Well-Behaved Protesters Seldom Make History

This was not the first time that I had heard someone express a degree of pride about the lack of arrests.  My own wife had commented on it when trying to explain her participation to conservative family and church friends.  Following the reporting on the numbers of marchers, perhaps the most frequently cited fact about the marches has been the absence of arrests.  Something about this nagged at me.

Part of it had to do with the fact that, less than a year ago, I myself was arrested in an environmental protest against the tar sands refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  When people hear about protesters getting arrested, I think they often have the picture of rioters damaging property and mobs attacking police.  My experience was very different. I and 40 other people were arrested on that day, but there was no violence and no rioting. Our action was carefully planned, deliberately enacted, and intentionally non-violent.

But it was more than that. I think highlighting the absence of arrests at the Women’s March is problematic for a number of other reasons.

1.  Not all arrests are just.

Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March implies that other marchers who do get arrested must have done something illegal.  The assumption behind this is that all police action is just — which is patently false.  People who frequently participate in protest actions know that they may be arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The police may scoop up non-violent protesters along with violent ones, for example.  The police may, for their own reasons, arrest non-violent protesters who have legal permits to protest.  What’s more, the police arrest protesters of color at higher rates than white protesters.  As Zeba Blay has written recently,

“Let’s be real. A large group of mostly white women wearing knit pink hats is simply not going to be policed in the same way a large group of people of color would be.”

Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March obscures the systematic injustices which are routinely perpetrated on our Black and Brown protesters.

2.  The police, not the protesters, cause arrests.

Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March implies that protesters are the cause of arrests, when in fact, the determining factor in the number of arrests is the presence of police.  The simple fact which is often overlooked is that all arrests are initiated by police.  Arrests can happen without protesters, but there can be no arrests without police.

At the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the police presence was relatively light.  There were no police barriers, which meant that there were few opportunities for the police to interact with (and hence, arrest) the marchers.  A University of California study recently found that police are often provoke violence during protests.   Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March obfuscates the role that police play in causing violence during protests.

3.  Well behaved women seldom make history.

Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March perpetuates the mythos of the well-behaved woman.  It perpetuates the myth that, if women follow the rules, which are made and enforced by men, that men will look after women’s best interests. This ultimately disempowers women.

As Jess Zimmerman explained recently in an article at the New Republic, entitled “The Myth of the Well-Behaved Women’s March”:

“The high-fives of cops at the Women’s March and the blows raining down on BLM are the front and back of the same hand. If you think their uncharacteristic gentleness is a testament to your good behavior, think again. It comes from the same root as their violence: from the conviction that you are a delicate, breakable, and unthreatening thing.”

Valorizing the lack of arrests at the Women’s March is just another way of keeping women in their place.

4. There are good reasons to get arrested.

Bragging about the lack of arrests at the Women’s March ignores the importance of civil disobedience (moral law-breaking) in achieving just change.  The fact is that every successful campaign for positive social change in the past century, from women’s suffrage to the labor’s fight for workplace safety and fair compensation to the civil rights movement, has used civil disobedience.

Sometimes arrests are just what is needed to draw attention to an injustice and to create the social tension which gives rise to change.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained, as he sat in the Birmingham jail after being arrested:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

As rapper Mykele Deville wrote recently in regard to the Chicago Women’s March, we must not confuse docility with respectability.  Bragging about the lack of arrests conflates passivity with virtue.

There are a lot of things to brag about when talking about the Women’s March, but the lack of arrests is not one of them. This is not to say that arrests are necessarily cause for bragging right, either. When you hear that people were arrested at a protest, some questions to ask might be: What was being protested? Were the arrests planned? Was the protest violent? What did police presence look like? What race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation were the protesters?

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