“Wanna get busted on Wednesday?” That’s the question that burned up my phone line last week as I prepared to join a contingent in the protests at One Police Plaza. It was a kind of shorthand, to be sure, assuming that the whys and wherefores went without saying. But at the same time, the question revealed the underlying power of an action that, on the surface at least, seemed to violate the most fundamental principles of CD— civil disobedience.
Read Gandhi or King or Thoreau or ACT UP and they’ll all tell you that to be effective, CD protesters must draw a crucial distinction: they are participating not for the sake of being arrested itself, but for the sake of their political goals. Most important, the sages say, those goals must be clear and specific. Nevertheless, more than 1000 people poured out to block entrances over the last couple of weeks for a set of demands that wasn’t articulated until after the fact in the 10-point plan hammered out on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the protest looked merely symbolic— especially compared to direct actions like sitting-in to integrate lunch counters or burning draft cards or blocking construction at a nuclear power site. And it was so choreographed and star-studded that the mayor thought he could get away with calling it “silly” and Liberal Party leader Ray Harding could sneer on NY1 that it was a “Brie and Chablis” affair.
And yet it worked. And far more effectively than the discouraging rallies outside the Bronx courthouse with which the protests against the Diallo shooting began. A dozen blustering men would crowd onto the steps of the courthouse and take turns at the microphone, some calling for boycotts— but of whom? Others vowing to keep taking to the streets until— until what? Apart from the cops on surrounding rooftops, there were only a couple dozen white people in attendance, almost all of them recruiting for sectarian parties.
Moving the demos to Police Plaza focused all that undirected political anger on the proper target. It shifted the sights away from the grand jury— the public understood that it was pointless, even misguided, to aim there— and trained them on an epidemic of police brutality of which the Diallo shooting was only the latest, and most horrific, example. Indeed, in this context the mass arrests were not abstract at all. They drew their power precisely from staging the very activity they were meant to protest: absurd cop actions against people of color. This meaning was hardly lost on the police themselves; they quickly stopped handcuffing protesters in front of news cameras.
“When I saw David Dinkins arrested, I knew I needed to go down there myself,” a white woman in her eighties told me at the precinct where we were taken after our arrest. The spectacle of her and the 16 white-haired friends she’d invited to come along pushed the theater of the absurd even further. The medium was the message in this CD. That’s why it was so exhilarating.
In my police wagon, at least, in which 12 white Jewish women, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies, were hauled up to a precinct in Harlem, the mood was practically festive. One of our arresting officers demanded that one woman tell him where he could get a Stamp Out Giuliani button like hers; the other cop told us it was okay to slip out of our handcuffs for the bumpy ride as long as we slipped them back on for show when we got to the precinct. We knew these shiny young white cops from Queens were treating us well because we were a bunch of nice white ladies. But once in the precinct itself, we were treated well because the black women cops there, as one of them didn’t mind telling us, approved of what we had done. They made us a pot of coffee.
Friends who ended up at less amiable precincts, where they couldn’t eat anything or go to the toilet unescorted, described organizing efforts inside their holding cells, initiated by the many veterans of ACT UP and other activist groups that have sustained the tradition of CD over the last several decades. There has been a nostalgic rush to characterize the Police Plaza actions as the greatest grassroots resurgence of CD since the ’60s, but of course there have been tremendously effective mass CD efforts in between— the Clamshell Alliance occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power site, for example, or ACT UP shutting down Wall Street— that
prepared many of those who participated here, including the police.
Still, the hyperbole is understandable, for it expresses the deepest impulse that brought so many folks out to the downtown demos: a desire for a new multiracial, postideological progressive movement. The protests attracted CUNY faculty and trade unionists and community gardeners and welfare advocates and queer groups and Asian American activists and you-name-it because they all see the connections between widespread police brutality and the principles for which they labor: making New York a place where everyone’s quality of life matters.
Are Sharpton and company going to make such a movement? The Saturday meeting was not exactly a hothouse of the radical rabble. The key players were elected officials and corporate executives and their 10-point plan demands familiar, if important, reforms. Nonetheless, people have been galvanized. Old identity-politics barriers are breaking down. And suddenly Giuliani— and his policies— do not look invincible. “Get home safe,” said the Harlem precinct officer as she released us into the night.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999