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Why the Jefferson Memorial Dancers can dance alone in their room. June 1, 2011

Posted by caradox in Progressive Politics.
Tags: , , ,

I spent most of the weekend talking myself out of writing this. After I got the 400th tweet and status about how wonderful these activists are, and how the awful horrible terrible no-good police brutalized them, I just can’t hold my tongue.

I don’t want to be the cranky old pragmatist drag bitching about about these meddling kids. But I’m going to. The more I think about it, the more I have concerns about allowing this kind of “activism” to go on without any reflection on how and why it is done, and why it is counterproductive to true methods of civil change.

Here are my specific issues with the action that these people took at the Jefferson Memorial on Saturday, May 28th and why I believe that those celebrating and promoting them need to take a big step back and reflect before turning them into heroes:

1 – The most important thing you should know is that this action was not, and does not comport with peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience. Those who have never experienced it first hand likely do not know this, but a civil disobedience event is (and pardon the pun given the circumstances) a dance. It is a carefully orchestrated and methodical set of moves in which a group of organized resistors plan ahead, aware going in that they are knowingly acting in violation of the law, what the likely consequences of their action will be, and exactly how they are expect themselves to behave during every step of the event in order to achieve the goal of peaceful non-violent and civil (civil as in polite) disobedience. In our modern political environment, that means that the actors (the protestors) and the police often have full awareness and communication of what each side will do. There are several very specific ways in which this event did not meet the rules:

– This event was publicized as a celebratory flash mob and a civil disobedience – at no time in the invite video does Adam Kokesh tell viewers that if they participate they can expect to be arrested. What he does indicate is that they intend to not “cause a disturbance” for those visiting the memorial. If any viewers were drawn to have some fun, they were doing so without a clear understanding of what they would likely encounter – a police presence, arrests, and legal consequences. That kind of setup, with a wide open public invitation is a setup for trouble.

– At the event, the participants proceed to take a set of actions that are not typical of well organized civil disobedience. If you watch the long version video, you will see the lead police officer do what is expected and normal, he approaches the group and calmly lays out for them that they will be arrested, and that if they live outside the 50 mile radius they will be held over for the weekend. What he gets from the group is not normal. They should be communicating with him to work the dance – yes, Officer, we understand that you will do your job, yes we understand that we will be arrested, we will not allow ourselves to be arrested willingly but we will peacefully resist arrest – we will do that by sitting together or laying down on the ground and you will have to physically remove us. Instead they pepper him with questions that they should already know the answer to, they argue with him, they yell, they snark, they scream, they wander individually across a wide public space – all actions that connote no peaceful coordination, no civil respect for the officers or the public around them. Here’s a tip: If you find yourself yelling at a civil disobedience action, “I don’t understand! I didn’t even hear you!” or “You didn’t give me a warning!” — you are doing it wrong. The police officer did his job up front – he tried to communicate what was going to happen, he was providing a clear warning, the dance takes both sides to know the steps, and you didn’t want to hear him.

– Here’s a big one – and it comes at 2:28 in on the video. When the police officer tells one man to put his hands behind his back for arrest, a second protestor (in brown shirt) physically interferes by grabbing the arm of his pal and bodily pulling him in the opposite direction. One cop, two protestors, both physically in motion – bad idea, not proper technique at all.

I think you’ve got my point here – the method of peaceful non-violent civil disobedience is a well-honed process and this group had no interest in doing it right. That would have defeated the purpose. Which brings me to…

2 – The motives of those participating are not what they seem. The invitation, video and online promotion of what happened, and promotion of the exciting follow-on events now planned feature the “Adam versus The Man” logo. Yep, the centerpiece of this event is Adam Kokesh, host of “Adam versus The Man” online video show. I hope the people who showed up at the event knew that they were being used to help a online personality get some headlines. As my wise friend @dvnix notes in his take on the event (and I love him for calling it “Martyr Porn” by the way!), Kokesh “is a serial provocateur and self-promoter.” he also notes that a second participant and arrestee is none other than Medea Benjamin of Code Pink (she of the “I didn’t heeeear you!” objections). Want to learn more about Adam Kokesh? (I’m sure he’d love the attention) go watch his show, you’ll get to see his nice long friendly discussion with Grover Norquist, including the fond memory of their meeting at a Ron Paul event. I’m sorry, were you under the impression that Adam Kokesh is a Democrat? A Progressive? A believer in peace? Oooookay, umm, he’s not.

