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Varieties of Civil Disobedience for the Age of Trump

January 1, 2017

This New Yorker piece by Jelani Cobb briefly surveys 1960s history to get at the necessity of conducting “democracy in the streets.” That period of history is worth revisiting for the reasons Cobb suggests. One thing Cobb doesn’t address, however, is the variable forms of protest and civil disobedience that might be utilized from the period.

What actions, tactics, and considerations might best help in resisting an administration whose party controls both houses of Congress? The same history Cobb cited is instructive. The Sixties suggest three to four forms of protest. At least one other tactic, from earlier periods, might also be helpful. These forms constitute distinct nodes, even while some overlap exists.

The most familiar form of civil disobedience from the Sixties is the march-and-chant/sing model, utilized effectively by participants in the Civil Rights Movement. This often involves placards and signage. It also means discipline. It may or may not involve actual disobedience, depending on local ordinances (permits are possible). This model often involved direct action (i.e. sit-ins being the best known action, noted by King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail). This form requires speeches and public speaking, most often by respected and well-known leaders.

The Sixties involved many forms of the purposed spectacle . I see this form as consisting of three separate iterations.

The first is civil mass gatherings that did not involve marching or end in a direct action. This form of purposed spectacle consisted of large rallies or gatherings, either at a political site or perhaps in the form of a concert. A number of anti-Vietnam War protests took these forms. They are civil or cultural events, and not purposely disobedient of local laws (permits are gathered). But direct actions were not a purposed end point.

Another form of purposed spectacle involves visual symbolic actions that capture the imagination, or that are transgressive. Numbers of participants vary. Direct action is not utilized. This could involve art and material culture, as well as people. The Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s saw numerous forms of this kind of protest (e.g. Piss Christ, AIDS quilt, rap/hip-hop music, pop music, etc.). The point is to attract media attention. These spectacles may or may not involve some form of disruption or civil disobedience.

There is also the spectacle of intentional disruption. This form directly and purposely breaks an ordinance, law, or the general peace. The point is be outrageous and generate outrage. I’m thinking of the Yippies and Weatherman here.  The “violent” iteration of the Weatherman (i.e. the Weather Underground), when they carefully avoided human harm, still fits in this spectacle model.

Looking further into the past, another form of civil disobedience, rarely utilized in U.S. history but that has obtained some productive results, is the general strike. This is mass protest maximized as direct action in the form of a work stoppage. As was the case with CRM marches, the spectacle of the event is a given, but somewhat incidental. The point is intentional disruption and disobedience in the economic sphere.

How do we translate these forms for 2017 and beyond? What will be most productive?

Given that the current president-elect is attempting to own the “law and order” mantra, my sense is that spectacles of intentional disruption will be counterproductive. The backlash can be tremendous, both from the general populace and the police. Given the potential political power of the current administration, I also think that the time for visual symbolic actions has passed. They will also be ineffective.

For the near future, I suspect that the general strike, civil mass gatherings, and disciplined march will be the most effective forms of action. On marching, leaders are necessary. While Bernie Sanders might serve as a bridge, new charismatic and young leaders have not yet risen to national prominence in our current political environment.Those new leaders will also be helpful in coordinating, if necessary, a general strike (though social media has proven effective in organizing mass gatherings and actions).

The utilization of any of these three forms will depend on the scale of action, or policy proposed (or implemented), by the current administration. And perhaps I’m forgetting other forms that may be useful? – TL


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