Several years ago I composed this examination of civil disobedience and the different forms that have developed since Henry David Thoreau coined, or at least popularized, the term in his 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (AKA “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”).
To quickly recap what I said then, there are three types of actions that have come to be defined as civil disobedience: refusing to obey an inherently unjust law; breaking an otherwise just law in a particular situation where the law’s effects happen to be unjust; and going out of one’s way to break just laws with the primary intent of risking or provoking arrest.
The first type of civil disobedience — refusing to obey an unjust law, and accepting the consequences of doing so — is the most “classic” form, embraced by followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and practiced frequently throughout the centuries by groups as diverse as the early Christian martyrs, the Underground Railroad, and the “righteous Gentiles” who helped Jews escape from the Nazi Holocaust.
The second type includes situations in which an individual defies a law or court order to protect other parties from harm (e.g. a parent refusing to obey a child custody order), or to avert an imminent threat (trespassing upon abortion clinic property in order to prevent unborn children from being killed that day).
The third type, in which activists engage in trespassing, vandalism, or other illegal actions purely to attract attention to their cause, is largely a creation of the media age, and is in my opinion, a distortion of genuine civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi, King, et al. Generally, it does little or nothing to alleviate the injustice being protested and serves mainly to make those who practice it look like self-righteous publicity hounds.
Since then, it appears that recent events and new media trends have distorted the meaning of civil disobedience even farther beyond its original intent. Now, “civil disobedience” apparently includes “making daily life miserable for everyone who does not agree with you 100%.”
This is most evident in the ongoing Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. As I write this, a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision to indict, or not indict, Wilson on criminal charges is reportedly imminent, and citizens are bracing themselves for renewed protests in the (apparently likely) event that Wilson is not charged. The continual protests that have been taking place since Brown’s death on Aug. 9 have, at times, been associated with looting, arson, and assaults against police officers and others. They have also attracted numerous left-leaning activists and media types, along with just plain opportunists — the great majority of whom are not Ferguson residents.
Actions engaged in by the most militant among these activists includes disrupting concerts and sporting events, blocking traffic, crashing the City of Ferguson’s website, and hacking into the bank accounts and personal information of city officials (and even the parents of a city official). Further actions are threatened if Wilson is not indicted, to the point that school districts and local governments are preparing as if for a disaster — canceling or dismissing schools early, advising residents to prepare to evacuate or to hunker down at home for an extended period.
So what is the justification behind these actions? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently posed that question to the “Don’t Shoot Coalition” of activist groups and published the coalition’s answers under the headline “Q & A for people tired of Ferguson protests“. I have highlighted the points most relevant to my topic below:
Protesters may have some points to make, but why can’t they express them peacefully?
The protests have been 99.5 percent nonviolent. But we are also being purposefully militant and disruptive. Change has not come through the courts, through politics or through gentle persuasion. We cannot wait any longer for whole segments of our society to gain freedom from abuse. Civil disobedience exposes tensions that already exist below the surface. Our society will not heal if we do not address issues that many people want to keep buried.
What good does it do to disrupt businesses and people’s lives, when these people are not part of the problem?
Your question does not reflect the whole picture. This involves all of us. It’s wrong to simply draw arbitrary boundaries around issues like fair policing, and decide that most folks are not involved. Many people — especially white folks — feel they can ignore the problem. People who benefit from or are not impacted by this unfair system have a duty to speak up and not be complicit. Ferguson has shifted the boundary line. It is not enough to say, “I’m not racist” just because you have suppressed your conscious biases. The protests are designed to make people feel uncomfortable and spur us all to end society’s structural biases.
Now, there is a grain of truth in what the coalition is saying — protests against any kind of evil or systemic injustice will inevitably make some people uncomfortable. Abortion clinic doctors and staff are likely to be uncomfortable with pro-lifers standing outside their facilities praying and displaying pictures of unborn babies (alive or dead). Henry VIII wasn’t comfortable with trusted advisers such as Thomas More questioning his authority to declare himself supreme head of the Church in England. Slaveowners in the antebellum South were not comfortable with people who condemned slavery and encouraged slaves to escape. And racial segregationists in the pre-civil rights era were, of course, not comfortable with the notion of African-Americans sitting next to them in restaurants or sending their children to the same schools as white children.
That said, the manner in which those past injustices were protested was light-years away from the approach of the Ferguson activists. Rosa Parks, for example, simply refused to move to the back of the bus — she didn’t throw herself in front of it! Likewise, when Rev. Martin Luther King took up her cause, he simply encouraged blacks to boycott the buses as long as the segregation policy remained in effect. He didn’t threaten to block ordinary traffic, vandalize or firebomb the buses, or threaten the personal safety of the people running the bus company. The prime goal was to effect change and preserve personal dignity by refusing to cooperate with an injustice; it was not primarily about attracting media attention (such as it was in the 1950s).
Note also that in “classic” acts of civil disobedience such as the Montgomery bus boycott or the later lunch counter sit-ins, it is the protesters who make the sacrifices, who accept the consequences of their actions, and who by doing so move others to action. Compare that to certain modern-day activists who, apparently, believe that civil disobedience is all about making everyone else suffer with them, or even instead of them. That is probably not going to make too many people sympathize with their cause — if anything it will turn many more people against it, and convince them that protestors who get arrested or injured are simply getting exactly what they deserve.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic. I can’t add much more, except to encourage everyone to pray for the people of Ferguson and the St. Louis area as they await this critical decision. Hopefully, the words of Jeremiah 29:11 (the basis of the entrance antiphon of Sunday’s Mass) can apply to them: For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for (your) welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.