In this video, a satirical comedy group from Australia called the Chasers, confronts torture lawyer John Yoo during one of his recent classes at Berkeley. With a black hood over his head, the unidentified man stands on his chair, outstreches his arms and asks the professor, “How long can I be required to stand here ’til it counts as torture?”
Rather than respond, Yoo simply apologizes for having to end class. As he grabs his stuff and prepares to leave, the Chaser says, “If this is awkward for you, it’s very uncomfortable for me. I can tell you.”
The laughs that follow seem to be from a laugh track or from their TV show‘s audience rather than the students in the class, but I’m not entirely sure. One student can definitely be heard asking the protester to please leave. Pretty sad.
Before Yoo – one of the authors of the Bush administration’s torture policy – makes it through the door, the Chaser gets in one last barb. “I’d love to move, but every time I do my balls get buzzed.” The students then clap, and at the last moment, Yoo is saved by a woman (probably from the administration) who comes through the door to remove the hooded man.
Again it’s hard to tell whether the students are approving of the protest that was about to cut their expensive class short or somehow supporting their teacher. Unfortunately, my guess is that most of those who paid big money to learn from Yoo are not particularly disturbed by his disturbing history.
As a side note, I’m often turned off when I see protesters confront those in power – or more often former officials – face-to-face, because of how nasty it can get. (This video of Code Pink’s Desiree Fairooz and Medea Benjamin yelling “war criminal” in Donald Rumsfeld’s face at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a couple months ago is the perfect example. It almost made me feel bad for Rummy, which is not the sign of a constructive protest.) But I think the fact that the Chaser remained calm and challenged Yoo somewhat comedically makes this particular interaction more enjoyable.
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Eric: Really enjoyed your thoughts on this. I wonder if you might elaborate on why you think this kind of confrontation might be counter productive as a nonviolent protest. I agree that it might get nasty and people can get turned off, but is that enough to justify not doing it? What sorts of emotional reponses should nonviolent protest hope to elicit?
Thanks for writing Joseph. Doing something that turns people off does not necessarily mean don’t do it. The sit-ins during the civil rights movement turned a lot of whites off, but they were right to do what they did. Their demeanor, however, was entirely different from what is common today. I generally find myself in agreement with the principled approach to nonviolence that was practiced by Gandhi and King, which was based at its root on love and extending a hand to your opponent. In the long run, we are not going to create a more peaceful world by being hateful, even of people whose action/s we find deplorable. I think at least attempting to start a dialogue is key.
In general, I think protests should be inviting to those who might come into contact with them but not be already on board politically with the message. Unless you are already part of the anti-war crowd, screaming “war criminal” in anyone’s face is going to drive more people away from the cause than it’s going to bring into the fold. I think remaining calm, making sure our arguments are sound and that we can back them up, and being passionate or compassionate as we make our case during protests is the better path. Using humor and creativity, like the Yoo protest, are also methods that have a greater likelihood of attracting new folks to activism.
On another note, while I generally like the Yoo vid, I think publicly shaming ex-officials is not a great approach strategically for the peace movement, because they are already out of power. It’d be better in my opinion to target the officials that currently have the power to end the wars and torture. What are your thoughts?
Eric: I tend to agree with you overall. I think there is something powerful in the Gandhian ideal that we must approach nonviolent demonstration with a sense of love and respect for those “in the opposition”. At the same time, I recognize that there is an element to some nonviolent protest that pushes that conception to some limits. You mention the lunch counter sit-ins, which I think are a good example. These are disruptive and can create a lot of anger. King did say that nonviolent work should strive to create a “crisis” in the community so great that injustice could no longer be tolerated. The question is how far can we go to create a nonviolent crisis? Some in the labor movement and some in the environmental justice movement say this can include acts of sabotage or property damage. Should nonviolent activists tolerate or include such acts in their tool kit? (In some sense, the Chasers engaged in an act of sabotage on John Woo’s lecture, no?)
Eric, thanks for the video and your thoughts. I agree with you completely. I cannot even hear the name “Code Pink” now without reacting negatively, and I was and continue to be completely against the war. In my mind, at some point they crossed the line from being for peace, which is positive, to being merely hating the people who are responsible for the war. They went from being motivated by love to being motivated by hate.
Hatred of that which one sees as “evil” is still hatred, and adds to the amount of hatred that exists. Moreover, that is simply the mirror image of what Rumsfeld and his friends are doing.
In contrast, while disruption of a classroom constitutes civil disobedience, their message remained focused on the point, the ugliness of torture, and did not descend into mere hatred of Yoo. That they were funny while doing it was gravy.