The Prick of Political Imagination: on Writing The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding)

©2005 L.Timmel Duchamp

[Note: links to supplemental material (written by me) will be found throughout this essay. Most of the material provided in the links are extracts from journal entries and letters written in 1989 and 1990, chronicling my experience of the events I allude to and documenting my thoughts at the time.]

In May 1990 I began writing The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding). In May 1990 I stood trial in a Seattle courtroom, facing charges brought against me for an act of civil disobedience I committed in January 1990. Are the two events related? I believe that they are.

I composed the five-novel Marq'ssan Cycle while living in the age of Reagan, when Nuclear Winter, not Global Warming, loomed as the catastrophe du jour. By 1990, the view had changed; as the US's elite began to imagine and explore the possibilities of being the world's only superpower, many of us woke one morning to discover we were all living under threat of the New World Order (as the Bush I Administration designated their grandiose ambition). At that time Global Warming looked like a mid- rather than near-future problem and the Greenhouse Effect an unlikely though possible catastrophe a few generations down the line. Red Rose (as well as a novel-in-progress that I began in 1989) share a world that now looks apiece with the reality many people in the US first noticed in the wake of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

For the novel, I invented a fictional group of activists known as Disorderlies. While several Disorderlies—whose icon is the letter D inscribed within a circle—are primary characters in the novel-in-progress, they remain off-stage in Red Rose, an imaginative resource that political rebel Sarah Minnivitch (who is not herself a Disorderly) draws on to sustain her resistance in isolation. The two chief characteristics of Disorderly resistance are the will and determination to disrupt "business as usual" and the use of performance art to convey dissent. The Disorderlies' trademark is a catchy rhythm in which they chant innumerable verses produced and repeated and collected by people who are not themselves Disorderlies. The prison officer charged with breaking Minnivitch's resistance considers the verses insidious, particularly since the chant's rhythm is like one of those advertising jingles one can't get out of one's head. So when she hears Minnivitch chanting

These are the days of rage,
Simon Nichols' making war on all the world;
We are the disorderly,
No business as usual when we're around;
In this Winter of our Discontent, we do vow!
It's time to stop: PLAYING…THE…GAME!
and discovers her staff nodding to and tapping out its rhythm, she goes ballistic. For it's precisely Minnivitch's attitude toward "the game" that lies at the heart of her resistance.

I chose to engage in civil disobedience for profoundly compelling reasons. (See Events of Nov-Dec 1989 and Cook Report.) Though the chill force of state power at certain moments frightened me, the entire experience—from the point of decision (described in Notes for Testimony) through training in nonviolent direct action and arrest (See Arrest for Civil Disobedience.) all the way to addressing the jury with the truth as I knew it—taught me that most of us are capable of a great deal more effective action in the world than we ever dream of. Vistas of possibility opened before me, lighting up my imagination. Much of the time I operated in a heightened state of perception and thought. And as people do in such situations, I bonded powerfully first with the activists I was arrested with and later with the activists who were tried with me. My act of conscience, though undertaken for reasons that had nothing to do with my own life, cannot be characterized as a self-abnegating sacrifice. On the contrary: fifteen years later, I am still reaping the benefits.

Under certain circumstances, nonviolent direct action (with or without civil disobedience) can be an effective tool for bringing into public discourse facts and issues that have either been marginalized or banished—in short, for speaking truth to power. Sometimes when the individual has been stripped of nearly every shred of their human identity, nonviolent disobedience (for example, the hunger strike) constitutes a desperate attempt to preserve a minimal degree of humanity where no other hope exists. At all times, though, it is an act of agency demanding recognition in a discursive sphere in which the conditions of discourse are operating to deny it. At its most basic, nonviolent disobedience looks at the rules (often unwritten and even unnoticed) that must be observed if the world's business is to be carried on as usual and deliberately flouts them. The disobedience (or resistance) need not entail illegal behavior or court arrest; it often does, though, because for political purposes, engaging the entire apparatus of the law is a sure means of getting one's point across.

