I have an online friend who likes to pick at me. (It seems that it’s one of her favorite forms of entertainment.) She finds little apparent inconsistencies and awkward positions, and then calls me on them.
(The same person inspired my latest Tech Tip: when confronted with a spider scampering across your computer, let it move away from the power button before squashing it. Especially if in the middle of a fascinating conversation with a delightful lady. But I digress…)
It’s annoying, but it’s also valuable. For one, it forces me to re-evaluate what I’ve said and what I believe, and that’s always useful. For another, I am a “reactive” thinker and a lot of times it takes someone poking at me from outside to get me to figure out just what the hell is going on.
Recently, she called me on my stance on civil disobedience. She noted my longstanding and strong support for respect for the law, my disapproval of certain acts the perpetrators undertook, and wondered if I was really a jackbooted fascist.
It was an uncomfortable question, especially coming on the heels of my position on Sgt. David Aguina’s possible violation of military regulations regarding of when and where to wear one’s uniform.
This led me to some serious thought about deliberately breaking laws — especially such questions as how and when.
Basically, I can condone deliberate lawbreaking when certain criteria are met. This is not an all-inclusive list, and I don’t have a minimum number of conditions that must be fulfilled before I will approve, but they’re the sort of things that I bear in mind:
1) The law or situation being protested must be fundamentally wrong or unjust.
The civil rights movement chose to deliberately violate segregation laws and voting restrictions, among others. While these policies had been given the imprimatur of the legal system (right up to the Supreme Court, in some cases), they were fundamentally unfair and wrong and needed to be changed. The protesters knew that, believed that justice would eventually prevail, and used their non-violent, non-confrontational deeds to call attention to the situation.
2) The protester must be willing — and, in some cases, eager — to accept the legal penalties for breaking the law.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s arguments for civil rights and an end to segregation gained tremendous power and authority from geography. The notion of a nationally-recognized member of the clergy composing a “Letter From Birmingham Jail” woke up a lot of people.
3) The protester must directly challenge the law or the situation, and not those charged with enforcing the law. The actual enforcers should not be attacked or harassed.
It’s not the cop’s job to decide matters of law. It’s the cop’s job to enforce the law, and leave it to the the legislature to make the law and the courts to interpret the law. Harassing or annoying the cops to start making their own rules about legal matters is not only wrong, but grossly stupid.
Now, let’s apply those principles to certain situations:
I occasionally speed. (OK, I often speed.I knowingly, willfully, and deliberately choose to violate the laws governing travelling on public highways. But I do so fully prepared to accept the penalties for my decision. I will not lie to an officer about how fast I was travelling, I will not argue with him or her, I will simply and politely state that yeah, I was probably going faster than I should, and I do understand that it is his or her job to enforce the law. If I get a ticket, I will pay it without argument.
2) The Brattleboro protesters were not fighting a specific law or policy, but a single action that no one argued was legal. A property owner wanted to expand his business into a full-fledged truck stop, and owned the land where he wanted to build. The protesters — striking a blow for Mother Gaea — chose to trespass on his property and make their stand. Further, they shackled themselves in such a way as to make removing them a tremendous inconvenience for the police, who had no say whatsoever in the property owner’s decision. The cops found themselves tied up with these morons for some time, limiting their ability to respond to REAL problems. The cops found a way to quickly get these morons to free themselves without causing injury.
3) Sgt. Aguina (I speculate) chose to violate military regulations and wear his uniform to the Yearly Kos convention. He did not express his dissatisfaction with those regulations, just that he believed what he wanted to accomplish was worth the risk to his military career. And even after being confronted by the moderator with threats of the consequences, he chose to continue. I respect his decision, and wish he had been allowed to speak. And afterwards, if he faces military discipline for his decision, so be it — he thought the benefits outweighed his personal risk, and I will not insult or dishonor him by denying him that right.
The path of civil disobedience is never an easy one. It flies in the face of so many natural human responses — anger, self-defense, self-preservation, obedience to authority. It requires an almost super-human level of patience, of tolerance, of will, of self-restraint, and an overwhelming sense of justice. And most of all, it requires that the target of the protest have an underlying decency and goodness and conscience that can be touched.
But then, if it was easy, everyone would do it.