5 Activists Who Bucked 'Civility' to Spark Lasting Social Change

You can ask nicely for people who are oppressing you to please stop, but have they ever listened?

by Marie Solis
Jun 27 2018, 5:15pm

Photos by Cathy Murphy/Getty Images and The Visibility Project/Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s get this out of the way — “civility” is an invention of the white, cis, male heteropatriarchy to keep marginalized people quiet. It’s a clever way to persuade people that it’s easier to consent to their own oppression, rather than fight it. And it’s total bullshit.

Conveniently, instead of having to account for the precise circumstances surrounding the draconian practice of separating families at the border to the American people, this week, Trump administration officials found an easy out of the conversation by raising the supposed problem of “civility.” No, not the absence of “civility” inherent in keeping children in cages, but the lack thereof when, recently, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant.

The idea that neither Sanders nor Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — who was driven out of a Mexican restaurant by Democratic Socialists of America protesters last week along with White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller — have been able to “eat in peace” as of late is deeply troubling to many of those on both the right and left, the latter of which seem to think Democrats have stooped to Trumpian levels of rudeness.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested much the same when she chastised Representative Maxine Waters for encouraging her supporters to confront Trump officials in public. "Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable," Pelosi wrote in a Monday tweet. "As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea."

The thing is, you can ask nicely for the people who are oppressing you to please stop — but when have they ever listened? Flouting “civility” has been essential to almost every major social movement, and particularly so for the activists who sparked them.

Here are just a few:

Claudette Colvin

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old black girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person, months before Parks would do the same. At the time, Colvin had been attending a segregated school, where she'd recently learned about black women abolitionists. She said she channeled their power when, one afternoon after school in March 1955, she and her friends boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

When the bus filled up, the bus driver asked Colvin and her friends to give up their seats for white passengers. But when it was her turn to give her seat to a young white woman, Colvin refused.

"Whenever people ask me: 'Why didn't you get up when the bus driver asked you?' I say it felt as though Harriet Tubman's hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth's hands were pushing me down on the other shoulder," she said. "I wasn't frightened but disappointed and angry because I knew I was sitting in the right seat."

She became the first person to get arrested for defying her city's bus segregation rules.

The Visibility Project/Wikimedia Commons

Sylvia Rivera

If any one person can be credited with launching the movement for gay liberation, it's Sylvia Rivera, the Latina transgender activist known for reportedly throwing one of the first bottles at the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

After the riots, which were triggered when New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn for serving alcohol without the right licensing, Rivera went on to join the Gay Activists Alliance and advocate for legislation to protect the rights of gay New York City residents. When she wasn't allowed in a closed-door meeting where city lawmakers were discussing the bill, Rivera climbed the walls of City Hall instead.

“We didn’t take no shit from nobody,” Rivera has said. “We had nothing to lose.”

Gotty/Wikimedia Commons

Dolores Huerta

In the 1960s, Dolores Huerta fought alongside civil rights icon Cesar Chavez to unionize farmworkers, who were toiling under the California sun earning unlivable wages in unworkable conditions. Huerta rallied farmworkers with her mantra "si se puede" — later translated for President Barack Obama's campaign as "yes we can" — and led labor strikes on a picket line where she and other farmworkers faced threats of violence and police beatings.

Huerta spoke out against the sexism she faced as a female labor organizer, being that she had been considered by some to be nothing more than Chavez's "sidekick." She'd teased Chavez about the remarks, once writing to him in a letter: "Being a now (ahem) experienced lobbyist, I am able to speak on a man-to-man basis with other lobbyists.” But she took female leadership seriously, and, as a feminist organizer, helped elect a record number of women to Congress in 1992, known as the "Year of the Woman."

Eric Guo/Wikimedia Commons

Emma Goldman

There's nothing more disruptive, more antithetical to civility politics, than anarchy. Emma Goldman was a Jewish political anarchist who, in the 19th and 20th centuries, advocated for the overhaul of the current social order for an entirely new one, underpinned by equality and social justice.

She was especially well known for her radical views on women's sexual liberation, serving as mentor to Margaret Sanger, who went on to open the country's first birth control clinic. During her time as a birth control activist, Goldman was arrested at least twice for violating the Comstock Law, which included a ban on birth control and any literature about contraceptives.

Goldman ended up commandeering one of the trials for her misdeeds, and turning it into a forum for birth control.

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Anna Mae Aquash

First Nations activist Anna Mae Aquash upended public government officials' lives in a major way in 1972, when she took over the Department of Indian Affairs alongside other members of the American Indian Movement, an organization inspired by the Black Panthers and of which she was a leader.

The occupation had been the result of the Trail of Broken Treaties, a caravan of Native Americans that set off for Washington D.C. to advocate for a slate of demands, including a request that the government return federal land to Native tribes. According to a New York Times story in the years following the takeover — drawing on Native American writer Vine Deloria Jr.'s reports, which he published in 1974 — the "unfriendly actions of overzealous, guards led to the Indian seizure of the B.I.A. building, and harassment and fear of a violent confrontation with police caused much of the property destruction that followed."

“We’re the landlord of this country,” AIM's members reminded US officials in one of their mantras, according to another New York Times story on Aquash's 1976 murder, suspected to have been perpetrated by the FBI. “And the rent is due.”

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