The Privilege to Protest


Hidden Classism and Ableism

In anticipation of what could potentially be one of the greatest May Day demonstrations in the recent history of North America, major news outlets reported that police departments everywhere were geared up and prepared for confrontations. Special attention should be paid as to whether there was an unusual uptick in the number of inmates released from local jails in advance of the day, as this would be a hint as to how many spaces were being reserved for May Day arrests.

In certain circles, being arrested has become an important “rite of passage” to prove one’s sincerity and authenticity as an activist. Like the Japanese yakuza culture, every stint in prison earns a brownie point that leads to greater street cred and influence, and one receives a hero’s welcome upon being released. For those who can risk to throw themselves into the hands of brutal and violent state-thugs, I have nothing other than the greatest respect and admiration, and I say thank you.

However, I am also disturbed, from time to time, when organizers seem to seek out greater degrees of physical confrontation with the police, business establishments and others. I feel uneasy by their seeming insistence on using indiscriminate and aimless “civil disobedience” as a wildcard—for instance, insisting on having marches without permit and without prior announcement of routes. Unnecessary confrontations, unnecessary casualties, and unnecessary inconveniences are shifting people’s support away from the Occupy movement. I fear that the movement is becoming mere background noise in the urban landscape towards which most people feel irrelevant and desensitized. Every once in a while a few get sprayed, arrested, and spend a few hours in jail, but cause no impact in public discourse, people’s consciousness, or public policy.

This also points to the issue of internal classism within the Occupy movement. During the encampment days of last fall, many occupations perceived internal divisions between “legitimate protesters” and “the homeless.” Some accused the latter of being a burden to the community resources and even a distraction from the messages of Occupy. Many largely middle-class and well-educated Occupiers loathed the presence of “the chronically homeless” and “the street kids” among them, and accused them of sleeping all day and eating free food, but not participating in any demonstrations (never mind that the encampment itself was a demonstration).

The reality is that it is a form of privilege to be able to engage in confrontational actions in anticipation of state repression, and with the knowledge that the consequences for participating in such actions will be limited. For the most part, one would only expect to spend a short time in a holding cell, get a largely symbolic slap-on-the-wrist, and go back to normal life—including going back to more protests and actions. But for some people, an arrest stemming from direct actions can mean a long time in prison, forced exile abroad, a torn-away family, or loss of livelihood.

Let me demonstrate this point by giving some specific examples.

If you plan on direct actions and getting arrested:

(1) You’d better be single and without family obligations. Do you ever have to give a thought as to who will watch over your children if you are arrested, not knowing how long you might be in jail? Or if you are the sole breadwinner in your family, then who will support your spouse and kids while you’re incarcerated? Do you have a close relative who can take care of children? If not, are you prepared to have your children taken away by the state foster care system?

(2) You’d better be healthy, able-bodied, and not dependent on specialized medical attention. Medical care in jails is notoriously poor and does not have continuity of care with the outside. One has to go through a heck of ordeals and bureaucratic hoops to receive vital medical care when you’re in jail. Good luck if you need dialysis, have diabetes, or you can only survive if you take 45 pills every day.

(3) You’d better be a U.S.-born American citizen. It does not matter if you are undocumented or a permanent legal resident. All non-citizens and those who are suspected of being a non-citizens are on the radar of the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) as soon as they are booked and their fingerprints submitted to the FBI for cross-referencing. The ICE Secure Communities program has thus far deported both undocumented and long-term legal immigrants for as small an allegation as a traffic infraction (conviction not necessary), and in some cases even U.S. citizens have gotten mistakenly deported. Whereas a U.S. citizen Occupier may be released after a few hours in a holding cell, an immigrant Occupier may instead see an ICE van waiting for their release to take custody of said Occupier (regardless of convictions or dropped charges) into a deportation proceeding at a detention center—owned by GEO Group or CCA—hundreds of miles away. If the immigrant Occupier is lucky enough to be released to the street, they are not entirely off the hook either. A conviction for property destruction, for instance, may qualify as a crime of “moral turpitude” which would immediately result in deportation even if it is a non-felony and non-jailable offense.

