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September 5, 2006

Behind the scenes of a new type of protest.
Field Report, Dana Goldstein, Campus Progress, Aug. 5, 2006

Behind the scenes of a new type of protest.

By Dana Goldstein, Campus Progress

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: Five members of Congress, two rabbis, a minister, a former New York City mayoral candidate, a college student, and the president of a progressive political consulting firm are arrested and booked at a Dupont Circle police station.

But that’s exactly what happened in Washington, D.C. on April 28 when, in a highly orchestrated media event, 11 high-profile protesters were charged with blocking the entrance to the Sudanese embassy as they demonstrated against the ongoing genocide of Sudan’s non-Arab population in the Darfur region. Rabbi Steve Gutow, director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, winced in pain as his wrists were bound with metal cuffs. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Ca.), a 78-year old Holocaust survivor, had his hands cuffed behind his back by a Secret Service officer and was led into a paddy wagon.

Very Civil DisobedienceThe protesters weren’t taken away against their wills—far from it. Rather, the arrests were coordinated ahead of time by the Save Darfur Coalition, which hoped to attract media attention to April 30’s anti-genocide rally on the National Mall, and the Secret Service Uniformed Division, the force charged with protecting foreign diplomatic missions throughout the United States. Long before the protestors spent no more than three hours in holding cells, SDC organizers had turned over to the Secret Service the protesters’ social security numbers, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, biographical information, and even distinguishing birthmarks.

“What I was most surprised about in terms of the process was how willing the Secret Service is to work with you,” said Matt Slutsky, senior consultant for M+R Strategic Services, a firm retained by the SDC to plan and publicize anti-genocide protests. “They understand what the situation is in Darfur, they are sympathetic to your cause, and their job is to make sure that things are done safely. … As long as we were really up front, they were really willing to work with us.”

Very Civil Disobedience
Rep. James McGovern

This act of civil disobedience as political theater paid off, attracting media attention to a dire situation that many Americans—a self-described 82 percent—remain at least somewhat unaware of. The arrests resulted in more than 150 media mentions in sources including CNN, Yahoo News, and the BBC. The stunt was so successful, according to SDC staff, that they are considering similar civil disobedience tactics for the upcoming Sept. 17 rally in New York City, timed to coincide with the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

“Today it seems that civil disobedience is most effective when it gains that media attention, and for the most part that happens when there are high profile people involved,” said Rabbi Michael Namath, program director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who was arrested with the House members on April 28. “I’ve gone to many protests at the Sudanese embassy and seen many people arrested, and most of the time, it’s not reported in the paper.”

Civil disobedience leading to arrest has a storied history; from Gandhi’s protests against British imperialism in India, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of non-violence during the Civil Rights movement, to hundreds of anti-apartheid demonstrations outside the South African embassy during the 1980s. But in recent years, the tactic has been increasingly associated with extremism rather than peaceful resistance; the mainstream media’s portrayal of anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 focused on a small group of rioters, instead of the tens of thousands who engaged in non-violent protest. And in 2002, John Ashcroft’s Justice Department signaled a newly hostile legal climate for peaceful protest by indicting demonstrators working with Greenpeace, the environmental non-profit known for its attention-grabbing protest tactics.

Very Civil Disobedience
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

But the passion of today’s anti-genocide protesters—many of them students—is contributing to the resurgence of highly-coordinated direct action protests inspired by groups such as Greenpeace and Africa Action, which was instrumental in organizing demonstrations against South African apartheid. Civil disobedience has always been about “the act of bearing witness. … It’s Quakerism on steroids,” John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace US, told Campus Progress. Some groups, like Greenpeace, launch most of their protests or actions without advance notification. But those with experience in civil disobedience stress that many of today’s peaceful demonstrations and arrests are not spontaneous acts of political speech, but the result of months of planning between protestors, authorities, and legal and media experts.

For Namath, the lack of spontaneity on April 28 did not detract from the power of the civil disobedience because “very few people know about the planning behind it. It’s only the inner circle who knows that these things are planned, and because of that, there’s still this sense of connecting to the protest of the past.”

In the case of the April 28 event, the high level of coordination between SDC and the Secret Service was unusual, in part because of the involvement of five Democratic members of Congress: Lantos, Sheila Jackson-Lee (Tex.), James McGovern (Mass.), John Olver (Mass.), and Jim Moran (Va.).

