Last week I received a phone call. Someone from Stand Up KC was calling.
Are you interested in participating in an act of civil disobedience — the peaceful violation of the law ending with a voluntary arrest — with about 100 other people in Kansas City and thousands across the country?
The words of two men flashed through my mind. One man was a black writer and abolitionist of the Civil War era, Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The other was a white historian from the time of the great civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements, Howard Zinn: “Civil disobedience…is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.”
This tactic has long been used by ordinary people — from the Revolutionary War to the civil rights struggle, from Vietnam to today’s battle against poverty — to get what they demand from the powerful, whether the State or corporations.
What did Stand Up KC demand? A living wage for all workers in all occupations.
I believe that no matter what occupation you find yourself in — by choice or circumstance — you should not have to live in poverty. You should not have pennies left over after paying for rent, groceries, and gas. You should not have to decide between paying the electric bill or paying the water bill. Not in the richest nation in the history of humanity. Not even if your work is flipping burgers. I trust the economic studies and historical research that make it exceptionally plain raising the minimum wage does not lead to higher unemployment (often it’s the opposite) and only raises the costs of goods and services by a couple percentage points, easily offset by higher wages. I understand how the cycle of poverty functions, ensuring the children of poor parents typically become poor adults due to limited opportunities compared to middle-income and wealthy people.
“Yes, I am.”
We trained. We met at a small church for instruction in the art of civil disobedience. Ignore police orders to leave. But when they come to handcuff you, comply. Don’t resist. You will be taken into custody, perhaps for minutes, perhaps hours, perhaps overnight. We have three lawyers ready to represent you. Bond money has already been raised. Charges could be equivalent to jaywalking…or trespassing. We will work to get any charges tossed out.
I asked if there would be official observers filming the arrests. I didn’t want anyone to be falsely accused of resistance or violence. Yes, there would be observers.
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, hundreds of Kansas Citians, many abandoning their workplaces and going on strike, gathered at 63rd and Paseo at 5 p.m., as the light began to fade.
I parked my car in a neighborhood, and left my wallet and phone behind. We were told to carry only our driver’s license, which I kept in my front pocket.
Weaving through the crowd, I found the check-in table. I gave the woman my name. I wrote my name and phone number on a bag, put my keys inside it, and gave it to her. I pulled up the sleeve of my coat, took a permanent marker from a box, and scribbled a lawyer’s number on my skin, as instructed. The woman tied a yellow band around my arm — distinguishing protesters participating in civil disobedience.
I made small talk with a few people I knew. Watched people hand out American flags, hats and gloves, and pizza. Noticed the lawyers getting into position.
Then the speeches began at a podium. Men, women, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, and Latina speakers. We do not make enough to provide our children with comfortable lives. People have to work multiple jobs. And the new administration…attacks on the poor are already underway. Medicare, Social Security. Will nativism and bigotry divide the working class? United we stand, divided we fall. An injury to one is an injury to all.
Horns from passing cars blared in solidarity. Fists rose through lowered car windows. I and others raised our fists back.
But wait, what was that? Someone screaming from a pickup truck as it passed. Unintelligible from my spot, but it hardly sounded friendly.
Moments later, shouting from the back of the crowd. The speaker, a rabbi, ignored it and pressed on at the microphone, but the crowd was not so easily distracted.
“Get better jobs! Get better jobs! Get better jobs!”
A middle-aged white man walked forward along the edge of the crowd, screaming. He was not pleased with this gathering of low-wage fast food and retail workers.
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” someone from our gathering said. Others admonished him.
Folks on the edge of the crowd blocked the man from entering the area, and eventually the man’s voice trailed off and he disappeared.
Get better jobs, I mused. What luck this man arrived to bestow this wisdom. Christ. Why not just shout, “Don’t be poor! Don’t be poor!”
The final speaker ordered those getting arrested to the front of the crowd, so I pressed forward. The rest of the gathering clapped for us. Then the march began, down the sidewalk — toward a McDonald’s. Signs and fists were raised. Chants sounded in the darkness.
What do we want? / Fifteen and a union! When do we want it? / Now!
Everywhere we go / People want to know… Who we are / So we tell ’em… We are the workers / The mighty, mighty workers… Fighting for Fifteen / And good jobs for all…
I saw the first police car after we’d been walking for 10 minutes or so. He was just driving alongside us. We reached the McDonald’s down the street after a quick 20 minute march.
