Uncommon crimes of conscience

LOS ANGELES – Earlier this month, two dozen workers, clergy, and other community folks sat down in the aisles of the Walmart store in Pico Rivera, not far from downtown LA, then moved into the streets, where they were promptly arrested. Why would any group of people – much less some not even directly involved in working at Walmart – voluntarily put themselves in a situation they know will lead to their arrest? Because they feel the injustice of minimum wage jobs, whose schedules are unpredictable and deliberately fall just short of offering enough hours to provide health care benefits and paid sick days. These are among other practices that stores like Walmart refuse to rectify.

Without other ways to redress these grievances, people undertake nonviolent civil disobedience. They decide to deliberately break some small law rather than ignore a larger injustice, as Martin Luther King, Jr. argued for during the civil rights movement. They break the law, but they are not criminals, and that is a significant distinction.

People who do civil disobedience want the public to know what happened and why. They even publicize the event. They break the law in public and they do not try to slip away afterwards unnoticed, like those engaged in a common crime. Criminals do not want to be recognized or known for their law-breaking. They want their actions and identities kept secret – whether they are robbing banks or they are banksters bundling subprime loans and pawning them off as hedge fund opportunities.

Furthermore, demonstrators fully expect to be punished for their actions. They actually want people to know what they did, who did it and why. At Walmart workers broke the law sitting in the street in front of the store where they actually work so both customers and co-workers would know exactly who they are. Clergy wore collars to distinguish their presence, hoping it would generate publicity and offer support for workers and encouragement for others to join the demonstration. They were arrested, and they will take whatever penalty they must pay.

People who do civil disobedience also take these actions nonviolently. They pledge themselves to withholding their frustration and anger by acting calmly, treating the store’s customers and management with respect, and arresting officers with cooperation. If there is violence – in language or deed – they want it to come from others, not the demonstrators. This commitment to nonviolence can expose and absorb the violence employees experience daily from the practices in the workplace. Of course, criminals are not so discriminating. If threatening or using violence feels necessary to reach their goal, a robber or robber baron never hesitates.

No one practicing nonviolent civil disobedience expects a cause-and-effect result from their action. A stick-up artist or a Ponzi schemer wants one thing now – to get the money and run. People who do civil disobedience hold a strong sense of purpose for their actions, but they do not expect that justice will come because of a one-time arrest or even, perhaps, in their lifetimes. César Chávez used to say there was “more time than life,” by which I assumed he meant that these efforts to turn around decades of injustice may take well beyond the time of our life – perhaps requiring generations of effort.

Finally, in the underworld of crime, law-breakers often send others to do the evil deed. Gang members “jump” newbies into the group by sending them on some mission. The honchos of corporate greed direct others to do their dirty work. Not so in a campaign marked by nonviolent civil disobedience. Participants take on the experience of the “other” directly, putting themselves in harm’s way. People who choose to do civil disobedience own the risk they take. They deliberately allow themselves to be arrested, put in a jail cell and held at the mercy of institutions beyond their control.

Activists are planning another day of actions at Walmart stores across the country on Black Friday. Again workers will walk out and join an event that may or may not provoke arrests. Again they will be accompanied by community people and clergy. And yes, instead of shopping, they are prepared to spend the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend – maybe even longer – in the custody of police for breaking a small law in order to expose a system that perpetuates injustice on families across the nation. I intend to be at one of those events. You can click here to find a Walmart action near you. Taking part in such a demonstration – whether doing civil disobedience or not – makes for a truly meaningful Thanksgiving.

Photo: OUR Walmart. Reposted with permission by the author and Capital and Main.


Rev. Jim Conn
Rev. Jim Conn

Rev. Jim Conn is the founding minister of the Church in Ocean Park and served on the Santa Monica City Council and as that city's mayor. He helped found Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, and was a founder of Santa Monica's renter's rights campaign. Rev. Conn is a regular contributor to Capital & Main.