Very Civil Disobedience
Rep. Jim Moran

It was in January 2006 that SDC first brainstormed the idea for high profile arrests prior to the rally on the National Mall, and immediately reached out to organizations and legal experts with civil disobedience experience. “A number of members of Congress were looking for ways to help,” said SDC policy director Alex Meixner, which led to a partnership between SDC and McGovern’s office, which hosted a meeting on the Hill to plan the arrests and helped to recruit the other four representatives who participated in the event.

McGovern had been arrested once before, protesting outside the South African embassy in the mid-1980s. “I felt that was a very effective tool,” McGovern told Campus Progress. “In the mid-1980s, every week there was another article in the newspaper about some member of Congress or some sports figure or some church leader who decided to do an action in front of the embassy, who demanded that the U.S. take a leadership role. That focus helped change the world. To me, a similar effort needs to take place around Darfur.”

Slutsky, the political consultant, said that to most Hill staffers, “The notion that their boss is getting arrested—it’s like unfathomable.” Buzzing on the Hill about the planned civil disobedience reached the ears of the Secret Service Uniformed Division. When Slutsky called the Secret Service two days prior to the protest to inform them of SDC’s plans, he “clarified some things that they had heard. At each step of the process, they try to talk you out of it. They don’t do it in a severe way, though. They ask, ‘Are you sure? Is there a chance that I can talk you out of it?’ And we just said, ‘No.’ The Secret Service prefers not to have this happen, but if it’s going to, their job is to make sure that it goes in a coordinated and safe way,” Slutsky said.

SDC staffers and protesters said the Secret Service officers and D.C. police were uniformly courteous. “The police were extra helpful,” remembered Patrick Schmitt, a recent Georgetown University graduate who was arrested that day in his role as former executive director of STAND—Students Taking Action Now: Darfur. “For them, it’s an opportunity to hang out with five congressmen for a few hours.”

It was also several days before the arrests that the Secret Service informed SDC that each protestor would be charged a $50 bail, and asked organizers to furnish them with identifying information for each participant in the demonstration. The Secret Service’s press office did not return any of several calls asking for information on the coordination of civil disobedience actions.

According to Greenpeace’s Passacantando, a more traditional strategy for coordinating direct action would involve informing the authorities of the protest only as it begins. When Greenpeace rolled a mock toxic tank car onto the National Mall in September 2005 to protest the federal government’s lack of terrorism preparedness, Passacantando personally called the FBI and Department of Homeland Security “to tell them, it’s Greenpeace, we are here, just as the tank was being deployed.”

But in an age when public relations professionals e-mail out media advisories several days before many protest events, the authorities are less likely to be caught off guard by a demonstration. Indeed, according to SDC’s Meixner, “The idea is not to surprise anyone—to make sure this is not an emergency response situation, but a very well-planned, well-organized, orchestrated situation.”

The April 28 SDC arrests in front of the Sudanese embassy were just one component of a flurry of media events during the week of the march on the National Mall. Later that same day, anti-genocide activists met with President Bush, who called the killings in Darfur a genocide for the first time. And the day before the arrests, SDC participated in a press conference at the National Press Club in downtown Washington with Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), as well as actor George Clooney.

McGovern said he was pleased with the sense of immediacy the arrests lent to anti-genocide discussions among members of Congress, and that other representatives had indicated an interest in participating in similar civil disobedience protests. “My hope is that when we come back from our recess, we can figure out other ways to attract attention to this,” he said.

What action does McGovern hope the United States will take to stop the genocide in Darfur? “If nothing else, the president needs to be talking about this every week; Tony Snow and the State Department need to be talking about this at least once a week,” he said. “We need to demand that a UN peacekeeping force be deployed in Darfur. We need to use diplomatic and economic pressures to try and force the Sudanese government to allow the international force to go in there. Some of our allies—such as China and Egypt—continue to do business with Sudan as if nothing were wrong.”

For McGovern, the spectacle of civil disobedience is above all an “educational” tool for making Americans aware of the tragedy in Sudan. “This should be an election issue,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, if we’re going to do anything meaningful here, and by that I mean actually ending this genocide, we’re going to have to compel our elected officials to take action now, and that’s only going to happen if there is pressure from the grassroots.”

Illustration: Matt Bors

Photos: Associated Press

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