A few weeks ago I was at a political demonstration outside a government building. I don’t want to give specifics because it didn’t go so well. The people who organized the gathering were well-meaning, but perhaps they were novices. There were few demonstrators there. Arguments began to break out. That’s right, we were fighting among ourselves. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I was grateful no media had shown up.
The apparent leader had gone into the lobby to ask permission for the group to enter. Permission was denied. A woman near me began speaking at me, saying they had no right to deny us entry, we were tax payers, this was our building, she used to work in a building like this one, she knew what was what. I said, “I’m not prepared to get arrested today.”
She looked aghast. “They can’t arrest us!” she said authoritatively.
Ah, I thought, white privilege. As a white person, I have to confess I don’t always recognize it. But the naiveté of believing “they can’t arrest us”–well, I don’t even know what to say to that.
I’m writing this because it seems the opportunities to go out and demonstrate will be increasing for some time. We want to present our point of view in the best possible light. Therefore I feel a need to put on my elementary school teacher persona to present a few rules so first we can all
#1 Be Safe
and second, so we all
#2 Respect others
#3 Respect ourselves.
These were my classroom rules for decades and they always worked well for my students.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. A friend of mine told me she saw a demonstration on TV at which folks protesting the separation of migrant families at the border were chanting something about Jeff Sessions being a “Bastard Keebler Elf.” Over and over again, “Bastard Keebler Elf, Bastard Keebler Elf.” Seriously, people? Don’t you see we have the moral high ground on this one, but we blow it when we sink into petty name calling? Sure, I’ll admit that at the first big women’s march the day after the inauguration, I delighted in the many posters filled with humorous yet caustic slogans and unflattering art work depicting the #PussyGrabberInChief. But that was a more innocent time. We had no idea how dark and ugly it was going to get. Nazis and White Supremists are welcome here now. Things are serious. Yes, humor is great–and we desperately need to laugh. But you’re not Stephen Colbert and I’m not Samantha Bee. If the best you can do is name calling and cursing (I’m looking at you, Robert DeNiro), then save it till you’re home with your peeps. We do not want to give the Alt Right any more ammunition to use against us.
So to review: Be safe and be nice. Never ever ever get into a loud argument with people on your own side. TV stations would love the optics of that. And if you’re a woman or a person of color, best not to get into an argument with someone on the other side who looks like you, i.e. same gender or ethnicity. Think about it. It won’t look so good on TV either.
Now just a few words about civil disobedience. I’ll admit I was never brave enough to get arrested at a political demonstration, but I knew folks who did a few decades ago. Here’s what I think you should know: when I told the woman at the poorly attended rally that I wasn’t prepared to be arrested that day, I really meant that I had plans for the weekend I didn’t want to miss. But to really be prepared, do this: make sure a family member or trusted friend knows you are going to the rally and that you may be arrested. This person should be ready to come bail you out and help advocate for you if necessary. Someone else at the rally–someone who will avoid arrest–should have the name and phone number of your designated friend so they may be contacted for you.
Many times civil disobedience is planned, and no one who doesn’t want to be arrested get arrested. If you are white, it’s generally easy to avoid arrest. Just follow the rules and follow directions. Don’t think they can’t arrest you if you’re not breaking the law. Just ask people of color; they know better about this than we do. Be alert and be ready to testify for those you see arrested without cause.
The rallies I’ve attended this past year and a half have all been peaceful and safe. There is no reason anyone should hesitate to come out to a rally that is held during the day and is well organized, where the leaders have obtained permits to close the streets and direct traffic away from the crowds. At such demonstrations, it’s unlikely anyone would be arrested. You generally do not need to worry about that.
If you want to attend a rally where the police will be challenged and/or civil disobedience is planned, that’s fine too. Just go in with your eyes open. Here’s a link to some useful information: ActUp Demonstration Manual
Please come out and join us. We need every voice now.