Why Get Arrested? Why Perform Civil Disobedience?

A Facebook friend of mine asked in response to my posts and photos about yesterday’s protest at the Israeli mission to the UN:

It seems as though you all knew you were going to get arrested and almost seem proud of that? Isn’t there a way to protest without being arrested?

This is a very good question. Let me attempt to answer it, building upon a response I initially wrote in the comments space of my Facebook page.

My friend is right. There are ways to protest without being arrested. I have taken many political actions, participated in many rallies and protests, all without being arrested. I have written blog posts, held up banners, shouted slogans, and marched through city streets in sub-zero temperatures. These forms of protest suffer from one disadvantage: they are often not as politically effective, or as rhetorically and substantively powerful as civil disobedience actions, which culminate in protesters getting arrested.

Consider yesterday’s action for instance. If some hundred or so protesters had shown up, shouted some slogans, all the while confined to the pen the NYPD had put up for us, and then finally dispersed, their energies dissipated, the associated political message would have all too quickly been lost. Yet, precisely because twenty-six folks were arrested and put into jail, we have had a day and perhaps more of social media buzz. Some folks already know what is happening in Gaza, yet others will learn about it for the first time. More conversations will be sparked, and perhaps some might be inspired to take action as well–of whatever form they choose.

Civil disobedience actions are thus more effective in raising political consciousness. Moreover, they are more disruptive of the social order; they send the message–to those watching, to those on their way to work–that business cannot proceed as usual. They impose costs, and thus send a message that political stances, strategies and tactics, such as the US’s support of Israel with a seemingly blank check, lead to domestic costs. Getting arrested shows you are willing to incur a cost yourself – like spending time in jail. It shows your commitment to the cause, which is an expression of solidarity for those who are far more viscerally involved in the political struggle. Getting arrested, and undergoing all the discomforts it entails, sends a message that the cause at hand is not a trivial one, that it has somehow evoked people to step forth and expend time and energy in this fashion. It is not a pleasant experience, and thus provokes the question: Why would people be willing to undergo handcuffing, being pushed around by cops, and being confined in a holding cell?

Imagine millions of American citizens doing the same thing, shutting down traffic, clogging up the jails, bringing all work to a halt. Could the US government really continue with its policies if that was the case? They could, if all they had to deal with was large, vocal rallies. (As they perhaps did at the time  of the Iraq War.)

Politics, political action, and rhetoric go together. Getting arrested is a form of speech; it speaks loudly to the cause it represents. It is another arrow in the quiver of the political activist, one which if used well, can be singularly effective.

Protesting For Gaza: A Day in Gaol

Earlier today, during the course of a peaceful civil disobedience action–at the Israeli mission to the UN, on Manhattan’s East Side–protesting the humanitarian catastrophe currently underway in the Gaza Strip, twenty-six protesters, including moi, were arrested and taken in custody. The protesters included Norman Finkelstein, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin, and my cellmate for the day, the writer Benjamin Kunkel.

Finkelstein had sent out a call last night–via social media–for the protest to take place this afternoon. I was not sure whether I would be able to take part as I had spent most of Monday feeling distinctly unwell thanks to a cold, cough and slight fever. But I awoke this morning feeling rested, went for a run, and decided on my return that I would join Norman Finkelstein (and others) at the protest. I called my wife and told her of my plans, asked her to pick up our daughter from daycare, and headed out. (My wife, bless her heart, was fully supportive, perhaps entirely unsurprising for someone who had spent many of her university days working with a student group called Committee for Justice in Palestine.)

I arrived at the Israeli mission to find our small group clustered across the street. We waited for about forty-five minutes, during which time our numbers grew, all the while chanting slogans. At noon, after a small discussion, Norman announced that the civil disobedience action would involve blocking traffic on Second Avenue.  Which is what we did. At half-past noon, approximately hundred protesters marched out into the middle of Second Avenue, linked hands, and lay down. The police asked us to move; some protesters did, others did not. I continued to lie down.

A few minutes later, I was hauled to my feet and handcuffed. I did not resist arrest by going ‘boneless.’ The plastic handcuffs used by the New York City Police Department are never pleasant on the wrists, and this occasion was no exception. After standing around for a little while, continuing to chant, I was put into a police paddy wagon and taken to Manhattan’s 7th precinct.  Eight others accompanied me.

