On March 19th I celebrated the 5th anniversary of lies, carnage, waste, and misery by participating in direct actions in San Francisco. I arrived fairly early as actions were planned all day long before the 5pm march through the city. Already by 10am there was a sizable gathering, with various groups doing different actions targeting specific war profiteers, while a march down market street grew in size. My intentions of participating in several actions was cut short by 10:30, when the gathering clogged the intersection around Market and 3rd, blocking traffic. This was the site of the first “die-in” of the day. There had been small numbers of police along the streets all morning, but now a swarm of officers arrived with purpose. Before long and without much warning they moved quickly to isolate as many folks as possible by urging the crowds back on the sidewalks and by farming a ring around the 20 or so steadfast citizens lying in the street. They quite over-dramatically ripped through the large banner folks were carrying and overwhelmed a young woman on one end of it with force. I was told by an officer I was under arrest and that if i tried to move or leave i would in addition be resisting arrest.
The police soon had things “under control” and before long began processing the arrestees. I was surprised how bureaucratic it was and before long i was zip-tie cuffed and put in the back of the bus with the men while the women were put in the front. For the most part, there was restraint of force, but with a line of police with riot gear coming toward you and people scattering in a lot of directions you are a bit overwhelmed in the chaos and you just never know what might happen.
I have never been arrested before and it is not fun being cuffed…i mean you can’t itch your nose! The bus-ride over to the jail was a lesson in solidarity, as the women led the group in melodious protest songs: “From Iraq to Palestine….Occupation is a crime!” We were unloaded into a type of outdoors holding cell. The unloading was surreal. The sheriff, unkempt, expressed his sympathy with us, unlike the 2 officers that arrested me. When I asked them what they thought about all this, they were non-committal. When I asked them if they weren’t in uniform if they would be out there with us, they said that was a big hypothetical. I read that to mean they were just doing their job. This officer McConnell said he had served in the first gulf war and this occupation and was disgusted with it all. He said he had several citations for protests. Later we would see him finger-write in the dirt on the back of the police-bus: “End the war!”
We didn’t know how long we were going to be there and it was a cold, windy day. The women in one pen, men in another, we kept ourselves occupied by exchanging stories, singing songs, and running in circles to keep warm. Several other bus-loads of arrestees arrived through the day, greeted with cheers by the rest of us. Two of the new arrivals were Daniel Ellsberg and Father Vitale. Ellsberg is the Pentagon Papers guy and a long-time resister. I had seen him speak the weekend before at a rally and commemoration march for vets along with Cindy Sheehan and the head of the Iraqi Vets Against the War. Father Vitale, in his 70-’s, is also a long-time activist against wars of aggression and the School of America in Georgia and had just recently been released from federal prison for protesting outside a military training center for interrogators down in Arizona. He was delivering a letter criticizing torture! I have to say I really felt part of a long tradition of necessary resistance to imperialism among these amazing and courageous folks.
After several hours we were fed (PB & J plus cookies and orange juice) but we started to get cold and anxious. Most of us had planned to get cited and released quickly. But it probably isn’t wise from the police perspective to let rabble-rousers back onto the streets. We started demanding to be let go by shouting, “Let us out! Let us out!” and “You have families, so do we! You go home and we go free!” Probably due in no part to our insistence, but rather than ambiguous law and high-profile arrestees, and that it was soon dusk and they would have had to transfer us to inside cells, they finally began to out-process us. So after about 7 hours they let us out, just in time to head down to the large gathering at Civic Center Plaza and then join the march to the mission district! I joined my partner for the march and we stayed close to the vibrant drum procession amidst an amazing and colorful crowd that included people from every walk of life, from high-schoolers to Palestinian families to Vietnam and Iraqi Vets to Latino immigrants to nuns to old men and women.
Some reflections: First, if you are going to be arrested for civil disobedience, it is probably good to do it in SF. The policing style is very different here than other major cities (let alone other countries) from stories told ’in the pen’ and it was unlikely we were going to be in danger of too much physical harm. They are used to protests, die-ins, marches, etc. The actual charges were a traffic violation (infraction) and refusal to obey (misdemeanor). Not to mention the cops were quite chummy in prison, which I’m not sure is a good or bad thing. Do you want to be chatting up with those who are keeping you imprisoned? It is a very strange dynamic. Most cops looked bored and quite frankly it was probably mostly tedious work that distracted them from other police work.
The protests and marches that lasted all day and evening were fairly sizable and impassioned. Though by all accounts they were but a fraction of the 2003 gatherings here and worldwide. Can you believe I woke up the next day and the occupation and war spending was still ongoing? If the 2003 protests didn’t prevent war, these shenanigans were unlikely to produce any real political effect. But I’m not sure that was our expectation. Yes, that is a primary goal, but we are not so naive to think it would be effective in that way. That’s not the point. It DID get front page media exposure, even among some big corporate media. It DID provoke response from the authorities. It DID keep the issues highlighted in the public’s eye. And It DID foment solidarity among committed resisters to empire across a wide range of issues and causes. It DID keep activists energized and maybe drew in some other folks. We saw many people watching from the sidelines…from windows along the streets….maybe they are closer to joining the action. That in itself is a worthy and attainable and necessary goal.
I want to challenge when and where I can and to constantly educate myself and join the action—and this is important—both inside and outside “the system.” I worked for about a year at at a member-based direct congressional lobby for peace and sane foreign policy. I became disillusioned with the prospects of working within the system, when the vast majority of “our” representatives vote for on-going militarism. There are some good reps and senators but when you have 90% of even California reps taking campaign contributions from the weapons industry, you realize that a few petitions to those reps don’t a peace movement make. And of course that’s the tip of the iceberg of what’s wrong with the system (add American apathy and ignorance, rigged elections, pro-war media conglomerates, etc.) I realize that we have to hit it from every angle, so I’m not saying elections and pressuring representatives isn’t important. But I have come to the conclusion for me that it has to be challenged directly, threatening the status quo, not allowing elections and politicians to sap and direct our energy into mere ’safe’ and appropriate channels.
I have zero faith that ANY leading candidate this year will fundamentally change the status quo or challenge the premises of empire. The fact they are leading candidates by default MEANS they have been seen to be NOT directly challenging the political and economic elite. The ones that did have already been eliminated. One or the other might be better on some domestic issues, but we have to continue constant pressure…and in the unacceptable ways. Like the Berkeley Marine recruiting center protests and city council resolution a few weeks ago that raised a raucus and condemnation across the Right and even among sympathizers. Like the west coast port strikes. That’s when you know you are being effective. It’s too bad we haven’t got to the point were this is widespread and commonplace. My view is that we are too comfortable. We are not for the most part at all willing to put things on the line. I saw it every night talking with people while at a peace organization.
When all is said and done I am reminded of the folks at the beginnings of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement, women’s voting rights movement, homosexual rights movement, immigrant rights movement, and the hard and long struggles without any guarantee of success. These are the heroes and the ones we owe so much to. I resist and challenge because it is the right thing and I want to stand for something bigger than myself and be on the right side of history.