In No One's Army

A West Coast Call for Civil Disobedience

 Oakland, California—It's not quite eight on a predictably temperate San Francisco morning and the guy behind me is discoursing on heat. "It doesn't hurt," he says, loudly but with a reassuring calm. "There are sparks. It gets a little hot." He's actually talking about friction, specifically the friction a circular saw will cause as it hisses through the PVC where we've linked our wrists. "Pour some water on it to cool it down. When you're out, rinse off your hand—there'll be plastic shards that can be like splinters. Stay calm. It doesn't hurt," he reiterates. The firemen cut through the lockboxes; the police attend with zip cuffs. The people nearest the saw look anxious and steadfast, a seemingly paradoxical condition which has come to be the default emotional state of San Francisco's resistance movement.

Much coverage divides the anti-war movement into good protesters (who march an approved route and head home) and bad, even after it's clear the song of Seattle won't be reprised here. The concept of a "loyal opposition" must be maintained by every immoral power, to double-blind themselves to their own immorality. It lets them pretend they believe in dissent, while directing moral scrutiny elsewhere. Laying our bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, we're the bad ones. You can tell, because the city trumpets the supposed $900,000 a day cost to remove us from our streets. That's big money, JDAM money—funding the mayor perversely hints he will steal from social services.

Eighteen days later, after jail time and meeting time (with competing levels of frustrated ennui, of ethical imperative, and of dubious snacks), we will stage a peaceful community picket across the Bay at the Oakland docks, during which police reach out to the community with "non-lethal" ammunition: wooden bullets, bean bag rounds filled with metal shots, tear gas, and concussion grenades. It's all over the news, it's CNNtastic—but, as we've neglected to embed reporters appropriately, we're subjected to absurdities one after the next: that we attacked the cops, no wait, that we wouldn't disperse (a shooting offense now), no, uh, that the cops were worried that if they didn't shoot us, more protesters might come out. On national radio, I am called a traitor, a disgrace, and am told that I'm giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It's as close as I'll ever come to Jane Fonda.

A couple days later some geniuses in a Baghdad tank finally figure out how to jerk the statue of Saddam off its pedestal. Language has toppled as well, under the weight of quotation marks. All we can say is that the "war" is "over"; this country's been bombing Iraq since the President was the First Son, and the fighting continues and the civilian body count climbs. Nonetheless, when the press calls through to our loose coalition, Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), they want to know what we'll do now, now that the war is over, and the moment has passed.


Our city, of late, is rarely called by its loveliest nickname: Baghdad by the Bay. Still, certain relationships emerge: Baghdad is for the moment at the center of the war's objective course overseas; SF is the epicenter of democratic resistance at home. That's the word people keep using, and we mostly feel weird. It's not supposed to be about us, but about kids getting shot by soldiers, and "regime change" as an extremely beneficial corporate restructuring for Carlyle Group and Bechtel and Halliburton, and about the national and global resistance to an unjust war.

On the other hand, we all know the numbers. Adding up the people of conscience committed to nonviolent civil disobedience—"the folks who brought you civil rights, women's suffrage, and the 40-hour work week" as one sign reads—the Bay Area has sent 2,500 people to prison, and then some. And there is something incredibly powerful about this—not the raw numbers, but the sense of kinship, of recognition even in the face of an utterly estranging new world order. A friend of mine, a soft-spoken and often solitary English professor, spoke of walking down the street on March 21 and suddenly being confronted by hundreds of kids rounding a corner, largely in black, shouting their fury and dismay. "And I remembered that I loved people," he said.

New York, where the eyes of the nation cannot stop turning these last 19 months, has seen civil disobedience numbers an order of magnitude lower. And there's no doubt that, within the war resistance movement, there's been a measure of disappointment. From holding cell H5 the day after the war started, we called in to a local radio station for news: Lakeshore Drive shut down by Chicago protesters, DC acting up more than anyone expected. Where was New York?

It's not as simple as imagining that the Big Apple and SF are playing Emerson and Thoreau: "What are you doing in there, Henry?" asked the former, earning the famous rejoinder "Ralph, what are you doing out there?"

One thing recent history suggests is that epicenters of resistance migrate: In 1999, it was Seattle. Right now it's San Francisco. When the U.S. Army marches into North Korea, perhaps it will be Iowa City, or Manhattan. In the long unshadows of the World Trade Center, no city has a sharper sense of the immediacy of danger; it's a feeling that can slow anyone about to confront people more violent and better-armed than themselves, as is the balance with protesters and police. Objectively, it's worth saying that New York had an awful winter: the freezing rain on March 20, the day after bombing started, made achieving critical mass difficult. The April 7 action at the Carlyle Group, organized by the upstart m27coalition, encountered a surprise snowstorm (not that this stopped police from a street-sweep arrest of protesters peaceably standing on a sidewalk, having never received an order to disperse).

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