November 9th and the Changing Repertoires of Activism
The reports are just rolling in, and boy, has it been enlightening. A few weeks ago, the University of California Police Department released a report determining that the real source of problems at Berkeley on November 9th was that police weren’t allowed enough “force options”—particular, pepper spray. Shortly thereafter, a quasi-independent review board at Davis came to a somewhat divergent conclusion that, there, the use of pepper spray was “objectively unreasonable.” And, after seven months of painstaking research, the Berkeley Police Review Board has closed the book on November 9th by declaring that campus police “may” have violated campus norms and procedures. One wonders: isn’t a “possible” violation of the rules usually the starting premise for an investigation, not its end point?
Of the lot, I think the Edley/Robinson report to the UC President comes closest to saying something interesting about November 9th—which is ironic, because it was the only report which wasn’t tasked with investigating what happened on November 9th. One thing about the report stood out to me in particular. Early on, the authors note:
Although we began this project by addressing “protest” activity generally, we soon realized that the central challenge before us related to civil disobedience… It is only when demonstrators engage in civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with laws or regulations as a form of protest or as a means of drawing attention to the demonstrators’ message—that more complicated and controversial issues arise (5)
I think the authors are on to something. Policing “protest” at Berkeley isn’t complicated, because most of the 50-or-so registered “protests” at Berkeley are sanctioned, contained, and, ultimately, totally meaningless. The issue, really, is about how to deal with certain kinds of protest tactics that deviate from this predictable norm.
In a sense, I’m grateful that the authors called what we were doing “civil disobedience.” After all, immediately after November 9th, Chancellor Birgeneau sent out an e-mail claiming that we hay “betrayed” the legacy of the civil rights movement. Now, by calling what we did “civil disobedience”, they are now implicitly connecting us to that tradition. For me, at least, civil disobedience immediately conjures the image of black college students in the deep south, sitting patiently at a segregated lunch counter, bravely bearing police harassment and violence in order to dramatize injustice and spur legislators to action. It’s an overly generous comparison, and while I’m not sure we’ve quite lived up to it, I’ll take it.
There’s only one problem: what we were doing on November 9th wasn’t civil disobedience, it was direct action. While for Occupy Wall Street activists and their ilk this is all fairly obvious, I think that the difference between “civil disobedience” and “direct action” is crucial for understanding what happened in November, and why things ended so badly. And, because it relates to my current research interests, it seems like a good starting point for a brief excursus into the sociology of protest repertoires.
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Activists like to think of social movements as strategic actors, cleverly adapting innovating new tactics to achieve their goals. In truth, though, activists tend to resort to the same narrow range of tactics—like marches, demonstrations, and petitions—over and over again, while ignoring a host of theoretically possible other ways to express dissent. These “repertoires” of protest tend to vary coherently over time and between countries. As the late sociologist Chuck Tilly demonstrated, prior to the 19th century people “protested” by acting directly to address the problems they perceived. If a group of people thought bread prices were too high, they would riot and seize the granary. If they didn’t like a tax on tea, they’d throw the tea into the sea. If you were pissed off at your feudal lord, you’d burn down his house.
In early 19th century England, though, this changed. Protesting moved from the realm of the material to the symbolic: instead of acting directly, people sought redress indirectly by making appeals to powerful external actors. The rise of what Tilly calls our “modern repertoire” of contentious politics, then, is closely tied to the rise of democracy. Although civil disobedience might seem to be much more radical than an orderly march, it still follows the same basic logic of other actions in that repertoire. Even if CD by nature emerges from a frustration with the ineffectiveness of institutional political acts, like voting, it still requires a belief that the system as a whole basically works. You don’t do CD unless you believe that elected representatives will eventually be responsive, if only you show—through breaking the law—that your particular cause is an important one. The paradox of civil disobedience, then, is that it simultaneously reinforces the legitimacy of the political system even as it trespasses one part of it. The black students carrying out sit-ins were violating one particular law, but in so doing they were validating “The Law” and the representative-democracy from which it flows as the appropriate way to address it.*
Since the 1960s, CD has become an increasingly routinized part of the protesting landscape. In annual demonstrations against nuclear power plants, for example, demonstrators will often arrange with the police beforehand, making their own inevitable arrest an integral part of their message. But this is only part of the story of how protest tactics have evolved in the last few decades. Although “direct action” never really disappeared—strikes, for example, are in some respects direct actions—I believe (and, hopefully, will someday empirically document) there has been a major upsurge in this tactic. The “direct” shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999, is a visible example, but projects like “guerilla gardens” started in abandoned lots or Food Not Bombs’ free meals from discarded food are also “direct actions.” The demise of state-socialism has, I think, effected a change towards anarchist models of organizing that prioritize these kinds of tactics that attempt to immediately, and directly, change society.
This is a major shift. As John Rawls suggests, CD only makes sense if you believe you live in a “nearly-just society”; DA, on the other hand, is a tool for those who believe that the whole system of representative democracy is broken and the best we can do is work around it at every turn. And, of course, while the lines between CD and DA are always fuzzy, the two entail profoundly different ways of relating to the police. As David Graeber notes:
Those carrying out a ‘civil disobedience may willingly surrender themselves to the police; even if they don’t…they act in the full expectation they will wind up in jail…Direct actionists, in contrast…are trying their best to get away with it (Direct Action: An Ethnography: 205).
In short, for the civilly-disobedient, the police are an integral part of the script of a protest; for the direct actionist, they are a hazard.
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A charitable reading of the Edley and Robinson report is that the authors are trying to return us to a previous model in which civil disobedience was, well, civil. After all, within Occupy, it has often seemed like the tacit understanding between police and protesters engaged in CD—you let us break the law, and we’ll let you arrest us and face the consequences—had broken down. After November 9th, I found myself wondering why no officer ever bothered to ask me if I would submit to arrest peacefully. In this respect, Edley/Robinson—with its call for mediation and dialogue—seems like a step in the right direction.
But would it have changed anything? For better or for worse, on November 9th, we wanted to “get away with it”—not make a statement through getting arrested. We weren’t setting up an encampment because we wanted to dramatize the irrationality of the university’s rule against encampments. Nor were our tents a publicity stunt to get legislators to wake up and pay attention to our concerns. We were making a direct intervention into the operation of the university, attempting to create a real (not just symbolic) alternative to privatization and austerity. Had the university attempted to mediate, we probably would have ignored them; had they asked us if we wanted to be arrested, we likely would have said “No.”
A lot of occupiers like the way that DA “heightens the contradictions” within our system, forcing authorities into a binary choice between letting protesters do what the want—whether occupying a public space or starting a farm on nominally “private property”—or engaging in spectacularly stupid acts of repression. The point, though, is that not everyone realizes this is happening. People like Edley/Robinson continue to believe that they are dealing with a variant of classic civil disobedience, and so they’re confused as to why activists aren’t playing their part. Sociologically, it’s a fascinating moment, in which there are not just divergent opinions about the issues we’re protesting about, but also different conceptions of what these protests actually are. For protesters, though, it’s bad news, as the police and some elements of the administration seem to have picked up on the fact that the only way to stop direct action is to beat people into submission – which is why, for all it’s reasonableness, the Edley/Robinson report will be completely ignored.
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* Of course, this may reflect the fact that – were they to do anything more radical – the violence against them would be even more extreme.