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.

7 comments on “Why Get Arrested? Why Perform Civil Disobedience?

  1. ashokbhatia says:

    Insightful comment. History tells us that civil disobedience had a great role to play in India’s independence.

  2. NomadicHeart says:

    Brilliant and inspiring. Thank you for helping to lift the cloak from many a blind eye.

  3. […] Note: Here is a follow-up post defending the use of civil disobedience actions as a form of political prot…. […]

  4. Bill Perry says:

    Thanks for being a great cell partner

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