Friday, November 11, 2011

"Not Non-Violent Civil Disobedience"

UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s statement rationalizing police beatings of unarmed and unthreatening protesters relies on a contentious contrast between those who “chose to be arrested peacefully” and are to be “honor[ed]” because they “were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience,” and others who “chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents” of their would-be encampment. The latter tactic, he writes, is “not non-violent civil disobedience.” Overnight the discussion of Birgeneau’s letter has focused on its willingness to defend beating in the name of non-violence and its fetishization of non-violence as such. In agreement with those points, I'm also interested in Birgeneau's falsification of the history he references and, positively, in the tensions it suggests when we don’t accept such a cheap edition of it.

Birgeneau’s double negative locution, “not non-violent,” acknowledges that the Berkeley protesters were, well, lacking in violence, if also lacking in non-violence. It frames an ambiguous realm between violence and non-violence, further partitioning a field already divided by the term “non-violent” in the first place. A program, or “tradition,” of “non-violence” is not automatically a program of peace. That’s why Birgeneau has to add “peaceful” and “peacefully” to his description; it is not redundant. “Traditionally,” non-violence is the realm of the march and the sit-in, which challenge opponents to commit or resist aggression on their own side. In the history of U.S. civil rights struggle by African-Americans, arguments like Birgeneau’s have often functioned to justify racist force by a white community on the grounds that the actions of African-Americans were provocative, if not violent. That is, the violence or not of protesters’ actions was part of the debate; acts were perceived as violent enough to warrant indubitably violent repression because of their contextual, subjectively perceived aggression. Protesters invited, or provoked, police violence through ambiguous “non-violence” in order to question the cultural norms beneath white perceptions of what felt violent (enough) to them. We miss part of the significance if we view the segregationist charges of provocation as completely disingenuous. The debate, and the genuine confusion, about violence and non-violence recurs in Birgeneau’s distinction between non-violence and that which is “not non-violent.”

Birgeneau has seen Eyes on the Prize and knows he cannot come out against non-violent civil disobedience. Yet he also seems to demur from UC Police Captain Margo Bennett's less subtle statement: "The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence." Pragmatically, he’s talking about the legal difference between being arrested and also resisting arrest. Traditional civil rights protesters, Birgeneau suggests, do not resist arrest. But this claim doesn’t bear scrutiny. It must be said that guides to civil disobedience often advise not resisting arrest on practical grounds: it’s an additional and gratuitous charge if you’re being arrested anyway, and conviction on resisting arrest disallows a civil rights complaint against police. It’s also difficult to say how often “traditional” civil rights protesters resisted because resisting arrest was so often charged to promote conviction in the absence of other persuasive offenses. What constitutes physical resistance is itself in the realm of perceptual ambiguity, to the interest of which this kind of protest calls attention. Even so, the docket records of civil rights struggle show too much resistance for it to be plausible to assert that it was no part of the tradition Birgeneau wants to honor. Chicago v. Gregory (1966), Pennsylvania v. 100 Defs. (1963), New York City v. 7 Defs. (1963), New York v. 17 Demonstrators (1966), and New York v. Gray, Vaughan (1966), to name a few, look like good places to explore further resistance to arrest within the civil disobedience "tradition." In New York v. 17 Demonstrators, for example, “50 demonstrators, mostly mothers on welfare, blocked doors of Dept of Welfare, seeking increased clothes allowances for school children,” and were arrested for “disorderly conduct, trespass, resisting arrest.”

Closer to home, Mario Savio was among a group of protesters who repeatedly picketed and sat in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco to protest its racially discriminatory hiring policies in 1964. They did so in violation of a court injunction that limited the time they could protest, and on March 7, 1964, were arrested “lying down with arms linked . . . blocking the exits of the hotel” (from Savio’s applications to the Mississippi Summer Project, King Center Library, Atlanta; quoted in Jo Freeman, “How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights Demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest,” Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, April 19, 1997; my italics). Freeman, who participated in the Sheraton Palace protests, remembers how their efforts were almost universally reviled.

