Civil Disobedience: What is it? Where is it?

I was at a University of California (UC) rally today, March 4th, in Santa Barbara, where there was a record turnout for this campus, over 500 people showed up to protest a 35% student tuition hike and 10% pay cuts to faculty. Truly a large turnout for sunny Santa Barbara.

The protesters gave a number of largely expected speeches: “We won’t stand for tuition hikes!”, and “Let us send the UC Administration a clear message that we won’t put up with this!”. Unlike rallies in the past, people were genuinely frustrated that tuition would go up by 35%, effectively pricing education out of range from many students. The number of students was the unique aspect, for a campus that is relatively quite there was genuine frustration over tuition hikes.

What was the university response? The Chancellor drafted a message, read at the rally itself (by someone else): “We are dedicated to finding solutions that meet the educational needs of all students.” – essentially a write-off. The police were present and casually observing. All in all, it had the feeling of a casual theme party, with some serious causes at heart (more so than past events), ending in a sense of accomplishment that a rally this large had even taken place at all.

So what was missing? Dedication to serious change. The reason civil disobedience was so effective in the 1960s was because students were willing to physically disrupt services, even go to jail, for causes that affect them so deeply. The one thing that was not raised even once at this rather large rally (for its location) was a call to civil disobedience, the specifics of what is necessary to actually force changed, as opposed to just having a party to talk about it. The basic nature of any civil unrest is: you have to be willing disrupt services if you want real change. What effect does a signature sheet of 300, 500, 10,000 names have on a politician? Zero. This is easily evidenced by Jim Bunnings blockage of unemployment benefits. Despite a majority in both the senate and house, by both republicans and democrats, he blocked a major unemployment bill. Politicians aren’t held accountable to public majority. Nor will the UC Administration or State of California really even blink at a name sheet of “protestors”.

So, I am asking for open comments below: Despite issues which genuine affect Americans, the public, and students – Why don’t we see more civil disobedience? The excuse that people don’t care is not really valid since, as this rally shows, people do increasingly care during a recession – enough so that they’re willing to rally in large numbers. I’m ask for comments below: Despite widespread bankruptcy, clearly bad government and state policies: Why do you think Americans aren’t willing to engage in real civil disobedience, that is disrupting institutions/companies beyond merely meeting for rallies? Clearly its called for, since over and over again, the needs of the middle class are being pushed aside by corporate interests: 1) The banking bailout was paid for by American taxes, 2) Bipartisanship has repeatedly blocked real health care reform, 3) States are dramatically cutting education costs, 4) Health insurance companies continue to burn americans, 5) Banks aren’t showing new loan fluidity for home owners, etc.

Open comments below: Why aren’t Americans willing to actively disrupt the system as they did in the 1960s? (Remember: Not caring is not sufficient, as current trends show people do care about the issues.)

FOLLOW UP (March 9th):

After writing this article, I observed that protests throughout the country numbered in the hundreds of thousands on campuses across the US. At UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota, in particular, student protesters went as far as blocking interstate traffic in protest of rising tuition. Thus, while Santa Barbara did not observe any civil disobedience, there was some taking place in other parts of the country.

As one commentor mentioned: “I would be interested to know what kinds of civil disobedience would be actually productive of change.” This makes a major point, I think. I am not an advocate civil disobedience for its own sake. It must be designed to serve a particular purpose. It follows that violence accomplishes nothing as well, as there are many other forms of civil disobedience which are more productive.

Thus, a proper question would be: What forms of civil disobedience would force educational institutions to reconsider tuition hikes? The answer, I believe, is that it is necessary to disrupt educational services themselves: the operations of institutional administrations. This is why I find the blockage of interstates somewhat disorganized – the disruption of traffic does nothing to the educational institutions that we wish to affect. The state itself, as a much bigger entity, is only minimally affected by a temporary disruption of traffic which it can more easily restore with physical force.

Hosting sit-ins in the buildings of educational administrations is likely to be much more effective. This was recently the strategy taken here at UCSB when the first round of tuition hikes was announced, and around 50 students organized a sit-in in the administrative offices. The result was that, on the second day, police arrived and demanded that “students remove themselves to a different location or face arrest.” The following day, the student body had relocated. This shows that several things are needed for civil disobedience to be successful: 1) a clear plan for civil disobedience, focused specifically on the institution one wishes to change, 2) sufficient numbers of people to make disruption effective, and 3) the will to follow through with its consequences.

