March 24, 2006
I am writing to share with you many of the thoughts I have had about the March 20, 2006 action you all coordinated at the Pentagon. Much of what I write will be critical and hopefully lead to an open dialogue between us. Before I start, however, I want to state a few things that I hope will set the tone of the discussion. Many of you I consider friends or people I highly respect. I admire the way that NCNR organizes from a ground up, grassroots process that should be the envy of other national organizations. I admire your commitment to nonviolent resistance and am sincere in saying that I believe these criticisms that shall follow are the criticisms of a friend who dearly hopes that what I write can generate a dialogue that will only be healthy for the movement and for each of us who participates in this dialogue. It is for that reason that I make this letter public rather than private, since I hope that the dialogue can flourish inside our activist community.
Furthermore, please know that I write this only from my own perspective. Nothing I write should be construed to represent the views of the DC Anti-War Network, the
Okay, let’s get into this.
Last September 26, I witnessed more than 40 people arrested at the Pentagon in an action put on by the local New York City chapter of the War Resisters’ League. In that action, small teams of activists sat in front of entrances to the Pentagon to disrupt those entrances and draw attention to the war in
How were they able to do this? The War Resisters’ League was able to take action against the Pentagon because it is accessible to the public. The Pentagon Metro Station exits right by the main Pentagon entrance, and there is a very large bus stop with multiple lines passing through which are also very near the main entrance to the Pentagon. It is not hard to get to the Pentagon for anyone riding a bus or taking the subway.
When some of us witnessed this scene and talked to Art Laffin of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house (who hold vigil there every Monday morning and have been arrested there for actions in the past) about the legal ramifications of protest at the Pentagon, we knew that this was an ideal location for an action of nonviolent direct action or resistance. In the autumn, my friend Malachy Kilbride wrote up a call that I helped him to edit that was adopted by the DC Anti-War Network, which called in part on people to confront the war machine by taking nonviolent direct action at the Pentagon. While NCNR did not endorse the call per se, it endorsed the spirit of the call by organizing action on March 20 at the Pentagon. I was heartened to hear representatives of NCNR encourage other affinity groups to take action at the Pentagon and even suggest imaginative ways of doing so. In that spirit, I participated in an affinity group that seriously talked about actions in and around the Pentagon. We ultimately chose to confront the war machine through a direct confrontation of the war profiteers, though we also chose to show solidarity with the Catholic Worker vigil as well as the NCNR action.
I attended the meeting the day before the action at the Potter’s House. One thing that struck me listening to people in the room were the disagreements over tactics and noticing a significant number of voices who honestly wanted to have some chance of delivering the coffin and the message to Donald Rumsfeld’s office. While I can think of better ways of doing this than trying to get a coffin through Pentagon security, I know that there was a much greater chance of succeeding in that aim if it had been organized in almost any other fashion than the way it had been. Wouldn’t it have been in the interest of organizing to let people know that there were other logistical options for getting close to the Pentagon than by walking at it from the marina? While I realize that you did not know if the Pentagon was actually going to stop you by erecting a fence line in the parking lot, it was highly probable. For those facing that probability, some were wondering what other options they might have to take the coffin to Rumsfeld’s office or have the opportunity for empowerment by a more direct confrontation with the Pentagon. I think it would have been helpful to give people that information. For those of us in our affinity group who had been at the Catholic Worker vigil earlier that day, it felt very strange to leave the Pentagon to go to an action that was supposed to be at the Pentagon.
That is a relatively minor criticism, as far as these things go, but I felt it should be raised, since it is important for affinity groups to have options and to understand the range of choices. While the Pentagon set up one arbitrary barrier in your way, they left other ones open to you. In good faith, if there can be such a thing as “good faith” with the Pentagon, why not try the ones that were still open to you? Why were these not considered right from the start, or at least offered to people as an option?
At the site of the arrest, I understand that many people were moved and empowered by the experience. I am thankful for that, but as an individual witnessing it, I have to admit that I was not moved in any good way and was in fact horrified by what I was witnessing. Watching person after person climb and go under this arbitrary fence line into the waiting arms of the Pentagon Police left me wondering if everyone in the action had undertaken the action simply to be arrested. It seemed there was a great rush of enthusiasm toward climbing the fence. As I watched, and looked off at the distant Pentagon, I felt that months of hoping for this day had gone down the drain.