We followed our organizer into the street, and he lowered his hands. Over 100 of us sat down on the road, locked arms, and started to sing. The rest of the protesters remained on the sidewalk behind us.
The Kansas City and Jackson County police materialized from all directions. Five or so officers on horseback. Another fifteen or twenty on foot. One or two with gas masks. One with a shotgun. Cruisers were positioned to keep traffic away. Most officers wore serious expressions, but a few looked amused, some friendly, others angry.
The media appeared next. Cameras rolling and flashing. KCUR, the Star, the local TV news channels.
After a police announcement (something about how if we didn’t return to the sidewalk we’d be arrested) was drowned out by song and chant, officers began cuffing protesters, with disposable bonds. With so many people, it was a long process. We just continued to chant, even — especially — those getting arrested.
“If you don’t get out of the street, you’re going to jail.” It was my turn.
I nodded and remained seated.
“OK,” the officer said, and helped me up. He was a friendly man. He cuffed me and we walked across the street to where the other arrested folk were being loaded into police vans. “Thanks for your cooperation,” the officer said, and left to arrest someone else.
“What’s your name?” a man in a suit called to me. One of our lawyers! I told him.
The protesters on the sidewalk and those arrested chanted in call-and-response fashion from the two sides of the street.
Stand up / KC!
Stand up / KC!
I was helped into a van with eight others — black, white, Asian, male, female. Things were festive, the adrenaline rushing. An officer took us on a drive of only a few minutes, to a nearby station, but we didn’t end up going inside. Everyone would be identified outside and then taken to different jails for processing.
We sat in the van for perhaps three-quarters of an hour. We sang hip-hop and pop songs. Somebody come get her, she’s dancing like a stripper… A man and I talked about the Walking Dead for a few minutes. A few folks wiggled out of their cuffs. A guy next to me was hot, so I helped him by biting his hood and pulling it off his head. A blonde girl had to use the bathroom badly; we had to warn her against going in the van. Could it be another charge? Destruction of police property? I had made sure not to drink much a few hours before the march, in hopes of not having to ask a policeman to use a bathroom; this mission was successful, but I was very dehydrated by the end of the night.
We were taken out of the vehicle and joined other protesters from other vans. We spent another hour outside, as we were identified person-by-person. We talked amongst ourselves and with the police, who were polite and amiable. Stand Up KC had communicated what would occur in advance so the police could be prepared — and perhaps that lightened the mood. “This guy’s got some pipes,” the officer from our van said, pointing to the most enthusiastic singer from our group. This officer was part of a K9 unit, so we asked him about his dog.
It was a cold night. We huddled together for warmth, a fine way to meet new people. My arms were in pain from being restrained behind my back, but fortunately the officers cut our bonds and redid them in front. The girl urinated on the ground at the back of our group; somehow she went unnoticed by basically everyone.
Eventually I was searched (not the first time, nor the last), identified, and sat in a new van, with the heat blasting, for a while. A protester and police officer, both formerly from Chicago, recognized each other. “You used to be a cop?” another woman asked the protester. “I’m a mechanic, I used to work on the cop cars.”
Then the men and women were separated. I was taken to a paddy wagon with seven other men, three white and four black. A reverend. A Ford worker. A Burger King employee. They would be my fellow prisoners.
Our new officer explained to us that the downtown station and nearby stations were full, so we were going up to the Shoal Creek facility near Liberty. The mood was still jovial. The reverend, a union organizer, and I discussed politics for a while. A couple guys in the car had been to jail before, and told us their experiences. After a fifteen or twenty minute drive, I was beginning to feel carsick, and worried for a moment I might throw up inside this hot, cramped, jostling box.
“Can we play some tunes?” one of my fellows asked the officer.
“No, I wish!”
We were taken into the station and waited to be booked. We chatted with our officer about firearms, martial arts, Missouri and Kansas laws, and so on. He said officers were really feeling like targets these days; the black men with me said they knew how he felt. We talked about Stand Up KC and the Fight for $15. “I totally understand that,” the officer said when we told him workers weren’t making enough to provide for their families and how historically civil disobedience helps push change forward. “But a lot of us had to be called out to take you in, and there was a shooting tonight.”
