by Greta Christina
Note: 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, Bay to Breakers. 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.
Copyright 2003 Greta Christina. Previously unpublished.