PROTEST AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: QUESTIONABLE VIRTUES
2015 seemed as though
it was another year of social protests. It was certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon as demonstrations occurred throughout the
world over economic, religious, and social issues, often resulting in violent
chaos. While Americans have over time become
somewhat inured to the images of violence in the developing world, protests and
violence in Europe seemed to have gained more resonance. Together with a continuous
sequence of marches, disruptions, demands, and violence at home, a sense that we
are witnessing another 1960’s- like collapse of the social order has
contributed to a demonstrable pessimism and outright anger, which in turn has
characterized the 2015/16 electoral cycle.
Analysis of this situation,
and what, if anything, to do about it seems to have taken on the all too common
conservative/liberal ideological split which seems to identify most social movements. However, in a recent commentary Thomas
Freidman offers a more highly generalized explanation:
“In my view, this age of protest is driven, in part, by the
fact that the three largest forces on the planet — globalization, Moore’s law
and Mother Nature — are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption
that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones,
while superempowering individuals and transforming the nature of work,
leadership and government all at once.”
By “globalization” he seems to be referring to the access
individuals have to stress inducing events worldwide, not the broadened sphere
of economic activity. He emphasizes this with the impact of “Moore’s Law”,
which predicts the rapid rate of acceleration of micro-technology in
information and communication systems i.e. cell phones. His reference to
“Mother Nature” is left without explanation but appears to be an attempt to
place climate change in yet another list of causes and threats to human
insecurity. Freidman goes on to quote philosopher and corporate
leadership entrepreneur Dov Seidman as saying with respect to increased levels
of protest that,
everywhere seem to be morally aroused.”
“But when moral arousal manifests as
moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious
conversation or the truth.”
Freidman’s and Seidman’s comments seem to have elements of truth for some
social movements but are inadequate for explaining many others.
the availability of cell phones and social media make the mobilization of
individuals for movements and protests much easier but the motives of the
participants and their leaders need further analysis.
protests are clearly not based on the onset of “moral” arousal but on the
pursuit of self- interest.
protests directed at Walmart and McDonalds restaurants in 2015 were simply demands
for pay increases above the current minimum wage scale. Some might say these
were part of a movement for a “living wage” to which they would attach a moral
purpose.But the term “living wage”
lacks a precise definition and is not logically derivative of the concept of a
guaranteed minimum wage as minimum wage jobs are generally accepted as entry
level positions which are temporary and not career options. The issue is
further complicated by the fact that costs of living vary greatly across the
nation so the requirements for a “living wage” would vary accordingly.
the movement and the subsequent protests were simply based on the desire of the
employees to get a raise; a perfectly understandable desire but one that was
not directly relevant to individuals outside of that particular group, with the
exception of course of politicians and pundits who talk and write as if “morally
aroused” but rarely show up to protest.
U.S., public protests by illegal aliens have become commonplace. This is
intuitively and legally contradictory since advocates for amnesty for this
group have routinely claimed that they
must live “in the shadows “ for fear of deportation, yet they gather in public
spaces without fear of apprehension, to
make demands and protest being treated as what they are, illegal aliens.
If there is a “moral
arousal” element here it is mostly claimed by their non-illegal immigrant
supporters and may indeed be genuine for some, such as religious figures and
social liberals who see the opening of America’s borders to the world’s poor as
a moral obligation. However, the motive of group self-interest is
difficult to ignore either for the protestors themselves or when their
supporters are officials of the Democratic Party and organized labor, both of
which stand to benefit significantly by large scale immigration from Latin
One such protest
among many, occurred in California in conjunction with the state’s new law
allowing illegals to come out of the “shadows”, where they never are in this
“sanctuary city” filled state.
A local newspaper,
the Santa Barbara News Press, was the target of a violent protest involving the
throwing of paint bombs and spray painted graffiti on the papers offices.
Reaching new levels
of politically correct absurdity and audacity, the alleged offense committed by
the News Press was a headline about the numerous illegal aliens lining up at
the issuing agency for drivers licenses after the passage of an enabling law . The headline simply described the applicants
as “illegals”. As justification for the
hooliganism, Hispanic groups called the newspaper “offensive” and
“racist”. Others claimed that
“immigrants aren’t illegal; the border is.”
