My First Civil Disobedience
by Michele Dunne, OFS
Michele joined Pace e Bene on our recent Peace and Nonviolence Pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy. Below she shares her first experience of getting arrested during the Catholic Day of Action in Washington, DC last week. Originally posted on the Franciscan Action Network
“Who will speak if we don’t?”–we sang the Marty Haugen song repeatedly during the press conference portion of the Catholic Day of Action to protest detention of immigrant children in Washington DC July 18, in between inspiring talks by Catholic sisters, priests, FAN Executive Director Patrick Carolan, and Claribel Guzman from El Salvador, who is facing deportation. After the outdoor rally, we headed into the Senate Russell Office Building rotunda for a civil disobedience action—my first ever.
While I have participated in a number of large marches over the past few years, I never really considered showing up for smaller protests that carried the real possibility of arrest until recently. After all, I work full time for a non-profit peace-oriented organization already… and I would have to take time off to protest…and my employer might not like me getting arrested…and my husband might disapprove…and my young adult children might be scandalized, and…well, there were plenty of excuses.
At the same time, staying within my comfort zone was becoming untenable. My work on the Middle East still seemed important but insufficient; what was I doing about peace, human rights, and social justice right here in the United States? Yes, I prayed, voted, supported organizations such as FAN doing good work, and kept informed about the issues, but I increasingly felt I should do something more—especially as a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order since 2016. Our Rule is bracing on this point: “Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives. Especially in the field of public life, they should make definite choices in harmony with their faith.”
Then in the summer of 2018, an invitation arrived. An email from FAN announced an upcoming pilgrimage to Assisi from an organization called Pace e Bene, with the express aim of connecting Franciscan values and spirituality to a life of nonviolence.
The trip in June 2019 was like a week in heaven: visits to the major sites in the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, daily mass with invigorating homilies by Rev. John Dear, lectures by Ken Butigan bringing out the revolutionary social and peacemaking initiatives of the two saints, deep conversations with fellow pilgrims who had varied experiences in spirituality and activism—and all while surrounded by the matchless beauty of the medieval city of Assisi and Umbrian countryside. I came away feeling encouraged and inspired, accompanied on the journey by new friends.
So when Patrick Carolan invited me, just a few days after my return from Assisi, to the July 18 protest, I suspected the time for action had come. Still, I was nervous. Would a protest against detention of immigrant children really do any good? Would I be glad or sorry at the end of the day that I participated? I prayed for guidance over several days.
After participating in a webinar for potential participants, some of my fears were allayed. The protest seemed well planned, and the organizers presented a clear theory of change: we would do the civil disobedience to show that some Catholics were willing to take risks to speak out for immigrant children—and hopefully to inspire more Catholics to speak up as well. The organizers were clear about what would happen at the protest, what the risks were for those who would be arrested, and what the police processing would involve. They told us to bring photo ID, $50 to pay the likely misdemeanor fine, a Metro card to get home—and not much else.
Organizers and protesters gathered early on July 18 at a church near the Capitol to meet in person and go over the details. Asked for a show of hands, a large number said we were doing civil disobedience for the first time.
After the press conference on the lawn, we headed into the Russell building and found the rotunda. We donned signs with photos of children who had died in detention and formed a large circle, with several participants lying down to form a cross in the center. After a blessing by a priest, we chanted a few slogans and started praying a rosary—and almost immediately the police interrupted with a warning to disperse. By the third warning, those who were not willing to be arrested had left. When I saw Sister Marie Lucey of FAN being led off in handcuffs, I knew it was getting real. The police were as courteous as they could have been, with many looking uncomfortable arresting nuns in veils, priests in Roman collars, Franciscan friars in brown robes, and lay people praying the Hail Mary.
Nothing quite prepared me for the disempowered feeling of having my wrists zip tied behind my back. There followed several hours of police processing: transport to a police station, pat-downs, belongings put into plastic bags, sitting on folding chairs in a large, semi-open room that was very warm but made tolerable with fans and bottled water. My fellow detainees did not complain, but provided cheerful encouragement and interesting conversation—particularly the large contingent of Sisters of Mercy. As each detainee finished the paperwork, paid the fine, and was released, the remaining cheered and applauded, while even the police officers grinned at our good cheer. Outside the station, protest organizers were waiting to offer water, snacks, rides, and thanks. I rode the Metro home with one of the other 70 people arrested, and we were surprised to discover that we were fellow parishioners.
I arrived home, where my husband promptly ordered my favorite pizza and listened to the story of the day. While I had feared he would disapprove of my participating in civil disobedience, he told me he respected what I had done.
As I relaxed in the evening, I recalled that during my Assisi pilgrimage I had asked Pace e Bene training coordinator Veronica Pelicaric how I could discern whether to undertake greater activism. She quoted to me civil rights leader Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.”
Although the Catholic Day of Action left me perspired, exhausted, and hungry, did it make me come alive? Yes indeed, I think it did. After all, whether on detention of children or any other important issue of peace and justice, who will speak if I don’t?