At a Los Angeles rally Rep. Waters was captured on video telling the crowd, "If you see anybody from [President Trump's] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere."
The congresswoman's comments followed the news that a Virginia restaurant refused to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Her comments have been summarized as a call to 'harassment' by some and misrepresented by others as a directive toward violence--garnering broad criticism and sparking a national debate about "civility."
Before going any further, it seems worthwhile to state the obvious: Rep. Waters is a grown woman and can say what she damn well pleases. There is no caveat I wish to add to that statement. She what she said. And hopefully, we all agree that we need to “push back” against the drift toward authoritarianism in our country.
This article is meant to critically engage this national conversation to tease out a method of non-violent action that is different but close to what Waters suggested. This method could possibly be useful in our times, especially if it's incorporated into a larger, strategic, wise, nonviolent movement to prevent further drift toward authoritarianism in the U.S.
My argument is that we should push back, just as Waters said. I’m just not sure that picketing (the technical term for what many have construed as “harassment”) individuals from and accomplices to this administration is the best method. On the other hand, ostracizing them might be worthwhile. This argument is not on moral grounds; I’m against the tone-policing and virtue signaling that has been done to slap Rep. Waters on the wrist for her comments. It isn’t wrong to picket bigots and their accomplices! My argument is that there may be a more strategic tactic. It’s a pragmatic argument, not a moral one. I'll explain the difference between the methods further down, but first we need to consider an important question, then talk about harassment and civility, and then why ostracism may be the way to go.
The question: Are You Cool With What's Happening At Our Southern Border?
That question is truly at the heart of this conversation. We are up to our necks in outrageous news. Trump continues to stoke the fears of his base by lying about a dangerous influx of criminal migrants. Such fear mongering is the basis for detaining asylum seekers and demanding that toddlers stand trial in immigration court alone. And Time Magazine recently reported:
That is but a small sampling of the horrors these migrants are facing. And the question here is, "is this a big deal to you?"
It's worth noting that the above things are not entirely novel, and are in fact consistent with a long tradition of anti-democratic practices and human rights abuses in America. This regime's supporters raised a salient point when they said "we separate children from their parents every day." They're right: America separates people from their children and locks them in cages as policy, claiming that it's a legitimate form of punishment. And we do this at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. But the fact that such practices are routine does not make them legitimate.
Those who point out that military facilities were used to hold detained migrants under Obama's administration are also correct. I'll see that fact and raise another. America has a long history of treating migrants. But just because a practice has a long history doesn't mean that it should have a future.
These practices are intolerable, not because they are surprising or new, but because they are cruel. And the fact that some of these practices are "normal" should the matter all the more egregious. And the type of action we should take to remedy the routine cruelty of our graceless, carceral state depends on how urgent we think the matter is.
Does what we're witnessing warrant a polite conversation where different sides get to argue the merits and problems of criminalizing, maligning, and abusing migrants? Or does this moment call for resistance? Obviously the latter.
We do not haggle with human rights violators about how much abuse is too much. We don't yield a second to human rights violators to legitimate their cruelty to their neighbors. There is no compromise to be made, only an ultimatum: stop hurting these people, or else we will revoke your powers to rule.
Most people are not used to thinking of themselves as able to control the way our leaders use their power, but we can. That is a foundational truth in the long tradition of nonviolent social change: that together we are far more powerful than we realize. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay Civil Disobedience (1849):
Thoreau wrote Civil Disodedience while the American government was making a grab at the very territory where the Trump administration is now detaining asylum seekers. Thoreau saw America's militant expansion westward as an injustice, and the doctrine of manifest destiny that legitimized the expansion project as a farce. To him, the conquest of Mexican territory was as wrong as enslaving Africans, and he decided to withhold his taxes from the government, since the money would be used to fund oppressive institutions and activities. He wanted his neighbors to take a similar stand. In another section, he wrote:
Thoreau is right. If the situation at the border is as egregious as we tweet it is, then it is not enough to be opposed to it in opinion only. It's not enough to shake our heads and be outraged. We have to do something; because we can do something.
But I don't know that picketing members of this administration is our best play at the moment.
why picketing may not be the best play?
My reasons for advocating against picketing are pragmatic. It's likely that spontaneous picketing will be used as grounds for counterdemonstrations, clashes between Trump accomplices and opponents that will probably start as ugly shouting matches and escalate to something uglier.
Keep in mind the ugly confrontations that characterized the rallies of the Trump campaign. Remember that he publicly indulged fantasies of violence against his opposers, infamously offering to pay legal fees for any supporters who would make his violent dreams come true. Since his election, it seems that many people have felt liberated to vent their social hostility in public. I don't believe that Rep. Waters was calling for "incivility" in her rally comments, but incivility is an essential Trumpian doctrine, and so spectacles of outrage are likely to create opportunities for his supporters to get----ahem----politically incorrect, as many have apparently been lusting to do.