2 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience: What is it? Where is it?

  1. The last rally I wanted to attend (and didn’t attend) was a street protest of Latasha Shaw’s death in Rochester, NY in 2007. I was living in the Crescent at the time, or at the edge of it, a crescent-shaped area of Rochester where most of the violent crime took place, according to crime mapping statistics at RIT. But I was scared to go, and I had class. People were pissed off. I thought it might be dangerous. It turned out not to be: the mayor and the Chief of Police both joined the crowd…
    For a recap of Latasha Shaw’s death, see http://rochesterturning.com/2007/10/29/latasha-shaw-isnt-kitty-genovese/ and http://www.minorityreporter.net/fullstory.php?id=66. REALLY shorthand version: Latasha Shaw confronted her daughter’s attackers and was stomped to death, during the day, while other people were out on the street. It mortified everyone. The city, DKX (a local African American-centered radio station) and the Rochester Police Department all said the same thing: this is too much, too far, something must be done. Who exactly were they talking to, though? Baby thugs? Excuse me but there is no point in addressing the disenfranchised, the poor, the un-represented, and demanding they see your point of view. Why should they? They are cut off from your belief system entirely.
    The only other rally I went to was a protest of the KKK in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1998. We had to stand in a cage if we wanted to protest, and there were dogs, police, and armored trucks there to protect the skinheads and the KKK members who had won their day in court and wanted to give a speech. We eventually went in the cage to protest, since we didn’t want to leave. We couldn’t hear the KKK members, they were too far away. So people cordially talked to the line of cops. “Give us some Fries.” “YEAH. An’ some Sprite,” people called to them. After a while people grabbed the cage walls and began to shake them, and it was time to go.
    There is a type of disobedience that happens: it’s economic, social, political–the whole bit– and I alluded to it above. It’s just refusing to play at all. People in the cities of America where I have lived (Rochester, Pittsburgh, and Albany) sell drugs, furniture, digital TVs, laptops, and bodies/sex rather than finish a high school education that doesn’t prepare them for a college career they can’t afford for the hope of a job that often begins with an unpaid internship or a few years’ patience before its found. Civil disobedience may not be anywhere in this comment: two rallies I walked away from, because they might get violent? Aren’t these pristine examples of your thesis (what Civil disobedience, where?). But I hope I at least hinted why this might be so: those with social capital like me, are careful where we’ll use it. Those with none are not playing by the rules, sow hy protest one of them? Those with lots of real capital, live somewhere else.

  2. Check your definition of civil disobedience: a _lot_ of people habitually speed, though admittedly they don’t seem to do it to send a political message. A lot of people make unlicensed copies of music, movies, and software, and while this may not technically be criminal (it’s a civil court issue), I think a fair number of people do this with conscious anger towards the corporate hegemony (which is seamlessly integrated with the government) and would like the act to communicate an essentially political message to Hollywood’s corporate overlords.

    As for more conventional forms of civil disobedience, I suggest these reasons that there is less of it these days:

    * Confusion and lack of understanding as to just what is the problem and what to protest against. This confusion is in large part due to improved corporate and government/political propaganda and continuing degradation of educational institutions. I think people in this country _know_ they are being lied to, they just don’t often know exactly who is lying about what. They see the resulting contradictions, but there are so many forces at work and so much chaff to sort through. You may think it’s halfway obvious, but just talk seriously to someone who wants to chalk it all up to godlessness or something like that: they’ll take much of the same public data and organize and interpret it very differently, and it can make some decent sense.

    * Perception that they will have no effect. Part of this is genuine, part of this is because reactionary forces terrified by what happened in the 60s were very successful in organizing effective counter-resistance after the 60s, and part of this is the aforementioned propaganda. Our government is quite corrupt, and rather openly so — perhaps the most transparently corrupt government ever. Legislation proceeds largely at the behest of the wealthy, because money generates propaganda, and propaganda confuses so many people into misguided action.

    So in my analysis, we are quite simply drowning to death in bullshit and being held under by corrupt government.

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