I’ve been to various types of protests over the past few years in both Cambodia and Seattle. In late 2015 I went to a Black Lives Matter march for the first time in downtown Seattle. But, showing up to protests is just step one in beginning to understand civil disobedience. On January 7, 2017 I attended my first “direct action training”.
The Civil Disobedience 101 course was two-hours and hosted by Our Revolution Ballard (Ballard is a large neighborhood in Seattle). A crew of white folks in their 50s and 60s who’ve been activists for decades, and who’ve all been arrested and spent time in jail for protesting, looked at us, a group of 40 (mostly millennials like me) as they began the session.
“In the next several years we are going to be called to do more to resist,” one said. She went on to introduce the other activists in the room, saying that some of them had been involved in the planning and execution for actions like blocking railroad tracks so an oil train couldn’t get through, hanging from a bridge on a rope to block barges from passing, sitting in a line of kayaks to block an oil rig, and more. Here are some pictures of those actions:
She then directed us to raise our hands if we answer “yes” to any of the following questions:
“Has anyone been to a protest?” Almost everyone raised their hands.
“Has anyone done an act of civil disobedience?” About half the room raised their hands.
“Has anyone been arrested for doing so?” About a third of the room raised their hand.
“Has anyone been jailed for doing so?” A few hands go up.
“Has anyone been to trial?” One hand goes up.
She then asked us to go around the circle, everyone saying one word that describes how they feel about being at this training:
“American”, “nervous”, “resolute”, “overwhelmed”, “civic duty”, “motherly”, “excited”
Our instructor then asked us to venture an answer to the question, “What is civil disobedience?”
One person raised their hand and said, “Doing illegal things for good reasons. Disobeying unjust laws. Trying to bring light to a wrong. Sometimes this means breaking the law, sometimes it doesn’t. Civil disobedience is pushing a movement forward in the face of direct violence against it.”
The instructor then said, “No major social change has ever happened without putting bodies on the line.”
Our instructor continued her questioning, “Why do people put their bodies on the line?”
One person said, “The systems have failed, all other tactics and legal options have been exhausted, that’s when you use direct action.”
Another said, “It gets attention, especially media attention, which rewards flashy events with time and coverage.”
It was becoming clear, everyone in this room feels closer now to a time when direct action is the only option we have to protect ourselves. I have to admit, this all made me feel nervous.
The instructor then informed us of some practical things to think about. “What police say you’re arrested for might be different than what you end up being charged for,” she said. “And being arrested can have implications for travel outside the U.S. Remember that not all arrests are the same, even for the same act and in the same city.”
The training then moved on to role-playing. We were assigned one partner. With my partner I was instructed to act as if I’m telling a family member that I’m going to participate in a direct action and could possibly face arrest. My partner was then to react negatively to that idea and I was to practice talking them through it. We then reversed roles.
We changed our partners and did another role-play. This time I was to be an angry worker trying to get to my job site while my partner was a protestor who refused to let me through. We then switched roles again.
The last portion of the training was a discussion of roles that must be filled for any successful direct action. It’s a lot more to think about than I ever imagined. You need:
People willing to be arrested, people not willing to be arrested to help those who get arrested, a provider of food and water/prescription meds that people need, a police liason, a media liason, people in charge of visuals, legal counsel, a plan for where to use the bathroom, medics, someone to track who’s in jail, peace keepers, a photographer and a person to track it all live on social media.
The instructor told the group,”If there are going to be arrests, make sure it’s a lot of arrests so that the police have to use ‘pretend jail'”.
She also said to make sure you go with an affinity group and to build trust with them in the weeks and months ahead of any action by having potlucks and other get-togethers. I basically felt her telling us that this was one of the main reasons our Neighborhood Action Coalitions exist.
As the course ended, I found myself somewhat nervous, but also more curious than ever about the passion of the folks in the room. These people care so much and are so worried about the state of things that they are preparing to put their bodies on the line in a worst-case scenerio. I found myself wanting to learn more, in fact I’d love to take a university-level course on civil disobedience. Luckily, because of the time we’re in, there are already set trainings to go deeper into all of this, led by the same activists who taught us today.