Monday, February 1, 2010

Civil Disobedience Training at the LGBT Center

By Brooklyn Bill

When I told my Dad I was going to a civil disobedience training class, he asked, "Is that to learn how not to get arrested?" I hemmed and hawed and didn't really answer Dad's question because I assumed that, of course, the whole purpose of CD is to get arrested.

I learned that that's not necessarily the case. And here are some other things I learned at the class, which was presented yesterday afternoon at the LGBT Center by Act Up veterans Ann Northrop and Brian Zabcik at the invitation of Queer Rising:

Rosa Parks had been trained in civil disobedience at what's now called the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, before she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

If you're arrested for CD, you have to tell the police only your name, address, and phone number. They may ask where you work, whether you're a homosexual, and other personal questions, but you should politely say that you don't have to answer those kinds of questions. And you should have a photo ID with you; otherwise, you'll be sitting in jail for longer than necessary.

Northrop said that being arrested for civil disobedience is boring. Well, the being-held-at-the-police-station part is. She recommends bringing two peanut butter sandwiches and something to read. :-)

The training session was just that: The participants (and I count myself as one even though I'm writing up what happened there on this blog for QNY readers) weren't planning a particular action. We chose the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell as our hypothetical cause for the purpose of learning how to prepare for a CD action and what to expect during and after the action, including the possibility of arrest.

We learned of the hours and, perhaps, months of preparation that go into deciding whether and how to create an act of civil disobedience. CD is "a way of participating in the political process as a citizen," Zabcik said. It involves risking arrest, but "let's all go out and get arrested today" is never the goal, Northrop said.

There's no one right way to be an activist; it depends on the situation. Sometimes the best thing to do is write a letter or march as a group. But sometimes a group of people believe that CD is necessary to draw attention to a policy or situation they feel can no longer be tolerated. Perhaps other methods of protest have failed to bring about the desired result or the group feels they need to raise the visibility of the issue. Arrests bring more media attention than a few protesters, Northrop said. (When it came to Iraq War protests, some parts of the "liberal media" didn't even care to notice thousands of protestors.)

As someone who's considering participating in CD, I was relieved to learn that activists who are arrested in New York are often offered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. The ACD has a time limit, typically of six months, meaning that at that time, the charges would be dropped. However, activists can expect to be required to appear in court, perhaps several times, before the ACD is offered.

Northrop and Zabcik emphasized that the members of an activist group should never pressure anyone to risk arrest. And there are certain people, such as those who must take medicine on a regular schedule or who work as a teacher (who when applying for a job may be asked not only whether they've been convicted of a crime but also whether they've simply been arrested), who probably shouldn't take that risk. More often than not, police will announce they're going to start arresting protestors who don't leave immediately before they start putting on handcuffs.

Zabcik said he doesn't trust people who aren't a little concerned about the consequences of CD, which must be an act of "controlled anger." Anger is the motivating force against an injustice, "but that anger can't be wild and flailing about," he said. It's only through controlling and channeling that anger that protestors can hope to achieve their goal.

And that goal must be clear and able to be easily articulated to the media. Activists should do extensive research to make sure their facts are correct and they can make a rock-solid case for their cause. "The moral high ground is the best thing you can have going for you," Northrop said.

Protestors need supporters; those who for whatever reason may not want take the chance of being arrested can provide invaluable service as a media or police liaison, as an observer who takes notes about everything that happens during the event, or as a distributor of flyers explaining the action. And no one should ever think about risking arrest without having a lawyer ready to handle the case. Let the lawyer do the talking and always plead not guilty. Other supporters can keep a list of those who've been arrested or hold onto their possessions. And they can be friendly faces to greet those who were arrested when they emerge from jail.

Northrop said it's a good idea to see the CD action as a choreographed dance with the police, whom protestors should never touch under any circumstances. The police want to remove you, to end the inconvenience that you're causing. The bigger the inconvenience you create, the more of an effect you can have, Zabcik said.

Sometimes courts have declared going limp to be resisting arrest; other courts have not. Activists almost certainly won't be charged only with resisting arrest.

Protestors who are risking arrest should expect that they could be held as long as 24 hours and to plan for that possibility. They should be calm and cooperative, and most of the time they'll be treated OK. Ultimately, though, "the system will do what the system wants to do," Northrop said. Sometimes activists are arrested without warning, and their helpers and even innocent bystanders can be taken into custody. Treatment depends on the particular police officers and other bureaucrats involved. The election of openly LGBT officials in the city has been a plus because they can urge that activists be treated with restraint and moved quickly and respectfully through the system.

Zabcik used a quote by Oscar Wilde to stress the importance of planning, even perhaps to the point of tediousness: "The problem with socialism"—or in this case, activism—"is that it requires too many meetings." And throughout the training, Zabcik emphasized that acting as a group is paramount.

"The group discussion" that may lead up to CD "is the magic for me," said Northrop, who added that she had quit organizations that didn't allow every member to have a voice.


You can access Act Up's CD training manual, which we were given a copy of at the training session, here. For more info on the fight for LGBT equality, go here.


On a more-personal note, I had fun meeting fellow QNY blogger Justin in person for the first time. And one of the other attendees was the adorable guy from this past June's Pride March whom I'd dubbed Sweet Fancy Moses on my blog because he was carrying a two-part sign that was shaped like the Ten Commandments. I told him—his name is Todd, and I've just friended him on Facebook—that I remembered him and his costume from the march. I didn't tell him that I drew attention to his penis in my blog post, which included a photo I took of him that left little to the imagination. *blushes* Oh, and as I was heading toward the turnstiles in the 14th Street subway station, I crossed paths with a guy I'm almost sure was actor David Pittu, though it took me a little while to figure out why he looked so familiar. Pittu is a celebrity crush of mine. I saw him this past summer in Twelfth Night in Central Park, and he was almost as fabulous as a beaded and ballooned gay Israelite carrying pink tablets from God. And by "God," of course, I mean "Ethel Merman."


  1. Thanks for the informative write-up. I was there too with my trusty and awesome Queer Rising cohorts. The more people we can educate and invigorate, the stronger the fledgling C.D. Movement can become!!!

  2. Hey Bill. Thanks, this is a great report on the training, which was a pleasure to do. Ann

  3. I fixed the spelling of Ann's last name. Someone I thought would be certain to know the correct spelling told me it was "-thrup." I should have done a Google search to check that. *sigh* While I'm here, I'll add that in addition to resisting arrest, activists arrested for CD may be charged with disorderly conduct, trespass and/or obstruction of government property. That's per the Act Up CD training manual.

  4. Hey Bill, Great article and it was great meeting you!