Civil Disobedience and Afflicting the Comfortable

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.



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  1. “breaking an otherwise just law in a particular situation where the law’s effects happen to be unjust”
    This introduces the well-known topic of epikeia (ἐπιείκεια – literally reasonableness) and there is a whole literature devoted to it; indeed, it was a favourite topic of the casuists. One classic case is returning a borrowed or deposited weapon to a man who is fighting drunk. Another is jettisoning another’s goods to lighten a ship in a storm, or pulling down another’s building to prevent a fire spreading.
    It is sometimes argued that epikeia rests on a presumed intention of the lawgiver. The same principle is also used in the construction of deeds and obligations, again, relying on the notion of presumed intention or implied term.

  2. Ferguson Mo. must be laid to rest at the feet of the atheism. Without God, man does not stand a chance against the devil. Atheism threw out God and God’s law but atheism could not throw out the devil. In fact, atheism welcomed the devil and now, we have hell to pay.

  3. That is probably not going to make too many people sympathize with their cause

    C’mon, Elaine. That’s never the point of cr*p like this. For the delinquents who riot, it’s carnival; for the fuzzy-minded local clergy and sundry others, it’s something to do with idle time in an effort to fancy they’re not as inconsequential as they seem; for characters like Al Sharpton, it’s a business opportunity; for sundry local poverty pimps, ditto; for the press, it’s a mix of playing and posing and mercenary behavior. It matters not one bit if they get public sympathy at all. What matters is that they play to their constituency enough to keep the donations rolling in, that they get the court orders they want, and that they get the public funds they want. They do not need sympathy for obtaining these things. They just need the usual betrayers of the public trust to keep doing what they usually do.

    The people who will be injured by this ugly pantomime are the property-owners in Ferguson, a mix of wage earners and common and garden bourgeois like that store manager Michael Brown robbed just before his impetuosity was cured with a dose of lead. Those are the sorts of people neither Eric Holder, nor fuzzy-minded clergy, nor feral local youths care one whit about. (Reporters will pretend to care if producing sob stories about some plant closing, otherwise these people are just bitter-clingers).

  4. Just to clarify, I’m not attempting in any way to judge the merits of the protesters’ “cause”, whatever it may be. Heck, even they can’t agree on what their “cause” is. My point is simply that this represents a further step away from what civil disobedience originally was intended to be. If the protestors involved no longer even care about winning people over to their cause and just want to prolong their 15 minutes of fame, generate money, sue local governments, etc., well, that’s just further evidence of what I’m talking about.

    And don’t think that just because we’re good, law abiding Catholic folk who have never had anything more serious than a speeding ticket, that the issue will never affect us. What will happen if and when Catholics are called to defy unjust laws compelling us to participate in abortion, same-sex civil marriage, etc.? When clergy and laity talk about “going to jail” over these issues, do they mean going out in the streets and raising a ruckus for that purpose, or do they simply mean not obeying the law and then quietly waiting to see what happens? What approach will they embrace? That will need to be clarified from the start. There’s a big difference between accepting martyrdom and pursuing it; the former action is virtuous, the latter is not.

  5. “Now, ‘civil disobedience’ apparently includes ‘making daily life miserable for everyone who does not agree with you 100%.'”

    One of the best definitions of the modern day liberal action plan I have ever seen.

  6. Elaine Krewer wrote, “My point is simply that this represents a further step away from what civil disobedience originally was intended to be…”


    There is nothing complicated in the notion of civil disobedience. It was enunciated with admirable clarity by Marat and Brissot in Marat’s underground newspaper, L’ami du people [The People’s Friend]

    Taking for granted Rousseau’s theory of the State of Nature and the Social Contract, they argued that the poor had agreed to renounce the rights of savage life and the prerogative of force, in return for the benefits of civilisation; but finding the compact broken on the other side, finding that the upper classes governed in their own interest, and left them to misery and ignorance, they resumed the conditions of barbaric existence before society, and were free to take what they required, and to inflict what punishment they chose upon men who had made a profit of their sufferings.

    As one commentator wrote of the banlieu riots of 2006, “this whole series of nocturnal vandalisms and anonymous attacks, this wordless destruction, has widened the breach between politics and the political. No one can honestly deny the obvious: this was an assault that made no demands, a threat without a message, and it had nothing to do with “politics.” One would have to be oblivious to the autonomous youth movements of the last thirty years not to see the purely political character of this resolute negation of politics. [tout ce qu’il y a de purement politique dans cette négation résolue de la politique]”

  7. For generations, they voted 90%+ for dems, and they’re still morally/fiscally destitute. Ergo, trash the community! Brilliant!!

    Quoted at Drudge: “We are not going to get change in this society until white people are just a little bit afraid.”

    Unfortunately, the outrage is insufficient to motivate racial racketeers (including Obama and Holder) to desist fomenting hatred and violence and incentivize people to build stable, nuclear families; to emhasize education, hard work, sobriety; etc.

  8. MPS, I cannot figure why you insist on conflating the more theatrical exhibits of urban disorder with political action. You have a slum population who constitute a latent riot pretty much all the time. The only address to that is vigorous policing (which is apparently considered vulgar in France).

  9. My point is simply that this represents a further step away from what civil disobedience originally was intended to be.

    Horse left the barn around about 1966.

  10. There is likely involvement in such events by those who are effectively communist agitators regardless of how they name or perceive themselves. These practice a “constructive destruction” to tear down the framework and foundation of our Constitutional republic. Communists no longer carry cards but carry the germ of Marxism in their bloodstream, so to speak. Faith in God is to the soul what a strong immune system is to the body. When it breaks down or is weakened, the Seven Deadly (diseases) Sins take over. We know many persons, perhaps including the current President, who are for all intents and purposes communists whether or not they fully realize it.

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