It’s Not Civil Disobedience if You Ask for Permission

On Saturday, July 7, social media was flooded with images of an event in Chicago that was advertised as a shutdown of the Dan Ryan Expressway to protest gun violence. Led by celebrity-pastor Father Michael Pfleger and co-sponsored by half a dozen local groups, 3,000 people marched onto the expressway, at first only occupying two lanes, with the permission of state police. After about an hour, Pfleger announced that state police would be shutting down all four lanes of traffic.

Some celebrated the protest as a powerful act of resistance. In Chicago and elsewhere, some of us who do the work of direct action and community organizing were far less impressed, and a few of us openly expressed that we found the event misguided and harmful to ongoing organizing and resistance efforts. As such, we have received some questions about why we feel the way we do. We, too, have questions — questions we feel we should all be asking ourselves about any direct action in which we consider participating. We are sharing some of those questions here to hopefully build a more honest, accountable and ethical practice of solidarity with all those who would take action with us in the streets.

What Is the Demand?

A direct action is an attempt to leverage, seize or demonstrate power. So, the question is: To what end? If you lead 3,000 people onto an expressway for a duration of time the state has agreed to, you have successfully mobilized people but have not created any leverage in a power struggle. If we unpredictably hold space and disrupt the flow of business as usual and the powerful must respond to the disruption, then we are challenging power and the status quo. In Saturday’s event, we saw conditions that could only occur with a political insider at the helm, including a blessing by the mayor and other officials. While some argued in the days leading up to the action that the event was youth-led, there could be no confusion about who was in control on Saturday. Father Pfleger led the march…

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