Monthly Archives: September 2012

On Mona Eltahawy, Protest, and Breaking the Law

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” – Henry David Thoreau

Oh, my friends saying that Mona Eltahawy doesn’t understand the First Amendment and American protest, you’re right. But, thus far, neither do you. The issue is that Eltahawy was committing criminal mischief during her speech act, with the presumption this negates what she did as non-violent protest and speech act. But crime has always been part of protest in America, since before it was these United States. And of course Eltahawy didn’t violate anyone else’s free speech. The reason she will be charged with vandalism and not violating the First Amendment is that only the State can violate the First Amendment.

An act can be non-violent protest and speech while committing a crime, and civil disobedience requires that you commit a crime — that’s what makes it disobedient. When people sat in at counters, blocked bridges, sat in the front of the bus, defied Jim Crow, burned draft cards, blocked mines and factories owned by other people, got escaped slaves to Canada, threw tea in the harbor, sat down on a cop car in Berkeley, DDOSed Polish gov websites, and put up tents in defiance of the courts, they were breaking the law. They set out to break the law. Their bodies were their critique of society, sometimes of the law, sometimes of the prevailing morals. When Mona Eltahawy sprayed that poster she was offering her body as a critique of racism, though the video suggests she didn’t understand she was doing that. When you chain yourself to tree, block an abortion clinic, or refuse to leave the Oakland street after a dispersal order, you expect to confront the legal system. That’s part of the deal — a rich American tradition of getting your ass arrested and punished for standing up for what you believe. Equal application of the law means Eltahawy had to get arrested, but there is no reason she shouldn’t call for everyone to spend a night in jail for defacing a racist poster. Speech even protects those who say you shouldn’t pay taxes, that women should be raped, and that you should go ahead and play Blackjack in Utah if you want to.

That Eltahawy believed her protest meant she shouldn’t be arrested is a misunderstanding of vandalism, not free speech. To get arrested protesting racism, it’s a powerful protest. That she played it up — also the point of going so far as to get arrested. If you are going to go to that length for what you believe in, it’s pretty ridiculous to do it as quietly and shyly as possible.

Even American cops are in on the game. During various Occupy actions this year and last, there were many times police would announce moving into the arrest phase of clearing or breaking up an action, and let the protestors choosing to be arrested prepare themselves, chat with friends, pass along phone numbers and personal items, and then get respectfully arrested as a declared act of civil disobedience. It’s a normal part of American civil life.

Without law breaking, law doesn’t progress. Law needs to be broken to adapt to changing times. The best things in the American legal system are the things that change and grow, and they do this by being pushed hard. Does this mean we should restrict free speech? I’d say no, but obviously there’s a conversation to be had here, and Eltahawy points out with her body, as do the Muslim protestors around the world with their bodies, that we who believe in free speech need to explain it better. The other side of Eltahawy’s action, that we should go to jail to oppose racism — I might very well be ok with that. I don’t think if we’re caught we shouldn’t get arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes. I think the law should continue to allow shitty ass losers to put up racist pieces of shit, like they did in New York, and on bus ads in San Francisco. And I think they should all be defaced in minutes. Those who do the defacing should make careful choices between getting arrested and not getting caught. But I’m proud of the San Franciscans that quietly fucked over the same ads on Muni buses and didn’t get caught, and I’ll be proud of Eltahawy when she sees getting arrested and not only a valid part of her protest, but the most valid part. “This is what happens in America when you non-violently protest,” said Eltahawy — and that’s an awesome part of protest.

Since when are Americans the type that believe law dictates what’s right? We are a people born and raised dictating to law, even when we have to put our bodies, freedom, and safety on the line to do so. We are people who put our bodies on the line to tell people they have to stop being shitty. I like that about us, and my friends do too, even if they’re not seeing it in Eltahawy’s case. That she didn’t say the right thing doesn’t mean she didn’t do the right thing, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Update: Eltahawy responded on Twitter to this piece, saying: “Quinn I’m proud I was arrested. I very much see what I did as non-violent civil disobedience. I’ve said that on all media I do.”


For many years when I walked into a room I instantly counted the women. It told me a lot about what to expect from that room. One day, having lost my best friend over racial politics out of my control, I began to count people of color. That too was for safety, for understanding how my views would be taken. That too told me a lot I needed to know about the room. But it also hinted to me about a whole realm of experience I wasn’t having.

