Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Civil Disobedience Like It Matters

OK. I know that I run the risk of offending friends here, but today I was at the Lamentation Service at Lora Lake apartments in Burien, and I just have to ask, "What the hell was that?"

Lora Lake is, of course, the 162 units of affordable family housing that are about to be destroyed by the Port Authority because they and the City of Burien have other plans for that piece of property. Last week, SHARE/WHEEL "occupied" the complex and nine people were arrested while ten supporters stood by to cheer them on. Today, about 15 clergy of various denominations held a lovely service, at the end of which ten people were going to do civil disobedience.

But apparently they changed their minds.

When I drove up, I saw about a dozen patrol cars with flashing lights parked on all sides of the fenced off neighboring lot. There were cops everywhere. But about fifteen minutes into the thing, they smartened up and went low profile. Cops got into their cars and hid behind barriers. The arrest wagon was out of sight around the corner.

The climactic moment arrived and we were all invited to lay hands on those who had decided to risk arrest. A nice touch. There was supposed to be some sort of cutting of a chain link fence with arrests to follow. Instead, they got the two most avuncular cops on the Burien police force to defuse the thing. We're talkin' Grandpa Walton here.

So the cops chat with Church Council leader Sandy Brown, and suddenly everyone's walking away. No one's looking very arrested to me and I'm having a tough time understanding what's just happened. The whole thing seemed to just fizzle.

I see Rev. Rich Lang walking away and I say, "So, are you arrested or what?" And he says, "I have no idea what's going on. Hey, take a new picture of me for my column. The one we're using is terrible." I take two. I'm wondering which one people like. My wife thinks the big smile makes him look like a doofus, but I like it. I prefer a Man-o-God with a sense of humor.

So then someone tells me that the police opted to simply escort them off the property, and to not make any arrests. Which is just weird. Once you've announced that ten people are there to get arrested and the TV cameras are out, there's only one thing that should stop you. That would be Bill Block's cel phone going off and him shouting, "Wait! It's the Commissioner! He's reconsidered!"

Which brings me back to my original question. "What the hell was that?"

If ever there was an issue that merited civil disobedience, it is this. For the Port Authority to tear down 162 perfectly good units of housing in the midst of a housing crisis is criminal.

Sadly, when people are planning demonstrations, they rarely say, "Quick, someone call Tim Harris! He'll know what to do!"

But maybe they should. I only have five arrests, but my wife has ten. Actually, what she said when I just asked was, "I got up into the double digits and kind of lost track."

I consider my crowning moment as an organizer to be the day that I found myself alone in a room with State Trooper, Statehouse Security, and Boston Police leadership, negotiating the terms of a major Boston Statehouse CD action. They set up a processing center for us in the basement. It was all very convenient.

My wife and I are unanimous in our opinion that recent events are well-intentioned, but that people could perhaps use a little technical assistance. So, assuming there will be a next time, I'd like to offer this brief primer on How To Commit Civil Disobedience.

Strength in Numbers
First of all, what was SHARE/WHEEL thinking when they showed up by themselves to occupy 162 units of family housing with NINE PEOPLE! There is a problem here with proportionality. I don't want to diminish anyone's risk-taking here, but lets get real. This doesn't communicate "We mean business." It says, "Swat me like I am an annoying fly." I hear people saying in outraged tones that the police showed up with fourteen cars to arrest nine people, and I think, well, duh. This is to be expected. They probably thought there would be a hell of a lot more of you. Had I been offered more than a dozen hours notice for either action, and known that others were on board as well, I'd have joined them. It's been a good fifteen years. The cause is right. I'm due. My hunch is that many others feel the same way. Where was the organizing?

