MATT ROTHSCHILD HAS asked me to write a short piece about civil disobedience. This is a request I would ignore, if I had my druthers. But Matt was representing Duty, perhaps, and several hours of hard thought have not afforded me an adequate excuse.
The reason for civil disobedience, as I understand it, is simple necessity. If you belong to a political side with a significant grievance, and if your side is not represented--is, in effect, not heard--in the halls of your nominally representative government, then you have two choices: You can passively submit, accepting your grievance as irremediable, or you can, perhaps uselessly, insist by some act of civil disobedience upon your right to have your grievance redressed by your government. I am speaking here of nonviolent civil disobedience, of course. I subscribe to the commandment to love our neighbors, even if they are our enemies. But I am also in favor of making sense. Answering violence with violence is understandable, but it is also nonsense.
Matt asked me to write this piece because he knows that last February, in protest against coal mining by "mountaintop removal," I committed myself to an act of civil disobedience in the office of Kentucky's governor. In fact, I have made that commitment three times. The first was on June 3, 1979, in opposition to a nuclear power plant then being built at Marble Hill on the Ohio River near Madison, Indiana. The second was in Washington, D. C., on March 2, 2009, in protest, with a host of others, generally against mountaintop removal and air pollution by the burning of fossil fuels, and immediately against the burning of coal by a power plant within a few blocks of the national capitol. The third was on the eleventh of last February: the aforementioned attempt to discover conscience in official Frankfort.
Only one of these adventures resulted in actual civil disobedience and arrest.
After we crossed the fence at Marble Hill, we were arrested and booked and turned loose.
In Washington, the number of us offering to get arrested--two or three thousand, maybe--overwhelmed the police, who, thinking perhaps of the hours it would take to write down our names and addresses, declined the opportunity to know us better. Or so we thought. We then had to choose between climbing the fence, potentially a felony, or, after far too many speeches, dispersing. We dispersed.
In Frankfort, the governor, somewhat delightfully, outsmarted us. Instead of calling the police, he invited us to camp in his waiting room, which we did, from Friday until Monday morning.
And so my career in civil disobedience, so far, has been an exercise in anticlimax. Also it has been, by any practical reckoning, pretty useless. Owing probably not much, if anything, to our civil disobedience, the power plant at Marble Hill finally was stopped. But nothing that my side has done has come anywhere near to stopping mountaintop removal.
At a time when virtuous behavior tends to be measured in degrees of misery, I had better confess that all three of these episodes were mostly pleasant. The police and other officials in Indiana were nice to us, and we were nice to them and to one another. The march in Washington, in spite of cold weather, was a social success, better by far than any cocktail party I ever attended. And our weekend in the governor's office was, I think, for all of us, an extraordinarily happy time, even a joyful time. We were warned only that if we left the building we could not return; we were, to that extent, confined. We stayed put, we worked hard at getting our message out to the media, we told stories, we laughed a lot, we ate the good food sent in by allies, and slept well on bedding likewise sent in. The security people, the office people, and the police were kind to us, and we reciprocated. I am proud to say that we were model guests. We damaged nothing, and we cleaned up after ourselves.
It may seem odd to speak of pleasure as a result of trouble, but there is nothing wrong with decent pleasure, however it comes. It is a gift, and we should be grateful. The pleasures I have mentioned certainly do not reduce the seriousness of civil disobedience. I am sure that all who have undertaken it have felt intensely and complexly the seriousness of it. There are a number of considerations that come in a hurry and are inescapable. I will list them, not in the order of their importance, but as I have thought of them in my own efforts to decide.
Civil disobedience will likely be considered, first of all, as an inconvenience. It will, and not for a predictable length of time, interrupt one's life and one's work. I have always been suspicious of people who seem to devote their entire lives to forms of protest. We all ought to have better things to do. Ken Kesey once said that the reason not to resist evil is that such resistance is dependent on evil; it makes you dependent on evil. He was right. And Edward Abbey said that saving the world is a good hobby--though he worked hard to save at least parts of it. As for me, the older I get, the less happy I am to leave home. All the places I go seem to be getting farther away. Frankfort, Kentucky, now appears as far off as the planet Saturn, and I wish it more remote. Reluctance, then, may be a dependable enforcer of thoughtfulness. Protest becomes properly a part of a citizen's life and work after political and legal processes have failed, and other recourse is exhausted. Civil disobedience is properly the last resort.
It is also an unhappiness of citizenship. By it, you make yourself, publicly, an exception. It involves a kind of loneliness. I, at least, have felt no pleasure in opposing constitutional authority, however corrupt and irresponsible I have found it to be.
Civil disobedience is also plenty scary. At least to me it is. I have never felt one bit brave even in thinking about it. It involves a strange and risky paradox: You and your friends will be exploiting your obvious powerlessness to recover to your cause, and to your own citizenship, a just measure of power. But your acknowledged condition is powerlessness. Your commitment to nonviolence makes you vulnerable to violence. You can get hurt, or worse. It is fearful also to make yourself available to be treated with contempt. And you are, in effect, volunteering to go to jail.
During the Washington protest, some genius with a microphone asked me, "Do you want to go to jail?"
I said, "Hell no!"
There is a world of difference between wanting to go to jail and being willing to go. I thank God for every minute I am not in jail.
A final consideration, and the one you may ponder longest, is the possibility that your act of civil disobedience may be useless. In Kentucky, where the state government is owned outright by the coal industry and the "flagship university" is the coal industry's trophy wife, opposition to mountaintop removal faces the unhappiest of odds.
This means, I believe, that it is a mistake to make your opposition conditional upon winning. If you do that, you won't last.
I am in this struggle with the firm intention of winning, but I don't forget that I first wrote against strip mining in 1965. If I had required even a reasonable expectation of victory, I would have given up long ago.
It is unlikely that anybody now opposing mountaintop removal thinks that victory is in sight. But the opposition is now astonishingly well populated in comparison to what it was forty years ago.
Why do so many people go to so much trouble, learning the hard things they need to know, organizing, arguing with politicians, making speeches, marching, risking arrest, getting arrested, keeping on, making the same try again and again?
I think they do it, above all else, to keep alive the possibility of decency, and to refuse to accept as normal the indecency of public officials.
Forty-some years ago, maybe in 1966, I attended in Frankfort a hearing on coal company abuses. In those days, some of the companies were getting the coal out by opening contour gashes along the sides of the mountains, pushing the "overburden" regardlessly downslope. They were doing this, at that time, under the infamous "broad form deeds," which, as construed by the courts, gave all rights to owners of the coal and none to the surface owners whose properties were being damaged or destroyed.
Among the audience at this hearing was a group of maybe fifteen people whose homes and lands were damaged or threatened by "contour stripping." There was, on that occasion, no "demonstrating," but those people were there nonetheless in protest.
Sitting with them was a man in appearance somewhat different from them. He was wearing a well-fitting summer suit and a tie. He held a rather elegant straw hat on his lap.
I became curious about him, and at one of the recesses of the hearing, I approached him. We introduced ourselves. He was Courtney Wells, he said, of the town of Hazard.
I asked if he owned land that was affected by strip mining.
He said no, he had no land at risk. He was a lawyer.
"Oh," I said. "You're here to represent these people."
Again he said no. He represented only himself.
I said, "Well, then, why are you here?"
And he replied: "I want to be on the side of the right."
I have never forgotten him, for he gave me the one reason that will always be enough.
Illustration by Sterling Hundley
Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Kentucky. He read this piece when he accepted the Howard Zinn "People Speak" award from PEN New England on October 20.…