3 – But but but, the police were BRUTAL! Yes, yes, I know, a thousand tweets telling you there was “SHOCKING POLICE BRUTALITY” can’t be wrong. Actually I believe that they are self-serving and wrong. I watched that video repeatedly, and while I don’t love cops having to put a knee onto the upper back of a person to hold them down for arrest, and I don’t love watching a cop essentially sweep Adam Kokesh down to the ground, there is actually nothing brutal about it. It’s done by the book, right down to the carefully trained hand-holds.

Again, remember – there was no coordination on how this would go, no communication between the protestors and the police, and the protestors broke a number of standard practices that keep things calm, peaceful, and safe for both sides and the public bystanders.

Now widen your focus and consider this: In the 11 minute video, as protestors are dancing around the statue of the guy they so much revere, as they yell “This is a POLICE STATE!” and argue with the police and grab someones arm and pull, you should notice something else — there are families all around them. Look for the small children, the grandma with the scarf around her head. This was an open tourist space with people all around. If you had a group of yelling, wandering, lets face it, angry people in what was supposed to be the calm, thoughtful, respectful shrine to Jefferson how would YOU handle them if you were those police officers? Take a quiet moment and put your kids in that space, your grandma on those marble stairs, and you tell me how you would want this handled when we are not looking at organized, respectful, civil protest?

Want to know how much Adam Kokesh respects and wants to work with the police? His Facebook status just after being released should make it obvious:

Adam Kokesh

I’ve been released from jail. Tragically, the officers involved still have to go home and be disgusting despicable people.

Saturday at 5:19pm

4 – But but but, civil disobedience is necessary when the law prohibits the First Amendment! Its just too important!

I’m sorry, this was a protest against what again? A law that makes it illegal to dance inside the Jefferson Memorial. Inside. Not a law that makes dancing illegal anywhere, or anywhere on the DC Mall, or even down out in front of the memorial. Inside.

Fine, it sounds like a stupid law. To prove this, I am going to go to a public school tomorrow, walk right in and dance to show I have the right to expression in any public space. What? You think it might be against the law for me, a person who doesn’t work or have kids at a school to just walk right into one? And what the hell is with these id cards and having to check-in as a visitor? I don’t care if you want your kids safe, I want to dance!

Maybe instead I’ll just take my dancing to marble and fresh-air type public structures. Check me out doing the watusi at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial! Woohoo! I can see my reflection in the wall! Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to leave a token to remember a friend you lost, a son? You wanted to do a rubbing of your uncle’s name? Step back! I’m doing the Dougie for freedom!

So let’s check ourselves a second here — this crisis of danceability is so severe, so restricting of the rights and health and the very lives of people that it calls for the ultimate step in protest, the civil disobedience step. This group is so concerned about the impact of not being able to DANCE in this very specific location that they skipped all of the necessary lead-up steps – they didn’t petition, make calls or visits to their officials, they went straight for public video capture? Please give me a break.

Ultimately, that’s what makes me most annoyed at having to even bother with this event. What a completely self-serving and insignificant agenda. I applaud people who want to get out there and be visible standing up for what they believe. They are the energy and motion that gets everyone else to care about issues that desperately need attention. I’ve done my share of dancing in protest, and holding signs, and marching for things like ending Apartheid, fighting AIDS, stopping death squads, protecting reproductive rights. It turns out we still have big things that need action, and we need really effective people out there doing something about them. So this noise just makes us look stupid, and misdirected, and disrespectful of police, the law, and our fellow citizens.