In the courtroom

Law is about sovereignty, not justice. (For an insightful discussion of this truism, see Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason [Stanford, CA: 2005]). During the last half of the twentieth century (at least), most people in the US believed that the state, despite its sovereignty, was not above the law as embodied in the US Constitution; I doubt that that's still the case now. But those who viewed law as serving the citizens collectively (as represented by the formula in which the state, in the courtroom, is referred to as "the people") did so with considerable cognitive dissonance. Every time a matter is brought into a courtroom, the state's sovereignty is asserted and accepted. The rules are the state's, whether the state rigs the outcome or not. It is no accident that judges and attorneys make constant and informal use of sports and game language for negotiating protocol and procedure. They are professionals, playing a professional game, and they generally do not have an enormous personal stake riding on the outcome of a particular game. They are colleagues who share similar educational backgrounds and often know one another socially. For them, the courtroom is their workplace, not a cold, austere, frightening space representative of state power. Jurors, witnesses, and defendants are the outsiders, the amateurs, the pieces on the game board. Although each of these outsiders may have a speaking role at appointed moments in the game, mostly they stand up and sit down and answer questions at the behest of the professionals.

I had expected that the action itself would be the most powerful moment of my experience with civil disobedience and that the trial and sentencing would be a tedious but necessary exercise in which I would go through the motions of being convicted of one or two misdemeanors and then do community service. But in actual practice, the courtroom proved to be a more interesting and inspiring site of struggle during both my own and the other activist trials as well.

As I noted above, when a government brings defendants before the law, those defendants who play the game as directed by the judge and other officers of the court implicitly accept the sovereign right of the state to do so, while defendants who obstruct the game are found in contempt of court. Most activists who commit civil disobedience do accept the sovereignty of the state (including those who are troubled by its contradictions and abuses—and even those who would prefer to see the state abolished altogether). Though activists who employ nonviolent resistance disrupt the game (aka "business as usual"), their use of nonviolent direct action is generally intended to make the system work better-viz., to bring important issues into the dominant political discourse, to demand that everyone—including the powerful—play by the rules, or to try to force a change in the rules themselves. And so it is with the extension of the methods of nonviolent resistance into the courtroom. None of us on trial had any interest in openly defying the court's authority (which is not to say that we didn't wish to challenge that authority). Rather, we used the courtroom as a space in which to raise questions about practices and assumptions that are taken for granted and therefore serve as utilities of a social and political infrastructure that is largely invisible to those who aren't searching for it.

The turning point, for me, arrived with the trial of "the Christians," as Judge H____, who presided over the pre-trial hearing determining the ground rules for all the activists' trials, humorously dubbed them. (See Activist Trials) I confess to having been a fan of Judge H____ since my first stint of jury service for the Seattle Municipal court in the early 1980s. He is a grey-haired, sharp-eyed black man of short stature and genial bearing. I've been in his courtroom numerous times over the years as a juror and a spectator and have on every occasion been impressed by his wit, humanity, and thoughtfulness. I was delighted to find him presiding over our pre-trial hearing. "The Christians" were a group of defendants whose activism flowed from their spiritual lives. (Other defendants among us practiced an intensely faith-based activism, but "the Christians" were a group that had been together for years, praying and wrestling with matters of conscience together, which set them apart.) Judge H____ distinguished them from the rest of us because they declined to attach their cases to the motion to dismiss one of the charges as unconstitutionally vague. (This motion was brought by one of the pro-bono attorneys representing the indigent defendants among us, who qualified for public defenders. Judge H____ dubbed all of the other pro se defendants who asked that their cases be attached as the "Me Too" group.) Judge H____ did in fact throw out the contested charge; but "the Christians" declined to play the legal game to the extent of filing motions and served a jail sentence subsequent to their conviction on both charges.

I did not immediately understand why "the Christians" chose not to have the unconstitutional charge dismissed. Judge H____ 's label for them, reminding us all of the Christians-vs-the-Gladiators narrative, made me wonder if they perceived themselves as martyrs. A few days later, I discovered that I had misunderstood them. As I wrote in an email to a friend dated March 22, 1990:

I talked for quite a long time to one of the people who are dispensing with the legal motions. He was the one who announced during the pre-trial hearing that he didn't accept the court's authority. By making motions etc. (which won't be taken seriously by the court), he says, we're playing by the system's rules, playing the game, going along with nonsense. All of which detracts from the major purpose of our civil disobedience. & he warns that the more we go along with, the more disempowered we become. He says that he & his group are going to refuse to stand for the judge & will address him as "Mr.____" rather than "Your Honor." That we were all suffocated in the courtroom on Friday, that it was as though the life were drained out of us even though most of us were full of the same feeling of having done the right thing that we had when we were arrested... This guy said he himself had once been a lawyer—& that they'd all been through the process many times before.