Getting arrested and booked is a tedious business. The paddy wagon was hot and stuffy, and we had to wait outside the precinct–mercifully, with the door opened for us by the driver–to be called in. Once we were let in, our handcuffs were cut off–again, mercifully, because my fingers were starting to go numb by this time. We were then searched, some forms were filled out, and we were ushered into a filthy holding cell. There were nine of us in it. The remaining protesters were put into two other cells (the arrested women had one to themselves.)  We were not allowed to make any phone calls; we were asked to take off our shoelaces; we could not take food or water into the cell.

The waiting now began. My companions included two grizzled Vietnam veterans and two very young students. We chatted among ourselves, engaged in some friendly verbal jousting with the police, and engaged in a great deal of passionate political discussion. (Kunkel and I also chatted about many other topics on the side.) One of the Vietnam vets told us harrowing tales of his time in that war, and about the experiences that convinced him  it was unjust and immoral. Our partners in the cell adjoining were also engaged in similar discussions and at one point, as they burst into song, we joined them for Solidarity Forever. There was no water to drink and we were given none. (Apparently, there were vending machines in the precinct lobby, but we could not use them.)  At  four pm, we were told our wait was almost over, but it dragged on a for a little while longer.

Finally at around seven or so, we were released one by one. My call came at a quarter after. I was given a desk appearance ticket and told to appear in court on September 9th. I had been charged with disorderly conduct. I collected my belongings, called my wife to let her know I had been released, and walked outside to be greeted by members of the National Lawyers Guild and other folks come to show support. I waited for my cell companions to join me outside. We briefly chatted, took a few photos, and then I left with Kunkel and Robin for a much-needed dinner. (Dumplings and soup in Chinatown.) Two hours later, I was back home in Brooklyn. My daughter was fast asleep so I missed kissing her goodnight. My wife was still awake, and we chatted for a bit about the day’s happenings.

My actions today are insignificant in the extreme. They will not stop the Israeli government from attacking Gaza; they will not bring the carnage ensuing there to a halt. But I’m still glad I went, got arrested, and inconvenienced myself for a day. It was a small price to pay. I often write politically tinged posts here, I express political opinions in person to my friends and family. I have felt strongly about the terrible carnage taking place in Gaza, but have not managed to do anything concrete about it. I wanted to indicate American support for Israel is not unanimous, to let those know who protest for Palestine and Gaza that they are not alone. I wanted, somehow, to do something about a feeling that surges within me, from time to time, that no policy which entails–as an almost inevitable side-effect–eighty percent civilian casualties, can ever be morally or politically justified.

I’ve never been arrested before at a protest, and I have certainly never deliberately courted arrest. Today, when the moment came, it felt like an easy decision. My friend Corey Robin lay down next to me, ready to be hauled away in handcuffs, and lying there, preparing to do the same felt, for many reasons, the right thing to do. In the course of an eternally indecisive life, marked by all too much cognitive dissonance, that is a rare feeling, one to be treasured.

Addendum, July 30th: Here is a follow-up post defending the use of civil disobedience actions as a form of political protest and action.

On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.

V. S. Naipaul on Diversion and Inspiration

In “The Author’s Note”, a preface of sorts to The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), V. S. Naipaul writes,

These pieces…were written between 1972 and 1975. They bridged a creative gap: from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973 no novel offered itself to me. That perhaps explains the intensity of some of the pieces and their obsessional nature….I can claim no further unity for the pieces; though it should be said that, out of these journeys and writings, novels did in the end come to me.

This little passage contains, within it, several interesting observations on the writing process.

First, Naipaul notes that for a period of three years no ideas for a novel ‘came’ to him (or if they did, they were not fecund enough to be sustained for too long.) By phrasing his description of this state as one in which “no novel offered itself to me” Naipaul reiterates the quasi-mystical notion of a written work as presenting itself to its writer as an offering, one now to be taken on and brought forth. Here I am; make of me what you will. The writer appears as a conduit for the passage–into the reader’s world–of a written work. Naipaul’s further remarks make clear that while this initial stage of writing might seem otherworldly, what follows is most decidedly grounded in the concrete–in the very substantial acts of writing itself.

Second, even though no idea for a novel-length project came to fruition, the writer still has his writerly energies within and about him; they seek expression in the only way he knows how. So the writer writes; in this case, essays and reportage. The writer must write; something, anything. If not fiction, then something else. The novelist, thwarted, now seeks release in essays, which now bear the marks of having functioned as receptacles for his charged outpourings. Naipaul thus points us toward the notion of the writer as driven by energies that need discharging. (Failure to do so–in the right way, or at all–might account for some of the misery that writers seem to constantly experience.)