If you want to dance… dance on over to a food bank and help make sure that our unemployed families are getting the help they need. Dance over to a medical clinic and volunteer. Dance over to your Congressperson’s office and ask them why we are cutting services to our most needy instead of asking our most wealthy to chip in more.

You can make a difference today doing any one of those things, and it will have an immediate human effect. But it won’t get you advertisers for your website, get you bookings on MSNBC or fill your donations meter. If those are your priority – dance alone.


1. DaveFromBTM - June 1, 2011

Yes, really clumsy, aggressive tactics used against a very specific law that no one cares about. While I generally support a culture of resistance, I think this case was just wasted energy. I wasn’t aware of the Adam Kokesh connection

2. Allan - June 1, 2011

Thank you for writing this. It’s an excellent, detailed explanation of everything that was done wrong by the instigator. I find it especially disturbing that he willfully invited people into behavior that could subject them to arrest without making that explicitly clear. Sociopathic. Just like Ron and Rand Paul.

3. Amadi - June 1, 2011

I have a problem with the last part of your argument for this reason: symbolic action undertaken in protest being protected as speech has been long protected by law, affirmed most notably in Tinker. If the public doesn’t have a right to spontaneous (or not so spontaneous) protest, the most challenged and hence most protected speech, on public property, where do we have it?

Whether these particular protesters went about things the right or wrong way, whether the police were brutal or not, the idea that people who are not presenting a security hazard, are not harming or threatening to harm anyone, who are engaging in safe, publicly acceptable activities should be arrested because they’re inside a rotunda rather than on the walkway leading to it is anathema to everything the First Amendment is about.

caradox - June 1, 2011

I absolutely believe in spontaneous protest, and planned ones. I also learned long ago that there are two audiences for effective civil disobedience – those who enforce the unjust law with which you disagree and the public with the power to join and support your cause – changing the legislators and the law and getting you the permanent win. This protest was so self-aggrandizing by the organizers that they failed at the two objectives – they could have earned the respect and softened the law enforcers, Wisconsin is now a textbook example of how to do that, and they could have presented a supportable image to the public at large. We lament the poor job the left does is reaching our goals – letting people who don’t have our best intentions or best tactics in mind is good way to put forward a bad strategy. If freedom to express oneself inside the Jeff had truly been the goal, there are a dozen quality ways to pursue that. We need better activism, not less.

Amadi - June 1, 2011

I think that assumes that the objectives you name were actually their objectives, doesn’t it? I don’t know that it’s actually so. I don’t even know that the objectives that they stated were their actual objectives.

I think that they wanted people talking about this. Unfortunately, we’re all so focused on the protesters and the police, we’re talking about the wrong thing. We should be focused on this offensive, ridiculous law. Instead, we have people acting like the law is okay because they dislike how these people went about protesting it, which is about as backwards as it goes.

caradox - June 2, 2011

That’s part of the problem with their plan. There’s a finite amount of attention out there, and they directed it at themselves and their arrest, instead of the issues they wanted attention on. I wish they had been clearer about why people should even care about their “cause”, they could have made a case about the Patriot Act, but that gets lost when the optics are so bad.

4. Kevin Leversee - June 1, 2011

Your an idiot. Its Dancing, its expression, you can’t Dance at American Public spaces?
You can’t dance?

and no Public School is not an open public place. its a damn school.

I am sorry your points are off mate. Body slamming and CHOKING yea, that is proper.

look protesting stupid judges making personal thoughts on what can be done in public places is foolish. The cops are obviously out of line.

As usual.

caradox - June 1, 2011

See that politeness thing that I mentioned would have improved the protest? Calling someone an idiot straight off is a good example of how to ruin your chance to make a difference by gaining the room to make your case. Dance is good. Dance has power. Screaming at cops just makes them think you are a risky individual. Go figure. One of us has participated in protest that over time affected change. If you want to be part if change, learn how to do it in a way that actually gets results, then expand on it with your own creative ideas. Lead with anger, and you won’t win much.

