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?