Third, the process of writing, the work of putting words to paper (or screen), now makes possible that which previously was not: the bringing forth of a novel. As the late Roger Ebert once noted, ‘The muse only visits while you work.” Here too, Naipaul confirms for us the wisdom of that observation. If inspiration for a novel is not forthcoming, then perhaps it might be facilitated by the writer’s best trick: writing. The very act of writing is the spur which brings forth the hitherto missing spark.

We may thus extract advice for the writer: You will often find yourself not able to write; inspiration will be felt lacking; at those moments commit to writing something, anything, even if not what you would have originally wanted to write; out of this seeming diversion, you might yet find a way back to the path you had originally wanted to set out on.

The Difficulty of the Memoir

As my About page indicates, I am currently working on “a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom” (contracted to Temple University Press, for the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass).  Writing it has proven harder than I thought.

I began writing the book late in 2001 and had a hundred-thousand word draft ready late in 2004. I wrote with little guile, wanting to get my memories committed to paper, organizing in them nothing more sophisticated than a simple linear narrative. First this happened, then this, and so on. I organized the material in the only way I knew: by chunking it into simple temporal segments. I gave the draft to a couple of readers, and then forgot about it because I had other writing projects at hand.

Five years later, I submitted my draft to a couple of trade publishers.  One sent me a rejection, the other never replied. I then sent it to an editor recommended me by an acquaintance, and she rejected it too. I then sat on the book for another couple of years before making contact with Amy and sending it to her. She liked the project, and after a full review process at the press, I signed a contract.

And then I returned to work on a nine-year old draft. Unsurprisingly, I found a great deal of material I did not like. More importantly, I soon ran into a greater difficulty: it is hard to tell a coherent story about yourself – especially for public consumption.

We are the central characters of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are subject to constant, ongoing revision; we are good at forgetting, suppressing, and embellishing the little details that make it up.  (By our actions and our pronouncements we are also spinning one version of this story for everyone else.) This closeness of the narrative and its constantly shifting nature means that writing about it was always going to be challenging.

And how. I frequently find myself quite puzzled by the character in the story I am writing. I don’t fully understand him and would like to make him more comprehensible. But doing so, perhaps by greater confessional revelation or forensic detail, is not as straightforward as it seems. We have forgotten a great deal, and we often remember incorrectly. And sometimes, in an attempt to make more palatable the unvarnished truth, we might introduce incoherence elsewhere in the narrative structure–there is a thread that binds, and it can snap if stressed too much.  It is all too easy to second-guess oneself: What do I really need to tell the reader? Was this a good idea to begin with? We might construct a too-sanitized picture of ourselves, suddenly struck by timidity at the thought of exposure. Lastly, we sometimes sense that we have layers and layers of complex detail that need unpacking; a really coherent story about ourselves, one that we often take hundreds of hours to recount in a therapist’s office, might simply be too much for the written page; writing it sounds like a lifetime’s labors. And it would be tedious in any case, of little interest to anyone but ourselves.

I am not yet close to solving these challenges; I expect write that dreaded email asking for an extension–beyond the summer, to the end of the year–all too soon.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on A Rabbi’s Crisis

In Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “I Place My Reliance on No Man” (collected with other short stories in Short Friday) Rabbi Jonathan Danziger goes to pray in his synagogue one Monday morning. As he prays, he encounters a crisis:

When the rabbi came to the words, ‘I place my reliance on no man,’ he stopped. The words stuck in his throat.

For the first time he realized that he was lying. No one relied on people more than he. The whole town gave him orders, he depended on everyone. Anyone could do him harm. Today it happened in Yampol, tomorrow it would happen in Yavrov. He, the rabbi, was slave to every powerful man in the community. He must hope for gifts, for favors, and must always seek supporters. The rabbi began to examine the other worshippers. Not one of them needed allies. No one else worried about who might be for or against him.  No one cared a penny for the tales of rumormongers. ‘Then what’s the use of lying?’ the rabbi thought. ‘Whom am I cheating? The Almighty?’ The rabbi shuddered and covered his face in shame….Suddenly, something inside the rabbi laughed. he lifted his hand as if swearing an oath. A long-forgotten joy came over him, and he felt an unexpected determination. In one moment everything became clear to him…

Rabbi Jonathan Danziger then asks one of the congregants, Shloime Meyer, if he can work for him, picking fruits in his orchard. He will no longer serve as rabbi. His mind is made up. That life is behind him.

