In the wake of the announcements in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City that Officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo will not face charges in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, protests have erupted across the country. Many of these protests have included a tactic of nonviolent resistance against injustice that I think is largely misunderstood by many Americans: civil disobedience.
Today is the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, among the world’s most recognizable and beloved symbols of resistance to oppression, and a major advocate of civil disobedience. It seems fitting then today to rethink this misunderstood tool of political resistance and social transformation.
In Ferguson, civil disobedients have staged die-ins and shut down highways. In New York City protesters attempted to disrupt the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony. On her blog, Presbyterian minister Rev. Kate Murphy explains why Christians should care. Eric Garner’s killing and the lack of indictment, Murphy writes,
… has to matter to us as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our savior–Our Lord who was publicly brutally executed by those who had every legal authority to do so. Just as, apparently, Daniel Pantaleo had every legal right to strangle Eric Garner. You don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to write about it. It’s ugly and tragic and divisive and this is the most wonderful time of the year. But this is happening now–we can’t hum jingle bells and look away…I don’t need to see them light the damn tree in Rockefeller Center.
Civil disobedience interrupts the Christmas carols blasting out of the St. Louis Galleria and Rockefeller Center to remind us that Jesus’ mission is woefully incomplete. The world still waits “in sin and error pining.” “The hopes and fears of all the years” remain unmet in the world here and now.
I covered civil disobedience with my undergraduate students in one of our last classes before Thanksgiving. I cover it every semester. The definition I give of civil disobedience is: planned, peaceful, intentional violation of laws in order to protest an injustice, often, but not always, an injustice embodied by the law itself.
There are a few things that I note with my students about this definition. Civil disobedience is planned and peaceful. It is not typically spontaneous; those who commit civil disobedience often undergo training. It is not typically a spontaneous or knee-jerk response to something we don’t like. Instead folks engage in civil disobedience with a good deal of thought and preparation. Civil disobedience involves intentional nonviolent violation of laws: blocking roads, or access to particular buildings; intentional refusal to disperse; various modes of disrupting a false “peace” marked by the absence of justice. Things like stealing and looting, and certainly personal violence, are not generally understood as forms of civil disobedience, and they aren’t what I am talking about here.
Students are usually surprised that the first example I give of those who have committed civil disobedience are the early Christians, who refused to obey what they perceived to be the unjust laws of the Roman Empire, and endured imprisonment, torture, and death as consequences of their civil disobedience. Of course, I could also start with Jesus shutting down the market place at the Temple – a calculated act of civil disobedience that many scholars agree represents a turning point in Jesus’ life which brought him to the attention of the Roman authorities, and eventually led him to the Cross. I usually move on, though, to Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The list of civil disobedients, the ubiquitous “Founders” (Tea Party, anyone?)—Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko, Aung San Suu Kyi—is a list of highly respected people. I am not sure that students connect them with what they sometimes perceive to be the “thugs” and “hooligans” committing civil disobedience today. Just glance at the comments sections in stories surrounding civil unrest in Ferguson; in many minds there is a false equivalence made between staging a die-in, or shutting down a highway, and breaking into and burning down local businesses. Both are characterized as equally unacceptable; the acts of crazed and irrational “animals.”
I don’t usually share with my students that I was (illegally) arrested in Chicago in March, 2003 as part of a protest of the initial bombing in the Iraq War. That protest shut down Lake Shore Drive. It remains among the most significant and formative experiences of my life: from walking down LSD in a sea of people for a common vision of peace and justice, to being treated like an absolute piece-of-crap by several police officers, to the few police officers who treated me like a human being, to having so many people in the aftermath be completely incredulous of my account of the events, to sitting in one of my mentors, Bob Schreiter’s, office at Catholic Theological Union a few weeks later as he helped me process the horror of my experience of degradation before the power of the state, a previously unimaginable experience of being victimized by and vulnerable to those who had vowed “to serve and protect” me. I still call on this experience to help me empathize and enact solidarity with those who suffer and fight injustice. I was not engaged in civil disobedience that night, but I got a sense of the kind of humiliation and danger risked by anyone who makes the serious decision to break the law as an act of resistance to injustice.
With my students, I describe civil disobedience as a critical component of peaceful protest. People do it because they want us to watch and pay attention. They often do it in as large numbers as possible and as many places as possible because the more they do it, the more attention they draw. And they really want the attention of the people who have the power to fix the injustice. I ask my students to imagine what it must take for people to believe that breaking laws is the last, best way they have of making their voices heard. I ask them what it would take for them to join a movement to shut down streets? What injustice would they believe to be so severe that it is worth breaking laws for? Usually, there is silence in the classroom at that point. And so I ask them, when they see people staging die-ins, shutting down highways, disrupting the “peace,” to ask themselves what those folks are so angry about? So frustrated that they are taking the relatively extreme step of breaking laws? Risking, even inviting, the incredible indignities of arrest, jail, even potentially trials, fines, and prison? Are they just dumb and disrespectful? Or are they desperate, and outraged? Could it be that they feel that no one is listening no matter how hard they scream? And that finally screaming just isn’t enough?
Anna Floerke Scheid, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University where she teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with attention to the just war tradition, peacebuilding, and post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation. She is currently researching and writing a book entitled Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation. Her work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Horizons, and Teaching Theology and Religion.