Nonviolent CD 101
When you do Civil Disobedience, you say that moral laws trump human law. You say that some things are worth putting your body on the line for. You encourage others to step up their level of commitment to match yours. You are providing moral leadership that goes beyond words. You are drawing injustice out into the open for everyone to see. There are few people who have more community standing than middle-class clergy. You have privilege to spare. Unless you're at the School of the Americas, where the feds have taken to handing out lengthy prison sentences like candy, chances are that a CD arrest isn't going to put much of a dent in your credit rating or otherwise unduly inconvenience you. Our privilege is there to be used. This was a squandered opportunity.

Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More.

Breaking the law is serious, so act like it. This isn't some kind of game where we're play acting our parts. Things are at stake here. I don't know what kind of prep went into this, but from the way it fizzled after Sandy Brown talked to Grandpa Walton, I'd have to say, "probably not much." I mean, what the hell is that in Sandy's hand? An electrician's wire cutter? A hedge clipper? If you're planning on slicing your way through a chain link fence, I've got two words for you: bolt cutters! You need to think through the various scenarios and know what you're going to do when things get confusing, which leads me to ...

They Don't Want To Arrest You

Hello? "Ten Clergy Arrested In Protest of Housing Demolition." Is that a headline that the City of Burien wants in its morning papers? Not really. So, you might need to work at it a little bit. I remember one arrest at the Boston Statehouse where the police did not want to arrest us at all. I watched Sue Marsh, the 5'6, distinctly nonathletic policy analyst and lobbyist who ran the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, literally propel her body into a line of Boston cops who were standing between her and her goal, which was to get arrested. We had occasionally had our differences, but at that moment I loved Sue as much as I'd ever loved anyone else in my life. Nothing could have been more out of character for her, but she rose to the occasion because it mattered. She was heroic.

The Media Reports Conflict
There were three or four TV cameras there, but when I surfed around online tonight looking for the story, predictably, no appeared to have run with it. An outdoor sermon minus the civil disobedience is just an outdoor sermon: it may be spiritually uplifting, but it's not news.

Many good things were said today, and I was happy to hear them. The assembled clergy were in fine prophetic form and Amos and Isaiah and all those other guys were well represented. But we must also remember Matthew 10:16. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” We've got the harmless as doves part down, but the wise as serpents thing needs a lot more work.

The good news is that there's some major bureaucratic hard ball going on, with King County threatening to go all eminent domain on the Port of Seattle's ass. I have a press release that arrived in my email at 10:45 pm saying that King County and the Port of Seattle have a major announcement on Lora Lake for 10 AM tomorrow.

So maybe we win anyway. But lets not kid ourselves. This was lame.

One last thing. After I got back to my car, I pulled into a driveway to turn around and found myself face to face with someone's personal tank. What kind of people live in Burien anyway? I shot this photo out of my passenger window because, frankly, I was afraid to get out of the car. Who the hell owns their own tank? Can anyone buy one of these things?


Rev. Sandy Brown said...

Next time we will ask your advice, Tim, but this time we didn't do too badly. We actually had lead-off coverage on KOMO-TV, a story on KCPQ, a good article in the P-I, and coverage throughout the day on KOMO Radio and KUOW (not to mention your blog with its great photos and story). You're right, Burien absolutely did not want to arrest clergy, and I'm afraid we would have had to do something outrageous to get arrested, which would have led to criticism for outrageous behavior from clergy. I think our tactics are working, since today Port Commissioner Bob Edwards is announcing his support for preservation of Lora Lake. Not a bad day's work, I'd say. I'm proud of our clergy and happy you were there to participate, too. Thanks for your important work on ending homelessness, Tim. You're a blessing.

tuftejet said...

I agree, that with a little bit more planning perhaps a bigger turnout would have taken place and bolt cutters also would have joined the entourage. I am glad that this CD took place though even if arrests were not in order. I would have enjoyed showing up in my Islamic robes, though unfortunately I had previous engagement, an invite from a "First People Person." A representative sharing tales from another sad chapter in our US history taking land and abodes from poor persons.
Tanks in neighborhoods? Maybe we could rent one for next CD.
Sincerely Sister Janice

Stephany said...

