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MUST READ. What Happened to 'Fill the Jails'?

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  • Romi Elnagar
    What Happened to Fill the Jails ? by Sean Gonsalves You can t expect a chicken to produce a duck egg - Malcolm X Thank God, there are people willing go to
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2011

      What Happened to 'Fill the Jails'?

      by Sean Gonsalves

      You can't expect a chicken to produce a duck egg - Malcolm X
      Thank God, there are people willing go to jail in obedience to a higher law in protesting, say, the continued occupation of Iraq. It's inspiring.
      What's discouraging, though, is the possibility that there's not enough activists and/or movement organization in the U.S. right now to make a lasting difference on a whole host of foreign and domestic policy issues.
      Because the pollsters don't ask about people's willingness to take part in civil disobedience, I have no way of knowing for sure. I just hope my sense of it all is waaaaay off. But, it feels like most disaffected Americans - profoundly disturbed with the State of the Union, in particular; and the State of the World, in general - have deceived themselves into thinking that electing the "right" person to government office is going to change things; that if only we get-out-the-vote, write even more letters, and create yet another blog. . . I'm not saying it's trivial to do such things, but if folks think that's enough, then we're in trouble.
      Think about it.
      The Republicans got spanked during the mid-term elections in what was billed as a referendum on Bush's Mess-in-Potamia and just as I predicted in this very column immediately following "the thumpin'", Bush interpreted the election results - not as a call for an exit strategy - but as a plea for better war management. And what have the Democrats done?
      Maybe the conventional wisdom, inside-politics view is that the Dems still don't have enough power to end the occupation of Iraq, or they're just "playing politics" by exploiting the now popular anti-this-war momentum, while not wanting to be seen as being "weak on defense" or "soft on terror."
      When even Lee Iacocca is writing: "Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind....but instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, 'Stay the course.' Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic" - you know it's "fill-the-jails" time, to borrow from Gandhi's tactical playbook.
      America's Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., touched on the idea in his celebrated Letter From Birmingham Jail.
      "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn't negotiation a better path? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored."
      King wasn't talking about holding peace vigils or media-staged protest marches. He was talking about MASSIVE direct action - the kind that brings together huge numbers of disciplined, committed people, in a key location (or several strategic locations at once) to cause the political-economic system to grind to a screeching halt until the matter is resolved, or negotiated.
      King was talking about gumming up the gears of the system - fill the jails - to the point of gridlock. That - or the very real threat of that - is what brought progressive victories and is the reason why King was such a powerful and dangerous man in the eyes of his opponents.
      It wasn't the moving pep talk rallies and Negro spirituals that did it. It was the "true power" Hannah Arendt talked about: Power, she said, is "created not when some people coerce others but when they willingly take action together in support of a common purpose. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert." That's the kind of power King wielded - a lesson completely lost on those who think that "the best defense is a good (military) offense" football-ism is the same thing as sound military strategy. But I digress.
      I also went back and re-read Stride Toward Freedom, which is King's account of the Montgomery bus desegregation campaign. He wrote about the sophisticated coordination of the campaign, the movement infrastructure, the car-pool network which assured the boycotters that "no bus" didn't mean "no way to get to work."
      "Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment," King described the early workings of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
      "But, the job took money. For a while the MIA had been able to carry on through local contributions ... But as the pool grew and other expenses mounted, it was evident that we needed additional funds to carry on ... Fortunately, the liberal coverage of the press had carried the word of our struggle across the world. Although we never made a public appeal for funds, contributions began to pour in from as far away as Tokyo."
      How can there be a progressive movement in this country - an evolutionary leap forward in the way we relate to each other and the environment - without massive direct action?
      And, if you're going to ask folks to be down with The Movement, where's the material support network for those people who want to "do something" but have to worry about not getting fired because they have kids to feed?
      Or do you have to be independently wealthy, like Iacocca, to even think about getting involved?
      Where's the fund for those who get caught up in the system, jailed and/or fined, because they were fighting for the cause?
      Voting, letter-writing, blogging, vigils and speeches are necessary and can even be honorably courageous. But history says it ain't enough - if we're talking about real social evolution. Shit, fill-the-jails may not be enough, at this point
      The way I see it: those who fear real change have nothing to fear and far too many of those who desire real change are expecting a chicken to produce a duck egg.

