Friday, November 11, 2011
"Not Non-Violent Civil Disobedience"
UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s statement rationalizing police beatings of unarmed and unthreatening protesters relies on a contentious contrast between those who “chose to be arrested peacefully” and are to be “honor[ed]” because they “were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience,” and others who “chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents” of their would-be encampment. The latter tactic, he writes, is “not non-violent civil disobedience.” Overnight the discussion of Birgeneau’s letter has focused on its willingness to defend beating in the name of non-violence and its fetishization of non-violence as such. In agreement with those points, I'm also interested in Birgeneau's falsification of the history he references and, positively, in the tensions it suggests when we don’t accept such a cheap edition of it.
Birgeneau’s double negative locution, “not non-violent,” acknowledges that the Berkeley protesters were, well, lacking in violence, if also lacking in non-violence. It frames an ambiguous realm between violence and non-violence, further partitioning a field already divided by the term “non-violent” in the first place. A program, or “tradition,” of “non-violence” is not automatically a program of peace. That’s why Birgeneau has to add “peaceful” and “peacefully” to his description; it is not redundant. “Traditionally,” non-violence is the realm of the march and the sit-in, which challenge opponents to commit or resist aggression on their own side. In the history of U.S. civil rights struggle by African-Americans, arguments like Birgeneau’s have often functioned to justify racist force by a white community on the grounds that the actions of African-Americans were provocative, if not violent. That is, the violence or not of protesters’ actions was part of the debate; acts were perceived as violent enough to warrant indubitably violent repression because of their contextual, subjectively perceived aggression. Protesters invited, or provoked, police violence through ambiguous “non-violence” in order to question the cultural norms beneath white perceptions of what felt violent (enough) to them. We miss part of the significance if we view the segregationist charges of provocation as completely disingenuous. The debate, and the genuine confusion, about violence and non-violence recurs in Birgeneau’s distinction between non-violence and that which is “not non-violent.”
Birgeneau has seen Eyes on the Prize and knows he cannot come out against non-violent civil disobedience. Yet he also seems to demur from UC Police Captain Margo Bennett's less subtle statement: "The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence." Pragmatically, he’s talking about the legal difference between being arrested and also resisting arrest. Traditional civil rights protesters, Birgeneau suggests, do not resist arrest. But this claim doesn’t bear scrutiny. It must be said that guides to civil disobedience often advise not resisting arrest on practical grounds: it’s an additional and gratuitous charge if you’re being arrested anyway, and conviction on resisting arrest disallows a civil rights complaint against police. It’s also difficult to say how often “traditional” civil rights protesters resisted because resisting arrest was so often charged to promote conviction in the absence of other persuasive offenses. What constitutes physical resistance is itself in the realm of perceptual ambiguity, to the interest of which this kind of protest calls attention. Even so, the docket records of civil rights struggle show too much resistance for it to be plausible to assert that it was no part of the tradition Birgeneau wants to honor. Chicago v. Gregory (1966), Pennsylvania v. 100 Defs. (1963), New York City v. 7 Defs. (1963), New York v. 17 Demonstrators (1966), and New York v. Gray, Vaughan (1966), to name a few, look like good places to explore further resistance to arrest within the civil disobedience "tradition." In New York v. 17 Demonstrators, for example, “50 demonstrators, mostly mothers on welfare, blocked doors of Dept of Welfare, seeking increased clothes allowances for school children,” and were arrested for “disorderly conduct, trespass, resisting arrest.”
Closer to home, Mario Savio was among a group of protesters who repeatedly picketed and sat in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco to protest its racially discriminatory hiring policies in 1964. They did so in violation of a court injunction that limited the time they could protest, and on March 7, 1964, were arrested “lying down with arms linked . . . blocking the exits of the hotel” (from Savio’s applications to the Mississippi Summer Project, King Center Library, Atlanta; quoted in Jo Freeman, “How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights Demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest,” Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, April 19, 1997; my italics). Freeman, who participated in the Sheraton Palace protests, remembers how their efforts were almost universally reviled.
In thinking about the reception of African-American civil rights protest and examples like Mario Savio’s together, we re-encounter in its most powerful form Birgeneau’s hoped-for distinction between heroic non-violent activists and undesirable, not non-violent students. It's the convenience of this that is at stake in the question of the incidence of resisting arrest in “classic” African-American civil rights protest. In a recent book on the photography of the civil rights era, Martin Berger and David Garrow ponder the anonymous photograph above, showing a woman in the Birmingham protest fiercely contesting her arrest. Berger and Garrow point out that the mainstream history of the era tends not to reproduce such photographs, and we can see the legacy of that pattern in the cliché version of the “tradition” mobilized by Birgeneau. “White publications in the North shunned such complicating photographs,” they note, and left it to segregationist journals to publish them. The “inactive-active opposition,” they argue, “structured the emotional and intellectual response of whites to photographs of dogs and fire hoses” ( Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011, p. 119]) and so regulated both their empathy and their understanding of protest. It is this very opposition that Birgeneau complacently repeats, at once narrowing the possibilities for activism and obscuring the complexity of the history he thinks he honors.