Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Civil disobedience, its legacy deeply rooted in the United States, has had profound world impacts, and inspired many activists across the world. However, our perception of the tactic has heavily changed over the past month. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, both peaceful and violent protests alike have sprung up in almost every major American city.
Conservative media narratives have focused on condemning the violence of some protests, while liberal media narratives have offered unequivocal defenses of the violence accompanied by pleas for address of the social ailments which prompted the violence. Before we can analyze the question of civil disobedience as a concept, it is important to distance the conversation from our feelings regarding current events. Injustice runs rampant in the police system, and anger is warranted; violence is not even what it seems in today’s protests because police departments across the nation have been documented as agent provocateurs. The purpose of this analysis is not to suggest one narrative of political importance over another regarding today’s issues but to analyze our current attitudes towards civil disobedience as a method and evaluate its relevance today.
Modern discourse on peaceful protest is often corrupted by the glaring misconceptions of jargon. Civil disobedience is often confused with nonviolent protest. While nonviolence is an essential element, civil disobedience goes far beyond that. It is a multi-step process which emphasizes informed and serious action. In Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he defined the four steps: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” The first two steps are the most common forms of citizen interaction with the political system. We collect facts to research issues important to us, and then we try to change people’s minds via public and private discourse. However, it is the last two steps which are relatively foreign to us. Self-purification means that the peaceful protester must preemptively accept whatever consequences come from their direct action. Direct action or the act of civil disobedience itself is the intentional violation of unjust law. Martin Luther King stresses the difference between just and unjust laws to dodge claims of anarchism: a just law must be respected above all else, but an unjust law has no legitimacy and cannot be respected against a citizenry’s better conscience.
Given this definition of direct action, a lot of the protest we see today cannot be classified as “direct action.” Actions which do not qualify as a part of the outlined process cannot be called examples of civil disobedience, but media organizations and social media have repeatedly failed to accurately categorize protest. One example can be seen with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to express a message of racial justice. While his protected speech was very powerful and effective at stimulating a national conversation on issues of racism in America, we cannot call it civil disobedience because he did not break any laws. Nonviolence does not automatically equate to civil disobedience because civil disobedience requires disobedience in the face of law. In King’s case, laws were being continuously broken by his association. Sit-ins were directly defying Jim Crow laws which they deemed unjust. By violating the law, they knowingly subjected themselves to police action. It is a noble and difficult decision to protest so publicly given a platform like Kaepernick’s, but we cannot confuse this decision with civil disobedience because the threat of violent response is significantly greater for practitioners of civil disobedience. When King marched through the streets of Alabama in the company of children, vicious dogs and fire hoses were unleashed by the police; meanwhile, the practitioners of civil disobedience upheld their promise to remain nonviolent in the face of totalitarian political violence. No one considered for a moment that the police might violently arrest Kaepernick because he was not in violation of any laws.
The distinction between nonviolent protest and civil disobedience is of absolute importance, since it greatly affects the way we view protests’ legitimacy. The question of protest legitimacy is often tricky because the very purpose of a protest is to challenge the status quo’s perception of what is legitimate. Trevor Noah from The Daily Show has, on multiple occasions, asked his audience, “what is the right way for a black man to protest in America.” He argues that there is no way to protest legitimately in America because even the nonviolent act of kneeling on the football field during the national anthem is enough to incite an inglorious turmoil. If breaking unjust laws is too radical and kneeling peacefully is too disrespectful, then what can a black person do to protest? This question cannot be answered by someone who believes that it is wrong to protest by peacefully kneeling. Such a miniscule act is clearly protected by the right to free speech and free expression in the US Constitution, yet conservatives often claimed that this was not the “right way to protest.”
When the political right clamors for the censure of Kaepernick’s protest, they clamor for the end of democratic deliberation and free thinking. Even if Kaepernick’s political message had no supporters, he should still have the right to say it. Any social consequences which come with that are acceptable, but the state should never have the right to intervene as those on the political right seemed to suggest. Peaceful protest which does not break laws cannot be infringed within the confines of democratic law. Any police crackdown on free speech would be an injustice to the civil liberties we hold dear.
However, the same cannot be objectively said in defense of civil disobedience. By its very nature, civil disobedience antagonizes a system of laws. The method of civil disobedience emphasizes rationality and research on the individual level but cannot be standardized and accepted as a means of protest by the government. If a state respects the rule of law which is imperative for any democracy, then the practitioners of civil disobedience must face trial for their transgressions against the law. The maximum level of political legitimacy that can be given to civil disobedience is a preference to it over violent protest. Do not let it be mistaken: this direct confrontation of the system via deliberate transgression is not bad. Instead, it is the point of the protest. The knowledge that a system would punish peaceful and socially accepted actions with incarceration or political violence is meant to tear at the society’s conscience. The tension created by clashes between the civilly disobedient and the state actors is meant to elicit recognition of the disobedients’ innocence and the oppressive role of the state.
Politics is nothing if not spectacle, so the display of power dynamics through civil disobedience is the key to real change. When the nation saw police dogs injuring young children, they were forced to confront an inherent villainy in state structure. The injustice of that oppressive power dynamic was what facilitated true change. Violent protests, on the other hand, obscure that underlying, systemic issue by allowing conservative forces to villainize the arbiters of change. This is easily seen in conservative media today which demonizes the entirety of the Black Lives Matter movement by associating them with opportunistic looters; however, it is also apparent elsewhere. The same logic is applied by those who want to target muslims and label the religion of Islam as a terrorist ideology. Since a few muslims cause a majority of terrorist attacks, they conclude fallaciously that all muslims subscribe to terrorist ideology. While such media narratives are unjust, we must accept their existence and tailor our political advocacy to coexist with these adversities and remain successful. Success can only be achieved through solidarity in methods of protesting, since even isolated incidents of violence and looting can taint the image of a political movement.
No matter how one wants to see Martin Luther King Jr., the fact that his actions were radical is undisputed. Moreover, the police did the right thing by performing their duties and arresting the protesters who broke the law; while their violent manner and excessive force was a disgusting abomination to human dignity, the nominal action of arresting the protesters was their job. On the government level, individual moral discretion as expressed through the civilly disobedient cannot be recognized because its existence invalidates any social respect for the law. The law becomes meaningless if someone can just decide that they disagree with it. However, the obligation the government has to uphold the law is not incompatible with the obligation of the citizen to disobey unjust laws. The tension created by the coexistence of both creates the necessary political spectacle which shifts a nation’s moral conscience towards justice and creates policy change. Complexity and ideological pluralism is often ignored in our current discussions of the “right way to protest,” but they exist nevertheless. We must evolve the rhetoric from both ends of the political spectrum to adequately view the legitimacy of protest and create a valid cosmopolitan culture wherein we can deliberate on a just society’s composition. If not, we risk embroiling obvious human rights in more controversy than they are due. By saying that Kaepernick was practicing civil disobedience, we distort how radical his speech actually is and we risk allowing “law and order” politicians to overreach and suppress our natural rights.