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It’s Not Civil Disobedience if You Ask for Permission

Chicago’s July 7 protest against gun violence sought not to challenge but get endorsements from those in power.

Father Michael Pfleger (2nd left) and Reverend Jesse Jackson (2nd right) walk with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson during an anti-violence protest, which shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, July 7, 2018.

On Saturday, July 7, social media was flooded with images of an event in Chicago that was advertised as a shutdown of the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest gun violence. Led by celebrity-pastor Father Michael Pfleger and co-sponsored by half a dozen local groups, 3,000 people marched onto the expressway, at first only occupying two lanes, with the permission of state police. After about an hour, Pfleger announced that state police would be shutting down all four lanes of traffic.

Some celebrated the protest as a powerful act of resistance. In Chicago and elsewhere, some of us who do the work of direct action and community organizing were far less impressed, and a few of us openly expressed that we found the event misguided and harmful to ongoing organizing and resistance efforts. As such, we have received some questions about why we feel the way we do. We, too, have questions — questions we feel we should all be asking ourselves about any direct action in which we consider participating. We are sharing some of those questions here to hopefully build a more honest, accountable and ethical practice of solidarity with all those who would take action with us in the streets.

What Is the Demand?

A direct action is an attempt to leverage, seize or demonstrate power. So, the question is: To what end? If you lead 3,000 people onto an expressway for a duration of time the state has agreed to, you have successfully mobilized people but have not created any leverage in a power struggle. If we unpredictably hold space and disrupt the flow of business as usual and the powerful must respond to the disruption, then we are challenging power and the status quo. In Saturday’s event, we saw conditions that could only occur with a political insider at the helm, including a blessing by the mayor and other officials. While some argued in the days leading up to the action that the event was youth-led, there could be no confusion about who was in control on Saturday. Father Pfleger led the march and negotiated every crowd maneuver with the police in detail — even turning to the crowd at one point and declaring, “You always try to negotiate before you demonstrate!” This assertion — that groups should always ask for permission before attempting to disrupt and take power — is demobilizing, ahistorical and consistent with Pfleger’s longstanding support of Rahm Emanuel.

What Power Is Being Shifted?

If you are simply asking the state for permission to express yourself and acquiescing to its rules, you may be taking some form of action, but it is not direct action. Those words have a specific meaning. The modern concept of direct action was inspired by a vision in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension … that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

Of course, nonviolent direct action is just one form of action. As grassroots organizer L.A. Kauffman writes: “‘Direct Action’ can refer to a huge variety of efforts to create change outside the established mechanisms of government.” In its various forms, direct action happens when we step outside of society’s preset or typically prescribed solutions in order to challenge state and other power.

When we say that something is not direct action, we are adhering to poet Solmaz Sharif’s admonition to “let it matter what we call a thing.” We are striving for clarity rather than condemnation. Having a permitted march is not inherently bad, but, like petitions or calls to our elected officials, these are less about disrupting power than they are about appealing to it. People representing institutions with systemic power have adapted to the impact(s) of these socially prescribed appeals — if they feel the impact at all. In some cases (not all), people doing the work of direct action have already attempted every preset solution, such as talking with their elected officials, to no avail. Direct action is often an escalation and a tactical response to a system that is not offering acceptable outcomes. With direct action, we draw outside the lines. If authority sanctions that, we are not really outside the lines but considered inside the tent.

It’s important that the distinctions between these types of events be understood, and that one not masquerade as the other. If a powerful person like Father Pfleger wants to hold a large event with the permission of the state, that is his right. But he should do so honestly, rather than attempting to market his state-sanctioned event as something it is not. The new people who have been mobilized to join such events need to understand their nature. Not every event must be a risky endeavor, and not every event will directly shift power or require any capitulation from the state — but no event that is not an attempt to shift power should be portrayed as direct action.

Saturday’s march movements were co-directed by Pfleger and the police. This should not be confused with direct action, and it is in fact dangerous to compare these actions or results with those generated by actions that do aim to shift power. Challenging power often puts people at risk. It is dishonest to compare the risks or results of actual civil disobedience with a parade orchestrated in concert with structural power — in this case, a mayor who benefited significantly from Saturday’s events.

By endorsing Pfleger’s march, Rahm Emanuel was able to create a counternarrative to his troubled relationship with protesters, who have often been abused while objecting to the murderous brutality of his police. By making some phone calls to facilitate Pfleger’s march and throwing his support behind it, Emanuel offered the public a different story than the one they’ve been given about his regard for the First Amendment — one punctuated with a humorous tweet.

Who Directly Benefits and Who Doesn’t?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Twitter exchange with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is a clear demonstration of who truly benefited from Saturday’s “shutdown” event. Rahm’s quippy response to Rauner received nearly 7,000 retweets at the time of writing. This is some of the best PR the mayor has gotten in a good while, and in an election year, no less. It was also a good day for neoliberal policy advocates and all those who want to see the police operate with impunity, our schools shuttered and our community resources redirected to harmful institutions like prisons, because a leader who is unapologetically committed to those ends was briefly seen as a “man of the people.”

Politicians are often happy to support events that make no concrete demands of them. What did Rahm Emanuel commit to by supporting the march? What demand did he give way to? What resources did he release or agenda did he embrace? Historically, political leaders in vulnerable positions — in this case, Rahm Emanuel — often give out concessions to maintain social order and frankly, their own legitimacy. In fact, as writer and organizer Charles Preston pointed out on Twitter, the irony is that some of the people who were marching were demanding the reopening of clinics closed by Emanuel himself.

