Jailbirds I Have Loved

As Thoreau’s example makes plain, the civilly disobedient of one moment becomes the icon of the next.

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Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Rebecca Solnit is our historian of hope. And she’s subtle, like a scuttling crab, which is what she claims history is:

“Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

If you want to get a hit of hope for grim times, check out her little book Hope in the Dark from which that quote comes. Below she considers one passionate voice, that of Henry David Thoreau (now thought of simply as a naturalist), and through him how the dangerous is tamed; how the civilly disobedient of one moment becomes the icon of the next. Her essay is a tip of the hat to all those who were arrested by New York’s “finest” at the Republican convention, an optimistic plea to the rest of us not to forget to exercise our constitutional “muscles.”

I was struck recently that Howard Zinn, another historian of hope from a previous generation (but whose voice is today as lively and passionate as ever), had much in common with Solnit. Not so long ago, for instance, he penned a reconsideration of the political writings of Thoreau that began with a wonderful tale of how he testified in 1968 at a Milwaukee trial of nuns, priests, and laypeople who had busted into a draft board and burned its records. “I began to talk about Henry David Thoreau and his decision to break the law in protest against the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At this point, Judge Larsen interrupted. He pounded his gavel and said: ‘You can’t discuss that. That is getting to the heart of the matter.'”

In the Nation magazine the other week, he wrote a stirring essay on optimism — The Optimism of Uncertainty — that was a kissing cousin to Solnit’s work (though with generationally different historical examples). It went in part:

“I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

“There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.

“What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability… The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

If, in fact, you want to hear the untamed voices of all sorts of upstarts, rebels, protestors, and resisters including Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience, try Zinn’s newest book (with Anthony Arnove) Voices of A People’s History of the United States. Now, I send you off into Solnit’s words in the knowledge that even two make a crowd.

Jailbirds I Have Loved…

Or “No You Can’t Have My Rights. I’m Still Using Them”
By Rebecca Solnit

About a month ago I planned to commit civil disobedience in New York — there were some Republicans in town, as you may remember — but circumstances beyond my control put me a few hundred miles further north at the crucial moment, so I did the next best thing: stopped at Walden Pond on my way back to Manhattan. Walden, the book, not the pond, turns 150 this year, but the people at the pond that day were paying more homage to cool water than to cultural history. Most of the swimmers seemed to be locals for whom the site was part of their familiar landscape, not outlanders like us paying homage to the pond and the guy who cultivated beans and contrary thoughts by its side from 1845 to 1847. It wasn’t what I expected: The trees shrouded everything up to the water’s edge; a secondary thoroughfare full of commuters ran very nearby, so that after paying to park in a large lot you had to dodge speeding commuter vehicles. I didn’t mind that it had become a social or a suburban place, for Thoreau, in his legendary sojourn at the pond, never intended to be remote from society for long and reported on the train speeding by his retreat.

If it was a retreat. In one of the most resonant passages in his book, he enumerates among his many visitors “runaway slaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, like the fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on their track, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say, — ‘Oh Christian, will you send me back?’ One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the north star.”

Politics came tramping through those woods, which were never far from Concord, where his mother and sister housed runaway slaves, or from the conflicts of the era. During his time spent at Walden, Thoreau became an outspoken antiwar activist and tax resistor, spent that famous night in jail, and delivered as a talk at the Concord Lyceum on January 26, 1848, the great American landmark, “Civil Disobedience.”

I did wonder a little about which Thoreau the sesquicentennial of Walden events and reprints was commemorating. The pond is now “Walden Pond State Reservation,” a 411-acre reserve with lifeguards on duty that day, but Thoreau is still unreserved and unsafe in his writings, advocating that “when…a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” Homages to Thoreau sometimes seem to have domesticated him first, as have the avalanches of books of nature quotes taken from his longer writings. Those passages leave out the dangerous Thoreau, the one who went around suggesting that the abolition of the government might be a good thing and defending John Brown when he was already in jail for taking up arms against slavery.