As the story ends, the rabbi wonders:

Why did you wait for so long? Couldn’t you see from the start that one cannot serve God and man at the same time?

Danziger might have imagined that as rabbi he would spend his days studying the scriptures, engaging in learned debates about their interpretations, dispensing sage advice to the perplexed, and being respected and admired for his great learning and moral rectitude. Instead, his certifications met with disfavor and disapproval, and his parishioners found a veritable litany of complaints to level against him. He might have contemplated a life spent in contemplation of the sacred, but instead he found himself immersed in the profane.

Rabbi Danziger’s resolution of his crisis is perhaps novel, but his crisis is not. He has come to realize like all too many of us, that our exalted visions of our work and our life, are sadly incongruent with the actual lived reality of our lives. (The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme often captures this quite well.) Our levels of awareness about this fact can vary. Some rabbis might be just as immersed as Danziger in the all too worldly goings on about them, but might disregard this evidence in favor of holding to their preconceived notions of their imagined life. Such illusions might be desirable too. The mundane realities of life sometimes require, as a palliative of sorts, some elaborate storytelling about what we have let ourselves in for.  But only if they do not create the kind the painful dissonance that finally forced Danziger to put down the holy scrolls and head for the orchards. The maintenance and sustenance of that inner discord can be more damaging than the price paid for a life left behind. In those cases, it might be better to seek the kind of reconceived life that Danziger sought.

Christopher Hitchens: Pro-War, Anti-Death Penalty

A few days ago, Corey Robin wondered on his Facebook status:

Something I never understood about Christopher Hitchens: how such a fervent opponent of the death penalty could be such an avid supporter of war.

Supporters of the death penalty, of course, are notoriously fond of war (they also tend to be ‘pro-life’ in the debate on abortion). But why would a ‘fervent’ opponent of state-sanctioned murder be an ‘avid’ supporter or war, another form, one might say, of state-sanctioned murder?

The answer may, I think, be found in the kind of fascination war exerted over Hitchens. He did not think of it as merely an instrument of politics, one wielded to bring about very specific political objectives. Rather, it held him in a kind of aesthetically inflected thrall: he found it beautiful, stirring, exciting.  Many, like Hitchens, are entranced by the beautiful images that war furnishes for our imagination; evidence for this claim can be found in the large number of coffee-table books that purport to be illustrated histories of war. These images need not be just those of exploding munitions and ruined buildings; war utilizes weaponry and men, and photographic and artistic depictions of these, utilized and engaged in combat (or waiting to be) are among our most iconic representations. Gleaming aircraft, sleek, water-plowing  battleships, smoothly recoiling guns, men (and now women) in svelte uniforms, buttoned up, hard and unforgiving. It’s hard to resist the appeal of these. War provides many visual horrors, of course, but these are all too often swamped by the aforementioned cavalcade.  (I’m leaving aside for now, the enduring place that war holds in our imagination as a zone for the establishment of masculine credentials and brotherhood.)

The death penalty, in sharp and instructive contrast, is almost uniformly grubby and sordid. It is underwritten by retribution, an ignoble business at best; it is wrapped up in tedious layers of penal codes, legal wrangling, and procedural disputes; it happens quietly and grimly, away from the public eye, the punishment that dare not  speak its name. All associated with it are diminished; the condemned have lost their human dignity well before they ascend the gallows, the jailers and clergymen and executioners appear merely as bureaucratic functionaries, executing–no pun intended–with nary a trace of flair or style, the bookish orders laid out in the court document sanctioning the killing. There is no glamour, no sheen, no gleaming edges in the death penalty. It is dull, dull, dull. Especially in this guillotine-free age.

If the death penalty could have been lifted, somehow, out of the unappealing morass of state bureaucracy, judicial procedure, and clumsy modes of execution, if it could somehow have brought with it some of the frisson that war provides, then I do not doubt that Hitchens would have been all for it.

Note: One should also not forget that Hitchens considered himself a contrarian. Perhaps his opposition to the death penalty was formed at a time when public support for it ran high; his support of the Iraq War was probably viewed by him as a gleeful flipping of the bird to his former mates on the Left.