All of this, of course, was by design. It is not a coincidence that a friend of the mayor, who has helped to prop up Emanuel’s leadership, created an event under the guise of a resistance moment that has now elevated that mayor. The leadership of an event informs the character of that event, and to expect otherwise is to expect a miracle.
Some local organizers saw a pro-Emanuel narrative on the horizon in advance of the event and acted accordingly. On Sunday, Frank Chapman, a South Side organizer and the director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, shared a reflection on the march with friends in the Chicago organizing community that included these words:

Unfortunately some of our friends had asked us to endorse this march to shutdown the Dan Ryan. We choose not to. Why? Because we will not be a part of any unholy alliance to get Rahm Emanuel re-elected. We will definitely not be a part of any discussion of ways to curb the city’s gun violence that fails to mention the [Chicago Police Department’s] unwarranted use of deadly force, murdering Black and Brown people.

Who Is the Driving Force Behind the Action?

To be sure, there were individuals marching on Saturday who want real and urgent change in their communities. Individuals impacted by various forms of violence are in pain, are grieving, and are looking for access points and outlets. The march was in mainstream local news headlines for days leading up to the event, and a sense of safety was promised by Pfleger and leading organizations with his “nonviolent” rhetoric and a subsequently heavily marshalled (by Illinois State Police) march. However, it would be irresponsible to let these individuals present at Saturday’s march be used as human shields, deflecting any critique of the march’s leadership which was seriously questionable, opportunistic, and strategically lacking a real sense of what is actually needed to bring true transformation in Black and Brown communities.

Political figures with questionable, self-serving platforms will often surround themselves with sympathetic figures. But the presence of well-meaning, well-intentioned or even beloved individuals will not overwrite the leadership of people whose self-interested words and philosophies would park our efforts firmly within the status quo.

When the mayor and a “top cop” like Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson throw support behind a protest of gun violence, yet heavily disinvest in and heavily criminalize the communities most directly affected on a daily basis, we have to stop, question the fruitfulness of the action and quickly lift the veil. When an event purporting to be addressing gun violence does not center the violence of policing itself, then we have to be suspicious of its aims.

Is the Event What It Purports to Be?

Civil disobedience does not always result in the arrest of those participating, but an act committed with the explicit consent of police is not “disobedience.” We do not say this to demonize any act of cooperation with authority, but words mean things, and an action that does not unfold without the step-by-step permission of law enforcement officials is not civil disobedience. Characterizing it as such is harmful to those who would actually enact such resistance, because it gives people a false impression of what such acts will and should look like.

Community members who participate in genuine acts of civil disobedience in Chicago will be negatively impacted by Saturday’s events, as unfair expectations and comparisons between their actions and Saturday’s “shutdown” are now inevitable. Because, for many, Saturday’s “shutdown” imparted the false lesson that there is a “right way” to disobey (that doesn’t actually involve disobeying), and when bad things happen to people who are being disobedient in the future, some will point to Saturday’s event and say that there’s a way to be disobedient and that those who are jailed and brutalized simply did it wrong.

Pfleger’s event also served to bolster the image of Chicago police, with Father Pfleger marching arm-in-arm with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and praising him for making the march possible. The violence and racism of Chicago’s police are infamous, as is the culture of impunity that facilitates their harms. And yet, at this event, people were seen taking selfies with Eddie Johnson, who has famously claimed that in all his years as a police officer, he has never witnessed misconduct. This obviously aids in no one’s liberation.

How to Tell Something Is Not a Direct Action

Writers and scholars like Dean Spade, Peter Gelderloos and others offer us useful questions and frameworks for assessing whether particular tactics, reforms or forms of resistance are recuperative or liberatory. These are questions that help us in determining whether something is actually direct action or a parade to reinforce the power of the state. Recuperative tactics, reforms and forms of resistance actually succeed in legitimizing harmful institutions. They can give them cover and expand their power to harm.

Inspired by their ideas, we offer the following guiding questions for assessing whether you are actually organizing direct action:

  1. Is your action legitimizing harmful institutions? Or as Dean Spade asks: Does it legitimize or expand a system we are trying to dismantle? For example, what does it mean to cooperate with cops as part of organizing your action? If the goal is to shrink the power of policing, why are you thanking them for their presence rather than calling for their removal?
  2. Peter Gelderloos asks: Does it have elite support? If it does, then your action is probably not liberatory.
  3. Is the action colluding with power or resisting it?
  4. Is there a clear demand that will improve the lives of the most marginalized?

Years ago, writer and movement facilitator adrienne maree brown wrote a blog post titled “a perfect action,” that captures the spirit of direct action. (You can watch video footage of the action adrienne describes here.) The action described was an escalation with a clear message challenging police power. It was the antithesis of Saturday’s expressway “shutdown.”

Ultimately, no system of injustice will consent to its own overthrow and the system will never indict itself. People who have won great victories in liberation struggles have not done so by getting the step-by-step consent of their oppressors. They took strategic risks, and often suffered for them. There is nothing in our current historical context that exempts us from the realities of power or history — and anyone who suggests otherwise is not working in furtherance of our liberation.

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