The neighborhood where I grew up in LA gentrified unbelievably hard through my childhood. The odd Mormon Filipino family whose son was my BFF for a while eventually sold the shack they lived in, which was badly enough constructed that despite Legrande’s father’s efforts to patch his walls, you could still hear the ocean wind from inside his room. When they moved it was torn down, and the garden (like most of them would be) was filled in with expensive house, in the Socal Hollywood style of all stucco and reaching up past your neighbors for views. The houses got torn down one by one. The neighbor to the right, across the street, eventually my best friend’s, and all replaced with opulent houses. But opulent not so much to be seen as to keep the residents from prying eye — the way you signaled you were important in Los Angeles. As this happened across my neighborhood I stopped knowing my neighbors. The class divide had moved next door. Still, children don’t get this, and when they escaped from grown-up eyes they flocked together. I made a few friends at moments. Going back to their houses, I first heard the phrase “We don’t discuss money.” My mom discussed money, my dad, far away in northern California hardly discussed anything else.

How could you not discuss money? It was like a family that announce they didn’t allow the mention of food. Or hope. It was exactly like a family that didn’t mention food or hope.

I visited Oklahoma one as a teenager to see my paternal grandparents. They lived outside Tulsa in a place you could mistake for rural with a bad littering problem if you’ve never seen desperate poverty, American style. Out there the poor whites told me “We’re colorblind. We don’t even see color.” But there were no people of color to be seen in the area. The closest lived on the Res, and I learned many years later that when my father was a child, he was one of the only whites that snuck across to visit the kids at the BIA schools. He never told me what he saw there, but when I was young he would get very drunk sometimes at night and tell me we should all get back on the fucking boats and go back to Europe. I didn’t know what Europe was.

For a time I decided I couldn’t see color. But then I couldn’t see what happened to people of color. To not see their color, I realized, was to not see its absence, and its absence was everywhere I wanted to be, in every room I aspired to get into. I had made their pain and struggle invisible to me. I argued that this position was not racist, but anti-race altogether. And besides, many of my best friends hadn’t been white. How could I be racist?

In 2010 I went to a prestigious invite only conference in the tech world. I was, at this point, widely welcome in those rooms I’d dreamed of going in. I counted. My heart soared — it really felt like we’d turned a corner. It wasn’t just that there were more women. There were, but also they were talking. It was like pushing on a giant stone for all my life, then one day feeling it finally shift underneath my fingers.

On Saturday night I was sexually assaulted. Specifically, I was groped. I hit my aggressor in the chin and knocked him back. Despite having probably 100lbs on me, he stumbled drunkenly and barely kept his footing. “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose,” I told him. He laughed lightly, still finding his feet, and said “I like this one!” I looked at him, to catch his eye, and replied calmly, matter-of-factly “No. If you touch me again, I will break your nose.” He laughed again, but wandered away from me, looking to grope easier prey.

This is how I’d felt all my life, like my job was to not be easy prey. But this was a professional field, not the fucking Serengeti. I walked a little later with the conference organizer, a woman older then me, and of much stature in tech. I told her I was so happy to finally see women in my field. “But,” I said, “I think these incidents will be more common for a while. These guys don’t know how to behave around women.” To myself, I added bitterly, or other human beings at all.

In part, the tech community had allowed in women, but in part it had also only failed to keep them out.

It was always the ones that said they didn’t see gender or color who did the most damage. “They’re just words,” they would say, “Why do you let them hurt you?” And with that, my pain was made as invisible as me. “They’re just words.” Indeed, just the verbal incantations of power, like law and code and everything else that made the world. I decided to leave tech for words.

But now I’m all shouty. Now people are angry at me because I have a stage, and they can’t make me invisible and ignore me, because the truth is you can’t ignore words, and I have the words. So now they really hate me. The others, the majority, sit uncomfortably with the conflict. No one is quite sure what to do, they want things to be abstractly better, but they don’t want anyone to be loudly upset, either. One side is considerably louder than all the others.

This is what I ask: when you walk into a room, count. Count the women. Count the people of color. Count by race. Look for who isn’t there. Look for class signs: the crooked teeth of childhoods without braces, worn-out shoes, someone else who is counting. Look for the queers, the older people, the overweight. Note them, see them, see yourself looking, see yourself reacting.

This is how we begin.