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Review of today's civil disobedience at Bechtel

by David Gross (dave [at]
Today's civil disobedience actions at Bechtel were flawed and not very effective, but we can learn from this for better actions in the future.

Today was the protest at Bechtel headquarters in downtown San Francisco. I reported yesterday about the planning meeting for those people who were organizing civil disobedience at the event, and today I’ll give a report of how things went.

It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in downtown San Francisco. The main body of the protest had a few hundred people, demographically white tending to grey (the Grey Panthers and Raging Grannies were perhaps the largest organized contingents). They gathered in “S.D. Bechtel Plaza,” a semi-public courtyard nestled between skyscraper office buildings.

Speakers recited a litany of complaints about Bechtel, which from the sounds of it seems to have been there collecting and handing out checks at just about all of the great government misdeeds of the last century or so. There were musicians. Keiji Tsuchiya spoke about his experience as a Hiroshima survivor. People sang and chanted. Someone wrote slogans on the ground in chalk, and a Mercedes logo in place of a peace sign. People waved United Nations flags and signs with slogans like “Support Indigenous Rights” and “Mad Cowboy Disease.” There was a big papier-mâché Gandhi holding a sign that read “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Frank Chu was there, of course.

The front and back entrances to 50 Beale Street, where Bechtel’s headquarters is located, were blocked off by short metal fences which were guarded by security guards and San Francisco police, who were letting people in if they had appropriate pass cards. There are additional entrances to the building, or so I was told, from a parking garage beneath the building and from 45 Fremont Street, which shares the same block.

Late into the morning, a group of about 25-30 of the protesters met off to the side to plan their civil disobedience action, with a few police officers milling about and sometimes eavesdropping. Some of what the participants did in this meeting was the countdown-to-launch checklist: does everyone have a buddy and an affinity group? has everyone checked in with one of the legal observers? is everyone okay with the nonviolent action guidelines?

But some topics seemed to me to be things that should have been settled well ahead of time. The group paused to consider whether or not they should have demands. Most thought they should, and the one dissenter was willing to go along with it. They settled on a demand to speak to the C.E.O. of Bechtel. But as far as I could tell, they never reached consensus on what they would speak to him about if their demand were met, and they made no attempt to, say, call up and make an appointment with him or send him a letter (or even determine if he was in the building). The demand seemed to have been chosen as an afterthought, and with the expectation that it would not be met.

It would have been hard for the participants to give this aspect of their action the attention it deserved. Traffic noise made discussion difficult, and it really was a last-minute sort of meeting. But this impresses on me the importance of planning and deliberation in such civil disobedience actions. If you’re going to make a demand, it should be one that could conceivably be met, you should have a plan for what happens if it is met, and you should ask politely for the demand to be met before just launching into civil disobedience. If instead you’re just using civil disobedience as a weapon of disruption, go ahead, but then don’t feel like you have to confuse matters by coming up with a token demand.

Last-minute demands aside (and I don’t know if the protesters ever actually presented their demand to anyone), the real purpose of the civil disobedience action was “to shut down Bechtel” — which is to say, more honestly, to temporarily inconvenience the people working at its corporate headquarters.

Of course there are always a number of unstated goals of civil disobedience actions like this one as well — to radicalize participants and onlookers, to impress people with the depth of the protesters’ commitment, to feel like you’re doing something important and risky that is a threat to The System, to give the media something to use as a hook for their coverage as a way of encouraging them to cover the protest.

To these various ends, the participants split up into a handful of groups — the largest blockading the barriers around the front doors of the building, a smaller group trying to secure half of the back-door barriers, and another small group blockading the entrance to the parking garage.

The main body of the protest began to circle the block, following a contingent of drummers and shouting chants like “Bechtel! Bechtel! Hey Hey! How many kids did you kill today?” and “Bechtel: War Profiteer — shut it down!”

