Orderly protest is an oxymoron.
I attended the real Pro-Life march in Petaluma Saturday, a protest against racism and child abuse, against Fascism and gleeful cruelty.
The people there, from wide-eyed children to fierce elders who I suspect weren’t at their first rodeo, showed up to express outrage on behalf of people they don’t know. For these people, families ripped apart by Republican-sanctioned ICE is a wound that could prove fatal to our democracy. The truest test of character is how you treat the stranger, how generous you are in easing the suffering of others, even to the detriment of your own creature comforts and interests. This was a march of character.
But something gnawed at me. The whole thing was just too damn polite.
From the start, planners herded marchers into a sanctioned space. Anyone who drifted into the adjacent parking lot of the NAPA Auto Parts store were gently reprimanded while NAPA employees ventured out to take mealy mouthed pot shots at protesters. Once the march began, chants arose to abolish ICE, free children from cages and unite families. But the loudest, most jarring voice, was a an organizer on a bullhorn exhorting marchers to move off the street, to process in an orderly fashion on sidewalks. For our safety. But I learned the real reason from the bullhorn wielder who warned that if I didn’t leave the street “they” will shut us down.
I replied incredulously, “That’s the best thing could happen.”
A protest is an act of civil disobedience. Disobeying civil authority is kind of the point. So is interrupting the status quo. Holding up traffic, annoying business owners, disrupting commerce, going to jail and pissing off a lot of people are steps toward progress.
Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) strived to be “shut down,” the more brutally the better.
Civil Rights activists meticulously planned to make sure they disrupted entire communities. They plunged into Woolworth for sit-ins that drew sputtering retribution. They so enraged whites with their Freedom Rides that their buses were firebombed.
Martin Luther King’s gentle saintly image is a bald deception. He was not polite. His non-violence was a weapon not pacifism. Weeks before his death, in a high school gymnasium in Detroit, King refused to condemn rioting, acknowledging that rebellion is sometimes necessary.
“Rioting is the language of the unheard,” he said. “[America] has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
King roared about the complacency of black pastors not about black people blocking traffic.
Marchers wrote wills before leaving for a protest. They were subversives challenging dangerous people and they never knew if they were coming back. The aim of the Civil Rights movement was to fill jails, and respond non-violently to the brutality of police and locals.
King and other Civil Rights leaders chose Selma because Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clarke promised violence. Like Bull Connors before him, Clarke played into King’s hands. Bloody Sunday, the vicious attack on protesters by Clarke’s thugs, was one of the most polarizing moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
Rep. John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull at Selma, said this weekend, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week , a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
A Republican strategist said that protests today are less civil than in King’s times or during the Vietnam War. I’m afraid he has been reading alternative history. Protests today are too civil.
The protesters who rose up and stopped a war in Vietnam, were not polite. They burned draft cards and swarmed into public places relishing in the discomfort they caused polite society, who saw them as unwashed radicals who hated America. Their relentlessness intrusion into the daily life of Americans, their utter disregard for civility, forced our government to end the war.
LGBTQ activists didn’t gain rights through courtesy. They rioted at Stonewall and they gave homophobes the heebie-jeebies with their brazen, beautiful, sexually liberated Pride parades. They raged when the country disregarded the AIDS crisis and raged again each time one of their friends or family members were beaten or killed in alleys or on frozen fence lines. I’m Here and I’m Queer was not an expression chosen for its diplomacy.
A legitimate question is whether we protest so politely and orderly because we are afraid. Afraid of making a scene, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of where our own anger can drag us. These are truly legitimate fears. The challenge is to explore whether what is happening is worth the risk.
In Spring 1963, Martin Luther King’s movement in Birmingham, Ala., was floundering. The numbers for his mass meetings were dwindling and local blacks were turning against him. He didn’t have enough protesters to continue filling the jails and movement leaders were trying to plan a dignified exit from the city. However, the eccentric preacher James Bevel was devising a radical plan. Send in the children.
At King’s meetings, children outnumbered adults and they were demanding to do what their parents wouldn’t. King said no. The Birmingham jail was no place for children.
When the doors of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened at midday May 2, a line of 50 teenagers emerged two-abreast, singing. Police hauled them to jail. A second line of children emerged followed by many more. Children as young as 6 years old stood their ground until they were arrested. Confused police called in school buses to haul the children away and chased stray lines that slipped past them and headed for downtown business establishments. That day a thousand children marched into the jails. Black parents in the nearby park were dismayed to see their disobedient offspring going to jail, but some gave way.
One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, “Sing, children, sing!”
The next day Bull Connor instructed his officers to subdue and intimidate protesters instead of arresting them. When more than a thousand new children turned out in disciplined, non-violent lines–unintimidated– Connor erupted. Police dogs tore into the lines of children and fire hoses knocked them along the pavement like tumbleweeds. The principal of the black high school locked the doors preserve order, but students trampled chain-link fences to join the protest.
Photos of the violence appeared on front pages across the country, opening the nation’s eyes to the crisis.
Renewed by the children, adults returned to the protest lines. Protesters swamped the jail and downtown streets. By Monday May 6 more than 2,500 adults and children filled the jails, and four times that number showed up to King’s mass meeting that night. From that moment King threw caution to the wind. He took more risks, he became more radical.
There are startling similarities between the Southern whites of that time and today’s Republicans. They hate to be called racist, but they hate minorities even more–or at best have no problem with racists.
The difference is in what people will do to resist them.
I heard a flutter of that old spirit today. An elderly woman told her friend, “I don’t want to die before I go to jail.”
She won’t get there without stepping off the sidewalk.