I wondered then if those who believed civil disobedience wasn’t worth the risk — distracting the police or delaying ambulances or fire trucks — were also the fiercest critics of the World Series victory parade and similar events.
He was a kind man, but wasn’t supportive of the movement. He explained he used to work for low wages, but worked his way to a bigger paycheck. The implication was unstated but clear: Why weren’t we doing the same? Why weren’t we willing to work hard? Too lazy? Too misguided? Too foolish? Get a better job!
Also: “I work a dangerous job, other types of work are much safer,” he told us, dismissive of higher wages for retail, childcare, and fast food workers.
Apparently it’s only dangerous work that deserves a decent wage, I thought. The millionaire CEOs won’t be happy to hear this.
A couple of the officers at Shoal Creek were frustrated, both at us protesters and some internal disorganization. Though Stand Up KC told the KCPD how many people would need to be arrested, they did not seem entirely prepared. A few griped about how higher-ups had decided to handle the protests. “But hey, we’re here to serve!” one said loudly, in our direction. It is likely the higher-ups wanted the whole process to take a while, to discourage future civil disobedience.
I was the last of us eight to be booked, and got stuck sitting next to a drunk the police dragged in after a domestic violence call. My comrades were safe in the cell, and I longed to join them. The man, white and near 60, droned on and on about how “protests won’t do anything,” how “all you’re doing is disrupting the crack flow in the inner city,” how Communism is evil, how “we just gotta give Trump a chance,” how Somalis are foolish because they choose to drive taxis instead of finding better work, how people need to work hard like him and get off welfare, how the people in Africa are poor “because they’re just so stupid,” and how if I ever start a business I should take on one of my black comrades in the cell as a partner because “he looks like he could use a helping hand, if you know what I mean.”
Countering his drunken, racist word vomit was difficult and tiresome. I was relieved when it was my turn for a mug shot, fingerprinting, and at last imprisonment in the cell with my partners in crime. Back to chatting and telling stories.
We were at the station for three hours, and were slowly processed and released on bond. We were charged with failing to obey a lawful order.
When we were freed, the lawyer I had spoken to earlier was waiting outside for us. We tried to nap in a Stand Up KC van while a group of women, who had also been sent to this station due to overflow elsewhere, were also freed. (At one point the window of our cell was covered up and the male police officers shooed away so female officers could remove the hijab of a Muslim woman protester for a search and mug shot.) Eventually, we drove back to the church where we trained, got our keys and other items, and from there rode back to our homes or parked cars. I was home by 4 a.m. — it was an 11-hour experience.
As I prepared for rest, I thought of what one of my companions had asked: “You think we made a difference?”
Civil disobedience can do many things. It can make potential allies realize they are not alone, swelling the ranks of a cause. It can show opponents that such a cause, to those who care about it, is worth being arrested or jailed for — and maybe, just maybe, this will change the way some people think. Most importantly, it can make an employer or the State realize trouble won’t stop until demands are met, and therefore can push policy change through faster. Since the Fight for $15 troublemakers began protesting just four years ago, nearly 20 million workers have won raises in places like California, New York, and Massachusetts. It pushed the Kansas City council to support a higher minimum wage. “Protests won’t do anything” indeed.
To the officer, the drunk, and the counter-protester, civil disobedience like this might not make much sense. But that cannot be the case for long. For while these things start small, as they grow they become more easy to grasp. When 100 turns into 1,000, it is easier to see. When it grows to 5,000 or 10,000, it’s clearer still. The truth is, if enough ordinary people unite and organize, they can do more than shut down a street. They can shut down a city, a state, or an entire nation. From Kansas City’s Valentine’s Day strike of 1918, in which 15,000 workers brought the city to a halt, to India’s 2016 strike of 180 million workers that froze a country, the people have the power to take whatever they want — by leaving their workplaces and flooding the streets. We the people can plow up the earth, we will be the flash of lightning and clap of thunder, we will be the mighty roar of the ocean.
We part with the words of the great black poet Langston Hughes:
You could stop the
factory whistle blowing,
Stop the mine machinery
Stop the atom bombs
Stop the battleships
Stop the merchant
ships from sailing,
Stop the jail house keys
If you would