Of course Thoreau is no longer dangerous in the sense that he was in 1849, the year “Civil Disobedience” was first published. That transcript of an earlier talk, given while he was resident at Walden, inveighs against slavery and the 1846-1848 war with Mexico (whereby we acquired that nation’s northern half, now known as the American Southwest). Slavery is ended, and the long-ago war on Mexico is concluded. But Henry David is still dangerous as a man who cared more about justice than law and saw that the two were not uncommonly in conflict. He was the man who argued that voting was not enough, that any cooperation with an unjust government was complicity in that injustice, the one who still shames me for paying taxes during wartime, the voice
that declares, “I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

People in public and private argued about whether demonstrating in New York against Bush and the war was strategic for the election or whether it would feed into portrayals of progressives as dangerous fringe elements. Within the argument that we should have stayed home was a larger argument about whether political demonstrations and civil disobedience are largely media stunts or whether they’re moral acts taken to change the world with less of an eye to press coverage.

We should always, especially when it is difficult, exercise our freedoms of speech and assembly, and I mean the word exercise. Rights are like muscles, they atrophy and aren’t there when you need them if you don’t use them. The first amendment is in trouble not just because of John Ashcroft and the USA Patriot Act, but because of a pall of self-censorship — some have spoken up with great courage, but many have been silenced not simply by the acts of the authorities but by the prison of their own fear. Still, if people could stand up to Pinochet, if the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo could march in Buenos Aires during the time of the generals, if people spoke up in Prague in the 1980s, we can take a stand here, far more than we do. An atmosphere of repression exists specifically because people don’t speak up against it. When you speak up, you are not repressed — you might be suppressed or punished, but you have freed yourself. Too, a tyranny can rise more easily by shutting up a thousand people than a million, and that’s a reason to stand up and speak out.

Thoreau was more optimistic, writing, “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name — if ten honest men only, — ay, if one honest man in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be….”

The National Lawyers Guild, in its new report titled “The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly and Dissent,” has been more pessimistic of late. “The facts assembled in the following pages attest to the pathology of a government so frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies,” the report’s introduction begins. It’s a statement that might answer quite a different question about the war on terror: Why have the young soldiers in Iraq been so under-equipped for their war, while the Miami police last November at the FTAA and the NYPD for the Republican Convention had endless new technologies and resources to draw on? “The abuses have been so aggressive that rights of free assembly and free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution are simply no longer available to the citizens of this country,” states the report’s preface.

Those rights are indeed under assault, but they are not unavailable for those willing to take the risks or pay the costs. “No, you can’t have my rights, I’m still using them,” said a sign one woman was carrying in that long, passionate, stymied August 29 march against George Bush, the Republican Party and the war, up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden and then to — wherever — not to Central Park, since the city’s Republican mayor claimed that the right of the people peaceably to assemble was bad for the grass.

Being afraid of how the media would represent us was just part of a larger landscape of fear I met with on the East Coast. “Don’t get arrested,” acquaintances told me over and over, as though getting arrested were some road of no return, as though going to a demonstration with half a million others were a terrible risk even for those of us who won’t ever want security clearances.

Certainly, the mayor, the New York police, and the Attorney General had done everything they could to discourage people from coming. As had the media. For one of the worst problems facing democracy in America is that a free press, while not entirely eradicated, has gone underground on the internet and into the small magazines. The mainstream media have generally taken up and run with the allegations used by the Bush Administration to justify putting the first amendment in mothballs and staging preemptive strikes against potential exercisers of free speech and assembly.

Exercising your rights was pretty much, by these accounts, tantamount to terrorism. ABC News reported that the NYPD was tracking “56 potentially dangerous people… the anarchist groups which disrupted the W.T.O. conference in Seattle in 1999.” The FBI “interviewed” — or in the words of civil rights advocates, “intimidated” — activists across the country whom “the government believed were plotting to firebomb media vehicles at the Democratic National Convention,” a rather improbable crime for people committed to public actions and nonviolent principles. After the Republican convention, the New York Times reported that “five years ago in Seattle, for example, there was widespread arson,” and then spoke admiringly of New York City’s reign of repression, stating that “Starbucks survived, the streets were not ablaze, and the police did not wipe acid from their faces.”