One man handed me a flier from the 9-11 Truth Alliance advertising a lecture about The Report from Iron Mountain. I’m a connoisseur of hoaxes, and I’ve seen this clever old modest proposal trotted out by conspiracy theorists in the right-wing patriot movement and by Islamic revolutionaries. This is the first time I’ve seen it at a leftie rally, although the hoax originated on the peacenik left. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

The blockading began around noon, but the police seemed to be in no hurry to make arrests, and in fact the blockade was fairly porous. At times, employees simply pushed through the passively-resisting blockaders at the front of the building, or just jumped over the barricades. And the number of protesters blocking the back entrance was never really sufficient to actually prevent people from coming and going, so they were reduced to lying down on the paths and making employees step over them.

Many employees adopted strangely sheep-like behavior, though. They’d see one entrance blocked and then just give up and start standing around and complaining, or getting on their cell phones to explain to someone or other. I walked back and forth between the various entrances and at all times (except for about 15-20 minutes which I’ll get to later) there were employees coming and going — and for the most part, you could see this from either side of the building through its mostly transparent ground floor. I suspect many of the employees were just using the excuse to extend their lunch hours.

Some people were angry about being blocked. One man in particular, a short, overweight, balding fellow in a tight, harshly-colored striped polo shirt, was a heart attack waiting for a good time to happen. He shoved through the barriers and the protesters trying to blockade them, yelling all the while, then tore at protest signs as he stomped down the street, only to stop and yell at the security guards and police for allowing this insult to his day to take place.

Another woman complained that she didn’t even work for Bechtel, but for some UCSF project trying to find a way to alleviate osteoporosis. And in fact 50 Beale Street is home to not just Bechtel’s headquarters, but also other tenants, some quite benign, like the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. The protesting crowd wasn’t very sympathetic to her complaints, and while she was pleading the case of the osteoporosis sufferers, she was shouted down angrily by someone who accused her, without any evidence, of being complicit in Bechtel’s worst crimes.

Most of the police were just milling about, calmly, occasionally speaking into the radios clipped to their chests, but one cop at the back door is playing off the big, loud, no-nonsense, black woman stereotype for effect. “This is not your day!” she shouts, and tells the blockaders to move this way or that. “I’m in a bad mood today; you do not want to be on my bad side.” The police at the back door are for the most part very successful at keeping a path open for people to enter and leave the building. However, their focus necessarily shifts back and forth between two goals: Keeping the paths open so employees can come-and-go, and keeping the paths restricted so that only employees can get in.

Eventually they slip up. They manage to corral the blockaders enough to open up a path, but it’s too much path for the people who are checking identification, and someone else slips through.

It’s Lacy MacAuley. She’s the one whom I mentioned yesterday as having said that two people shut down Bechtel for 45 minutes one day just by showing up and asking to speak to the boss (I may have misheard her; she’s reported elsewhere that it was more like eight people). Now she’s in the lobby, and the cops notice their screw-up, and 50 Beale Street really shuts down.

Standard procedure, apparently. Until the protester can be hog-tied and hauled off, nobody goes in or out. What the blockaders were initially unable to successfully accomplish, the building’s own security does.

As far as I can tell, she is an espontáneo — she saw an opening and took the initiative, without this being an agreed-upon part of the civil disobedience action, although she was one of the original participants. It is bold and successful in a way that the regular blockade is not. For 15-20 minutes the doors are locked, while the police call in reinforcements to haul off MacAuley, who has gone limp by the elevators.

As she is loaded into the police van, a bullhorn from the crowd leads a call-and-response chant of “Tell me what a police state looks like” — “This is what a police state looks like!” We should be so lucky as to get a police state that looks this way. By 2:30 or so, as the protest is winding down, Lacy has been the only arrest.

In the aftermath, my impression is that the civil disobedience part of the action was not very successful in its major and more important goals. It was largely unsuccessful in making more than a token inconvenience to the working day at Bechtel, certainly in proportion to the number of protesters and prepared disobedients involved. And it did so at the cost of collateral damage to non-Bechtel employees in the area, some of whom were not just inconvenienced but were treated with inappropriate disrespect.

