Jeff Sheng

On Civil Disobedience

Filed By Jeff Sheng | March 31, 2009 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: civil disobedience, Jeff Sheng, LGBT rights,, photography, police, Prop 8, protest


For my photoblog post this week, I am presenting a diptych of two images that I shot on November 6 and 8, 2008, from two of the handful of Los Angeles Prop 8 protests I participated in right after the November 2008 election.

Since that election, particularly this past month during the recent California Supreme Court hearings about Prop 8, there has been a lot of talk in the LGBTQ community about civil disobedience. To be honest, when I first heard the call for civil disobedience, I feel embarrassed to admit that my Ivy League education completely failed me (which it actually often does) and I couldn't with much confidence give an accurate definition of civil disobedience.

After doing some research on the Internet and finally learning something that I should have adequately learned in high school, I decided to quiz my roommate. He could only name one of the components of civil disobedience: "non-violent and peaceful?"

I then asked my college students in my Asian American Queer Issues class at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the class of 40 students was likewise stumped. And when I said that civil disobedience involved, "Breaking a law in a non-violent and peaceful way," one of my students jokingly asked, "So is a group of us drinking in my room civil disobedience since we aren't 21 yet, we're gay and want equality?"

In all seriousness, I think that while we have all heard the term civil disobedience, many of us in the LGBTQ community probably do not have a complete grasp on the history, definition, and appropriate application of civil disobedience. For an oppressed group, especially in our current times, this ignorance is now unacceptable.

Key components of civil disobedience not only include peaceful, non-violent actions to educate the public about an unjust system of laws, but participants also break the law in their actions of civil disobedience. I believe it is this combination that seems to stump many of us when it comes down to really coming up with the most effective strategies to get our message heard. That is, what actions can we take that are both peaceful and non-violent, also break the law, and can spread our message of demanding equal rights?

And while many LGBTQ people I know would readily say that they would block a freeway or chain themselves to a marriage licensing counter, how many of us are truly prepared to do this safely and with the ability to legally protect ourselves from the aftermath of such actions (like a felony conviction)?

I created this photo diptych of the Prop 8 protests as my weekly photoblog image because it reminds me of the overwhelming police presence at many of the events I've been at recently. Luckily, I think in many of these cases, the police officers were more concerned about our protection than anything else. But what if instead of marching safely in West Los Angeles, we were on the 405 Freeway, or blocking a highly publicized media event like the Academy Awards? I don't think the police would be as friendly.

When looking at these photos, my mind thinks of those brave crusaders of past movements involving civil disobedience, protesters who had to fend off beatings, high-pressure water hoses, attack dogs, days of incarceration and ruined careers. I look at the scores of police in these two pictures and wonder, if they wanted to forcibly remove me, would I be able to stay my ground peacefully? What would I do if they started to handcuff me and physically hurt me because I was unwilling to move?

For everyone in the LGBTQ community, I encourage all of you to begin thinking about civil disobedience in a very serious way, and whether or not you personally are willing to engage in it to advance our cause - and I don't really think the fight right now is about marriage, but rather for equality and protection across the board with all laws in all 50 states - we should educate ourselves about what civil disobedience really is and how to effectively execute it.

Our community is very fortunate to have some incredibly passionate activists who have been working on educational and training materials, and one of the groups I've been learning a lot from, a collaboration including organizations such as Soulforce, One Struggle One Fight, and activist Cleve Jones, has put together the website so that we can better prepare ourselves for civil disobedience if that is truly where this movement is headed. I encourage all of you to be ready in case.

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beachcomberT | April 1, 2009 8:33 AM

There's a thin, gray line between demonstrations and civil disobedience. We need numerous, effective demonstrations that dog our political and religious leaders, demanding that they answer "when will you start working for GLBT equality?" Demonstrations are not civil disobedience per se. You are not breaking a law by exercising your right to free speech. However, there can be lots of situations where demonstrations are muzzled -- no parade permit, no bullhorns allowed, no proximity to VIPs, etc. . In that case, the demonstators have to decide whether to cross over the line and violate the regulations. Be pragmatic -- blocking traffic, overturning cars, invading churches, etc. is not going to win any support for GLBT people. But silent and not-so-silent vigils may do so.

35 cities Nationally have already committed to day of decision protests or celebrations, many of which will include civil disobedience.

Visit to find the list
of cities, and if yours is not one of the cities
on the list, you can volunteer to put it together.

This is not a general call. This is a planned
action, and has had a terrific response.
Robin Tyler, co founder

Excellent column and timely point of view.
While I doubt that any of us want to get arrested, I hope that we all recognize that some things are worth fighting for. 'Equality' is one personal right and civil liberty that all of us should be actively seeking, and if necessary, engage in civil actions and submit to custodial arrest if required.
This is such a timely matter today as so many people are actively seeking to deprive us of many rights - including equality, self-identity, and freedom. Far too many gay Americans have fought and died for our nation to meekly surrender now.
Though there are many among us want more but are unwilling to strive to achieve more.
A short while ago, while fighting for GLBT students in Chicago Public Schools, I was told by a closeted gay teacher that he didn't believe in that whole "social justice" thing anyway, and that rights will eventually evolve to better serve us. I find such a view so distressing on so many levels.
Behavior has consequences - and meekly surrendering our rights and liberties in the face of authoritarian extremism is a cowards submission to tyranny.

I wish I could be in California for the decision to see the celebration/demonstrations. Either one would be fascinating to be a part of.

interesting. I don't think a lot of people are willing to risk that much because they're rather detached from the agenda in the first place.