4 Lessons From My First Time Doing Civil Disobedience

By Dr. Sharon Groves

Both my spouse and I have good jobs with health insurance.  Neither of us have preexisting conditions.  While I have always known that the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act would leave none of us safe, I have also known that I wouldn’t be the first on the chopping block.  

Nonetheless, on Tuesday I made the decision to join clergy, faith leaders, doctors, and nurses who, following the prompting of their hearts, took part in an action to disrupt a vote in the Senate on whether to move to debate the Senate healthcare bill.  

The “skinny” (read scam) healthcare proposal that late last night was narrowly defeated by Senators McCain, Collins, and Murkowski would have left tens of millions – according to the most recent scoring by the Congressional Budget Office – without access to health care. 

It is hard to feel empowered when witnessing all the horrors of what this administration is dishing out.  Their inevitability, sadly, can seem unstoppable. The administration and much of the Republican congress chip away at our sense of humanity and collective power so routinely that retreating into Game of Thrones or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee while the world blows up around us seems at times the easiest response.   Yet as the recent vote to reject the Republican healthcare repeal efforts shows us, this doesn’t have to be our story.  We would not have gotten the vote we did without intense public pressure.  

We can reclaim our power and we must.    

I am as guilty as anyone of sitting on the sidelines but what I have found is that the more I put at stake, the less chance that my humanity will be stolen away from me.  It was for this reason more than anything else that this past Tuesday I chose to act beyond my comfort zone. I was part of an action that disrupted the Senate chanting from the Senate balcony “kill the bill; don’t kill us.”  For this action, we were arrested and taken to a holding cell for six hours (two of us were kept in jail overnight).  

All of us have a forthcoming trial and face misdemeanor charges that could result in community service or a day in jail.  For some of us this will have little serious disruption in our lives.  For others it could potentially harm our capacity to find work in our field of choice.  Some, like me, were supported for taking this action.  Others in our group couldn’t tell their supervisors they were in Washington, DC.  Others wanted to get arrested but knew that they were more needed offering support and holding the group together when the action ended.  We’re all exposed to various levels  of risk, but the collective act of engaging in ways we could strengthened our sense of power and agency, as it has others before us and will again in the future.  

After taking part in this action, I don’t feel any less overwhelmed by the challenges that face us but I do feel more committed than ever to be part of the work that strengthens the engagement-muscle of reluctant activists like me.  

For if we sit back, we lose.  

So here are some lessons I learned as an imperfect activist engaging for the first time in Civil Disobedience.   

  1. Justice work requires spiritual discipline:  There was a moment when some of us began to unravel and started to cast blame for our circumstances.  We were hungry, tired, and uncomfortable.  On reflection, I recognize that as a moment of losing spiritual focus for why we were there.  We did not sign up for comfort, and I know that if I had done deeper spiritual work before the action I would have been better able to pay attention to the morale boost needed to keep us focused on why we were there.  Spiritual discipline doesn’t have to follow a particular religious teaching, but it is necessary.  
  2. However uncomfortable I may be, others are hurting more.  My discomfort provided me a mere glimpse of the suffering and daily assault many more must endure.  We were treated with respect by authorities. It feels strange to not be in control, but this discomfort is a regular experience of assault brown and black people go through daily.  Understanding this distinction is critical.  
  3. Leadership in struggle comes from lived experience, not pedigree, status, or age. During this action, the people I looked to for spiritual and practical guidance and support were all 15 to 20 years younger than me.  While I am fairly seasoned in persuasive political engagement, I can’t light a candle to many young organizers who have learned so much beyond their years and are ready to put themselves on the line for what they know is right.
  4. We are in it together. There is no such thing as a single leader.  We all have roles to play. When we are aligned we can do wondrous things and when we are not aligned our movements falter. I have known this to be true intellectually, but it took having my sense of security shaken to truly learn this.  I found myself listening to different people for different things. Whether it’s legal guidance, a slice of pizza after the action, or a couch to sleep on in a city far from home, we all can contribute; all contributions are essential and none are of lesser significance.

Rev. Traci Blackmon reminded us before the action that when we resist what is morally reprehensible we are not speaking truth to power but claiming our own power.  By putting something at stake, I got back more of my power—not the fake power that our systems of privilege give some of us—but the real power that comes from listening and connecting with the lived realities of those most vulnerable and least served by our systems of (in)justice.

Connecting with our power does not require getting arrested.  Civil Disobedience is one tactic among many, and it isn’t for everyone.  This action was in fact only one of many actions that happened in Washington and throughout the country.  I believe they all played a role in the defeat of the “skinny” bill. But I believe getting in the struggle, no matter what that looks like, is essential right now.  Putting skin in the game gets us, paradoxically, out of our own skin so that we can connect to our deepest humanity.  The only way to protect ourselves from the soul snatchers who would sell our humanity and their own to the highest bidder is to engage with people who are also in the struggle.  This is a work in progress, and there is no way out but through. Let us go through together.  

Dr. Sharon Groves is Vice President for Partner Engagement at Auburn.

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