Image of protesters holding signs saying "abolish ice".

Trump-era civil disobedience has feminist roots

On June 28, 630 people were arrested in a women-led march against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. Those arrested, including Democratic Congressional Representative Pramila Jayapal and actress Susan Sarandon, were charged with unlawfully demonstrating after staging a sit-in in the Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building. More than 2,500 women from 47 states had poured into DC to participate in the action.

Bob Bland, co-president of the Women’s March, said nonviolent civil disobedience is a strategic tactic that is critically needed in this moment, both to continue placing pressure on Donald Trump’s administration and to hold Democratic legislators to account. “We have seen that marching and rallying are not enough,” Bland said. “The Trump administration has not really capitulated to any demands. Marching and rallying are a great entry point for people waking up to their complicity in unjust systems, but we are going to continue getting arrested and escalating our tactics.”

The Women’s March coordinated the June 28th mass arrests in partnership with the Center for Popular Democracy Action and CASA in Action. That this sweeping act of civil disobedience was women-led is — or at least should be — entirely unsurprising.

For many young Americans, the first introduction to the concept of “civil disobedience” is an early civics or history class on Henry David Thoreau’s essay by the same name (topline takeaway: it’s framed as the intellectual property of a dead white dude). But the true history of civil disobedience in the U.S. is inextricable from feminist history, tied to the civil rights and suffragette movements and to bold female leaders — especially women of color — unafraid to put their bodies on the line and risk arrest.

Take the 33 members of the National Woman’s Party arrested November 10, 1917 while picketing outside the White House for the right to vote. The women were brutalized by male guards at a nearby Northern Virginia prison. The party’s co-founder Lucy Burns was manacled by her hands to the bars above her cell. Dorothy Day was slammed over the back of an iron bench. Suffragist Dora Lewis was thrown so violently into an iron bed that her cellmate believed she was dead, though she was denied medical care until the next morning. The suffragists dubbed their jail-time experience the “Night of Terror” — a night they traded permanent scars for a shot at the ballot.

Nonviolent civil disobedience has long been a central strategy in efforts to topple white supremacist systems in the U.S. There is probably no example of civil disobedience more iconic than Harriet Tubman’s, whose Underground Railroad is believed to have helped upwards of 100,000 slaves to escape between 1810 and 1860. All “station masters” and “conductors” who played a part in the clandestine network risked at best a fine or prison time, at worst their own lives and that of their families. The civil rights movement later carried on this legacy, challenging the nation’s racist and unjust legal structure by dismantling it piece by piece.

“In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed,” wrote civil rights leader Ella Baker. “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” In other words, when a system invalidates your voice and challenges your humanity, you can’t always play by its rules.

Somehow, the disobedient nature of feminist and female-led organizing has been given short shrift in the history books. Civil resistance scholar April Carter notes that direct action isn’t often associated with the feminist movement, particularly with second wave feminism more typically described with references to consciousness-raising groups and The Feminine Mystique. Joyce Gelb, a political scientist at the City University of New York, writes: “While most analysts see protest as central to the activities of social movements… protest has never been employed as a central tool by most feminists.” But the suffragettes “Night of Terror,” Ella Baker’s legacy, and the more recent tactics of the Women’s March belie that sentiment.

Bland noted that the Women’s March action to end family separation is also part of a broader agenda to end the dehumanization and criminalization of people of color in the U.S. Family separation, she said, is not just about immigration policies. “Police brutality is separating families, the Muslim Ban is separating families,” Bland said. “We’re criminalizing the existence of people of color in this country. If the soul of the nation is to be saved, we must become its soul.”

Emma Goldberg is a writer and activist based in New York, currently working at the start-up initiative Longpath.

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