Dr. King, Alcatraz, and Civil Disobedience
At the remove of decades, and felt through the thick rubbery buffer of my white male privilege, what I admire most about Dr. King is the soaring power of his oratory. I celebrate his legacy — his signal use of civil disobedience to achieve political change in Estados Unidos, and the fact that we live in a more integrated and multicultural society as a result, which is of direct benefit to me and those I care about — but I flat-out love his use of language.
Just check this out:
— Wi-Phi (@wirelessphi) January 18, 2015
"The majestic heights of brotherhood and understanding"?!?!?! Daaaamn, professor! When was the last time you heard anyone speak of solidarity with that kind of power and eloquence? The heart aches for the lack of such a voice. I'll get back to this a bit later in my post, I promise.
Prison as National Monument
This weekend, I had my first ever visit to Alcatraz. It's one of those touristy things that you might totally never do as the resident of a city, and I'm glad some friends organized the outing. It was quite enjoyable (beautiful day, absorbing some history, nice boat ride) but also provocative of unpleasant thoughts.
Prisons are terrible places, and Alcatraz is no exception. Touring a set of boxes where humans used to be locked up is unsettling. Having such a place be a destination for tourism is further unsettling on another level.
It's hard not to feel that Alcatraz as national park glorifies incarceration. It's there in the tone of the audio tour, and in the way that so many of the people visiting are wearing hats or shirts that sport the Alcatraz brand. People are fans of the place, and what it represents.
Perhaps that's not surprising here in Estados Unidos, where we lock more of our people up in cages than any other place in recorded history. That's fundamentally messed up, and it lends a sickness to our culture that most of us try to ignore most of the time.
Dr. King again:
"A nation that year after year spends more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
Makes me think of this:
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) January 19, 2015
Makes me sad.
Alcatraz is also hosting some artwork by the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, which is definitely interesting. It's on through April and is included in the normal Alcatraz ticket, so if this sounds intriguing you should probably go.
The most powerful piece to me was an audio installation called "Stay Tuned": a row of cells each with their own music piped in through the heating duct and a chair to sit on. The idea is you go from cell to cell and sit and listen for a minute.
The audio selections are all from radical or revolutionary musicians, with one speech by Dr. King. I happened to walk into that cell just in time to catch this choice:
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
All in all, the juxtaposition of a set of artworks which celebrate dissidence with the setting of a prison is definitely provocative, as is certainly the artists intent. It's effective and like I said, you probably should go and experience it yourself.
The thrust of the exhibition is largely international exhibition — there are only six U.S. dissidents referenced, among them Edward Snowden.
I can't help but wondering how (if at all) the installation pertains to the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S. today. We have relatively few "prisoners of conscience", but given the number of citizens we lock up, and the destruction this wreaks upon our communities and our culture, do we really deserve a pat on the back for that?
Civil Disobedience and Civic Solidarity
As the protest sign says, shit is fucked up and bullshit. It really is. The question of how to achieve change is so omnipresent — and so overturned, re-digested, sickeningly self-referential — that it's become an inside joke with organizers. "What's your theory of change?"
There's a resurgent interest in civil disobedience of late, starting with the relative success of Occupy encampments to place inequality somewhere in the national conversation, and increasing this year with tragedies and response emerging from Ferguson to New York City.
At a high level, I believe this is good. Disobedience is an important way in which a civil society functions. It's one of the most vital feedback loops in the system. However, I also worry that since the time of Dr. King the world has changing in ways that render civil disobedience a far less effective mechanism for change.
As I wrote in the early days of Occupy:
I have read my Alinsky, but I've also read my Critical Art Ensemble and they called it back in the '90s: as power becomes virtual, the ability for a physical protest to challenge that power is greatly diminished. There used to be important buildings that could be blockaded and actually stop things. Today the best you can do is create inconvenience. If the powers-that-be have something really important to do in meatspace, they use a private island.
So we see it here in San Francisco, where many #BlackLivesMatter protests — in part because of the harmonic resonance of the murder of Oscar Grant by a transit cop — have focused on the BART train system. This is highly visible, but it's also mostly an inconvenience to commuters, who are mostly working people most likely to be allies rather than opponents of the movement. I still support the protests, but it's indicative of how little purchase there is for change from outside the system. As predicted in electronic civil disobedience, there's just no place to get traction.
The logic of "shut it down" is enormously powerful if you can actually manage shut down something that is directly linked to your target, or which your target actually cares about deeply. A general strike is the ultimate trump card — as the Coup says, "we could all at once retire" — but if all you can do is disrupt mass transit, then there's a real chance that continued action is going to erode support.
There are other values of civil disobedience: particularly as a publicity mechanism (a way to get attention), or as a way of creating solidarity among the disobedient. Critical Mass is a good example of a cause that's done well maximizing those values. Although anti-bike backlash is likely in some part fueled by motorists that Mass inconveniences, it creates visibility for bicycling, has successfully catalyzed change in bike policing (sometimes after violent confrontation), and creates a camaraderie among participants that can last a lifetime. It is also beautiful.
But bicycles are not a real threat to any entrenched interest. They aren't, say, the prison industrial complex.
In case you didn't already know, I don't have any answers here. I'm never going to pooh-pooh anyone who actually gets out into the street and does something (90% of protesting is showing up), but I personally don't yet see the place to rally. Maybe I'm being unreasonable, or rationalizing laziness, but it takes more to get me off my ass than it did when I was a kid.
Which brings me back around to Dr. King. It's impossible to know what would have happened with him if he hadn't been assassinated — maybe he would have ended up an ineffectual old sellout, though I doubt that very much; or maybe he would have lead a revolution in values — but I can't help but be struck by that speech I heard in that cell:
"We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Dr. King spoke of "we as a nation", but I think it's safe to extrapolate to "we as a world" or "we as a species" in our modern era. That's the scale of the challenge, and nobody I can see is speaking of it in those terms, with anywhere near that eloquence. Which is a shame. We need more solidarity on planet earth, the Fraternity for which the French revolted. I'm not sure where it comes from, but I'll keep my ear to the ground.