As Lacy MacAuley showed, the 50 Beale Street standard procedure for dealing with lone protesters inside is far more effective in blockading the building than is the efforts of dozens of blockaders outside. People who want to blockade the building would be better off just showing up in the lobby some day and pulling a banner out of their briefcase than they would be by coordinating their actions with a big protest and linking arms outside.

A handful of people, entering the building on the pretense of having business at the UCSF or Blue Shield offices, and then entering the lobby one after the other as each one in turn gets arrested or thrown out, would shut down the building far more effectively than was done today.

by protestor
Dave, you don't have to be so critical abouit the C.D. today. I think that the people who did C. D. and got arrested were pretty brave. It always takes alot to do put yourself and body on the line to stop such madness like Bechtel and the hell they bring to the Earth. These people did a great job today even if they weren't "effective" . What ever the hell that means. It is really hard to shut down the whole HQ of Bechtel for the day, and besides even if that was done, there is still going to be Nuclear weapons on this earth. You didn't have to start out the published piece by saying how ineffective the proest was. Also, you don't have to make comments on the racial demographics of the protestors either. Those sort of comments bring division and opression to our movement. Please be more sensitive when making commnents on people trying to make a change in the world. It makes you sound like some kind of pig, infiltraitor, disrupter.
by me
What the hell you talking about a big black woman stereotype. Don't come to protests asshole, your part of the problem.
by protest participant
Bringing the Bechtel Corp. to a complete halt wasn't necessarily accomplished by our group as a whole, but we slowed many of the departments down for a fair amount of time. And I can't imagine that any of the affected departments were back up to quality productivity for probably the rest of the day.
I too learned a lot from this event. I was all around the grounds today. I was verbally lashing at many of the Bechtel employees as they exited for their lunch breaks, " You'll be okay to go and eat lunch now, knowing that the weapons your company makes are making it so children are going without lunch. Well, I hope you enjoy your sandwich." among other guilt riden dialogue. And I was at the back door when the thirty or so employees of the building stood nervously outside waiting for all the extra police to show up, so they could safely deal with the dangerous, lone, limp woman whom had bravely entered the building. I had words for these folks as well," How do you sleep at night knowing that the company you work at makes weapons that kill children? Do you feel like your kids are somehow worth more than others?", and chants like "No more children dying," and "no more nuclear weapons"
I learned that these words really did bother them. I was given direct eye contact several times during this period, and these words really bothered some of them.
And for those who were wrongly harrassed for just working in the same building I say, why do you think the rent is so good there? No really, I mean come on. You work in the Bechtel building. You gotta expect shit every now and then for that. It goes with the territory.
All in all I say,"Viva le risistanc'e!"
by Lacy MacAuley


I was one of the organizers of the event and a participant in the act of civil disobedience. I slipped into the building lobby at the back entrance of 50 Beale St. I respect David's varied viewpoints and am thankful for every single person in our movement. However I'd like to say that David's view is unique and that most people who were present that day viewed the event as successful.

The goal of the whole event was to raise awareness that Bechtel is engaged in war profiteering and profits from nuclear facilities management, and the goal of the act of civil disobedience was to "Shut Down Bechtel." We succeeded in both goals. Bechtel's misdeeds include maintaining a revolving door into the federal government. Bechtel executives help to shape horrendous public and foreign policy from their high-level government positions, then reap the benefits once they're back at Bechtel.