      'Fill The Jails', Part II

      by Sean Gonsalves
      Part I of this essay was published on Saturday, May 19, 2007.

      "Nonviolence is a universal principle and its operation is not limited by a hostile environment. Indeed, its efficacy can be tested only when it acts in the midst of an in spite of opposition. Our nonviolence would be a hollow thing and worth nothing, if it depended for its success on the goodwill of the authorities." - Gandhi
      The GOP front runners gunning for the White House in '08 were trying to one-up each other on torture at a "debate" two weeks ago.
      Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said interrogators should use "any method they can think of," while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney not only supported "enhanced interrogation techniques" - the contemporary euphemism for torture - he proposed doubling the size of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
      McCain's support for prolonging the illegitimate occupation of Iraq aside, he's the one torture hold out.
      "When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us as we. . .underwent torture ourselves, is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them. It's not about the terrorists; it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."
      I suppose we should give McCain a little credit for his anti-torture stance, but, given his support for the "surge," which flies in the face of all the historical evidence that tells us there's NO military solution to guerrilla insurgencies, short of genocide, he's a far cry from USMC Maj. Smedley Butler who warned us in 1935 that "War Is a Racket."
      Butler wrote about his 33 years of active military service, spending "most of (his) time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism."
      High class muscle is what made Mexico "safe" for American oil interests in 1914. It made Haiti and Cuba "a decent place" for National City Bank to do business.
      "I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street," Butler continued.
      "I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested."
      You won't get that kind of candor in American politics today, including the Dems, save Kucinich.
      A Democrat-controlled Congress "compromises" with no troop withdrawal and more money for an immoral and illegal occupation?!
      As I was saying last week, you can't expect a chicken to produce a duck egg, which is why massive civil disobedience seems to be the only way to send the message the political ruling class should have got from the mid-term elections.
      The nonviolent tactical question I raised was "fill the jails" - gum up the gears of the system to the point of gridlock.
      I got tons of response from across the political spectrum and the responses affirmed two things:
      1) Many, many people think our democratic system is broke and 2), we need an education curriculum that includes the long and successful history of nonviolent direct action because the ignorance of the basic philosophy, as preached and practiced by people most Americans either worship (Jesus) or say they admire (Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King), is astounding.
      (Of course, I received a few unoriginal smart-ass responses suggesting I go to jail first, by myself. That would be cool and all except that it misses the point of massive direct action).
      "Fill the jails" wouldn't work, I'm told, because the government, in partnership with the private prison industry, would just build more jails and do horrible things to those arrested.
      I raised the prospect of filling the jails, not the prisons. Two completely different things. That said, a crack down on nonviolent direct action is pretty much the point. Nonviolent direct action usually does provoke the powers-that-be to respond with repression. You think those on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement were having a tea party?
      "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win," is how Gandhi put it.
      While repression is the predictable response of authorities, that's not an argument for why "fill the jails" would not be effective. It's an argument for why more courage is needed and a call for more than mere letter-writing, vigils and symbolic protests.
      That's what Gandhi was talking about when he said "nonviolence and cowardice go ill together. I can imagine a fully armed man to be at heart a coward. Possession of arms implies an element of fear, if not cowardice. But true nonviolence is an impossibility without the possession of unadulterated fearlessness."
      If America's true patriots aren't willing to organize on a massive scale, then we had better get used to business as usual.
      Let's suppose a million-plus people - including women, children and the elderly - show up in the nation's capital or New York City and shut the entire place down with the stated intention of not leaving until the U.S. occupation of Iraq comes to an end.
      While those brave folks necks would be on the line, think about the network of relationships (friends, family and acquaintances) tied to those million-plus demonstrators who WILL NOT just let their loved ones slip into some "enemy combatant" black hole.
      The powers-that-be are forced to make a decision: either we capitulate to the demands or we go Tiananmen Square on our own countrymen and women and completely destroy whatever remaining moral legitimacy this government may have.
      "Fill the jails" may not be the right tactic but nothing short of that level of commitment will make a difference.
      If America's true patriots aren't willing to organize on a massive scale, then we had better get used to business as usual.
      Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@....

      Part I  http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/19/1318 
      Part II  http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/05/26/1466

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