News & Politics

Civil Disobedience Whatever

Getting locked up or shutting things down has become a regular occurrence in Washington this spring. What does it take to kick up a fuss in this city?

Gay-rights activist Dan Choi has done it twice this spring. Service Employees International Union members did it yesterday. And the guy who wants to replace Eleanor Holmes Norton as DC’s congressional delegate has suggested doing it on a mass scale in the name of DC voting rights. Even Congressmen are getting in the act. Along with May flowers, the arrival of warmer weather has heralded the arrival of civil disobedience of all kinds, whether folks are padlocking themselves to the White House, blocking the sidewalk outside of that same residence, taking over a Bank of America, or suggesting that DC block commuter traffic over the city’s bridges. But if civil disobedience becomes routine, if it becomes the kind of thing you can casually suggest during a political campaign, doesn’t that mean those tactics are getting a little, well, passé?

Sure, every time Choi and other servicemembers who were outed and kicked out of the military lock themselves to a fence, the media shows up: blue skies and White House(s) make for attractive wire-service photographs. But everyone knows how the story ends: with a standard master handcuff key and a misdemeanor charge of failing to obey a lawful order. If the consequences are sufficiently small that you can afford to break the law twice in a month, it’s not much of a transgression, is it? Ditto for the people going after Bank of America. Getting a bunch of annoyed branch employees to leave for the day isn’t exactly striking a deadly blow against capitalism—it’s just a mild, local inconvenience. In a town where someone’s always showing up, sitting down, or standing around for something, it’s hard to get excited by a garden-variety protest.

So maybe it’s time for protesters in DC to step it up a notch. Delegate candidate Doug Sloan’s proposal to block traffic into the city to demonstrate the region’s reliance on DC and make the case for statehood probably won’t ever be implemented (those concrete barriers he cites are heavy), but he’s got an appropriate flair for the dramatic. Even if the disgruntled just shifted seasons, they might have more impact. Handcuffs are a lot colder when you’re wearing them during a blizzard.

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