The following are factual corrections to David's essay:

1) Actually, there were seven arrests, not one. The other six arrests took place before mine at the back entrance to 45 Fremont, Bechtel's other building. I was sent to the processing facility on Bryant Street along with the other six people, and we became friends.
2) The blockade of 50 Beale St and the parking garage entrance are not the only places there were a blockade. There were also individuals at the front and back of 45 Fremont (just across the courtyard).
3) The goal of the act of civil disobedience was to "Shut Down Bechtel." Though we did have a brief discussion about having the demand of speaking to CEO Riley Bechtel, we decided that since we were not prepared for that we would simply try to shut Bechtel down for as long as we could. David may not have been following the discussion closely enough or was having trouble hearing the discussion due to stated traffic.
4) David misrepresents how I got into the building. It's not that the police opened up a pathway that was too wide. They had all turned their backs and no one actually noticed that a protester had slipped in until I started clapping, chanting, and speaking about Bechtel in the lobby. I was at the back of 50 Beale St.
5) The littany of complaints is far more than Bechtel's "collecting and handing out checks." The many speakers discussed many things that Bechtel has done and if you want to learn more I suggest visiting and looking up Bechtel. David was perhaps not following the speakers or was distracted as the speakers were outlining our complaints.

I value critical thought of all types, but I think it hurts our movement when it is done in this manner. Nevertheless I felt the need to correct David's many factual errors.

David, if you would like to discuss this with me on a personal basis, please e-mail me at Butterfly [at] Thank you.
by David Gross
Thanks for the corrections. I completely missed the arrests on the street-side of the 45 Fremont building - there were no blockaders there any of the times I passed those doors.

As far as I could see, though, it is incorrect to say that 45 Fremont was effectively blockaded. While there were protesters holding signs and banners at the plaza-side entrance during much of the afternoon, every time I saw this there were people entering and exiting the building unimpeded.

Also, if the goal of the CD was to "shut down Bechtel" then that goal was clearly not met. Bechtel was not shut down, not even close. Even its S.F. corporate headquarters was not shut down. The best you can say is that for about 15-20 minutes, employees could not enter or leave the building, and for a few hours, employees who entered or left the building were inconvenienced by extra security and the presence of protesters. That's not a shut down. A shut down would mean Bechtel was prevented from doing business, the offices empty or in chaos, something like that. Calling this action a "shut down" of Bechtel is inaccurate hyperbole.

I agree that I glossed over the complaints about Bechtel, and perhaps I did this in a too-flippant manner, but I assumed that most of the people reading this article would already be familiar with the broad outlines of these complaints or could research them on their own.

I offer these critiques in the spirit of hoping that we can learn from our experiences and create a more effective movement against militarism.
by Gene Sharp

Some attempts to apply nonviolent struggle have been much more successful than others...

Success should not be left to chance. Resisters can take deliberate steps to increase the likelihood of achieving their objectives. One of the most important factors in that effort is the use of available resources and actions in ways that increase their effectiveness in the conflict. This requires strategic planning.

Unfortunately, such planning in nonviolent struggles has seldom been given the attention it deserves. Only rarely do people facing the prospect of such conflicts fully recognize the extreme importance of preparing a comprehensive plan before they act.

Some people naïvely think that if they simply assert their goal strongly and firmly, for a long enough period, they will somehow achieve their goal. Others assume that if they remain true to their principles and ideals, and witness to them in the face of adversity, then they are doing all they can to achieve their objectives. Some believe that if they act courageously and sacrificially, there is nothing more that they need to do. Still others simply repeat the type of action they have used in the past, or which they believe is required by their political doctrine, and have faith that they will eventually succeed.

Assertion of desirable goals, remaining loyal to ideals, and persistence are all admirable, but are in themselves grossly inadequate to achieve significant goals. Mere repetition of actions that have failed in the past often makes success unachievable...

...Sometimes, too, people do not even attempt to develop a plan to achieve their goal, because deep down they do not really believe that they can succeed. These people — despite the impression they may offer — see themselves as weak, as helpless victims of overpowering forces. Therefore, they believe, the best they can do is to assert and witness, or even just die, in the faith that they are right. Consequently, they do not even attempt to think and to plan strategically about how to accomplish their objective.

This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you do not believe you will succeed, and therefore do not take deliberate steps to increase your chances of doing so, you usually will fail.

— Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, pp. 440-1
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