THIS IS NOT SPARTA
by Scott Thompson
Anyone who has ever experienced the looming menace of a line of armored riot police advancing silently toward a street full of protesters knows that physical courage in the most ancient sense of the term is sometimes a necessity for activists. Power doesn’t much care for being defied, and it never has. But what kind of courage do we need?
Last November, Hennepin County banned sleeping on People’s Plaza entirely, tents or no tents. Protesters were told they could maintain a 24-hour vigil, but only if they didn’t sleep. On Monday, November 14, Occupy Minneapolis called for everyone to come help defend the People’s Plaza, by staging a “sleep-in” to test the new rules. The rally began with speakers, followed by a march.
I don’t think many people who were at the march even realize that this happened, because I’ve never heard anyone else mention it. During our march, a guy tried to drive into the crowd and burst right through it—who knows how many people could have been hurt or killed. The same thing happened in Oakland and DC and in both cases the cops let the person go with no charges despite the fact that he deliberately ran people over. That’s just one of the ways the authorities let you know they don’t appreciate your dissent.
Twenty or so people immediately swarmed his car as he accelerated toward the march. One of my comrades literally jumped, spread-eagled, onto the guy’s windshield so he couldn’t see to keep driving forward without driving blind. He stopped. A crowd of protesters stood directly in front of his car while others took down his license plate and explained to him that the number would go out on live video stream if he drove into us. He backed down.
When we got back to the People’s Plaza, there were rows of sleeping bags, and the plan was for everybody to lie down and go to sleep, in defiance of the county’s sleeping ban. I wrapped myself in as many layers as possible and bedded down, the only time I actually slept on the People’s Plaza. It didn’t feel that cold at first, due to the layers and layers of clothing and blankets on me. The Plaza security guards and the Sheriff’s deputies were doing walk-throughs every hour or so, supposedly to check if people were asleep. It became obvious pretty quickly that they weren’t going to arrest anyone because people were lying there with their eyes closed but the guards did nothing.
At one point, two Sheriff’s deputies on a walk-through spotted a sign about their boss, Sheriff Rich Stanek. They must not have liked what they saw because they stole the sign and attempted to take it back to the Government Center. We all jumped up at the same time and followed after them chanting: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” Suddenly, one of the Occupiers jumped forward and grabbed the sign out of the deputy’s hands, and both deputies retreated back into the building.
The feeling of doing something like this has to be experienced to be believed. It’s probably one of the biggest psychological draws of engaging in direct action. Instead of saying “yes sir” to the abuses of authority, you stand up and get in its face and tell it the truth it doesn’t want to hear. And then you feel about four times bigger and more alive.
We were positively elated with our victory in this little skirmish, but after midnight the news came through—Occupy Wall Street was getting evicted. Our tech people put up the live stream on a big projection screen, and we watched the whole thing happening in real time. The sense of victory didn’t last.
As the months went by, I started to notice some strange and uncomfortable facts about direct action. In situations where people are being arrested and/or assaulted all around you, you don’t feel any fear at all. It’s like the ability to respond in a normal, human way just disappears. Not only do you lose the ability to have a normal fear reaction to a genuine threat, you sometimes go through an even stranger transformation and become self-destructively assertive.
For instance, when our march was attacked on April 7, I saw a cop getting out of his car a few feet away from me and suddenly found myself bellowing “get back in your car!” at him at the top of my lungs, something I would never do in daily life and something that unquestionably increased my own arrest risk. I’m not quite sure of the mechanism of this kind of behavior change, but it’s like you suddenly don’t care what happens to you.
One result of this strange effect is that direct action starts to become almost addictive. You start to crave it. Normal life starts to seem flat by comparison.
I was talking with a young man once about his arrest at an action, and he expressed frustration to me about the fact that he had been assaulted by police and hadn’t been able to fight back. He felt bad about getting beaten up without resisting, even though he had stayed strong and upheld Occupy principles of nonviolence. It’s a hard thing for some people, to tolerate violence being inflicted on you without inflicting some of your own. To make him feel better, I said, “Don’t worry, Occupy’s the reverse of the normal world—the more you get beat up, the more macho it is!
He grinned at that, so he must have felt better. But there’s a real danger in seeing what we do in “macho” terms, whether reversed or otherwise. In the months that followed, Occupy Minneapolis started to suffer a constant stream of arrests and ridiculously elevated criminal charges. Suddenly it became possible to get a few years in jail for an act of civil disobedience. Out in Seattle, SWAT teams started kicking doors down and the FBI started trying to scare people into informing on their own comrades and friends in the movement.
They want to teach us to be afraid again, and we can’t let them do that. The courage of those who refuse to testify against their friends, even when threatened with prosecution, is truly inspiring. But it’s not a macho kind of courage. It’s not about feeling larger-than-life or self-destructively assertive. It’s the courage of solidarity, a kind of courage that is equally available to young and old, the assertive and the timid, the physically strong and those who are not.
The courage of solidarity topples empires. The courage of raw aggression is only capable of making new ones. More often than that, it just gets everyone hurt. We tend to make mini-celebrities out of our arrestees, and in one way this is essential because we really need them to feel our love and support after they go through something like that. But if we turn getting arrested or getting beat up into a badge of honor, we send the message that you should do something to get yourself arrested whether it serves any tactical purpose or not. We could unintentionally mess up the lives of some of our most committed activists by encouraging that type of thinking.
If we think of what we’re doing in terms of the ego-based, individual courage of aggression, like some guy with six-pack abs and a giant helmet bellowing, “This is Sparta!” in a make-believe Hollywood fantasy world, we can’t help but lose. The other side has got a lot more of that to bring to the table.
If we think of what we do as just standing together and refusing to accept injustice—all of us together, not just a few heroes—we have a chance of doing much more than that. We have a chance of demonstrating that the calm, non-violent courage of solidarity is stronger than the power of aggression and fear. It’s been done before!