By LIAM McMAHON
On Tuesday, July 30, Never Again Action, a group of Jews and allies organized in opposition to the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration and deportation policies, protested at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The crowd of several hundred activists blocked both street exits to the building, preventing any cars there from driving away. The activists remained there for nearly three hours, singing and chanting and calling for the abolition of ICE.
It was a powerful display of direct action – one of the most important tools at the disposal of anyone invested in fighting injustice and inequality. Direct action has been central to all great social movements. It has also always made people angry.
The point of direct action is that it ruptures, if only for a brief moment, the rhythms of daily life. Someone working at the Whipple Building did not expect to be stopped in their car leaving from work because protestors have blocked the road, just as someone working in Greensboro, North Carolina did not expect to see a group of young black men sitting at a “whites only” lunch counter while on their lunch break.
The rupture forces people to consider what people are protesting and why they have chosen that method of protest.
In a piece for this site last week, I wrote about how the Democratic presidential debates – and in large part, the primary as a whole – have failed to grasp what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the urgency of now.
King referred to the United States’ failure to guarantee equal rights to people of color in the 1960s, but the idea has profound resonance for our society more than half a century later.
Direct action grasps the urgency of now. It understands that racial inequality, an immigration policy that revels in its cruelty, a gun violence epidemic that takes more lives everyday, and our deepening climate crisis all required action years ago.
It accounts for the fact that the normal legislative process has failed. Two failed attempts to pass large-scale immigration reform paved the way for the Trump administration to throw kids in cages and deny people their right to seek asylum.
Congress, under the influence of the NRA, failed to keep people safe from gun violence. Fossil fuel industry-funded pseudoscience and our broad unwillingness to change our way of life saw us spend a decade debating whether our climate was in fact changing rather trying to stop the change.
When government fails to act, people must stand up. Every progressive leap in this country came not through the benevolence of its ruling elite, but because ordinary people took to the streets – organizing, protesting, boycotting, and occupying spaces they were supposed to be barred from.
The 13th Amendment does not pass without decades of abolitionist activism, just as the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, and child labor laws do not happen without decades of labor activism.
There is no 19th amendment unless tens of thousands of courageous women spend their lives organizing and fighting for it. Without the people who put their lives on the line from Birmingham to Philadelphia and beyond, there is no Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act or Fair Housing Act.
Look at what is happening not only on our southern border, but at what ICE and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials are doing all across the country. Men, women, and children have been locked in cages, unable to shower for weeks at a time. People are being forced to drink from toilet bowls, children are being denied toothbrushes and are forced to sleep together on floors in rooms with nothing but an aluminum blanket where slightly older kids are looking after toddlers.
People debate the efficacy of this type of direct action, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Traffic was blocked for several hours in Saint Paul last week, and many of the people affected had nothing to do with ICE, and perhaps no love for it or its actions.
But that’s also the point: shut down ICE’s operations for a little while, and make sure other people know it. Don’t let them drive past the Whipple Building without considering what happens there and how it affects people all across the country.
While King’s statement about the urgency of now rings true today, he said and wrote a lot more that is painfully relevant to America in 2019. After he had been arrested and jailed in Birmingham, King wrote a letter to a group moderate clergymen who had urged him to abandon nonviolent resistance in favor of fighting discrimination in the courts.
King wrote that he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
If what ICE is doing today does not spur us to action, what will? More than a year after the courts ordered the Trump administration to end family separation and we learned it was still going on, how are we supposed to maintain any faith in “order”? As the signs several protestors carried said, if not now, when?
There is no middle ground here. You either support what ICE is doing, you support its disregard for human rights, or you stand up against it. If you are more upset with the form that the protest takes, than at what people are protesting, then it is clear what side you are on.