I saw the widespread arson in Seattle. It consisted of one mostly empty dumpster with feeble flames contesting with the northwestern drizzle. Nor was there ever evidence that anyone planned to set the streets ablaze or assault fellow human beings in such a vicious manner, as the Times insinuated (with the implication that, if those crimes did not happen, credit must go to law enforcement). Still beat your wife? No? Thank the police. Seattle was constantly referenced as a moment of criminal violence. In fact, it was one of the great moments of civil disobedience in American history. Ten thousand or so people, in concert with protests from India to Iceland, took an oppositional step beyond the big march that was vocally opposed to the World Trade Organization’s summit downtown. They sat down in intersections all around the WTO meeting and shut it down as it was supposed to begin. The Seattle police had not anticipated this and went berserk afterwards with clubs, tear-gas, and enough violence against activists and scads of passersby to keep a lot of class-action suits afloat for a long time.

“On the tear gas-shrouded streets of Seattle,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure on Friday, the elitists had lost and the debate had changed forever.” It was a world-changing moment, the golden dawn of a so-far not-so-rosy new millennium. But there wasn’t any activist violence against living beings. (Some “black block” kids did do a little downtown window smashing and spray-painting, and stirred up an interesting side-debate about whether property damage alone constitutes violence.) 1999 was the otherwise uncommemorated 150th anniversary of the publication of “Civil Disobedience”; though, come to think of it, ten thousand anarchists and environmentalists standing up against giving the world away to corporations is perhaps the most apt anniversary event that eco-anarchist Henry David could have dreamed of.

The police and the media willfully, if not consciously, mistake what kind of danger civil disobedients pose. Martin Luther King, that reader of Thoreau and great advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience, was a dangerous man in his time, because he posed a threat to the status quo, and it was for that reason that the FBI followed him and many hated him. Like Thoreau, he went to jail; like Thoreau he posed no physical danger to anyone. But to admit that activists can be dangers to the status quo is to admit, first, that there is a status quo; second, that it may be an unjust and unjustifiable thing; and third, that it can indeed be changed, by passionate people and nonviolent means. Better to portray activists as criminals and the status quo as the natural order — and only celebrate revolutionaries long after their causes are won and their voices are softened by time, or misrepresentation; for Thoreau and King are still dangerous men to those who pay attention to their words. And so, for my own as-yet unassimilated generation of activists, the fiction of a violent past has been manufactured, just as the fiction of spitting in returning soldiers’ faces was fabricated to damn the activists who opposed the war in Vietnam.

In 1999, civil disobedients in this country changed the world by bringing the conversation about globalization to the first world and joining the movements that brought the WTO into its current state of stalemate. Exercising your rights doesn’t always achieve something so remarkable, but the exercise is important anyway. Rights are only as valuable as their usage. My heroine from the recent spell of first-amendment wrestling matches in New York is a fellow San Franciscan, the sister of a friend, June Brashares, who along with many other members of Code Pink got into the Republican Convention (in her case, she thinks it was her fake pearls, along with a nice blue suit, that got her through security). “I wanted to get inside to show some of that dissent that was not being shown,” she told me, “I’m very much in opposition to the war in Iraq and the lives that have been destroyed and the people that have been killed. I care very much about those things.”

She stood up during Bush’s acceptance speech to unfurl a banner that said, “Bush lies, people die.” June is very polite and didn’t interrupt the president, and she would have left if asked but she was immediately tackled by burly security guards just for holding up dissenting words. And so, as she was dragged away, she shouted the words on her confiscated banner, but was drowned out by the nearby party loyalists attempting to mask her voice by chanting “four more years.” That ruckus was so loud it rattled the president who paused, looked cranky, and lost his place. June says of the many taped versions of the president’s speech she’s watched, “He’s got this frozen moment like the Pet Goat moment and looks to the side and kind of smiles and goes to go on and then he stumbles. It made a lot of activists really happy, it made their night watching him drone on and on and then seeing this protest.” Some television stations showed the disruption clearly, some did not. Thoreau said, “I say, break the law. Let your life be a counterfriction to stop the machine.” She did. We should. And could.


Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit.

Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book is Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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