What Happened to 'Fill the Jails'?
You can't expect a chicken to produce a duck egg - Malcolm X
Thank God, there are people willing go to jail in obedience to a higher law in protesting, say, the continued occupation of Iraq. It's inspiring.
What's discouraging, though, is the possibility that there's not enough activists and/or movement organization in the U.S. right now to make a lasting difference on a whole host of foreign and domestic policy issues.
Because the pollsters don't ask about people's willingness to take part in civil disobedience, I have no way of knowing for sure. I just hope my sense of it all is waaaaay off. But, it feels like most disaffected Americans - profoundly disturbed with the State of the Union, in particular; and the State of the World, in general - have deceived themselves into thinking that electing the "right" person to government office is going to change things; that if only we get-out-the-vote, write even more letters, and create yet another blog. . . I'm not saying it's trivial to do such things, but if folks think that's enough, then we're in trouble.
Think about it.
The Republicans got spanked during the mid-term elections in what was billed as a referendum on Bush's Mess-in-Potamia and just as I predicted in this very column immediately following "the thumpin'", Bush interpreted the election results - not as a call for an exit strategy - but as a plea for better war management. And what have the Democrats done?
Maybe the conventional wisdom, inside-politics view is that the Dems still don't have enough power to end the occupation of Iraq, or they're just "playing politics" by exploiting the now popular anti-this-war momentum, while not wanting to be seen as being "weak on defense" or "soft on terror."
When even Lee Iacocca is writing: "Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind....but instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, 'Stay the course.' Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic" - you know it's "fill-the-jails" time, to borrow from Gandhi's tactical playbook.
America's Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., touched on the idea in his celebrated Letter From Birmingham Jail.
"Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored."
King wasn't talking about holding peace vigils or media-staged protest marches. He was talking about MASSIVE direct action - the kind that brings together huge numbers of disciplined, committed people, in a key location (or several strategic locations at once) to cause the political-economic system to grind to a screeching halt until the matter is resolved, or negotiated.
King was talking about gumming up the gears of the system - fill the jails - to the point of gridlock. That - or the very real threat of that - is what brought progressive victories and is the reason why King was such a powerful and dangerous man in the eyes of his opponents.
It wasn't the moving pep talk rallies and Negro spirituals that did it. It was the "true power" Hannah Arendt talked about: Power, she said, is "created not when some people coerce others but when they willingly take action together in support of a common purpose. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert." That's the kind of power King wielded - a lesson completely lost on those who think that "the best defense is a good (military) offense" football-ism is the same thing as sound military strategy. But I digress.
I also went back and re-read Stride Toward Freedom, which is King's account of the Montgomery bus desegregation campaign. He wrote about the sophisticated coordination of the campaign, the movement infrastructure, the car-pool network which assured the boycotters that "no bus" didn't mean "no way to get to work."
"Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment," King described the early workings of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
"But, the job took money. For a while the MIA had been able to carry on through local contributions ... But as the pool grew and other expenses mounted, it was evident that we needed additional funds to carry on ... Fortunately, the liberal coverage of the press had carried the word of our struggle across the world. Although we never made a public appeal for funds, contributions began to pour in from as far away as Tokyo."
How can there be a progressive movement in this country - an evolutionary leap forward in the way we relate to each other and the environment - without massive direct action?
And, if you're going to ask folks to be down with The Movement, where's the material support network for those people who want to "do something" but have to worry about not getting fired because they have kids to feed?
Or do you have to be independently wealthy, like Iacocca, to even think about getting involved?
Where's the fund for those who get caught up in the system, jailed and/or fined, because they were fighting for the cause?
Voting, letter-writing, blogging, vigils and speeches are necessary and can even be honorably courageous. But history says it ain't enough - if we're talking about real social evolution. Shit, fill-the-jails may not be enough, at this point
The way I see it: those who fear real change have nothing to fear and far too many of those who desire real change are expecting a chicken to produce a duck egg.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org