In thinking about the reception of African-American civil rights protest and examples like Mario Savio’s together, we re-encounter in its most powerful form Birgeneau’s hoped-for distinction between heroic non-violent activists and undesirable, not non-violent students. It's the convenience of this that is at stake in the question of the incidence of resisting arrest in “classic” African-American civil rights protest. In a recent book on the photography of the civil rights era, Martin Berger and David Garrow ponder the anonymous photograph above, showing a woman in the Birmingham protest fiercely contesting her arrest. Berger and Garrow point out that the mainstream history of the era tends not to reproduce such photographs, and we can see the legacy of that pattern in the cliché version of the “tradition” mobilized by Birgeneau. “White publications in the North shunned such complicating photographs,” they note, and left it to segregationist journals to publish them. The “inactive-active opposition,” they argue, “structured the emotional and intellectual response of whites to photographs of dogs and fire hoses” ( Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011, p. 119]) and so regulated both their empathy and their understanding of protest. It is this very opposition that Birgeneau complacently repeats, at once narrowing the possibilities for activism and obscuring the complexity of the history he thinks he honors.


Jerry said...

split in several posts...

i read your posting with interest and it provoked in me something that i feel like i need to acknowledge now even if i can't quite explain it - that what is at stake is more than just a kind of rhetorical reworking of the terms of violence/non-violence into the strange neither-positive-nor-negative realm of the double negative not-non-violence, nor the given modes of thinking in terms of activity and passivity or power and its resistance. it seems that what that kind of circumlocution rather strangely gets at is both a kind of tacit acknowledge, through an attempt at a language that still hasn't formed, at the limits of thinking a yes-or-no modality of violence and its absence, or whatever, and thinking about our more general incapacity to think the changing conditions of politics as such.

Jerry said...

i mean that part of what is interesting about this incapacity is precisely that 'incapacity,' in the sense of simultaneously feeling like one cannot do anything but attempting at some kind of tentative action, is becoming more and more congruent with the terms of politics itself. one thing that i find so fascinating about all this occupy business is how, under the surface of a kind of revolutionary drag, most of the people who are involved in it, to me, seem to proceed with a kind of weariness, or at least a kind of measured-ness in action that is based in this feeling of being provoked into an action that one would, after all, rather not be a part of but for which there is no longer any recourse or choice. what i mean is that part of what is interesting about all of this is precisely the extent that, at least from here it seems, that the conditions of this new formulation of political agency is expressed as a kind of necessary reaction to a system that is no longer sustainable or that can no longe rcontinue without inducing a response. that is, it is a figure of political agency as non-agency, not a kind of resistance but a kind of reaction (and i think here about anne-lise's interest in derrida's interest in the difference between human/nonhumans and response/reaction, but where the terms of a kind of nonhuman being get transposed into the conditions of a kind of politics that starts with its already-being-broken).

Jerry said...

but in so many ways it seems now that there is a kind of violence accounting that proceeds through the denial of a kind of agency - the police are allowed to be violent not because they are claiming a kind of sovereign right but because they have been provoked into it - violence is never proactive or soething that one does by one's own will, it is always, then, something that is a response to a set of actins or conditions that always originate in someone else's action. what is interesting then is that the protests and its violence/nonviolence/non-non-violence becomes a kind of swirling vortex of non-agency, where the conditions for action always originate in the actions of another to whom one is only ever subject. in on suicide bombing talal asad talks a lot about how 'violence' disqualifies access to a kind of ethical positioning, but maintains that in its post 9-11 iteration, access to violence is re-condensed in states whose exercise of violence is legitimate (and whose legitimacy is also confirmed by their weberian monopoly over violence). but it seems here that violent or not, violence, when it occurs must always be framed as a kind of ethical reaction to a situation that is always-already outside of one's grasp. that is, not even the state has a legitimate claim over a proactive violence anymore..

Jerry said...

i was thinking about this in relation to your writing because of the strange tension of states of agency and passivity, how they don't resolve or get rerouted as a kind of a-ha, but rather that they stage a discussion of what is so different (or maybe not) about this time around. as well as how the civil rights movement is sometimes re-read as a kind of solemn and begrudged, almost sighing resistance in a situation without alternative, rather than an empowered black nation rising up to demand what is right. or something.

Aptninja said...

You might enjoy this post at Combat! blog, which assesses Birgeneau's cynical reasoning along similar lines:

Keep up the good work.