My so-called qualifications: I’ve been a community organizer for fifteen years. I’ve helped organize hundreds of direct actions, ranging from tame sidewalk rallies to occupations of government office building lobbies to tent cities on vacant bank-owned properties. I’ve gotten arrested in Central Park at a midnight protest; I’ve been illegally barred from public legislative hearings; I was detained by the Secret Service while protesting outside the 2004 Republican National Convention. And by supporting the work of homeless people organizing for social justice, I’ve also helped win over a hundred concrete policy and legislative changes. None of this makes me an expert, or means that my tactics are the best or only way to do any of this. Plenty of people have been fighting a lot longer, or have achieved a lot more. Your most effective organizing will be shaped by your own skills and experience, and the collaborative decision-making of a group of folks with a real stake in the issues you’re fighting for.
Everybody says: don’t write angry.
But I’m angry now, over the House’s recent vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is poised to cost tens of millions of people their healthcare, and make it easier for insurance companies to deny coverage to hundreds of millions with “preexisting conditions.” And I’m angry over a conversation I had this weekend, with fellow community organizers here in New York City, some of whom I’ve spent fifteen years working alongside, and one of them—who is not at all prone to dramatics or exaggeration—said “Nothing we do at the local level matters anymore. Whatever victories we might see, whatever progress we make, it’s just gonna be rolled back.”
So, yeah, angry. If we’re going to win, we’re going to have to step up our game.
Which is why I wanted to talk about my first act of civil disobedience. Because the people in power have shown themselves to be experts at avoiding criticism, and ignoring the opposition even when there are millions of them in the streets. And we need to be using every tool in the toolkit of social change. And because I know it’s scary, thinking about intentionally putting yourself at risk of arrest.
It was 2004. Several of my friends were getting arrested every night, for sleeping in Central Park. They were homeless; they had nowhere else to sleep. And sleeping is not against the law. It’s a Parks Department regulation that the park be closed at 1:00 a.m.; however this regulation is used almost exclusively against homeless people—joggers, drug dealers, insomniac yuppies walking dogs, and others are ignored by cops hell-bent on ending the REAL menace to public safety: homeless people trying to get some sleep.
Since the 1990’s, homeless people have been Public Enemy Number One in New York City. The NYPD has focused on harassing, abusing, and criminalizing the homeless. Instead of providing real housing, the city prefers to spend money on the far more expensive rigmarole of arrest, processing, court time, jail time—at the same time as it pours money into a shelter system so dangerous and corrupt that thousands of men and women refuse to go into it, having been assaulted, robbed, and otherwise abused, by other residents as well as by shelter staff.
These were people I cared about. So when they asked me to participate in an act of civil disobedience, to risk arrest by sleeping in the park with them, I said “Yes.”
We called a press conference. Journalists joined us. Allies took pictures. People brought snacks, and donated blankets. Suddenly, a spotlight was being shined on something that had been happening in the shadows.
It was a freezing November night, but we were dressed warmly and we were having fun. At 11:00 p.m., the Parks Department came by to warn us that the park closed at 1:00 a.m. and that we’d be arrested if we stayed. At 12:30 a.m., they came back to remind us. At five minutes til 1:00 a.m., another cop car pulled up and two officers got out.
“You all know you’re getting arrested if you don’t leave at one, right?”
“Under what ordinance?” asked Jean, our designated police negotiator.
Protip Number One: Always have a single person be the point of contact for the cops. Too many people talking to too many cops creates the potential for confusion and mixed messages that can compromise the action’s effectiveness.
“The park closes at 1:00 a.m.,” they said.
“Show me the City Council Statute where the people of New York City decided through their duly elected representatives that it was illegal to sleep in the park,” said Jean.
“I don’t have an answer for you.”
“Then we’re not going.”
Cops from five precincts showed up; they took us to the 28th Precinct. All of us were written up for different offenses, even though we were all doing the exact same thing. We were all released except for John and Jean, who the cops said had warrants on them. We spent the next 24 hours chasing them through the system, bounced around by lies from Central Booking and the 28th Precinct. Neither detainee had any access to phones or lawyers.
Protip Number Two: Discuss this in advance. We should not have let the police separate us. Had we thought to plan for every possibility, those of us without warrants could have refused when the police offered us release on recognizance, and demanded to go through the system with the others.
In the end, all of our charges were dismissed. Before our action, people were getting messed with several times a week. After our action, the cops let people sleep. For seven months, no arrests were made. Obviously, the solution wasn’t permanent. No protest ever completely solves a problem. But it was one piece of a multi-year campaign that resulted in some huge victories, including the subsequent passage of the country’s first legislation to establish homelessness as a “protected class,” making it illegal for NYC police to profile someone based on their perceived housing status.
In the long national hangover that followed the 2016 election, someone smarter than me observed that the way we build digital communities is actually antithetical to effectively creating pressure on elected officials. My online tribe is built around shared passions—Avatar: the Last Airbender; queer speculative fiction—not geography. My comrades are all over the world. But politicians are accountable only to the people whose votes keep them in office. That’s why a racist Senator in a rural district has no reason to listen to what a massive diverse crowd at a protest in another part of the country has to say. That’s why it’s so easy for Paul Ryan to ignore all those angry tweets from outside his district.
And that’s why, as much as we love Twitter activism and strongly-worded status updates, we’ll need to be making things happen IRL too. Calls to your representatives are super important, but so are direct actions. Including ones where you risk arrest. Even a small affinity group can disrupt in big ways. Five people crashing a politician’s fundraising party will piss them off WAY more than five million tweets. Four people getting arrested in a park protected hundreds of homeless people from arrest for months. Take a look at your local political landscape—who are your targets? Where and how are they vulnerable? Who are your allies?
Once you’ve begun to develop a direct action strategy, do some reading into the tactics and challenges and strengths of effective civil disobedience. Gandhi has some great writing on the subject, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is incredible. And as you work with your comrades on any action that carries a risk of arrest, understand that there are lots of reasons why not everyone can participate. The risk and consequences are far greater for some than others, especially for people who are already marginalized or oppressed. Not everyone is treated equally by the “justice” system. Not everyone can afford to spend the night in jail. Parole, immigration status, disability, child care needs, inflexible work schedules. There’s no shame in any of that. There’s lots of work to do behind the scenes, and the people doing jail support or making press calls after a civil disobedience are every bit as important as the people sitting in the cells.
I’m not as angry, now, as I was when I started this. Mostly because I just re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in search of excellent quotes to include—but couldn’t find any, because it is nothing BUT excellent quotes—and it had me sobbing, and then clapping. But also because the letter, and the chance I’ve had while writing this article to reflect on the social change work I’ve been privileged to be a part of, reminded me that the shared creativity and imagination of a group of committed, passionate people, and their potential to transform that creativity into change, is the closest humans have to actual magic.
© 2017 by Sam J. Miller