What I saw looked like two colonial era armies facing off in the field. In a gallant rush, the army of the resistance ran right into the slaughter like some of the romantic paintings of the time. Forgetting for a second how needless this was, it was also a slaughter without a sense of justice. Who were these people that we chose to run into? They were low level policemen, mostly people of color, who had almost nothing to do with the policies that they were enforcing. Granted, I have little sympathy for people who can choose not to follow orders of oppression but do so anyhow, but what this looked like was a staged class battle organized by those in power. You have poor people of color used to arrest a group of mostly middle class white people parading around with an assortment of puppets. This battle takes place in a manner that looks like two old-fashioned armies facing off. The dead die in a direct and manly assault, as though going forward is the only honorable way to go.
I hope that this is not what you mean by “soul force,” “truth force,” Satyagraha, the nonviolence of the strong, is it?
It was hard for me to have sympathy for anyone being arrested, though in truth I understand that some were going through this process the first time, that it was difficult for many to do, that there was definitely something courageous in these actions. So, I realize that what I was upset with was the manner of the organization and the misapplication of the theory of Satyagraha.
At the very least, what we are after is an end to the war in
The question, though, that is pertinent to this protest is who we are speaking this truth to and how can they be spoken to. The aim of the protest was to reach Donald Rumsfeld. Of course, activists know where Rumsfeld lives, where he goes to church, and probably could easily determine on any given day where Rumsfeld is. If we wanted to reach Donald Rumsfeld, why did we feel it was necessary to have so much ceremony before going the long way to an office we could in all likelihood never be able to reach? Who were we speaking truth to? Did we go through all that trouble to put on a display for a small section of the Pentagon police force? If so, why didn’t we say that from the start? And, if we are speaking to them, why didn’t we aim from the beginning to deliver them the coffin? Didn’t we avoid such a tactic because what we are after is an end to the war in
It seems to me that what happened on Monday was generally a display of vanity and not Satyagraha. We chose a route and a course of action that was least likely to reach Donald Rumsfeld and chose instead to put on a spectacle, one carefully negotiated with the same law enforcement people who you chose to defy at the end. While the ending point of the action was not defined, the fact that a group claiming to be in nonviolent resistance against the military was not at all likely to be welcomed by any military, let alone this military, should not be denied.
Perhaps, it was a media event, but what did it expose? Was it new? For all the media that showed up, I was not surprised by the relatively small amount of coverage of the event. Was this a grand show of resistance rather than the real thing, a staged place for a staged confrontation with little consequences for anyone involved in the action? If Satyagraha is supposed to change the hearts and minds of the oppressor through the cheerful suffering of the oppressed, I wonder who had soul force on either side of the fence. It seemed that the police officer standing solitarily and doing his job quietly while standing in the face of verbal abuse seemed to have at least as much of the spirit of a satyagrahi, at least on this day. And, as someone who believes that the prisons should be emptied and that it should be criminal to be a police officer, that is saying something! Is that why some people were driven with all sincerity to thank the police for the job they were doing? And, if we had less soul force than the police, that is a sad state of affairs.
In short, this was not a symbolic action. Many actions are derided for being merely symbolic, but I challenge that view in many respects. All actions aim to speak at those we think are perpetuating injustice, and so any action that is worthwhile is in some sense symbolic. Actions that are called “merely symbolic” are often not symbolic at all because they do not speak to their intended targets. They are like letters that don’t spell up a word, or noises that are incoherent. You have heard the philosophical riddle about whether a tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound; one can say the same about actions like this. And, while some of us heard it; while some in the Pentagon heard it, it did not really make a sound that anyone could understand.
There perhaps was a day when we could march to the sea to make salt and someone would hear us, when the strong action looked like the battle scenes of old. The problem is that we have not understood who we are speaking to and whether they can be made to listen this way anymore. We have not understood the full implications of the truth that we hold (in part because we do not seem to understand that this truth goes well beyond Iraq and into a classist system of oppression that infects even our most basic relationships with each other and with the environment – do not forget that the cow is also sacred), and that to speak that truth force means that we must recognize what the situation is.
It is not necessarily nonviolence of the weak to go to someone’s home and disturb them, or to run into a building and run out making noise, or even to reject the very concept of property. The truth of the matter is that any action of this type exposes the fact that people are not listening, that the system is not listening, and that there are precious few places in which to disrupt the silent complicity of our lives. Until we recognize the vast absurdity of our lives, of our actions, of almost every interaction in this tainted world, we will not possibly understand that we cannot reduce any truth, even one as daunting as the war in Iraq, to a sheer moment of confrontation between the forces who we hope will be convinced by our truth and us who take nonviolent action in order that they cannot resist us any longer. It is not reducible to that because the world of complicity that we are all a part of is much murkier than that. And, so the truth is murky, is not ascetic or pure, and we must be willing to engage that world on murkier terms.