Protests are so
commonplace and their motives so varied it is difficult to keep up with them and
signs of public “protest fatigue” are abundant.
“Big” is often
enough to mobilize those mostly on the Left, to promote conspiracy theories as
a justification for self-absorbed fun in the streets. Thus “big pharma”, “big oil”, “big corporations”
and especially “big” agricultural company Monsanto have
become favorite targets of the Left. The recent Monsanto protests were based on
scientifically baseless charges that it’s genetically modified seeds and latest
weed killers are related to increased incidence of diseases and autism in
children. Despite the lack of empirical
evidence and the approval of Monsanto’s products by the Food and Drug
Administration, the claims have achieved a sort of cachet among environmental
“On May 22, tens of thousands demonstrators across the United
States took part in the worldwide "March against Monsanto"that meant to highlight
the company’s control of the food supply, and diseases linked to chemicals that
fed up. We should break up Monsanto," Adam Eidinger of Occupy
Monsanto told RT. "Monsanto is a
monopoly, and it's acting like one. It's basically controlling 90 percent of
the seed market in the United States. We wouldn't let one cell phone company
control 90 percent of the cell phones. But for some reason we let food be
It should be noted that the “morally aroused” Mr. Eidinger , now 43, has
been in a state of arousal since his high school days when he campaigned to
have foam trays removed from the lunchroom. While in college he led protests
against tuition increases and since then has led or been involved in protests
for such things as hemp advocacy, medical marijuana, then recreational marijuana in Washington
D.C., which became legal in February, 2015. His state of moral arousal seems to
know no bounds as he went on to protest the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the
World Bank(IBRD), the inauguration of President George W. Bush, the
construction of a new stadium for the Washington Nationals baseball team and
later the demand for GMO labeling and of course the most commonly vilified culprit,
Mr. Eidinger’s resume’ might lead to the simple question, “If you see
injustice in everything, are you actually committed to anything?” Or, has the process of protest, status
seeking, and defiance of authority, become more important than any of the
Nowhere does this emphasis on “process” seem more obvious than on
college campuses where protests are essentially the failed attempts of
silliness in search of seriousness.
Students across the nation are in a competition to come up with longer
lists of “insensitivity” on the part of their respective faculties and
Demands are made to punish individuals for wearing, or even not
condemning, Halloween costumes which are ethnically identifiable, or to change
the names of buildings and remove statues of prominent alumnae and benefactors
from previous eras because of alleged violations of 21st Century college
codes of political correctness. These
expressions of moral indignation provide feel-good moments for all involved as
well as opportunities for administrators to feel properly contrite.
Students today may be more “morally aroused” than in the past but
student protests have been a fact of campus life for centuries and their social importance should be
considered in this historical context.
The first recorded college student protest in America occurred in 1766
at Harvard College. It was chronicled by
historian Samuel Elliot Morrison and known as “The Great Butter Rebellion”.
“Since the opening of Harvard's gates in
1636, food service had been an issue. Despite periodic attempts at improving
the service, the quality of the butter remained exceptionally poor. One meal
with particularly rancid butter led Asa Dunbar (the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau) to jump upon his chair and proclaim:
"Behold, our butter stinketh!— give us therefore, butter that stinketh
not." The cry was adopted by fully half the student body as they rose
together and exited the Commons in protest.”
The descendants of the Great Butter Rebellion are everywhere and for
most it seems their list of demands i.e. “safe places”, “trigger warnings”, and
“gender neutral pronouns”, are more trivial than those of the 17th
Century, “Butter Matters” warriors.
There is a website called “Protester.net” which offers active and
potential protesters a menu for participation.
It lists an upcoming calendar of world- wide protests available for the would-
be activist to vent their anger at “the system” and enhance their progressive
activist bona fides. An “Events by
Issue” menu offers twenty-four selections, more than enough for even the most
disgruntled post-adolescent. One can
pick from such favorites as “Animal Rights”,” Fascism and the Right Wing”,”
Globalization and Imperialism” and “Prisons, Police and Repression”.