Also, the Trumpian base has a persecution complex, constructing their opposers as an angry, violent, and coercive mob. If their opponents picket them with vitriol, it may nourish that persecution narrative. Opponents of the Trumpian forces should carefully try to avoid that.
Since incivility and harassment is a strength of this administration, opponents of this administration would be wise to minimize opportunities for those weapons to be used; or, to create situations in which, if such weapons are used, they backfire.
Finally, if we get dragged into a shouting match, it will become nearly impossible to tell who is in the right: is it the side calling the other "deplorables"? or the side calling the other "snowflakes"? Ultimately, what we want is to get a bunch of otherwise frightened, distracted, or apathetic people to give a crap about human rights abuses in our country. And most of those frightened, distracted, apathetic people don't want to come to a shouting match, and need it to be obvious which movement to join.
All of this doesn't mean that we have no right to be outraged or to express that outrage. We just don't want to play the Trumpian game. We want to change the rules of engagement altogether, to destabilize it.
This doesn't mean we settle for polite conversation
At the same time, the above doesn't mean that we should just play nice with the accomplices to these outrageous, anti-democratic forces. I agree with Rep. Waters: the people need to push back against these forces, but how? The criticism that Waters has faced, from democrats and republicans alike, reveals a centuries-old, false binary of what are options are.
The president claimed via Twitter that Waters "called for harm to [Trump] supporters," when she talked about pushing back. She never once mentioned violence. On the other hand, House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer denounced Rep. Waters' comments, paying lip-service to the idea of protest, but in actuality arguing that people should just vote, which is tantamount to saying the best resistance is quiet, agreeable, and unintrusive--basically nonresistance.
But we have more options than to punch Trump supporters or to conduct polite, unbearable conversations about the pros and cons of baby jails. We also have the option of non-violent resistance, which is what the congresswoman was suggesting.
A challenge to such a movement is that people often mistake nonviolence for non-confrontation, forgetting that civil disobedience has involved all sorts of social, political, and economic disruption. Nonviolence is Ghandi leading thousands to the beach to make salt when the British crown had deemed such activity illegal. Nonviolent resistance looks like black students walking into a "whites only" restaurant and refusing to leave the lunch counter until the police drag them away. All that to say that nonviolent resistance can be decidedly confrontational while refusing to harm anyone.
What Resistance Could Look Like
As I said before, I think that causing a scene with Trump accomplices will likely backfire, and anything that looks like what they call "incivility" (whether that summary is fair or not) will be used to justify whatever retaliatory nastiness they decide to employ.
But I'm not advocating that we just virtuously endure Trumpian incivility in hopes that our good behavior will miraculously change the world.
I'm suggesting that we focus on a game that we can win: that is, identifying the Achilles heel of the migrant jails and focusing our energies on hitting it.
One of the most obvious resources for the abuse of migrants we're seeing are the actual humans who provide their skills, knowledge, and labor to make it happen. Neither Trump nor Jeff Sessions can pull this injustice off by themselves. They need officers to arrest and detain migrants. They need personnel to handle judicial procedures. They need mouthpieces like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. They need people to supply the materials for making tent cities and detention centers. The list goes on. If opponents can non-violently get those accomplices to withdraw their participation, then the administration loses essential resources to accomplish the injustice.
I think a selective, social boycott could play a major part in accomplishing this goal.
What I mean is, instead of verbally confronting Trumpian accomplices as they go about their daily lives, we should mostly ignore them. When you see them on Tinder swipe left. When you see them on the street, don't greet them. If you're a cable person and are called for an installation at their house, you tried your darnedest but you just couldn't find their address. In this way, accomplices to the baby jails are taxed for their complicity without the risk of violent escalation. There's no waste of energy name-calling and insulting, and if they escalate to violence or insults, they can't say that you provoked it with "incivility."
A regime member or accomplice walks into a restaurant. The hostess tells the person it will probably be a two-hour wait. Why so long? There's only one waiter in that restaurant willing to serve them.
I say that this should be "selective" because it should target people who are directly linked to the crime and not Trump supporters in general--not because they're not complicit, but to focus our energy on the immediate resources of the crimmigration system.
Focus on the people who own the companies that profit from incarceration. Focus on policy makers. Focus on Trumpian spokespeople. Focus on officers arresting and detaining asylum seekers. Focus on the owners of the companies supplying material resources for the tent cities. Publicize their names and faces and look right through them when you see them on the street. This means that this particular method would be employed wherever those people are.
In this way, a social tax is put on those with direct involvement in the enterprise of oppression. If this pressure causes accomplices to defect from the authoritarian forces, removing critical resources that the regime needs for its human rights abuses.
How is that not discrimination?
It's no more discriminatory to refuse service to an authoritarian accomplice than it is to refuse service to someone for walking into a restaurant shirtless. Like going out in public bare-chested, aiding a bigot in the systematic abuse of black and brown people is a choice. This is not thought crime. This is not meanness over a simple difference of opinion. This is about real people being sadistically punished for seeking refuge from catastrophic conditions in their home countries.