Okay I was watching KOMO and the clergy blessing of the chain link cutting prep. This was the weirdest thing I have ever watched. The hushed voice of a newbie reporter on his first job, saying, any minute they will walk over to this fence, and cut it then be arrested.
Now when TC4 was being harrassed on moving day it didnt take much for me [last summer]to get KING5 there after I whipped their ass that no one gives a shit about homeless unless there was a crime committed. So Tc4 got some air time to talk about Bothell suing them.
If I was at the Lora I would have not only cut the fence, but I would have handcuffed myself to it first.
I kept watching for KOMO to come back with the "breaking news when something happens" and it never did.
I appreciate the clergy, but tell me what the point of that show was anyhow. Did they go their to be talked down? they could have done that somewhere else.
Yes people can buy tanks. Borrow that guy's tank next time there is a chain link fence cutting ceremony and bulldoze it.
Sorry to butt in here where I don't belong, but if a person is going to make a point follow through with it. My mom has a better rap sheet than I do, she was arrested at a nuclear power plant protest.

Stephany said...

PS--my mother is a Reverand.

Carolyn said...

OK for the record I never said Rich looked like a doofus in that photo. Tim will admit this if pressed.

I love the photo of the clergy. I count 12. Twelve clergy willing to risk arrest to stand up for poor people. It's wondefully heartening. It reminds me of Amos 5:24 "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
As Tim notes I have done CD many times. We always called it "risking arrest", not "getting arrested"- whether they arrest you is partly up to them. They don't teach civil disobedience in div. school so you can't get down on people for not doing it like we old hands would. The moral authority of all those clergy is very powerful even in our secular culture, and even if they can't bring themselves to provoke the police to arrest them.

katia said...

Man, I'm glad I didn't go to shoot this..
Like many photo opps, it had the potential of a BOOM with the reality of a fizzle.

Carolyn said...

Another point: Its interesting that the arrest bar is much higher for some people than others. The second time I was arrested (Groton CT nuclear sub commissioning circa 1984) the police arrested a black man FOR WALKING DOWN THE SIDEWALK. No joke. They threw him in the paddy wagon with us and we kept telling them he wasn't with us but they didn't care. After holding him for a few hours they let him go saying "now go home and stay there" it was very eye opening. So clergy in robes have to do something totally outrageous to get arrested but a black man with no robes or other marker of authority can be arrested for no reason at all.

Tim Harris said...

Re my wife Carolyn's last point: so true. When it comes right down to it, most things are about who has power and who doesn't.

Minor PC Police point to be raised: After getting beat up for it several years back, I don't use the phrase "paddy wagon" anymore, this being something in which the Drunken Irish are placed on the way to lock-up.

Mike Smith said...

Now if you're wanting "Non-Candy Assed" this is a great example:

In San Francisco circa '92, a buddy went to a bank ATM to pull some cash. He watched some punks pour motor oil into it, fouling the works. At first annoyed, pissed-off that he couldn't get his cash - later he found out that the bank and one of the major gay organizations in S.F. were in dispute over some issue. The next day the bank capitulated to the terms of the covert activists. This is the most efficient and effective act of civil disobedience I've ever heard of. If you don't think people should be candy-assed, where do you draw the line? This example involved zero press/publicity. Agreed that the Lora Lake standoff looked pitiful, but that seems to be the rule for acts of civil disobedience whether it's anti-war protests or other housing actions. I believe that the biggest problem with civil disobedience today is that it's widely seen to be impotent. How do you push it to effective extremes without going to far?

revel said...