A “Protesters Handbook” offers this tactical advice:
particularly effective when you have many people with little traditional power
and a few with much traditional power.
This is because the many can literally block the few from accessing
their power by taking over buildings, forming picket lines, etc.”
In the U.S. the most prominent protests have been the Black Lives
Matter events which have two faces, the urban protests and the college campus
demonstrations. Unlike many other protests which have specific targets or
political goals i.e. Monsanto, immigration amnesty, etc. this series of
demonstrations are loosely organized without much central planning. Ad hoc groups which just want to be “part of
the action”, whether urban or college based, spring up spontaneously and make a
broad range of demands around the idea that blacks in the U.S. are victims of
discrimination, police abuse, and on
campuses, a variety of politically incorrect offensive behavior on the part of white people.
While the original impetus and focus was on
the deaths of several black men resulting from confrontations with police, the
broader iteration occurring on campuses have been characterized by “demands”
for “sensitivity” to other demands i.e. more minority faculty members, counseling
services for minority students, minority residences, and the power of job
termination over administration and faculty members who are seen to be out of
compliance with the demands.
Thus, with respect to the excesses and possible limits to this latest
era of protests, a meaningful discussion needs to conducted, but so far has
been ignored as the few voices of criticism almost exclusively from the
conservative media, bring about the immediate charges of “racism”.
On the urban front, community officials i.e. mayors and city council members,
seem intimidated by both the racist characterizations, and the prospects of out
of control violence. Then, there is as
well, the threat of civil rights investigations by the federal Justice
Department if police departments try to enforce the law and deter or respond to
Social activists, Left leaning media commentators and local supporters
of the protests are quick to label them all as constitutionally protected
rights. Indeed the Constitution does
protect the right of “free speech” and “the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of
Subsequent Supreme Ct. decisions have
right not only protects demands for "a redress of grievances" but
also demands for government action. The petition clause includes,
according to the Supreme Court,, the opportunity to institute non-frivolous
lawsuits and mobilize popular support to change existing laws in a peaceful
reality, the Black Lives Matter protests as well as most of the other social
protests occurring in America including the campus versions, have clearly gone
beyond the bounds of the First Amendment protections.
operative terms are “peaceably to assemble” and “peaceful manner”.
amount of legal or philosophical contortions can describe the violence and
destruction that occurred in Ferguson, MO or Baltimore, MD in conjunction with
Black Lives Matter protests as “peaceable”.
protests involving taking over a shopping center in Minneapolis, and blocking
public roads, bridges and access to airports, across the nation have been
described as “civil disobedience”. This
euphemism which attempts to conjure up the image of the civil rights sit-ins of
the 1960’s has little in common with those historical tactics which sought to
change specific local laws which were clearly unconstitutional and were ruled
as such by federal courts.
Lives Matter and protests against such things as climate change, GMO food, the
IMF and World Bank, and protests against the “Bigs” aren’t focused on unjust
laws but on issues and institutions which simply stimulate the ideological
hatred of the far Left. Black Lives
Matter’s goals are highly generalized, “justice for blacks”. While a worthy goal, as it is for all U.S.
citizens, it implies an almost national and unjustified disregard for the legal rights
of American blacks and includes prominent elements of exaggeration and unsubstantiated
charges, i.e. “Hands up don’t Shoot”. The movement’s participants reject any
legal process involving any black vs. police violence that doesn’t produce criminal
proceedings against the police officers involved. The threats of “No Justice, no peace” then
produce volatile group actions of civil disobedience.
disobedience is by definition the use of tactics which are commonly illegal.
term itself was drawn from an essay by Henry David Thoreau in 1849 entitled “Resistance
to Civil Government” which was later reprinted in 1866 as “Civil
Disobedience”. Thoreau was motivated by
his strong opposition to slavery and while he declared it a duty of citizens to
oppose laws as their conscience dictated, he also believed that such law
violators should be prepared to suffer the penalties of the law including
imprisonment. He himself went to happily
to prison for tax violations which he related to the financing of the Mexican
War which he also opposed.
