Before we talk about disobedience – the civil, non-violent kind – let me first share with you a story about obedience.
I was overseas, employed by a Chinese company, and one fine day was summoned to the glass-paneled office of the general manager. She proceeded to lecture me on the topic of obedience. For my edification, the Chinese character for the word was written on the board, literally “do as you are told.” I considered the lecture well-deserved.
I learned much from that event and my brief period of employment with that firm. Minus the cultural context, I better learned the appropriate use of disobedience, as in the genre deployed by Henry David Thoreau — a long-time hero.
You will recall, Thoreau was tossed into the town clink for not paying a poll tax — monies that funded causes he opposed: the Mexican-American war and the institution of slavery. The phrase “civil disobedience” was coined. Initially, his 1849 essay on the topic was entitled “Resistance to Civil Government.”
He felt strongly that citizens must act so that governments do not “atrophy their consciences.” (Nowadays, whatever is not atrophied by the government is taken care of by social media). Thoreau’s sentiment lives on, and I would even apply it to employees of corporate dictators.
But I digress.
After a long slumber, civil disobedience (and the not-so-civil variety) is reawakening. And this amidst the fog of the internet, opiates and hyper-consumerism; lights are being turned on and individuals are finding their voices. They are young and old. They are familiarizing themselves with handcuffs and jail cells. They are making Henry proud.
An encouraging example came from our local Moscow middle-schoolers. More than 100 students took to the pavement, representative democracy in action, expressing their displeasure with a new grading system. Admittedly, I was an ally, even without a detailed understanding of the issue. Placards read “why fix something that was never broken.” And to the credit of sympathetic adults, they won the day.
The gears of civil disobedience are working. When they get jammed, we have good reason to fear. As Martin Luther King reminds us: “I submit to you that any individual who decides to break a law his conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty for it, is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law.”
There was the conscience of those in the Boston Tea Party who broke laws over unjust taxation and an imposed monopoly. Some 250 years later, gender, racial and social inequalities continue to fester and weigh on our collective conscience. At the extreme, our very home, Mother Earth, has become a petri-dish for biological annihilation.
Some, like Chris Hedges, author of “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” would say that flooding the streets with throngs of cute, feisty children who plead for the planet and their future, falls far short of the kind of civil disobedience required. “The ruling elites and the corporations they serve are the principal obstacles to change. They cannot be reformed,” he writes. They must be replaced.
Revolution or gradual transition? If we look at the courts, judges and juries are opening their ears and hearts to what Thoreau and Gandhi and King have been saying all along.
In a recent ruling, a judge in Massachusetts (not too very far from Thoreau’s Concord) ruled in favor of protestors who had been arrested for interfering with the construction of a fracked gas pipeline. “The potential environmental and public health impacts of the pipeline, including the risk of climate change,” he stated, “had made civil disobedience legally necessary.”
In a similar case in Oregon, a jury voted to acquit the “zenith five” who had constructed a garden over a rail line designed to block trains loaded with crude oil. Their defense: they were obliged to break the law in an effort to prevent the greater evil of climate catastrophe.
There were other historical times when existential threats were perceived, met with radical responses. Times when the ruling 1 percent met disobedience with cruel punishments. Think of the Roman occupation in Palestine and the prophetic Jewish rabbi who threatened the power structure. We know of his punishment, but sometimes forget the charge: insurrection.
After years of globetrotting, Todd J. Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Resist News: https://www.usresistnews.org/