(4) You’d most likely better be white. As the April 24 Free Bradley Manning demonstration in Beaverton, Oregon, amply demonstrated, police tend to target the people of color far more often than those who are perceived to be white and middle-class. This means a Black or Latino protester is more likely to be brutalized by the police both on the street and in jail.

(5) You’d better be someone with economic privilege who can survive without public assistance. Outcomes of most criminal cases in the U.S. depend on one’s ability to afford a lawyer. Those who are on certain public assistance can lose it if they have any kind of criminal record, which, in the U.S., includes mere arrests and even dismissed or acquitted charges.

(6) You’d better be someone with job security. Are you able to keep your job after a high-profile arrest with your mugshot on evening TV news? Or after missing a couple days of work while you are in jail or in court? Do you have labor union protection against unlawful termination, or have a lawyer who can help you keep your job if your boss decides to fire you? Do you have other job prospects so you can find another way of generating income if you ended up losing your job?

(7) You’d better have clean or semi-clean (non-protest-related) criminal records, and certainly not be on probation or parole. Generally, “any violation of law” while on probation constitutes a violation of probation or parole. Participation in an unpermitted march may land you back in prison if your probation officer sees you on TV or Livestream. And if you have even the slightest suspicion that you may have an old, outstanding warrant for anything from anywhere: you need to watch out. You’d also better have financial means to pay for any past traffic tickets, court judgments, fines or other judicial obligations, as outstanding fines and judgments can result in imprisonment and/or extradition to where they originated.

(8) You’d better be a male, and straight, and look straight. Sexual and physical violence in jails, committed by guards and inmates, are serious societal problems even after the passage of the federal Prisoner Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Women and LGBTQ inmates are likely to be assaulted, harassed, and even raped while in jails.

(9) You’d better not be a member of persecuted social, cultural or religious groups. Are you a Muslim? A Jew? A Sikh? A Rastafarian? Certain cultural stereotypes often determine the conditions of one’s treatment by the police and by the judicial system. In some cities such as New York, the police are known to openly target Muslims in the name of “counterterrorism.”

(10) You’d better not be unhoused, or someone who is living in a shelter or “transitional housing.” Due to the perceived “flight risk” and difficulties in tracking, unhoused arrestees are far more likely to be jailed for a longer time or have their bails raised or denied. Those who live in a shelter, or in transitional housing, have additional concerns about losing their place due to their absence from the facility (and in some cases, an arrest and a criminal charge can be sufficient grounds for termination). It could take months and even years to get back into a transitional housing program once you are kicked out for an arrest.

Where does this leave us? With a constant specter of heavy police repression, only those who possess enough privilege to feel confident in participating in direct actions will take an active part in an Occupy movement defined by civil disobedience and arresstee street cred. Single mothers, people of color, immigrants, unhoused folks, low-income people on public assistance, people with limited physical abilities or with medical conditions — the very kinds of people who daily experience the heaviest burdens of oppression — are alienated and kept away from the Occupy movement. It is unfortunate that even in the purported radical and progressive communities, privilege plays a big role in forming its narratives. Those privileged people who can afford to protest are respected as heroes and genuine Occupiers; while those who have no such privileges are often viewed with contempt and suspicion as though they are somehow at fault by not being part of the most radical and confrontational elements of the Occupy movement.

While I highly commend your courage and passion for protest, keep these in mind before exhibiting judgmental attitudes toward those who may not necessarily be as active out on the direct actions; those are the people you should be fighting on behalf of.

1 thought on “The Privilege to Protest”

  1. Wise words there, about a range of problems which has plagued us for months. Recognize those dynamics, and maybe some of the middle class white guys such as myself don’t need to feel that it’s somehow all our fault when other people quietly drift away. These dynamics existed long before any of us ever showed up.

    What’s the implied workaround ? Maybe just be truthful, be kind, be excellent to each other, keep on with it, don’t give up. A park full of people of many diverse backgrounds, can make a wonderfully attractive and deceiving picture for the TV cameras. Such pictures have been intentionally concocted and shown, and such pictures are in many cases no more truthful or useful than a freshly painted car where its insides are all worn out and leaking and gone. Want to drive instead, a gnarly old truck with a faded off-white paint job and unmatched green doors, and a totally strong engine ? I went across the U. S. A. twice in one of those. Highly recommended. The lack of chrome does not prove that you won’t get there.


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