His group's polite but dissident demeanor during their trial under Judge W____ (the first of all our trials) bore that out: they consistently refused to address any of the legal issues involved and did not defend themselves so much as explain why they found it personally necessary to commit civil disobedience. One of them testified that just as her conscience would dictate that she disobey a red light if running out into the street would save the life of a child about to be hit by a truck, so it dictated that she do everything in her power to keep her tax dollars from financing the death-squad slaughter of thousands of people in El Salvador; she was not claiming to be directed by God himself, but simply saying that this was what she had to do to live in this world.

I waited with them during the jury's deliberations, which took surprisingly long, and they passed the time by telling stories recounting the activist experiences of themselves and others. The stories that remain with me now are those told by the Lutheran minister among them (who had not actually intended to be arrested that day but had been swept up by the police for standing too close to the group of people being arrested). He recounted a few anecdotes about some of his own past arrests, but he also talked about his mother—who was eighty-plus years old—having been arrested during a Mother's Day action for climbing a Cyclone fence to enter a restricted area at a missile silo. These people all knew exactly what they were doing, and although their spiritual life directed their political actions, their reasoning was sophisticated and leavened with humor.

The clincher for me came when we returned to the courtroom to hear the verdict. The jury had taken a long time to deliberate; when they filed into the courtroom, they showed signs of being visibly upset. The foreman stated that they didn't want to convict but that the judge's instructions had been clear and they hadn't been able to find a way to make them fit a not-guilty verdict. Judge W____, though, was sanguine: everything was going according to plan. He would give them the choice of paying a fine, performing community service, or serving a jail sentence, and they would (of course!) choose community service. Wrong. They announced that they would not pay the fine or perform community service because they did not recognize the state's right to demand it of them. Judge W____ was stunned. To my surprise and delight, he urged them to reconsider. I thought of it, at the time, as a Pontius Pilate routine—except that he appeared to be distraught at the prospect of sentencing them to two weeks in jail. He clearly thought that jail-time was excessive and did not want the responsibility of their serving time on his shoulders. So he pleaded with them not to "force him" to do that. (In other words, he wasn't sending them to jail, they were sending themselves.) At the time I was fairly certain he had sentencing discretion; a few weeks later, when I observed a trial presided over by Judge H____, I knew that he did, for Judge H____ sentenced all the activists found guilty in his courtroom to either probation or a suspended sentence. As I read his reaction, Judge W____ was a true believer in the law, seeing it both as an expression of the state's sovereignty and as a source of justice. Activists sentenced to community service could choose to perform volunteer labor for an organization of their choice, allowing the judge, under such circumstances, to feel that he wasn't really punishing the activists. The "Christians," by refusing to play the game, put him to the test. The result was not only a jail sentence for the defendants, but also the production of a mirror-reflection of the law's image that clashed with his belief that the law upholds justice at the same time it affirms sovereignty.

The remaining trials were very different; the rest of us chose to play the game, squeezing in political statements where and when we could. I attended all of the trials preceding mine, took notes, and devised a slightly different strategy for making a defense and a rather different style of communicating with the jury. (For a fuller description of the first portion of my trial, see LTD's Trial; for the script of my opening statement, see Opening Statement.) In my opening statement, I emphasized the total context of our action, not only our immediate reasons for undertaking it, but also the organizational infrastructure (involving a coalition of twenty organizations) supporting it, our training in peace-keeping skills, and our collective ethics. This approach gave the jurors a picture of a community previously unknown to them and not so incidentally assured them that we had not posed a danger to public safety (particularly since, in my cross-examination of police officers, I elicited testimony admitting that they had had friendly, joking relations with us—documented by photos in the prosecutors' possession) and did not regard us as dangerous. But most interesting, I think, was my interactions with the jury. By some accident, all seven of them were women, mostly in their 30s. Because we seventeen defendants had had our cases joined into one trial group, all of us were seated behind the gate, in the spectators' section of the courtroom. Only lawyers sat at the tables in the arena, and Judge M____ perched above everyone, on the bench, with the bailiff and court recorder to his right, and every one of the professional players were men wearing suits. As one of the two representatives of the pro-se group of defendants, every time I spoke I was required to formally identify myself by name for the record, walk up the aisle and through the gate, and enter the players' arena. I did not have to exaggerate the difference between my position and that of the professionals: the fact was, I could not speak without physically demonstrating that difference, while the lawyers could and did. Although I did not address Judge M____ as "Mr. M____," as "the Christians" would have done, I addressed him as "sir" and never used the customary "Your Honor." The jurors made eye-contact with me every time I spoke to them. The separation between professional players for whom the event was business as usual and the amateurs for whom the event was a big deal could not have been clearer. This is a distinction that television courtroom dramas never draw.