Even so, don't people deserve to keep some distance between the misery they're helping to build for black and brown people and their everyday lives? No. The answers is no. Such people do not deserve to go the theatre and watch Hamilton, and eat steak at Ruth Chris, and putt to their hearts' content at Top Golf as though everything is ok. Everything is not ok.
And a social boycott can confront these people with their involvement in these injustices, while minimizing the risk of the kind of exchange that could escalate into violence; and, if it does escalate, the incivility of the accomplices will probably backfire if the protesters maintain nonviolent discipline.
This will also take initiative on the part of the protesters, to keep the struggle from being reframed as discrimination for differing opinions, and focusing on the resistance to the unnecessary suffering of vulnerable people.
The Resistance Doesn't Have to Be Mean
The social boycott sounds mean. I know. As a southern boy, I chafe at the idea of intentionally not saying 'hello' to someone. But it can be done in an attitude of openness, civility, and grace, while also being truthful and firm.
In his book The Methods of Nonviolent Action, social change expert Gene Sharp reported that such a campaign was employed by satyagrahis during the Indian struggle for independence in 1930. After Ghandi's arrest, other leaders of the resistance called for a social boycott of British Government officials and their accomplices.
Ghandi supported the social boycott on the conditions that boycotted persons would not be refused food, water, or medical care. The objective, said Ghandi, was not to harm those who participated with British rule. "The attitude [of the boycotters]," Ghandi urged, "should be that of sorrow, concern and hope that [accomplices] will rejoin the [Indian] community by stopping their help to the British government" (187).
This does not mean that every protester must become an evangelist or apologist for the movement. It may mean, however, that if we're left with the choice between retort and disengage, to disengage may be the better option for the campaign. In that way, a social boycott could be beneficial for the insurgents too, in that it can free up energy we would use to argue with the opposition and channel it into direct work supporting hurting migrants and dismantling the systems that target them. Imagine that we are all busy building a cathedral together. Such a massive effort deserves our full attention and the debates with detractors is precious time we could have spent building.
If protesters must engage, they're not obligated to say "We're not talking to you because you're a derelict." Protesters could say something like "I'm concerned about your involvement in trafficking migrant children, and I'm not comfortable associating with people who are a part of that." And leave it there. It leaves only the truth to be mad about, and if the accomplice to the regime throws a fit, they will only have the truth to complain about.
Furthermore, maintaining that type of discipline could possibly undermine "the mob" myth mentioned earlier, an intangible factor that seems to serve as a power resource for the Trump base. Removing that power source may open the way for more defections from the authoritarian forces, which circles back to the initial strategy: removing human resources and their skills from authoritarian control. In this way, the people can impose sanctions on the authoritarian regime.
The beauty of this method of action is that literally anyone can do it. People who hate conflict can do it. People who are not extroverted, and are not prone to public demonstrations can do it. People can tailor it even more to their personalities and contexts. A person afraid to not serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders' table for fear of losing their job, could serve her in complete silence or by only saying exactly what is necessary. If there is enough slow service wherever they go, they'll get the picture, that society will not be business as usual until they address their complicity.
Meanwhile, the movement maintains an open invitation to defectors. In some instances, we may even want to make it easier for some people to defect from the authoritarian support. Perhaps resources could be created for people who would defect but are worried about losing their jobs. Perhaps there's a network of people who are willing to take in certain types of defectors that need a couch to crash on for a little while.
The point is that the resistance should be firm but doesn't have to be cruel.
There are some, however, in the authoritarian camp to whom such opportunities should not be given to: the dictator, for example. As Sharp wrote in his most famous work, From Dictatorship to Democracy, and I'm paraphrasing: there are times when the only thing to negotiate with a dictator is where they would like to spend their days in exile.
It's just a method, not a movement
The social boycott would not be a movement by itself. By itself, it is just one method of non-violent action. It would be effective as part of a larger, strategic campaign that combines other methods of nonviolent action, such as:
- An economic boycott of all of the businesses that profit from incarceration and that supply the materials used in migrant abuse.
- Fraternization with key players in the injustice to get them to defect: e.g. immigration officers, policy makers, members of the administration, local judges, etc.
- Canvassing or leafletting (digital and physical), basically some way to publicize who the accomplices of the crimmigration system are.
- Calling and petitioning current representatives and demanding action to stop human rights abuses.
- Voting elected officials to office who have strong commitments to human rights.
- Creative protests to raise cause consciousness among neighbors.
- Strikes, stay at homes, Mass sick days, and/or slow downs by workers in the incarceration system, or in places that regularly serve accomplices, especially where migrants are being detained and abused.
As a part of a larger, wise, strategic, nonviolent movement, a social boycott could be viable.
I'm not arguing that we should be nice to human rights abusers and their accomplices, but that we should deal shrewdly with them. We should identity their sources of power and remove them, for the sake of the vulnerable being hurt. It is a method that has worked before in other contexts. Perhaps it could be useful in ours.