Uncivil Disobedience

Matthew Kovac

On December 16, 2010, hundreds of peace activists gathered in front of the White House to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Signs were brandished. Speeches were made. Then the activists walked to the edge of the White House lawn and chained themselves to the fence, where they stayed despite orders to move by U.S. Park Police. One hundred thirty-one people were arrested, according to anti-war organization Veterans for Peace.

One can be forgiven for not having heard of the protest, which received scant media coverage. The New York Times did not find it as newsworthy as the Pentagon’s latest report on “progress” in Afghanistan, released a few days previously. Neither did The Washington Post, even though the protest took place in its own backyard. But even if the civil disobedience action had received national media attention, it would have achieved the same result – nothing.

The news may have boosted the morale of activists disillusioned by ten years of war. Perhaps a few would have been inspired to chain themselves to fences of their own. But none of this did anything to disrupt the U.S. government’s execution of its brutal imperialist wars. The bombs are still falling. The war machine has rattled onward, undeterred, through Afghanistan and Iraq into Pakistan, Yemen, and, most recently, Libya.

In this sense, the December protest is emblematic of the American anti-war movement as it stands today – tactically ineffective and politically irrelevant, more concerned with abstract displays of symbolism and spectacle than achieving tangible results. For nearly a decade now, Americans have marched, rallied, picketed, chanted, sat-in and stood up – to no effect. Activists soothe their consciences with the notion that they are making a difference, but the situation is as grim as ever. Fifty thousand troops remain in Iraq. Afghanistan is in flames. Every day brings new stories of innocents dying beneath American bombs. What more evidence does one need to see the glaring inadequacy of anti-war activism in the United States?

In the face of such massive violence, symbolic shows of “solidarity” and “protest” are not merely useless but often counterproductive. Of the 131 people arrested outside the White House in December, 42 refused to pay $100 fines and went to court, where – in a rare stroke of good fortune – their cases were dismissed due to inadequate police paperwork, according to Veterans for Peace. And what of those who paid their fines? In the course of “protesting” war and militarism, they wound up filling the coffers of the very government perpetrating the slaughter.

Such is the absurdity of the modern anti-war movement. During the Vietnam War, the FBI had to go through the trouble of undermining anti-war organizations. Now activists cheerfully do it for them, engaging in actions that damage their own efficacy by bringing fines, legal fees, arrests and prison sentences to bear. Once upon a time, activists viewed arrest as detrimental to their work – occasionally necessary, but best avoided if possible, and certainly not the objective. They recognized that as difficult as it is to stop a war, it is far more difficult to do so from a jail cell. That recognition is lost on today’s professional protesters, enamored as they are with 1960s-style civil disobedience.

This, then, is the choice offered by the anti-war movement: cardboard signs or court dates, impotence or self-immolation. Faced with such dreary options, it is no wonder that Americans have largely chosen to stay home. But it is a false choice, and a shining example of the anti-war movement’s descent into fatalism. No movement can succeed if it does not fight to win. If its tactics yield defeat, year after year, then those tactics must change. This does not mean simply rejecting individual methods – the march, the sit-in, the candlelight vigil – as ineffectual. The entire theoretical framework on which protest rests must be called into question.

It is time to move from protest to resistance. The distinction is not purely semantic. Protest, for all of its vibrant activity, all of its colorful rallies and hand-painted signs and clever slogans, is ultimately passive. Its aim ends at the expression of disapproval, and so its effectiveness is limited, particularly when those in power ignore such expressions. Protest does not remedy injustice, but pleads with authority for injustice to be remedied. Implicitly authoritarian, it assumes that injustice can only be terminated from on high, rather than made impossible from below.

Resistance, by contrast, is active. Where protest satisfies itself with registering a complaint, resistance intervenes directly to prevent the commission of injustice. It does not beg the mass murderers in Washington to end their atrocities. Nor does it pretend to recognize their so-called legitimacy – they have none. Resistance acts instead to stop the wars in their very tracks: to disrupt the operation of the war machine and, ultimately, bring it to a grinding halt.

What forms will this resistance take? Counter-recruitment campaigns have found success on high school and college campuses, dispelling the “Be All That You Can Be” propaganda and in some cases triggering the expulsion of military recruiters. Pentagon-funded weapons research taking place at universities has been exposed and disrupted. Students have used similar means to fight the presence of military contractors and other war-profiteering industries at campus job fairs.

Such examples should not be read as a list of prescribed activities. The freewheeling, democratic nature of resistance defies such prescriptions, celebrating innovation and creativity. Far more important than any laundry list of tactics is the mindset that informs them, asking before every action the same hard question: will this degrade the U.S. government’s ability to wage violence against innocent people? It is a philosophy that understands the supreme value of innocent life, recognizes its preservation as the ultimate moral imperative, and realizes the need for action. It is not enough to protest the wars. They must be resisted – immediately, directly, decisively. For those countless innocents in the firing line, the stakes are too high to do anything less.