Given my emphasis on the officers' attitudes toward the protestors, the prosecution's case fell apart when the city omitted to show that we had been a danger to public safety (likely because they hadn't thought it was necessary to do so). Judge M____ dismissed the jury at "half-time" (i.e., when the prosecution rested) and reduced the charge to a pedestrian traffic fine, which we could not contest. Before he dismissed us, Judge M____ read us a scathing lecture about our irresponsibility and how we stood to tarnish all activists for social justice by our actions. He wanted us out of his courtroom as soon as possible. Though we had played the game, the very little bit of creativity we had brought to our speech and demeanor had sufficed to make everyone in the courtroom conscious that the trial was about affirming state sovereignty, not serving justice.

My trial happened to take place during the first week the "Christians" served their jail sentence. A few of us organized a picket outside the jail to call attention to the scandal of their going to jail while the murderers they wanted to stop continued to receive the support of the US government. Each day I would go from the courtroom to the picket at the jail before taking the bus home; each night I made preparations for the trial. And I began writing Red Rose. My observations in the courtroom and the new lines of thought that sprang up as a result of my participation in the trial spurred my creation of Sarah Minnivitch, who I imagined embodying the exuberance of the guerrilla theater activist D____ (see ) and the fierce principledness of the "Christians."

I felt a good bit of pain earlier this year when I encountered news items suggesting that the US strategy that cost 4 billion dollars and killed 75,000 people (out of a population of 5 million), apparently called "The Salvador Option" by Pentagon insiders, is considered, retrospectively, a success. Newsweek's Michael Hirsh and John Barry write:

Jan. 8 - What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon's latest approach is being called "the Salvador option"—and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is. "What everyone agrees is that we can't just go on as we are," one senior military officer told NEWSWEEK. "We have to find a way to take the offensive against the insurgents. Right now, we are playing defense. And we are losing."
Hirsh and Barry offer a prettied-up version of what the US's policy in El Salvador was:
Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration's battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. Among the current administration officials who dealt with Central America back then is John Negroponte, who is today the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

It saddens me to think that the Pentagon and US intelligence services have concluded that the "Salvador option" (which resulted in the slaughter of 2048 civilians in the last 45 days of 1989) is a useful tool available for use at will. But their perception that the death-squad option prevailed cannot alter my understanding that my activist experiences of those days increased my sense of possibility and hope rather than destroyed it.

Reality, Fiction, and Writing

It is plain to me now, reading the journal entries and letters I wrote in late 1989, that although I had already invented the Disorderlies by the time I witnessed (and subsequently participated in) her guerilla theater, the work of D____ (an anarchist who styled herself a "political lesbian") provoked my political imagination as well. D____'s approach to dissent did not sit well with more orthodox activists (including those who committed themselves to direct action civil disobedience) (See Events of Nov-Dec 1989.) But D____ and her group insisted that certain sorts of performance are in themselves a form of civil disobedience and when done well can have as great an impact as shutting down the freeway. Although most of her group's theater actions did not result in arrests, I found them scarier to undertake, for they lacked the context of a supportive network and constituted quick hit-and-run performances in sometimes hostile territory with no legal observers on hand to take notes. Certainly, though, my brief experience working with her group gave me a better grasp on what the Disorderly experience would be like.

How much "reality" is it permissible to bring into fiction? I've always taken it as a rule of thumb that the details of reality per se are welcome within fiction to the extent that they neither bore the reader nor are the tools for delivering a polemic or sermon. For those who consider fiction's primary purpose that of entertainment providing escape from reality, such details must be limited to a use that does not remind or provoke thought about aspects of reality that can cause discomfort or outright pain; readers who want only to be entertained will consider the mere presence of such details polemical. I have never created a character who speaks in total sync with my own views, chiefly as a precaution for keeping polemics out of my fiction; I prefer, always, to open a more expansive space in which readers can grapple with the issues my stories raise. This has on occasion been misunderstood by readers who have accused me of being too much of a "coward" to declare my views. Yes, I have views and have often expressed them publicly—in essays, in talk, in the street, in direct action, and even in the courtroom. But a clear expression of my views does not belong in my fiction (or even in discussions about particular pieces of fiction). I see fiction as a place not for expressing views, but for creating the conditions for a certain kind of affective experience that, at its best, generates thought and insight about oneself and the world we live in. And this is what I hope that I've accomplished in The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding).

December 3, 2005

Hyperlinks of interest:

For more about The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding), go here
To read the first two chapters of The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding), go here
To purchase a copy of Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) go here.
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