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Civil Disobedience as a Strategy for the Occupy Movement

Tom Hayden: If there’s enough people and they all sit down and say “We want to appeal to a jury of our peers, which is our Constitutional right,” that’s something that should make the decision makers take pause because I don’t think juries are going to convict these people.

Keith Olbermann and I discuss civil disobedience as a strategy for the Occupy movement and whether mass arrests will help the cause or become counterproductive.

tom hayden on keith olbermann

KEITH OLBERMANN: Occupy Wall Street — which at this rate will soon be known as Occupy Planet Earth — has grown at a phenomenal rate, from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to more than 900 cities in a month. That’s outside this country.

Now, members of the movement are beginning to suggest it may need two more things — stated goals or demands to reflect its growing strength and are easy to remember, if not easy to define, and operational strategy to grow the movement.

Our fourth story on the “Countdown” — this all may shortly evolve into organized civil disobedience. Protesters at assemblies are struggling with what’s next, forming working groups to formulate demands for specific actions from government, while including as many voices as possible.

With mass arrests now becoming commonplace, one strategy for dealing with police and local governments may surface in the next few days, clogging the courts with cases. Or as the defense attorney Martin Stolar told The New York Daily News, “I’d like to suggest to the DA’s office the appropriate way to deal with these cases is outright dismissal. The leverage is, we take them all to trial.”

Civil rights and anti-war activist Tom Hayden knows as much about formulating strategies for change as anybody in America today. And thanks for coming back on the program so soon, sir.

TOM HAYDEN: Glad to be here.

OLBERMANN: When you were on last Wednesday, you suggested one strategy would be, and I’ll quote what you said. “If 10,000 or 20,000 people sat down in the streets of New York and said, ‘If you don’t do anything about Wall Street, arrest us.’” Do you get the impression that the protesters are either taking that advice or have arrived at sort of the same conclusion that you had?

HAYDEN: No, I was making a prediction about a scenario, not giving advice. I don’t know what will happen. The — as a practical matter, about 2,000 people have been arrested around the country. And the pattern that we see is that the protesters are trying, for the most part, to avoid arrests and the politicians and police are trying to avoid confrontations. A reason for that — a practical reason — is if you hold on to a park for protest, for occupation and as a launching pad for marches, you don’t want to give it up to be arrested if you can help it. But at some point, something’s going to give, and it’s predictable that it will go in the direction of civil disobedience unless there’s a political solution, which I don’t see on the horizon. Do you?

OLBERMANN: No, I think you are correct about that. So, walk me through the next stage of this. And I think people who even know an elemental history of Gandhi knew that he did this in two different countries. Play out the scenario, the courts get clogged to whatever degree clogging is possible. Which, I would think, it would be easier now than ever before. What happens after that?

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HAYDEN: Well, I don’t think that these occupiers want to get arrested. That’s what’s different.


HAYDEN: And I don’t think the police necessarily want to arrest them. If you look at Wisconsin, the firefighters and the police joined in the demonstrations. So, that’s the possibility here that’s totally unique. But — if nothing happens — I think it’s gradually going to be predictable that the police are going to be ordered to move in.

Then the question is, you know, what do you do? If it descends into just street fighting, it becomes a replay of Chicago ’68 and the late ’60s — law and order. If there’s enough people and they all sit down and say “We want to appeal to a jury of our peers, which is our Constitutional right,” that’s something that should make the decision makers take pause because I don’t think juries are going to convict these people. I don’t think — I don’t think the Judiciary has the capacity to deal with it.


OLBERMANN: There’s still, as I think you noted there, seems to be a lot of public surprise that, a) protesters are being arrested, even though — as you suggest — they seem reluctant and b) the police, although they seem reluctant, are arresting them. Have we lost that protest reflex? I mean, I thought it was that — as long as it was non-violent — weren’t you supposed to get arrested at a protest?

HAYDEN: Well, that’s the “get arrested and go to jail for 24 hours and get out.” But this is about occupying a park or occupying public space, so you’ve got to be careful if you’re a protester, if you get arrested — you lose the space, you lose the launching pad, you get some imagery on television, then the bail costs mount. So, I think this is different.

And I don’t think that the police necessarily want to do this. I could be wrong on that. It’s — every city is different. But the politicians generally don’t want the police to do this. And they don’t know what the alternative is. So, it’s a stand-off, and it gives an opportunity for the message about Wall Street to be heard. And the occupations are launching pads for demonstrations at Wall Street fat cats’ homes. All of that enhances the message.

But if it comes to a non-resolution, the police will probably be sent in, and then people have to decide collectively what do they want to do? What is it? And the Gandhian option, I think, will be there. And I think decision makers — decision makers should know that — that they may face a very difficult “emperor has no clothes” kind of problem if they really have to arrest 50,000 people. So, that should make people try to solve this problem before it comes to that.

tom hayden

OLBERMANN: We’ll see if it works this time — with negotiation. The activist, author and educator, Tom Hayden. Once again, a great pleasure, sir.

HAYDEN: Keith, thank you.

Tom Hayden
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