Father's Rights Movement to Get English Invasion

Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) – a pressure group that originated in Britain to crusade for father’s rights, especially child custody and access rights in divorce – has just landed on American shores with the creation of F4J-US. What happens next may tell us as much about society’s post-9/11 attitude toward social reform as it does about father’s rights.

What do F4J and its international chapters demand? F4J essentially seeks the removal of any anti-male bias from the family court system. The specifics include a wide range of measures, including the court enforcement of visitation orders and the linking of child support payments to visitation rights.

Why would the repetition of well-aired demands tell us anything new about society’s post-9/11 attitudes? Because the strategy F4J favors hasn’t been really tested here since then.

Father’s rights advocates and their opponents have waged a public strategy war, to be sure. But their weapons of choice have generally been a flood of contradictory studies, re-interpreted data, personal tales of injustice, accusations, and blasts of fury.

F4J advocates "peaceful non-violent direct action based on the Greenpeace model with a dash of humour thrown in for good measure." In Britain, the group is famous for high-profile stunts that taunt and disrupt authority. For example, last September an F4Jer dressed as Batman scaled Buckingham Palace. Standing for over 5-hours on a ledge next to the Palace’s main balcony, he unfurled a huge banner reading "Super Dads of Fathers 4 Justice." Batman was arrested "for suspicion of causing criminal damage."

Plans for similar but unspecified "guerrilla" acts in the United States have been announced. It is not clear how aggressive the Stateside actions will be.

Jamil Jabr, head of F4J-US, has been quoted in the Telegraph as saying, "We will try to maintain the audacity of the stunts… but if anyone tried that [the batman stunt] at the White House, they would be shot."

But the same article quotes Matt O’Connor, F4J’s founder, as declaring, "We are planning a massive stunt in New York which will catch everyone by surprise… It will be more spectacular than anything we’ve done in the UK so far and if all goes well we will hopefully be catapulted into infamy."

Given past action in the UK, that’s quite a statement.

Last May, for example, two F4Jers threw condoms full of unidentified powder at Tony Blair, hitting the Prime Minister as he addressed the House of Commons. The substance was later identified as flour that had been dyed purple; the men were charged with the relatively mild offence of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour." They were fined but served no time in prison. In the U.S., the two might have been shot on the spot.

Not just the American authorities but the American public is likely to respond more harshly as well. It is not likely that New Yorkers would tolerate a re-run of the London publicity stunt by which "Spiderman" occupied a crane that "caused" police to stop traffic flowing across the heavily-traveled Tower Bridge from early October 31st to November 4th. A British court later cleared Spiderman of charges because the closing had resulted from police decisions and not his actions. In the U.S., outraged New Yorkers might not let a Spiderman who closed the Brooklyn Bridge reach the court system at all.

It is not that civil disobedience or non-violent resistance have deeper roots in Britain than in North America. The United States was born through acts of both. Throughout American history, reformers and radicals have addressed social problems through civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.

Anti-slavery activists flouted the law by harboring run-aways; the most famous of them (William Lloyd Garrison) called the Constitution’s sanction of slavery "an agreement with hell, a covenant with death" and urged non-violent resistance. 19th century labor advocates staged strikes that paralyzed entire regions and industries; they burned factory owners in effigy. Black civil rights activists sat at "whites only" lunch counters. During Vietnam, the anti-war movement barraged the "system" with flamboyant tactics. Perhaps the most famous one occurred when the Yippies threw dollar bills from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and effectively closed down trading as brokers scrambled for the money.

It is an open question: will civil disobedience and non-violent resistance be allowed to shape American society as it has in the past? Or will such strategies be forced to operate within narrower and less effective limits?

F4J-US may provide the answer.

Or, rather, reaction by authorities may be the answer.

That reaction can be gauged, in part, by an incident in January. Two members of the British group visited NYC to help organize F4J-US and to scout the city for possible actions. They were followed everywhere. Jabr described one member of the surveillance team, "We learned later that he was the head of New York’s terrorism intelligence branch. He had FBI connections and orders to make sure that there would be no Buckingham Palace-type incidents."

On the other hand, the father’s rights radicals apparently went out for a beer with the men assigned to watch them.

I wish F4J-US well; I believe its cause is just. I also wish it prudence because I believe post-9/11 America is likely to stomp on anything that vaguely hints of violence against an official or the disruption of infrastructure.

May 20, 2005

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