Which kind of civil disobedience are we talking about? Bolt cutters vs sheet metal shears? Activist ministers and their own avenues for activism (press, radio, public aid, demonstration, etc.) versus civilians of different arrest-ability and release-ability? I don't see a lot of people in my public housing situation openly decrying the oversights, mismanagement of funds, safety and ensuing physical jeopardy here. This is simply because basic needs such as food, shelter, medicine are rather immediately threatened. I pass for well, am sound-minded, but if I am apprehended and separated from medication, I'm instantly in life-threatening shit. C'est la vie. That's one place where semi-covert activism comes in. That means electronic communication, effective organizing, being quietly present, adding to the crowd, "leaning" constantly and firmly. These are not necessarily easily-viewed acts of rebellion. No kidding, Seattle needs some hardcore CD instruction and better notification. We need more stories about actions that work, like in Boston. We also need to consider what's behind all the avenues for action and cut a little slack for these seemingly low-key ministers.

Dr. Wes Browning said...

The tank appears to be what they call an up-armored humvee (HMMWV). I saw one of those used by the Seattle Police Department when the police rioted during WTO. They used the thing to deliver storm troopers to the intersection of 2nd & Lenora and occupied it. It was hilarious, because at the time there were no protesters or anyone else at all at 2nd & Lenora.

Anyway, I believe you can buy them. You can start with an ordinary $65,000 humvee, and buy an armor kit for it, and put it on yourself, if you have talent and tools. The slightly more than a ton of armor costs only $30,000 plus shipping and handling. So we're talking around $100,000 and DIY sweat equity for that sweet ride.

Anonymous said...

I, too, had to suppress a giggle at the "symbolic trespass" by Sandy Brown and other clergy at Monday's event. You'd think at least one of the other seventeen clergy at the event would have had the guts to trespass for real. They did, however, get a lot of press, which may have influenced the Port Commission to hold off the razing of the apartments.
I have to take exception to Tim's criticism of SHARE/WHEEL's occupation of the apartments. For a group of homeless people with limited resources to have pulled this off is incredibly impressive. You don't find folks from the Union Gospel Mission, for example, engaging in that sort of direct action, do you? I see that Scott Morrow, a SHARE organizer, was among those taken to jail. Now there's a man with some courage and committment. Say, Tim, how many times have you been arrested while engaged in civil disobedience with your homeless vendors? Just wondering....

Tim Harris said...

Point well taken. I gave SHARE/WHEEL props for their CD in my Director's Corner in today's Real Change, and have huge admiration for the empowerment organizing they do and the enormous impact they've had.

When I was at Boston JwP, there was a conflict over tactics on a building takeover. We had a number of middle class allies and veteran organizers involved who knew how to do a housing take-over in a way that would have maximum impact, involve many other allies, and have some chance of actually holding the building. On the other hand, our empowerment project was in the grip of, long story short, some renegade homeless leadership that was threatened by allies because they'd have to share power and work with others. The homeless went it alone. Their numbers were small. They were arrested immediately and that was that. It was purely symbolic and had a fraction of the impact a group effort could have had.

This reminded me of that.

For what it was, the SHARE action had an impact. My point, however, was that if they actually intended to hold the building, which is how it looked from their call for support, they needed numbers and allies. This doesn't diminish anyone's bravery or commitment, but it does call into question their grasp of reality.

Donna G said...


I am really sorry that I am way down here in Montgomery (home of CD). Looks like more bodies were needed. Thanks for the update. I couldn't find anything either on the news. While 12 is a nice prophetic number (as Rich continues to remind us) I believe there are more than 12 churches in Seattle. Hell, there is more than that just a few blocks from Market Street. Where was everybody? I vote for the first pic of Rich.

Sarajane46th said...

You can find a set of photos of the 17 clergy who came to the protest at www.washblog.org.
Look for two recent articles on Lora Lake. Noemie and I regret that we did not have all their names.

Anonymous said...

I can't find the washblog.org site to look at the photo of the ministers who protested, but I can see 2, at least, whom I know to be ministers from the Eastside suburbs, not Seattle...Ministers who've been involved with the TC4 fight for 3 years, now....including the still-ongoing lawsuit that the City of Woodinville is pursuing (including seeking damages of, oh, $100,000 or whatever) from the small Northshore United Church of Christ...