5. Sheri - June 1, 2011

Never talk yourself out of writing! You have wise words to share. I haven’t had a chance to really read this yet… (@ work and all that). So, why comment you ask? Well, when I finally get to read it I might not have a chance to comment and I just to say thanks for writing. I am sure you will give me much to think about. I know some of the folks who were involved in this action (… not in a “let me tell you my inner most secrets” kind of know them, but in a “i’ve worked w/ and organized with” kind of know them ) and I trust their motives and thier committment to nonviolence. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have made poor decisons or “lost it” and yelled. (I seem to recall you and I talking one anohter down once or twice =D ) — just to say that at the heart they are good folks.

caradox - June 1, 2011

Whew. You are the one I was most afraid of making very angry with me (in the most loving and gentle version of angry) so I’m glad you’ll take a look. Then you can tell me where I’m crazy. Also, my part two, on the best example of tactics is coming later today, so I’ll have happier stuff to noodle on.

6. frank dusek - June 1, 2011

Excellent piece I felt the same way. I didn’t know he invited unsuspecting bystanders in to the “protest” he really deserves what he got. I hate to agree with “the man” but I didn’t see the cops do any thing wrong.

caradox - June 2, 2011

To be fair, we only have what we could see in the pre-event materials and their behavior during it to go by. They could have given a briefing to participants before the event, I actually hope they did. How the individuals handles themselves during says they either didn’t get much communication or not of a quality that prepped them well for what would unfold.

7. Sheri - June 1, 2011

Finally had a chance to read. Some of what you said I totally agree with… some I don’t. But no, not at all angry! (even in a gentle loving way.) I firmly believe that good-hearted, well intentioned and smart people (which, of course, we both are =D ) can radically disagree on “what is nonviolent”, not to mention what is effective/ineffective or acceptable/unacceptable tactics. I think the respectful conversation that can come out of these disagreements can be some of the most important ones our movements can have. So write on sister! I’ll write more later in the week when time away from putting out fires here allows.

8. JT - June 2, 2011

Look…I like the commentary. Why? Because I am a vet who worked with Adam in IVAW and I knew this guy very well. You guys just don’t know Adam…He has the biggest ego in the entire world…I’ve never met anyone else like him. I haven’t spoken with him in a while, and I really don’t care to. There were many of us in IVAW who questioned him and his tactics behind his back. No one said anything to his face, because we didn’t want to make people in the group paranoid, but COINTELPRO never ended. Adam just magically appeared in 2007 and within a few months he on a major networks representing us. This great orator just came out of nowhere. Also, I remember when IVAW was going to an event in Vermont, Adam posted on that embarrassing blog of his (the old one) that IVAW was on its way to Vermont and IVAW was “armed and dangerous.” We were like WTF! I’m sure the cops are gonna read that. What if they think we really have weapons or something…which we didn’t, but it was just very provocateurish of him. Then there was this other incident in which he claimed to have been assaulted by an FBI agent.I saw the video.Watch it before this a-hole removes it, because in it you can clearly see that he wasn’t assaulted. He wasn’t bitten, choked, kicked, or anything. At first I fell for it. Later a friend of mine made me suspicious that it was all staged.

9. JT - June 2, 2011

Oh yes, one last thing that I noted on another blog to people…the guy that Medea Benjamin of Code Pink is Tighe Barry. That isn’t her freaking boyfriend. Medea is married to a guy named Kevin that lives in San Francisco…She has been married for years. So, Tighe is lying to the cops. He isn’t slow dancing with his girlfiend. Go look at the picture on his facebook profile and you can see that this flashmob consisted of just a bunch of provocateurs. period.

10. JT - June 2, 2011

sorry…I’m tired…I meant to write “is dancing with Tighe Barry.”

11. Insert a Trite Metaphor for a Corral No. 100 | Pax Nortona - A Blog by Joel Sax - June 5, 2011

[…] Why the Jefferson Memorial Dancers can dance alone in their room. — I don’t agree with the assertion that the activity was fatuous, but this is a good discussion of what makes civil disobedience a powerful tool. […]

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