Uncivil Disobedience: Violating the Rules for Breaking the Law

Article excerpt

A new kind of civil disobedience came to Missoula, Montana, recently. On a bridge over the Clark Fork River, a group from Wild Rockies Earth First! blocked a truck carrying logs from the Bitterroot Forest. Two of the protesters tied ropes to the rig, lowered themselves and their sign, "Globalization Kills Our Forests," to within a few feet of the torrent below, and refused to cooperate with rescuers who were dispatched from local fire stations to "rescue" them. The Earth Firsters were eventually coaxed to safety and charged with felony criminal endangerment. At their arraignment they denied that they had put the firefighters at risk, demanded to be set free, and ridiculed the conditions of their release on bail. One defendant brandished what a local newspaper called her "flame-and-monkey-wrench tat-toos," an emblem, apparently, of her willingness to wreck rather than to respect government.

Earth First's brand of civil disobedience--frequently ill-tempered, not always nonviolent, and often coolly self-righteous--seems to be increasingly popular these days. Groups as diverse as ACT UP (gay rights), Critical Mass (environ-mental bicyclists), even the archconservative Catholic League are getting on the civil disobedience bandwagon. After the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a ban on "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in 2003, the League's president wrote, "It is up to the teachers in the nine western states affected by this decision to break the law. They should instruct their students on the meaning of civil disobedience and then practice it." Some of the new breed of lawbreakers lay claim to the traditions of civil disobedience. ACT UP, for instance, says its "fusion of organized mass struggle and nonviolence ... originated largely with Mohandas Gandhi." Appreciation of that past seems to be shockingly selective, however. Indeed, as even the Catholic League president insinuated, our schools, incubators of civic culture, play a significant role in instructing students about civil disobedience. But are American schools teaching the fundamentals of the social contract? Do our teachers appreciate that there is more to civil disobedience than mere self-expression or simple claims on conscience?

Not Your Father's Disobedience

Traditional civil disobedience has usually combined deep spiritual beliefs with intense political ones. And while appreciating the differences in the two worlds--render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's--practitioners respected both. Gandhi, for instance, while leading a massive populist movement against British occupation of India (in the 1930s and 1940s), grew distrustful of mass demonstrations because participants were unwilling to go through the difficult process of purifying their actions; that is, grounding their activism in religious faith and human dignity. Martin Luther King, who warned that civil disobedience risked anarchy, went to jail "openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty."

While sometimes willful and defiant and sometimes passive to the point of self-extinction (Socrates did not protest his punishment), the heroes of civil disobedience believed in the need to obey a higher authority and to be cleansed of self-interestedness. For instance, King's words from an Alabama jail cell in 1963 (where he was being punished for marching in defiance of a court order): "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.... An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law." Compare those sentiments with the words written 40 years later by Craig Marshall, an Earth Liberation Front activist, from his Oregon jail cell (where he was serving a five-year term for setting fire to logging trucks): "There are necessary evils if we want to be effective in our struggles, such as the use of petro-fuels in igniting huge bonfires in which we can watch corporations go bankrupt.... I hope I don't sound as if I'm condemning these activities--by all means, burn the [expletive deleted] to the ground. …