In 1991 I lived near the University of San Francisco. To get downtown to the antiwar demonstrations I'd take a bus called the 21 Hayes, which runs through a largely African-American neighborhood called the Western Addition.
During the buildup to the huge rallies of January 19th and January 26th, there were a lot of smaller street actions largely dominated by younger militants. Their rallying cry was "No business as usual!," and their ethos largely anger. Tactically they wanted to disrupt something, make something stop, prevent something from happening. They often targeted public transportation, sometimes on the theory that blocking the buses harmed "the system," meaning capitalism I think. They'd sit down in the streets, or block the routes with garbage cans. Sometimes they'd tear down the glass-and-plastic bus shelters. San Francisco city buses are vulnerable to blockage, because they're electric. They have to remain attached to their overhead electrical wires, meaning they can't leave their normal routes to bypass obstacles.
One day a group of militants produced an exceptionally effective blockade. I don't remember anymore exactly what they did, but it effectively shut down the 21 Hayes. I was trapped downtown for about two hours, inside a bus that was unable to move. Police were everywhere, and although I smelled no gas, there were garbage can lids all over the sidewalks: signs that some of the militants had made a stand there and been routed.
People who use public transportation by and large aren't capitalists. In San Francisco they're clerical workers in the downtown offices; students; elderly and retired people traveling to doctor's appointments, government offices, or whathaveyou. The majority are people of color.
There was no joy when our bus moved at last. The passengers were exhausted, cramped and thirsty after our long wait.
As we entered the Western Addition we stopped to pick up two elderly African-American women, frail-looking with their three-footed walking canes. They each carried a small white bag from the pharmacy chain Walgreens. It looked to me as though they'd been out to fill their prescriptions when the buses stopped.
Weak-looking women struggle up narrow steps. Tired. Elderly; silver hair; grandmothers. Paper pharmacy bags. Canes. Black fingers clutch an aluminum handrail. Difficulty: struggle. The driver jumps up to help, taking them one at a time by the elbow. Passengers assist them to seats near the front.
"We waited a long time," one says. There's no bitterness in her voice. It expresses mostly exhaustion, and resignation.
Her friend asks the driver, quietly, "Demonstrators again?" The driver nods. "Yes ma'am," he says.
I didn't know what to expect at that moment. It would have seemed reasonable for them to be angry. They weren't. They only sighed, and nodded, and sat down, and that was the end of it.
These women have no love for the war. It's easy to picture them at Sunday service, praying and singing.
The African-American community in San Francisco opposed that war. Cecil Williams, a prominent local minister, spoke at the larger rallies. I understood their sigh to mean something like, "I wish they'd find another way to organize."
This story has a straightforward moral. Street actions which disrupt public services don't harm the ruling class. They effectively target working people and the communities of color who rely on those services. That is to say, the public.
While tactically successful, these street actions were strategically flawed. By victimizing working-class people they drove a wedge between antiwar activists and the communities they most needed to reach.
This is not to argue that civil disobedience or other forms of militancy are wrong or should be abandoned. To the contrary. My suggestion is that, as military strategists would say, tactics must be subordinate to strategy. Tactical choices should be intelligently made to further the main goals: educate the people about the issue, and organize their support.
Class politics must be central to strategy and tactics alike. The great failure of the militancy I've just described is that it had no concept of what people it would effectively target. The militants thought abstractly about "the system," but in practice they harmed only working people. The irony being, of course, that the organizers considered themselves to be Marxists.
We need to be smarter and more sophisticated in choosing targets for civil disobedience or other militant actions. Government offices, recruiting stations, military bases, television stations, newspaper offices: what targets best symbolize the issue we wish to educate around? How can we use the action to reach people who need to be convinced? How does it build momentum, create alliances, broaden and deepen the movement? How do we measure success? These are some of the questions we must answer intelligently when planning our actions.
© 2002-2017 Mark Phillips.
All rights reserved.
This writing is fiction. Please don't confuse it with reality.
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Published in another version, Trouble Tickets, 9/02.
Accepted 11/02: Comrades.
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