Defending Disruption

I’m still on the road, and am too tired to write anything new, so here’s something from the archives that I think will be new to most of you. I wrote this in 2003, at the beginning of the second Persian Gulf War, when anti-war protests seriously disrupted traffic and business in San Francisco for about a week. It never got published, but I like it and think it’s important, so I’m publishing it here.

Defending Disruption

I’ve had some disturbing conversations with friends lately. These are people I respect, people who are solidly progressive/liberal. They’re vehemently against the war — and yet they’re also vehemently against the recent anti-war protests that blocked traffic in downtown San Francisco. They argue that the protests disrupted life for everyone, disrupted the lives of people who aren’t responsible for the war and many of whom oppose it. They argue that the protests endangered lives by blocking traffic for emergency vehicles. They argue that a disruptive annoyance isn’t a good way to convince anyone of your position. Here’s what I want to say to my friends — and to any progressives/liberals who share their irritation and anger.

I want you to think about resistance movements of the past. Think about the railroad strikes in the early days of the labor movement. The Vietnam protests. Gandhi and the Indian resistance to British occupation. The early days of ACT-UP. Heck, the American Revolution. Pick the ones you’re fondest of. And think about how disruptive these movements were to the lives of everyday people, people who had little or nothing to do with the injustices being protested. Think about the traffic that was blocked by, say, Dr. King’s March on Washington: think about all the people who agreed with the marchers and yet couldn’t get to work because of them.

Yet when progressives/liberals talk about these movements now, they don’t complain about what a stressful, annoying inconvenience they must have been. They speak about these movements warmly, with respect and admiration for the protesters’ bravery in taking unpopular stands and putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line for them. Why are the anti-war protests different?

If you want a more recent example, think about the UPS strike of a few years back. Damn, was that annoying. It was a much bigger inconvenience than the recent street-blocking anti-war protests, and it inconvenienced a lot more people, and it went on for longer. But every progressive/liberal I knew was solidly in support of the drivers, and more than willing to accept the inconveniences caused by the strike. And while I don’t mean to trivialize the UPS drivers’ cause, the injustices they were protesting were nowhere near on the same scale as the injustices of the current war.

Why are the anti-war protests different?

Lots of things disrupt traffic. Giants games, Chinese New Year, Pink Saturday, the Bay to Breakers marathon. All of these make it hard to get around the city, for regular folks as well as emergency vehicles. And I’ve never heard the kind of vehement anger against these events that I’ve heard about the anti-war protests.

Why are the anti-war protests different?

Some argue that to annoy people who are just trying to get to work is a counter-effective form of persuasion. This may be true in the short run, but it isn’t necessarily true over time. Remember, it took years for the Vietnam protests to shift public opinion.

But more to the point, changing the minds of your opponents (or the undecided) isn’t the only reason for disruptive resistance, and it may not even be the most important one. There are others. Letting the government know that they’re acting against your wishes. Telling others who support your cause that they’re not alone, locally and around the world. Putting pressure on the people you’re fighting and making it impossible for them to ignore you. Refusing your consent. Making your voice heard.

I understand that you’re stressed out right now. I get that you’re upset and angry and freaked out by the war, and I get that the traffic blockades have added to your stress. But resistance movements have to be disruptive. They don’t work otherwise. I have nothing against quiet candlelight vigils, but they don’t get the same level of attention, and they don’t create the same level of pressure. (I was very amused by TV reporters who wondered aloud why the protesters felt they had to block traffic — at the exact moment they were giving the protests extensive air time).

Effective resistance has to get in the way. That’s what it does. That’s how it works. And twenty or fifty years from now, the stress and inconvenience will be forgotten, and the resistance will be remembered and honored. I’m asking you to look at this anti-war movement the way you look at resistance movements of the past, and to honor it here and now.

Defending Disruption

8 thoughts on “Defending Disruption

  1. 2

    Couldn’t agree less. Those who agree are usually those without a job or affected by the disruptions.
    Protesters have no more right to impose themselves upon others then the U.S. politicians and military have a right to impose themselves upon other countries.

  2. 4

    To follow up on what Nurse Ingrid said: And if it weren’t for civil disobedience organized by Martin Luther King and others, we’d still have Jim Crow laws. If it weren’t for the labor movement’s strikes and street demonstrations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we’d still have 18 hour work days, no worker safety regulations, and child labor in the factories. If it weren’t for the civil disobedience of the suffragist movement, women still wouldn’t have the vote. Etc.
    “Those who agree are usually those without a job or affected by the disruptions.”
    That is simply and flatly not true. I think you may have missed the point I made about the UPS strikes. Many people — including myself — were seriously inconvenienced by that strike (I worked for a small mail-order company, and we had to completely restructure our way of doing business)… and yet we supported the strikers 100%.
    And are you really saying that a street demonstration that blocks traffic for half an hour is equivalent to the military invasion of another country?

