and negative impacts it has on the movement’s internal culture, and the challenging but ultimately vital role it plays in the struggle for liberation.
The whole world is watching
The mass arrests and pepper-spraying that took place in New York City on September 24 drastically changed the course of the movement. The NYPD dragged us kicking and screaming, in handcuffs, into the headlines. It won sympathy and solidarity from a lot of people who were — until then — watching from the sidelines, trying to decide if the movement was worth supporting, identifying with and joining. The arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge a week later did even more of that, catapulting the movement into the national and international arena. Those events dramatically inflated our numbers, deepened our resolve, and won us tremendous popular support. We were unstoppable. The whole world was watching. We were winning.
Many of us in the movement have gotten used to thinking that it’s always a good thing to appear in the paper getting arrested in large numbers, as long as we can practice nonviolence and come out of it looking innocent. But there’s another side to it. What if the politicians and bankers don’t actually care if we are in the news? What if the NYPD doesn’t care if the violence looks like it’s their fault or ours? Maybe to them it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, as long as what is being communicated is that anyone who sets foot in the streets with the Occupy movement has a good shot at ending up in the Tombs, or worse. In fact, they might be thinking that the more people who see those gruesome images on the cover of the Daily News, the better.
Getting arrested is difficult for anyone, but some of us are privileged enough to emerge from our 40 hours in the Tombs without much damage done, feeling even more die-hard, confident that we will be greeted and taken care of by fellow activists, friends and the National Lawyers’ Guild. But, of course, we all have different calculations to make –based on race, class, gender, sexual identity, educational background, access to systems of support, family obligations and other things — that put us in a better or worse position to take risks in the movement. Make no mistake about it: The people most affected by the injustices we fight have always been the backbone of any mass movement for social change. But the consequences aren’t the same for everyone, and people are most inclined to lay it on the line when the things at stake are real, critical and pressing. So while the images of activists being beaten and arrested might win sympathy, even solidarity, they might just as well prevent many people from actively participating.
On the one hand, it’s incredibly important to be drawing connections between Wall Street and the police, between capital and the state. When police drag indebted students out of a bank lobby they are occupying, or when a family is forcibly evicted from a foreclosed home so it can be handed over to a bank, it drives home the point that the state plays a very particular role in this economy, and vice versa. We need to unmask that, to show the system’s nakedness, its willingness to resort to violence to maintain order and profit. Civil disobedience is one way to shine a spotlight on the struggles people face under systems of oppression, the ways these systems are intertwined and the things ruling groups do in order to protect them.
We don’t always choose when we are arrested, and we don’t always have control over how it is depicted in the press, but we do have some power over what kinds of battles we choose to wage and how we choose to wage them. While the image of the police arresting protesters reveals some things, it can obscure others. Sometimes we contribute to this problem ourselves, for instance when we take the bait and narrow our focus to fights over public space or the right to protest in and of themselves. The interviews many activists give then become focused on the abuse they suffer from violent cops and no longer about the issues that brought us into the streets. People organize self-indulgent actions, such as the recent march that commemorated the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. In better moments, we respond to the violence used on us with a broader stand against police brutality as a whole, with an emphasis on its wildly disproportionate use on communities of color. But even these long, fiery marches in solidarity with victims of state violence eventually wind down and become, again, a tired standoff with the cops themselves.
A culture of arrest
For many people inside Occupy Wall Street, getting arrested has become a rite of passage. In a lot of ways that’s very reasonable; getting arrested is an important educational experience for an activist to go through. When we are arrested, we learn to take one for the team in a disciplined way. We show solidarity toward people we don’t even know. We experience the interconnectedness of the state and the economy, race and class, patriarchy and violence. Most importantly, many of us — particularly those of us who are younger and have lived relatively privileged lives — learn about our place in the world. We learn to explain ourselves to people who come from different backgrounds from us, and we are reminded that we have much to learn from the life stories of the others. We learn to shut up about how bad the sandwiches are, because we will come out to an army of cheering friends bearing gifts of all kinds, while many others in the Tombs will come out alone and downtrodden, returning to their lives with a day’s less pay, while others won’t come out for months or years. These remind us why we’re in the struggle in the first place, and they’re all incredibly valuable lessons.
But the culture of arrest in the movement has troubling aspects to it as well. Although many people in the movement practice civil disobedience without any ego and at great personal risk, it still often contributes to a macho, largely hetero-normative dynamic that compels people to constantly ante up, to compete for street cred or to want a cool arrest picture to put on Facebook. What emerges is a more-radical-than-thou culture that unconsciously but visibly elevates those of us who carry out actions in the streets over those who maintain the office or work in the kitchen, giving more power and recognition in the movement to those willing to take a bust (or talk about it), while leaving largely unrecognized the work behind the scenes that makes all of it possible. It also compels people to take unnecessary risks, leading many young activists to rack up dangerous police records in very short periods of time, with the charges getting increasingly more serious. Let’s not forget that the more successful we are, the more of a threat we will be, and the more repression we will face — particularly those groups in the movement and in society who are most threatened as it is.
In many ways, the civil disobedience we practice with our arrests has left the realm of tactic or tool and has become an impulse, a band-aid, a knee-jerk reaction, a way to define oneself, something to cultivate for its own sake. But as problematic as that may be, still, it must continue to be an integral and critical part of any resistance movement. The question is not if we should practice civil disobedience, but how we can do it in ways that push the struggle forward in effective and healthy ways.
Know your enemies
Civil disobedience is a natural response to a world like ours; it means refusing to be a bystander to the apparent trajectory of the social order. We don’t think twice about the direct action of stopping traffic to protect a child who wandered into it unknowingly; we would practice civil disobedience any day in situations like that, never thinking of standing by or waiting for a majority vote. The same is true in our movement. We know this system is broken, we know it doesn’t have to be this way and we know there is an alternative. So we stop traffic. The question is not whether we should use civil disobedience as part of our movement’s arsenal — but how, for what and when.
Civil disobedience isn’t principally about the cops (unless it is about the cops, for instance, because they shot another black kid for being black), although it clarifies the role police play to protect the interests of the status quo. It’s not about public space in itself, although public space is one of many tools for building a movement that is capable of being both an alternative and a staging ground for a struggle. Getting arrested isn’t the only way to be radical or courageous, nor is it worthy of more praise than so much of the other work that takes place in the movement. It is not always a winning media strategy, and it does not always use our resources most effectively. It should not come at the cost of continuing to develop and popularize a variety of methods for struggle. It is not a good in itself.
Civil disobedience is a tool, one we employ to win real things and push the struggle forward, as part of a broader strategy to transform society. It should be thought-out and well-timed, carefully employed on a worthy target and led by those people who are most affected. We must practice it with vision and precision, and highlight the real issues that brought this movement to life. We should use it to stand directly in the way of the systems of oppression around us and those who govern them — to block their roads and their ports, to shut down their conferences and their conventions, to clog their banks and their governments, to take back our schools, our workplaces and our homes. We must use it wisely and intentionally, but fiercely and passionately. We must make business as usual simply and utterly impossible, prying open — bit by bit — space for the world we are creating.