Getting us back to the ground, I do not understand the use of permits. I do not understand the enforcement of a permitted march route on a sidewalk but the failure to enforce that route on the bicycle lanes where commuters are trying to get to work. I also do not understand the scope of the resistance. Who sets the terms of our resistance? The police? The peace marshals?
I understand that there is desire to create a safe space for people not willing to risk arrest and that we must respect the contribution that anyone can make toward our efforts to end the war in
What I am getting at with all of these criticisms is the hope that we can draw ourselves into a discussion that challenges us to consider the scope of Satyagraha and whether we are merely imitating the Satyagraha of the past, rather than actually practicing it on the ground today.
To what extent are we actually practicing soul force? To whom does it apply? I have come to believe over the last couple of years that it might look extremely different than has ever been practiced. I sometimes think that Gandhi’s own asceticism got in the way, but that’s for another time.
I would urge that you all go back to the Pentagon soon but that this time you actually help people get to the Pentagon, that in organizing that we are careful to open up possibilities for people who are speaking to different kinds of actions, whether that’s getting nose-to-nose with an officer, or whether it is finding another entrance into the Pentagon. I am not saying that one should emulate the War Resisters’ League action, but I think there are crucial differences in the manner of the two actions which are the difference between an action that uses soul force and one that only seems to be using soul force. They did not ask for a permit; they put themselves in positions where they would force people to question what was going on, and despite limited resources succeeded for a time in their aim in confronting the Pentagon. All of those things carried out often enough with enough creativity and love can in fact change the people who make policy. On the other hand, this sort of action here seems to help prop up the Pentagon’s way of doing business and created a confrontation where it was hard to tell who deserved greater sympathy. The powers that be managed to insulate themselves well, and we instead took action against people who had little to do with our complaints.
Later that day, some of us took an action that in at least one instance was guilty of the same thing, when we went into the lobby of Bechtel and confused and possibly frightened a poor security guard without actually doing anything to disrupt the people who work and make decisions for Bechtel. We learn, and we adjust. There were reasons for the lack of success there, where a similar action at Halliburton minutes before was far more effective in disrupting the actions of those who make policy. Many would criticize the actions we took as actions of the weak, acting like mice running in and running out before the big cat got us. Such a criticism is superficial and fails to understand why people do not always need to act like a knight on a horse in order to be gallant in the fight against injustice. In fact, we are all mice in a cage, like mice in a cage, and our view of mice is all too ridiculous. Mice are not weak. Simply because they are small and use different means of surviving, they are not therefore weak. They speak to the truth of their situation in their own way. In a world of giant buildings, and giant weapons, and giant repression, where the giant passes as the strong, are we not upholding that lie to build for events simply on the strength of numbers, or numbers willing to risk arrest, or by holding fast and steady to a set of pre-imposed rules of engagement? Aren’t we adding to a lie about human interaction and relationship and spirit? We are small, but our truth is large, and that force can be irresistible. Let’s act appropriately.
Of course, there is no one way to act appropriately. In fact, there are infinitely many ways to act appropriately. And, talking about this action with the broad brush I have is unfair to the many individuals in many contexts who take actions like this. As I said from the start, the great hope is that people have been empowered and emboldened by the experience that you as organizers have given them. That is a great accomplishment. I guess what troubles me is that we have so narrowly focused what Satyagraha is or can be that some other activists who use different tactics or use different interpretations have been ostracized or not given help in exploring those avenues. Here I am drifting further beyond NCNR but not by much based on the way some activists were treated at the protest for having unpopular signs or doing things that might be off of some people’s script. So, I felt it became necessary to challenge the very ground of the action. I am tired of many of my friends telling me that they feel very uncomfortable with the term “nonviolent” and react almost with vitriol against pacifism. I believe this has happened because “nonviolence” has been pigeonholed by many into something it surely isn’t and has been used in a way that seems to make it more passive rather than active. Of course, nonviolent resistance is meant to be entirely active and anything but passive. Yet, I understand how my friends come to that view when observing an action that took a passive attitude toward law enforcement, except in the strange end, and even then seemed to take a passive attitude toward the fate of arrest, perhaps because that arrest was probably going to be very limited in its consequences. Can’t we take actions which show nonviolent resistance as active and strong?
In the short term, I hope we can talk about these criticisms in an open and respectful manner as friends. In the long term, I hope that we can work together on actions that respect and enable diversity, which are truly symbolic actions, and which consider justice outside of the narrow atomic truth that we need to get out of