The Empowerment Workshop for People Against War, held Jan. 11 at St. Joseph Church in the West End, included two sessions of civil disobedience training. Each session drew more than 70 people, from college students to senior citizens.
Most participants said they have little or no experience with civil disobedience, but were eager to learn and willing to take such action. Led by Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, and Hazel Tulecke, the groups discussed what nonviolent civil disobedience means, how to conduct it and the liabilities involved.
"I define civil disobedience as deliberately and publicly disobeying an unjust law or disobeying a just law for a profound reason of conscience," Gerdeman said. "Nonviolent CD becomes necessary when other channels for change have been tried without success or when those who could make the desired change have consistently closed their doors to dialogue."
During the 1980s Gerdeman was involved in the Sanctuary Movement housing Salvadoran refugees. Members of the movement declared a Tucson church a sanctuary for people fleeing Central America. Some activists faced criminal charges for smuggling aliens.
One issue at the training sessions was whether nonviolent civil disobedience can involve property destruction. Would damaging military property be justified?
Tulecke suggested participants think of the public's perspective.
"You have to think how your actions will reflect upon the media," she said. "If you damage public or private property and get arrested, people will think you're getting what you deserve. But if you are peaceful and are arrested, they make martyrs out of you."
The fundamental purpose of nonviolent civil disobedience is to make authorities uncomfortable, according to Tulecke and Gerdeman. The intention is to break the law to show the public how serious protesters are about an issue.
Whatever form it takes, civil disobedience must be for the common good and not conducted out of hatred, Tulecke and Gerdeman said.
The session encouraged groups preparing for civil disobedience to study and discuss the issues, set specific goals for the actions, reflect on the best strategies to conduct them and form a community to operate through.
"A civil disobedience plan is developed which includes selecting the best symbolic or actual place, some dramatic action or symbol, clarifying each participant's role, getting legal advice, reflection and prayer," Gerdeman said.
Some people with experience in civil disobedience said their actions failed because they didn't see immediate results. But Gerdeman said results aren't instant.
"People who engage in civil disobedience cannot realistically expect immediate results," she said. "The action may build public awareness of the situation. It brings pressure on those in power."
Civil disobedience is not for everyone, according to Stephanie Sunderland, president of the University of Dayton Chapter of Pax Christi.
"It really depends on what your personal path is," she said. "If you have children or plan to be a public school teacher, you may not want to be the ones who get arrested." ©