Early yesterday morning, Boston police arrested 141 people taking part in the Occupy Boston movement after they refused to leave a park downtown. As there has been in other cities where arrests have occurred, the protesters were outraged that they would be arrested while engaging in civil disobedience. On the one hand I can see how people who are new to mass protests and civil disobedience would be surprised the first time arrests occur. But on the other hand, it shows a lack of understanding of the history of such movements.
This has resulted in some comments that seem really out of touch with the reality of confronting both the government and corporations. This one, from today's Globe, really highlighted that:
“I think it’s disgusting that Menino said civil disobedience won’t be tolerated,’’ said Andrew Farkas, 29, of Cambridge, who held up a sign that read “Civil disobedience made this country.’’ People here are just going to resort to more drastic actions. And it’s possible that things could turn violent.’’
(Menino is Tom Menino, Boston's mayor.)
To threaten violence over arrests during a civil disobedience action is really stupid. Civil disobedience means breaking the law. When you engage in civil disobedience, you expect to be arrested. That's actually the point.
Martin Luther King Jr. spent countless days in prison for engaging in civil disobedience, and he never once threatened violence. The arrests draw attention to your cause, and force a confrontation with those in power. King talks about this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote after being arrested for civil disobedience:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
If you believe in your cause, and you're going to engage in civil disobedience, then you have to be prepared to be arrested for it. It's a tool. And it works. Today's Globe had two frontpage stories about Occupy Boston and the arrests. That's the most coverage it has received since it began.
If you're not prepared to be arrested, then you shouldn't engage in civil disobedience. Those in power are not going to allow you to break the law just because you're right. It took years and years for King and the rest of the civil rights movement to force change, and even now, going on 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that work is not finished. If the Occupy Wall Street movement really hopes to accomplish anything, it has to know that these arrests are not the last and are not the biggest, but only a beginning.