The State of Civil Disobedience on the Left and the Right

In an article entitled “Stop Complaining About Right-Wing Protests! The Left Should Be (Re)Learning How It’s Done”, progressive writer Dave Lindorff says:

The real question is why is the left in the US so goddamned polite and domesticated…

Back in the late 1950s and the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement wasn’t polite and domesticated. It brought activists to events in the Deep South all the way from New York and Boston. Its members rallied in the thousands to shut down segregated public and even private institutions. Its activists occupied buildings on university campuses, boldly confronting police and police dogs and armed men in white robes.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, anti-war protesters in turn shut down recruiting and induction centers, destroyed draft board records, tried to close down Washington, DC, got arrested in the hundreds, incited soldiers to desert and then helped hide them from the law, exposed the 1968 Democratic Convention as a farce, and faced down armed police and soldiers repeatedly, at one point in 1970 closing down the nation’s campuses in a national student strike when soldiers shot and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University.

Years earlier, when workers were being abused, they occupied factories, forcibly shutting them down with sit-down strikes, battled Pinkerton detectives and armed National Guard forces, and set up tent cities in Washington to make themselves heard.

And they won great victories.

Where is that passion today? For the most part, the left, in all its various guises–environmentalists, labor unions, civil rights advocates, health care reform advocates, anti-war activists–have become neutered office-chair potatoes, sending canned emails to their elected representatives or to the White House, occasionally marching politely inside of pre-approved, permitted and police-prescribed routes, and attending sponsored events like the current round of town meetings, perhaps to raise polite objections to aspects of a proposed piece of legislation.

The agenda of the left in today’s America is being written not by uncompromising radicals in the street as in earlier decades of struggle, but by the bought-and-paid Democrats in Washington…

Where is the passion and commitment we once had?

It all seems to be on the Right these days.

And in a new article published in The Nation entitled “We Need More Protest to Make Reform Possible”, professor of politics Peter Dreier shows that change cannot happen unless people engage in civil disobedience:

Why is there so little protest in response to these hard economic times? …

Public opinion polls reveal that Americans are angry … And to be effective politically, that hope has to be mobilized through collective action–in elections, meetings with elected officials, petitions, e-mail campaigns, rallies, demonstrations and even, at times, civil disobedience

Since Obama took office, there have been very few public expressions of discontent. We’ve heard very little about everyday Americans–workers facing layoffs and the loss of health insurance, jobless Americans exhausting their unemployment insurance, renters facing eviction, homeowners facing foreclosures, farmers losing their farms, high school students facing cuts in school programs and college students facing rising tuition–mobilizing to demand immediate action to end their hardship and suffering…

Lobbying and meetings with members of Congress. E-mails to politicians … purchasing TV and radio ads … occasional rallies and public forums … bloggers and supporters [are not enough].

These polite activities are necessary, but they don’t create a sense of urgency or crisis. With some exceptions, they don’t generate TV stories and newspaper headlines. They don’t put pressure on Congressional fence-sitters to fear a groundswell of negative publicity or a threat to their re-election chances. They are not sufficient to balance the influence of corporate campaign contributions…

The protests that occurred after FDR was elected, and that accelerated after he took office, were not spontaneous bursts of action by angry people. They were organized by people who were willing to take risks, acting somewhat on faith and suspecting that if they acted courageously, others would follow.

As Marshall Ganz points out in Why David Sometimes Wins, a brilliant new book that focuses on Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, the instigators of social movements don’t wait for the time to be “ripe.” They find people and invent or reinvent tactics to help them make the most out of what is typically an awful situation. They make their own opportunities, hoping, almost as a matter of faith, that at some point the crack will open wider and they will be able to take advantage of it. Often they fail and are thus lost to history. But as Ganz says, sometimes they win. And small victories whet their appetite for further change. If they have the skills, persistence and imagination, initial gains can become steppingstones to bigger victories as more people get involved.

At the core of an effective social movement, Ganz explains, is a diverse group of leaders with a variety of skills, a deep commitment to their cause and a willingness to take chances without being foolhardy…

FDR was initially ambivalent about protest and about radicals. For example, he wasn’t happy about the pressure exerted by Upton Sinclair–the muckraking journalist, novelist and onetime Socialist–to endorse him after Sinclair shocked everyone by winning the Democratic Party nomination for governor of California in 1934 on a platform to “end poverty in California.” But FDR understood that Sinclair’s primary victory, and his impressive campaign and narrow loss in the runoff, helped change the nation’s political climate and made his own success more likely, since he could be seen as more moderate.

Likewise, FDR wasn’t enthusiastic about the mounting protests by farmers, workers, veterans, community groups and the advocates of the Townsend Plan (for old-age insurance), but he understood their utility.

FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”

He understood that the more effectively people created a sense of urgency and crisis, the easier it would be for him to push for progressive legislation.

So – according to Lindorff and Professor Dreier – if progressives want the Obama administration to stop acting George Bush – carrying water for the giant banks, defense contractors and other powers-that-be – liberals have to stop being so “polite” in their protests. I’m sorry to tell my friends on the left, but – according to Lindorff and Professor Dreier – Obama is not going to be progressive unless he is forced to do so by less-than-polite means.

Indeed, even Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton said:

I think there’s actually a pretty long tradition of people shouting at politicians in America.

He also said that “spirited debate” and “vigorous conversation” is only natural.

On the other hand, conservatives have to guard against being co-opted by people who don’t have the best interests of the American people in mind. For example, I hate to tell my friends on the right, but – according to Rachel Maddow – the town hall protests were organized by the same people who organized the “Brooks Brothers” riots who stopped the Bush-Gore recount in Florida. And according to a former high-level health insurance lobbyist, the insurance industry has a big hand in the protests.

And I’d like to remind my friends on both the left and the right that the powers-that-be are always trying to divide and conquer the American people by creating a fake democrat versus republican dichotomy. Don’t fall for the old divide and conquer trick.

The enemy is not the guy on the other side of the aisle. We all have to remember that the enemy is giant financial corporation, defense contractor or other powerful player trying to manipulate the system and subvert the rule of law.


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