Civil disobedience” evokes a range of reactions when people hear the term. Some instinctively wince, regarding it as anti-social or subversive.
Others, like me, want to know more before we judge. What is prompting someone to engage in it? Who will be affected and how? What does the “disobedient” person hope to accomplish? Are there alternative actions that might be more effective?
One of my earliest memories from childhood was an act of civil disobedience. My family resided near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, about 11 miles from the Ohio border town of Negley. At the time, Pennsylvania prohibited the unauthorized introduction and sale of milk from Ohio. On many a Saturday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father and I would drive over to Negley and fill the back seat of our car with good, cheap milk. During the drive back home, he would caution me to “keep it covered and don’t say anything if the cops pull us over.”
For me, milk smuggling was a thrill ride. It was downright exciting to evade a stupid law while keeping an eye out for a cop who might have nothing better to do than bust a couple of notorious dairy dealers. I know my dad made a few bucks when he re-sold the milk to happy neighbors. We never had any regrets or pangs of conscience for committing this victimless crime. We were simply supporting a cause that even Abraham Lincoln may have endorsed when he said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”
Government officials hate civil disobedience because it’s a disgruntled citizen’s way of thumbing his nose. If we’re unhappy with laws or policies that are stupid, destructive, corrupt, counterproductive, unconstitutional, or in other ways indefensible, they advise us to do the “democratic” thing—which means hope for the best in a future election, stand in line to be condescended to at some boring public hearing, or just shut up.
My go-to expert on the issue is not a politician or a preacher or an academic. It’s Henry David Thoreau, who famously asked, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
If the choice is obedience or conscience, I try my best to pick conscience.
Historically, civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with a law or command of a political authority—is exceedingly common. Sometimes it is quiet and largely unnoticeable. Other times it is boisterous and public. For an act to be one of civil disobedience, it must be accompanied by principled or philosophical objections to a law or command (to exclude such acts as simple theft, fraud, and the like).
Some political theorists argue that to qualify as civil disobedience, an act must be peaceful; others allow for violence in their definition of the term. Revolutions are certainly acts of disobedience, though because they tend to be accompanied by violence they often aren’t very “civil.” In any event, the indefensible violence this week in Washington should not blind us to the very honorable history of genuine civil disobedience and its loftier motivations.
Here’s a short list of what I call “great moments in civil disobedience.” There’s no particular order other than chronological, and I wouldn’t even claim these are all among the “top” examples in history. They are, at the least, interesting food for thought. See how many of them you could endorse.
“We have been open against unconstitutional shut down orders since May,” Smith wrote in a now-viral Instagram post over the weekend. “Not once have we flinched, and the petty tyrant of New Jersey governor Murphy has tried everything he could possibly think of to ruin us. Over seven months later we will open our doors every single day.”
He added: “No government official will ever tell me that I am not able to provide for my family. I do not answer to public servants – no matter what threats or punishments they impose. I am a free man. I do not ask for permission. I do not ask for forgiveness. You work for us. The only way you’ll ever close these doors is when you close my casket.”
The post comes with video in which Smith is seen holding up pieces of paper — which he presents to the camera and then discards one by one, “Subterranean Homesick Blues“-style — that send the same overall message.
“We have had our business license stripped,” the messages Smith holds aloft say. “We have had our doors locked and barricaded. We have been arrested and have over 60 citations.”
Across the country, government officials are tightening and reimposing curfews, stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and other restrictions as COVID-19 numbers climb. But with public patience over lockdowns wearing thin, many individuals and local authorities openly reject rules that drive people to poverty and despair. County sheriffs in California, New York, North Dakota, Oregon and elsewhere say they’ll have nothing to do with enforcement efforts and spar with governors who resent such independence.
It’s the rebellious spirit of the earlier sanctuary city and Second Amendment sanctuary movements, amplified by the pressures of the pandemic into an eruption of what some legal scholars call “punitive federalism.” Get used to it, because our politically polarized era offers fresh soil for such dictates and defiance.
California’s revolt is especially widespread. “All told, over a third of Californians live in a county with a sheriff promising not to enforce the governor’s stay-at-home order,” Reason‘s Christian Britschgi pointed out this week. Ironically, when Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to withhold funds from jurisdictions that ignore his dictates, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco snapped back that the governor was behaving just like President Trump, who California’s elected officials have criticized for using money in an effort to extract compliance.
A coalition of small-business owners in Minnesota say they plan to reopen early, before an order from the state’s governor to stay closed expires.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed an executive order last month closing bars and restaurants in an effort to curb the number of coronavirus cases in the state. The order is set to expire Friday, but a group of approximately 160 businesses has banded together, urging one another to reopen early, some as soon as Wednesday.
“The financial part of it sucks,” Lisa Monet Zarza, who owns a bar in Lakeville, told the Star Tribune. “But it’s more than just that. We donate catering, support youth sports, the police and the Rotary. It’s hurting the fabric of the community.”