Ushering in a new era of Civil Disobedience: Strategic Explorations for our times

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894

I remember hearing some version of the above quote probably when I was in my early teens, and getting it, liking it, and tripping off it.  It is still one of my favorite political quotes.  It sums up perfectly the pompous and self-serving nature of arguments that uphold the “rule of law” as an essential to a fair society.  Anyone blessed with a normal human sense of fairness notices many instances in which laws are enforced unfairly, and unequally, and are used to further social inequity rather than protect all citizens, and promote the general welfare of all.  Some laws are just plain unjust, and morally indefensible, such as the Jim Crow laws of old, and similar laws today which codify discrimination based on sexual identity or gender.  Then there are laws that are unjust because they have a greater burden on certain segments of the population, usually people with less financial clout, or political power.  Attacking unjust laws, and unequal enforcement of laws, has always been a key component of protest movements as a means of highlighting inequality and establishing a moral high ground, which emboldens people to take on powerful social interests.  One of the first times I was arrested was for serving food at Golden Gate Park with a small group of folks from Food Not Bombs in 1988.  The idea that we couldn’t feed people, who were hungry, in a public park, was absurd to me, and I had no problem breaking that law and being arrested for it.  As it turns out, we were able to highlight the moral bankruptcy of the law, and spread the Food Not Bombs ideals and mission through our civil disobedience.  A mission that carries on strongly to this day!

One of the things that I loved about the early months of the occupy movement was that disdain and disregard for unjust laws, and the unfair enforcement of laws was widespread and assumed.  We all were willing to break at least some laws that we knew were unjust, and in many cases just plain stupid.  From camping on the plaza, to feeding people without permits, to helping people back into foreclosed homes, and disrupting financial business as usual, we followed our own moral compass, and ethical standards.  While there was always disagreements as to how to go about breaking laws, we all were willing to expand our tactics to include some level of law breaking, and were willing to face consequences for following our moral code over the legal code of an unjust society.  It is my belief that we should return to this practice of breaking unjust, immoral, and unequal laws in a way that is more strategic, and targeted.  Over the last year we have seen the methods that the power elites have been willing to employ against our protest, and we have seen how their methods curtail our unity, and undermine our appeals to morality over legality.  In the process, however, they have provided us with the blueprint to build our case against them, and carry out a campaign that highlights the injustice of the law, and the need for us to break unjust laws in order to do our work.

The encampment at the plaza allowed us to break several unjust laws, and areas of enforcement at once.  We were utilizing public land and resources to benefit the community, without applying for proper permits and following zoning regulations which inhibit regular folks from gathering together, and helping each other.  We had the numbers to be able to feed and house people, entertain each other, and conspire together openly, in ways that a small group couldn’t pull off.  Often these types of social programs are the realm of the churches or other monied groups who take it upon themselves to care for the “less fortunate”.  Of course, in exchange, church groups and charities get to promote their worldview and gain positive publicity for their work.  This is an example of how legality, mixed with economic clout, and legal protection, allows certain groups to benefit and grow by providing needs and services that the government is unable to, while other groups, like Occupy, are kept from helping  people due to unfriendly government policy, and enforcement of permit laws, and regulations.  Often, health and safety concerns, and rules are cited against nontraditional groups like Occupy, while these concerns are not used to prevent church groups or other agencies from providing services.

I believe that Occupy should again take up a campaign to feed, and provide other services to Oakland citizens, and that we should intentionally disregard laws and regulations that are used to dissuade us.  For instance, healthy balanced, nutritious meals being served by us are no more a health concern than the low quality meals and food that many food bank programs provide.  We have a moral right to serve healthy food to people, and to talk to them about life and all that it entails while we do.  Similarly, maintaining group camps, and providing supplies for homeless people to gather in safety together is the moral thing to do.  Especially when the alternative is to send people to sleep in dangerous, noisy, polluted, and unpleasant areas, such as under freeways.  Utilizing public space, and unused facilities, be they public or private, is morally correct, and laws and regulations that prevent this should be challenged.  Other areas that should be challenged pertain to city funds being used inefficiently for law enforcement jobs for officers who don’t live in Oakland.  These large budget expenditures have not led to safer communities, and other means of lowering violence and keeping the peace are not given similar resources, and jobs are not created for Oak landers to develop peaceful solutions for ourselves.  Similarly, “poor taxes” in the form of increased traffic fines, and other fees are levied against those who can least afford them, and the money raised is paid to predatory banks like Goldman Sachs, and to provide financial incentives to gentrifying business as overseen by the entrenched forces at city hall.  All the while long time Oakland residents see little or no investment in jobs and programs for us.

These are but a few areas that call for sustained campaigns of civil disobedience, and public pressure in many forms.  The beauty is that by carrying out these campaigns, we could build our movement, highlight injustice and the lack of creative solutions from city hall, and call to question the increased dependence on law enforcement to enforce a society built on inequality.  The key would be to create organized, sustained campaigns, which would employ a variety of tactics.  While it is tempting to look back at the camps, and try to recreate that level of civil disobedience, I believe that would be a strategic mistake because it would draw focus away from the morality of our campaigns, and instead recreate the militarized climate of repression that the powers that be are more comfortable with.  We need to ridicule their previous heavy handedness, as we show that we are just trying to do good deeds, and come to each other’s aid where the government has failed.  We need to reaffirm our moral right and duty to disobey unjust laws, and to challenge outdated and indefensible methods of social control.  These types of campaigns have many historical models that we could draw from, and lessons drawn from current campaigns, such as the powerful actions being enacted by undocumented members of our community, that are already underway.  The election seasons final two months could give us an excellent back drop from which to highlight politics based on morality and humanity, vs. the soul less, money driven policies of our current system.  Let’s go break some bad laws and make some good things happen!