  3. 5

    This is an ends justifies the means arguement. You were very selective in your causes where you supported disruptive (read violent – because using force for coercion, even if you don’t physically injure anyone, is violence by definition) protests.
    Currently there are religious weirdos in Virginia who are making your arguement. That if they don’t obnoxiously protest at the funerals of dead soldiers, then their “anti-fag” position won’t be heard. Do you support their protest methodology?
    Black homes were targetted by bigots with racist graffiti and psychological intimidation. That was the only way they could get results (“getting the niggers out of the neighborhood”). Do you support their protest methodology?
    As for Revolutions (and the American Revolution was not a “protest”, it was a war), we were extremely fortunate in the outcome of ours. Most revolutions end with horrible regimes perpetrating the worst acts in the name of governance.
    You cite Ghandi – but I notice you ignore the bloodbath that came in the wake of his removal of the British. Millions of dead were a direct consequence because the transition process was too rapid and the core issues had not been worked out prior to transition. Why was this transition so rapid? Because of the pressure being applied by “disruptive protest”.
    How about the French Revolution – brought on by “disruptive protest” which gave France a vicious bloodbath and then gave the world Napoleon Bonaparte.
    Your right to protest ends where my right to walk down the street begins. UNLESS you want to argue that my right to conduct disruptive protests in support of causes you find loathesome is fully acceptable to you. Do you support the right of the KKK to conduct “disruptive protest” (i.e., those that will work – because non-disruptive protests won’t work)? Because if you don’t – then you’re just a hypocrite. The methodologies you embrace for your causes had better be acceptable to you when conservatives apply them.

  4. 6

    Currently there are religious weirdos in Virginia who are making your arguement. That if they don’t obnoxiously protest at the funerals of dead soldiers, then their “anti-fag” position won’t be heard. Do you support their protest methodology?

    Do you support the right of the KKK to conduct “disruptive protest” (i.e., those that will work – because non-disruptive protests won’t work)?

    As a matter of fact — yes. I do support them. Or rather, I support their right to protest is a way that is disruptive and upsetting. I have written an entire piece defending Fred Phelps’ right to protest at the funerals of dead soldiers: Free Speech for Evil, Hateful, Repulsive Nutjobs? You Betcha!
    The right to free speech is a basic right, and whether the content of the speech is upsetting is utterly irrelevant. In fact, the whole point of the right to free speech is that it protects speech that people find upsetting. As has often been said: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect people’s right to express the view that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious.

  5. 7

    Well Greta, here is where you and I would intellectually part company. The right to free speech is not, and never was, an unconstrained right.
    You don’t have the right to go into a courtroom while a trial is ongoing and shout down the judge so that the process can not proceed.
    You don’t have the right to make threatening speech or speech which incites violence.
    Nor should you. The right to freedom of expression, like all basic rights, does have constraints. I disagree with the court ruling which says that Phelps’ protest is protected speech. The right of grieving parents to lay their child to rest in a dignified manner exceeds Phelps’ right to obnoxious speech. He can still enjoy that obnoxious speech – but not at someone elses costs.
    I also noted in your reply you did not mention the extremely negative potential impacts of “disruptive protest” (In Thailand right now where I live we have disruptive protest that is threatening to destroy the civil fabric and start a civil war).
    Do you support elements of the Animal Liberation Front who destroy property and free live stock in the name of their causes – in some cases financially destroying the lives of their targets while doing so?
    How about Timothy McVeighs “Disruptive Protest”. He was quite right that short of an extreme act, nobody was going to listen to him.
    Disruptive protest is nothing more than one group imposing its will on other groups in the name of causes they espouse through violence. Sometimes that violence is directed at infrastructure. Sometimes it is directed at persons. But the intent is the same – to raise the pain level to a point where the target audience changes it’s behavior. And it’s not legitimate.

  6. 8

    The right to free speech is not, and never was, an unconstrained right.

    I never said that it was. And I never endorsed violence as a legitimate form of protest. I understand that there is a line between valid protest, however disruptive, and protest that seriously infringes on other people. And I understand that this line is not always easy to draw. But blocking traffic — which is what this piece addresses — seems clearly on the acceptable side of that line. Especially since so many non-political activities that also block traffic are accepted with little objection.
    As to the Fred Phelps protests at soldiers’ funerals: You apparently missed the part of my piece about that which pointed out that the protest he was sued for was so un-disruptive that the plaintiff in the case didn’t even know it was happening until he read about it in the paper the next day.
    If you can’t be bothered to actually read what I write, and if you persist in asking me to defend positions that I have not expressed and do not hold, I am not going to waste any more time debating with you. Your concern is duly noted. Thank you for sharing.

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