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.
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.