Civil Disobedience and Its Detractors

The ongoing events in Charlotte, North Carolina again bring to the public’s attention the strange tension at work in this country when it comes to the notion of civil disobedience. On the one hand we have a nation whose very existence is a testament to the power of action in the face of traditional authority. Ours is a land built upon the idea that authority is meant to be questioned, limited and, if needed, overturned. One of America’s great men of letters, Henry David Thoreau, entitled one of his most famous contemplations “Civil Disobedience”. It was disruptive, not eruptive, action that produced the 19th amendment (check your Constitution), the Civil Rights Act and a host of other social and legislative victories over the years. It has been shown, here as well as abroad, that revolutionary actions do not necessarily have to be soaked in blood.

Contrast this with the establishment’s obsession with law and order, of muting dissent, limiting opposition and channeling the emotions of an outraged populace into peaceful protest that can be easily stomped out by the authorities if they so choose. Protests must be managed so that they minimize inconvenience and exposure to the rest of the population. Management is the key to a successful, if somewhat banal, demonstration, one where the barricades are not toppled, traffic is not stopped, commerce continues as usual and the chants are approved by the state. This is not protest. This is a sad shadow of protest. This is the illusion of citizen empowerment, authoritarianism veiled as democracy. True civil disobedience interrupts the ordinary. It positions itself in plain view yet somewhere supposedly off-limits. A park, a university campus, a lobby or hallway in the US Congress offices — these are the places where civil disobedience should manifest. Too often, however, these places are policed as if they are private property and too often demonstrations are severely curtailed and, on occasion, brutally repressed. Take as your example the people at this moment standing in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline: environmentalists, Native Americans, hundreds if not thousands of people from across the continent have risked harassment, injury and arrest in an effort to protest this project. Regardless of the final result, regardless of their “true” intentions or goals, the fact remains that this is perhaps the best example of civil disobedience in America today. Those protesting are not burning cars; they are not smashing storefronts. Theirs is a protest in the purest sense of the word: an organic coming together of many parties to peacefully yet forcefully interrupt the offending activity. This is as close as we have come in recent memory to that man standing before the column of tanks in Tiananmen Square 27 years ago.

The question, then, becomes one of degrees. This is not an incitement to the kind of pillaging witnessed in Baltimore or even the acts of violence within the last few days in Charlotte. That is not protest. That is not civil disobedience. That is wonton destruction that plays directly into the hands of the State. The slightest whiff of violence or uncontrollable rage will result in states of emergency, curfews, national guardsmen, martial law. The full force of the State’s authority will smash any genuine protest and the media will portray the entire event as a riot. The alternative is to interrupt. Say what you will of the so-called “Occupy Wall-Street” movement, but taking over public spaces and maintaining a constant oppositional presence is worth noting. Instrumental in that movement’s failure, I believe, was its limited appeal to Americans who were victims of other institutions and saw multi-national banks and “the market” as secondary to the issues of Black Lives Matter. However, the visibility, the constant and consistent message projected from urban campgrounds are all worth emulating by those who wish to practice civil disobedience.

Perhaps what we need is a new phrase, a new moniker for this critical action that has shown to be so effective at altering the course of nations. A name less weighed down by the judgemental “disobedience” might be in order. Whatever we call it now and into the future, we must be sure it clearly removed from lawlessness. Civil disobedience might be unlawful, criminal and perhaps even treasonous (in some countries), but it remains the single most important action we as the governed can perform if our voices are not heard through the electoral process. If they will not heed our ballots, they will heed our shouts!

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