About Civil Disobedience

By Berry, Wendell | The Progressive, December 2011 | Go to article overview

About Civil Disobedience


Berry, Wendell, The Progressive


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

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