the motives of many, if not most, of the contemporary protesters are not based
on such lofty goals and their infringement of both the collective and private
rights of citizens to free movement on public thoroughfares, access to
businesses and public institutions, be
they government offices or college classrooms is illegal. It takes little encouragement for the
protesters to simply become a mob in which the individuals involved hide behind
the anonymity afforded by numbers, to engage in violence against both police
and private property.
proliferation of such events is encouraged by media exposure, the belief by
participants that they are immune to prosecution, the use of cell phone cameras
to make claims of “excessive use of force” by any attempt by authorities to
contain the violence, and now a new legal theory that attempts to rationalize
illegal acts by individuals and groups as socially “necessary”.
article in the newspaper “The Guardian” explains.
very first time, US climate activists have been able to argue the necessity
defense – which argues that so-called criminal acts were committed out of
necessity – to a jury. “ The
Delta 5”, who
blockaded an oil train at the Delta rail yard near Seattle in September of
2014, have been allowed to use the defense in a historic climate change civil
disobedience trial being heard this week. They said they acted to prevent the
greater harm of climate change and oil train explosions.”
The judge initially disallowed the “necessity defense” and gave
a credible explanation why:
“General harms by global warming are obvious - and
potentially catastrophic - if government and individuals fail to act. But such
generalized harm - even though it is extreme, cannot be legally cognizable
because it is impossible to quantify the societal benefits of defendants’
illegal acts as they relate to the harm averted. Therefore, necessity is
unavailable as a defense.”
He also noted that in a previous case protesters had
blocked a train thought to be carrying nuclear warheads, the necessity defense
But after a request
to reconsider, he inexplicably reversed himself. Then at the conclusion of the trial on
January 15th, 2016, essentially reversed himself again in
instructions to the jury, saying:
“. . . this court will (not) engage in politics and
violate its obligation to adhere to legal precedents.” “After making that ruling, Howard told the
jurors to disregard the testimony from the five experts that testified on
behalf of the defense.”
five protestors were quickly found guilty of trespass but were given extremely
a victory for common sense but one that will almost certainly have to be fought
again. When individuals are given the
authority to use personal standards to interpret laws, society gives up the
consistency necessary for the fair application of the law. It doesn’t take much thought to project the legal chaos that would
be produced through the widespread adoption of this defense in the context of
today’s hyper protest era. Trespass
laws, wanton destruction, and even physical resistance to police would become
the legal fodder for over- zealous defense attorneys claiming it was
politically or socially “necessary” to achieve their goals.
As the judge warned, individual
and group politics would continue to replace the rule of law established by the
So the question
remains, should political authorities and campus administrators risk escalation
of acts of non-violent civil disobedience in order to enforce the law by
imposing rational limits to the level of disobedience allowed?
The quandary is
currently being played out in the protest and occupation of a small government
building in rural Oregon. Armed
advocates for rancher’s rights are demanding the return of federal lands to
private ownership. Federal authorities
have been near the site of the occupation since January 2, 2016, but have made
no attempt to dislodge the protesters.
The occupation is clearly illegal and local area residents and Oregon’s
governor are upset that the issue has not been resolved. The reticence of the federal officials to
arrest and remove the protesters, which could easily be done, is
understandable. The occupiers are armed and
a use of force by authorities could trigger a violent confrontation resulting
in deaths on both sides. The occupied
building was not in use and the rural location represents no real threat to
local residents. The FBI still bears the
scars of previous confrontations and their violent outcomes in the Ruby Ridge
and Waco incidents and is reluctant to initiate a similar action.
But the larger issue
of defiance of laws, both federal and local cannot be totally dismissed. Protests are becoming
a national pastime and doing
nothing is an overt and dangerous concession to future illegal actions by other
radical groups and will encourage
confrontations which could lead to even more dangerous circumstances.
At some point the
rule of law as a national attribute , and
the protection of the public domain for the benefit of society as a whole will
have to be maintained or the U.S. will risk the chaos now so common throughout
the rest of the world.