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Sorry to inconvenience you: Disruption, tactics and the power of Direct Action in Grand Rapids

March 4, 2019

At the beginning of the Zapatista Revolution in San Cristobal de Las Casa, Chiapas, Mexico on December 31st, 1993:

Tourist – “We have tickets to go whitewater rafting.”

Sub-Comandante Marcos – “Sorry to inconvenience you, but this is a revolution.”

Last week, members of Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE disrupted the Grand Rapids City Commission by chanting, “Cops and ICE go hand in hand.” 

This disruption resulted in the Mayor of Grand Rapids deciding to end the commission meeting, when those involved in the disruption refused to stop.To those who observed this action, it was clear that there were some people who came to speak to the commission during the public comment period, but were unable to do so because the meeting was adjourned.

There are some who might say that the disruption was rude and disrespectful, but to those who believe in the power of Direct Action and the tactic of disruption, it was clear that the action was effective.

Direct action means that people take collective action to change their circumstances, without handing our power over to someone else to do it, such as a boss or a politician. Direct Action is a broad strategy use by those involved in social movements to demand and simultaneously achieve the kind of changes that movements want.

Now, I doubt that anyone involved in the disruption at last Tuesday’s Grand Rapids City Commission took delight in preventing people from speaking during the public comment period. However, the use of the tactic of disruption was meant to do two things. First, it was meant to send a message to everyone present that the racial profiling that Captain VanderKooi engaged in was unacceptable. Secondly, disrupting the Grand Rapids City Commission was a tactical decision to disrupt business as usual, to say that we will not allow bureaucratic proceedings continue while the GRPD, and their cooperation with ICE, does harm to immigrants in this community.

The result of the tactic of disruption in this case was effective. First, it resulted in demonstrating the power of collective action to shut down the meeting. Second, it sent a clear message about why people were shutting down the meeting. Lastly, it resulting in generating a great deal of news coverage and larger community conversation around the issue of police racial profiling and ICE violence in our community.

Those who also took part in the Direct Action at City Hall last week, using the tactic of disruption were also well aware of the fact that their collective action was based on the example of numerous social movements that have existing throughout history and throughout the world. What follows are just a few examples of the use of direct action and the tactic of disruption from various historic social movements. These were not only effective tactics, but were necessary for achieving fundamental change in the face of repressive policies and systems of oppression.

  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott – African American activists refusing to move to the back of the bus was a tactic of disruption that definitely inconvenienced white passengers and cost the bus company money, but it eventually led to allowing African American bus riders to sit wherever they wanted to.
  • ACT Up Against AIDS – ACT Up would regularly use disruption as a tactic. In 1989, 5000 people went into the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to disrupt mass to draw attention to the Catholic Church’s silence on the AIDS crisis in and their stance on abortion. They handed out condoms during the mass and literature on safe sex.
  • Chicago Freedom Movement – In 1966, Dr. King and thousands of other civil rights activists organized non-permitted marches in Chicago with the goal of ending slums. This movement shut down streets, which disrupted traffic, they marched in all white neighborhoods and they march to Real Estate offices to protest housing discrimination. They used the tactic of disruption to bring attention to the issue and to win some housing for poor people.
  • United Farm Worker Grape Boycott – Beginning in 1965, the United Farm Workers joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (led by Filipino labor organizers) to boycott grapes. They used the tactics of marches, fasting and disrupting business as usual at grocery stores that sold grapes grown in California. This campaign got international attention and it eventually did win better pay and the fight against the use of pesticides that farm workers were exposed to.
  • 2001 Protest against the FTAA in Quebec – In the spring of 2001, tens of thousands of protestors came to Quebec City, Canada to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA was a proposed trade policy, like NAFTA, for the entire Western Hemisphere. Protestors caused so much disruption to the FTAA proceedings, which resulted in police using a tons of tear gas. The tear gas got into the ventilation system of the convention center where government leaders were meetings, so much so that they had to delay the meeting. The FTAA was eventually defeated because wherever the heads of state met, they were confronted by thousands of protestors.
  • 2017 Protests Against the Trump Administration Muslim Ban – In airports across the US, hundreds of thousands of protestors shut down business as usual, sometimes delaying flights, to protest the “Muslin Ban.” This protest even took place at the Kent County Airport, where hundreds of people flooded the airport and disrupted passengers and airline companies. 

These are just a handful of examples of how Direct Action in the form of disruption can be a powerful tactic to stop business as usual, bring attention to a critical issue and win real change that is because of the collective action of movements, instead of simply appealing to politicians.

It was in this tradition, that people chose to disrupt the Grand Rapids City Commission last Tuesday.

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