The power of noncompliance
In 2020, I watched the New Normal die right in front of me. Here's the story
Peaceful noncompliance may not seem like much. It doesn’t make revolutions, nor is it suitable for Hollywood-style epics about the struggle for freedom. But it is actually extraordinarily powerful as I’ll try to convey with this personal experience.
On 22 May 2020, after three months of lockdowns, some of the beaches in the South of France finally opened. After weeks of being restricted at home with two small boys, I took advantage and went down to the seashore. However, this was going to be a New Normal experience with lots of new rules and restrictions. I was so horrified with what I found there, I refused to participate in what seemed like a humiliating treatment, so I just set down a few towels on the grass, overlooking the New Normal beach scene.
Over the following four days I simply sat there and observed while my kids were running around and playing. Later, I wrote an article titled, “A day at the beach in the brave new world” on my blog, The Naked Hedgie. What I did not appreciate at that time was that I was in fact watching that New Normal arrangement disintegrate and die right in front of me, under the weight of people’s simple noncompliance.
The New Normal
New rules defined how to use the beach. These rules were clearly stated at the entrance to a restricted area: beach goers could enjoy a cca. 20 meter (60 ft) stretch of sand between 8 AM and 5 PM for the maximum duration of 1 hour. A map indicated which way to descend to the beach and which way to return.
People were to leave their belongings in a specially designated area and were not allowed to loiter, chit-chat or hang around on the beach after swimming.
Lovely metal fencing and police tape demarcated the authorized areas…
To make sure everyone complied with the rules, the police forces were present, all in bullet-proof vests and armed with pistols:
In all, the authorized bathing area was watched by 8 police officers plus two lifeguards who are also part of the police force.
One of the officers carried an automatic rifle. For as long as I observed him, he kept his index finger just by the rifle’s trigger, as though it might become necessary to start shooting the beach-goers at a moment’s notice.
However, some people clearly did not understand the simple new rules and the police quickly made an example of them. Fortunately, they did not shoot anyone: a few 135 Euro fines (about $150) would suffice this time.
These non-compliant individuals set down their bags and towels outside the authorized area. But for most people, the periodic whistles and shouts from the police were sufficient to keep them from straying too far from the authorized enclosure. In addition, the rules and regulations were being announced over a speaker system about every 30 minutes or so over a loudspeaker system.
How the New Normal morphed into the Old Normal
The first day was painful to watch. The police were constantly using their whistles and barking orders at the people, enforcing the ridiculous new restrictions. The people weren’t really defying the orders, they simply did what people do: they hung around and chit-chatted with others. Every so often, someone would sit down on the sand, and some clearly did not understand the rules.
For whatever reason, some people wandered off into the restricted areas. Already the second day I started to notice that the police weren’t exactly thrilled with enforcing the rules. You could see them whistle at someone, yell something, but if the person didn’t hear or misunderstood the instructions, they’d just give up. Then I started noticing the cops see people break the rules, but look away, pretending that they don’t see it. A few police officers themselves would stop and chit-chat with the people they knew. They obviously enjoyed the social moment a lot more than they enjoyed policing the beach.
At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of what I was witnessing. I felt relief to see that the concentration camp-like regime was disintegrating, but I didn’t quite grasp the New Normal was dying right there in front of me under the weight of the people simply being human beings. I no longer took photographs after the second day, but I remember that on day four - 26 May 2020, the beach was again full of people everywhere, just like in the “old normal.” The authorized enclosure was removed, the police completely gave up enforcing the rules and the loudspeakers fell silent.
Whatever happened wasn’t quite obvious. Nobody argued with the police. Nobody called them names or assaulted them. After three months of lockdowns, people seemed happy to be outside in the sun, and the mood seemed jovial in spite of the restrictions. It seems that they were simply not too bothered with the rules and complied in a sloppy, leisurely way which grew sloppier over the four days. The police themselves must not have felt too keen on policing beachgoers and the enforcement too grew sloppy until it was nonexistent.
Perhaps the only thing that happened was humanity. Human beings are not termites. Our daily conduct is driven by our values and our natural inclinations. We value liberty. We value our children, our friends and neighbors. We enjoy socializing and connecting with others, telling them our stories and hearing theirs. And we like to think that our life has some meaning and purpose. The same is true for the police. Without a doubt, they had their orders, but their children too may have been among the beach goers.
The whole ugly charade disintegrated because it was an afront to our common humanity.
The power of noncompliance
This experience underscored the extraordinary power of peaceful noncompliance as well as the limitations of enforcement. If such mellow, almost unintentional noncompliance could in only four days undo the New Normal that someone had carefully planned and implemented, and without anyone needing to throw Molotov cocktails, assault the police or demolish anything, how much more could deliberate noncompliance achieve?
Lastly, it is also important to recognize that the changes we desire always unfold over time, so we must be prepared not only to be determined and unafraid, but also patient, including with those tasked with oppressing us.
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